There seem to two types of travelers in Vietnam: the ones that never make it to Hue, and the ones that go there for one day.
Hue is a fascinating city with an incredible history. It was the original capital of Vietnam. Then, during the Vietnam war, Hue's central position make it very vulnerable, although it was under southern control. The area was heavily bombed by the Americans and it was the stage for the bloody Battle of Hue.
So, clearly there is a lot of history in Hue...but... it isn't pretty. It isn't Hoi An. So most people skip it.
There are some sights, but most of them were destroyed during the war. HOWEVER, those do not matter. Sorry, they don't. If you made the time to stop through Hue, your focus shouldn't be on sights. Your focus should be on trying all of the classic dishes of the city, with maybe seeing a few sights along the way.
Because the city was the original capital of Vietnam and the home of the royal family, a rich culinary history developed in Hue. Dishes were perfected to impress the emperor and then integrated into Hue's culture... and most of them are still enjoyed today!
If you have one day in Hue before you chug along to Hoi An or Hanoi, this is how you eat your way through the city. Grab a bicycle and get going....
BREAKFAST: Cơm Hến
The most important meal of the day: breakfast.
If there is one word you need to learn while in Vietnam it is this: cơm. It means rice. Things will make a lot more sense once you learn what COM means. The 'Hen' part of 'Com Hen' means shell or shellfish. Therefore, Com Hen is rice with dried clams or mussels in it.... and just a few other things, depending on where you get it. The dish is served at room temperature and the ingredients are prepared in the morning... which means when it is gone, it is gone. This is why you get it first. It is crunchy. It is amazing. Pour the provided clam broth over the rice to complete the experience.
The place to get it is on a tiny island in the perfume river that I think is basically known as "Com Hen Island." I rode around the island like an idiot, getting laughed at and directed by Hue locals who spoke zero english before I finally found the spot to get Com Hen. Learn from my mistakes and get it Here.
After you get your Com Hen, bike over the river to the north shore and find the Dong Ba Market. Another famous "sight" in Hue. If you have seen one Asian market, you have seen them all. I will stand by that sentiment. This one is particularly junky, but it contains your second breakfast. I hope you're still hungry!
SECOND BREAKFAST: Bún bò Huế
One of the most famous dishes of Hue, you can find Bún bò Huế all over the city. Truthfully, the process of making it is very complicated, so most places serve a watered down version - that is why you get it at the Dong Ba Market. You will pay more, but you'll get the real deal experience.
The soup is famous because it manages to be sweet, sour, and HOT all at once. It has pork, beef and most famously, congealed pigs blood floating in its broth.
Don't turn up your nose just yet - you're going to love it. As a girl who won't eat olives, it is a lot less scary than it sounds. When in Hue, eh?
SIGHT TIME: Thiên Mụ Pagoda
Take a break from eating and visit the Thiên Mụ Pagoda on the west outskirts of the city. Truthfully, it is a pagoda. If you have been in Asia for even a week, surely you have seen one by now? I guess this one is cool because it is the only attraction in the city that is free. Also, it is 400 years old. Dad, you would like it.
Go early after your second breakfast to see the monks praying as you walk around... that part is awesome. Work up another appetite because....
LUNCH: Bánh Bèo
This is the most typical dish in Hue. This is a food that Hue's residents eat throughout their life. It has imperial Vietnam roots, but has always been a street snack for all strata of society to enjoy. It consists of a steamed rice cake topped with onion, mung bean, fish sauce, vinegar, and shrimp. They are served as individual cakes, usually in tiny bowls. The cake has a gelatin texture, but all the toppings add flavor and crunch. They can be found all over the city, but I enjoyed mine at Hàng Me Mẹ.
SIGHT TIME: The Citadel
Have a relaxing lunch because the next sight is a doozy - the Citadel. It is huge and there is a lot to process - this one is going to take it out of you. Here is a self walking tour.
IF YOU HAVE TIME: visit the tombs
If you have time and energy at this point, visit the tombs. These were just out of the way enough that I was never going to see them with only one day in Hue.
These are the tombs of the original emperors of Vietnam. They are ornate and fabulous. If you make it to them, here is a guide. A lot of people take a dragon boat down the Perfume River and stop at all the different tombs. Congrats if you make it to them, and enjoy!
DINNER AND SECOND DINNER: Bahn Ep and Banh Trang Trung
If you are lucky, dinner and second dinner can be acquired at the same place. If you hung around the citadel, I have a spot nearby. If you trekked out the the tombs, you're out of luck. Ask your guide for some help locating them.
This is the spot just north of the citadel where you can get both Bahn Ep and Banh Trang Trung for the incredibly low price of 8,000 dong each! $0.75 cents for your entire dinner!
Banh Ep is a tapioca scallion pancake. I was very unsure how to eat it when it first was placed in front of me. After struggling for a second, the owner physically removed the food from my hands and showed me how to eat it. That really happened. To save you from that humiliation, I will tell you now: roll the provided veggies into the pancake and dip it into the sauce. Enjoy!
Banh Trang Trung is "Vietnamese Pizza". It is a fried rice disc topped with all forms of goodness - pork, onion, and egg. It is cut with provided scissors.
Don't feel ashamed if you want to order seconds of at least one of them - when else are you going to be eating Bahn Ep on a street corner in Hue?
Still hungry? Here.
Other cities might be friendlier or more beautiful... but you'll never find the foodie experience of Hue anywhere else. Rest up - you have had a full day!