Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue is a Vietnam must see

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Thien Mu Pagoda, a rich piece of Hue history

The Thien Mu Pagoda is a local superstar in Hue. Every tour agency, local tour and Hue local will tell you it’s a must see.

It has a breathtaking location on the bank of the Perfume River and linked to a profound moment in history.

We weren’t going for the temples or tours or because of what we heard. Leon caught wind of a little blue Austin that had him in a frenzy. We are both automotive enthusiasts so it didn’t surprise me that he wanted to go and look at a car.

It wasn’t until we were there filming that he revealed the significance of THIS particular car.

It still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.

How we found out about Thien Mu Pagoda

We missed visiting this beauty on our first visit to Hue, but that meant we had a bit more time to find out more about it for our second visit.  We already knew it had a great historic presence in Hue and sits in a spectacular location. What we didn’t know was just how special this place really is thanks for one significant event in world history.

Where in Hue is the Thien Mu Pagoda

The Pagoda sits on the across the Perfume River from the city center and a couple of kilometers down from the Hue Imperial Palace.

How to get there

A popular choice is by taxi or GRAB and it won’t cost much. 

Something that is really fun and a more traditional method of transport is trying  one of the many local cyclos.

If you’re thinking of doing the Imperial Palace and Thien Mu Pagoda on the same day, then definitely negotiating a cheaper day rate with those guys. There is plenty of competition around and they tend to be negotiable.

Not keen to go out there by yourself? It’s not unusual as many travelers prefer either the company of others or enjoy a guided tour that provide more info.

There are loads of options to choose from like online agencies (check reviews before booking!) or you can simply walk down Chu Van Anh and walk into any of the tour operators office off the street.

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Looking for a tour option that is outside the box and will have you grinning from ear to ear? Then let us introduce you to Vespa Safari Hue! The gold standard of local Hue tours.

Renting a bicycle is another excellent way to explore Hue and her attractions. The Thien Mu Pagoda is one of many within a pleasant scenic ride from the city.

We preferred taking our two Honda Waves out there and parked them on the side of the road. There is a paid parking area next to the pagoda for VND5,000 (~USD0.21 / ~AUD0.30) if you prefer that option.

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Things to know before you head into the Thien Mu Pagoda

General Entry

Hours: 8AM – 5PM, Monday to Sunday.

Entry fee: No entry fee, it is free.

Dress code: No naked shoulders or knees for men or women. Inappropriately dressed visitors may not be able to enter.

Apart from being an historic place of interest, it’s also an active temple. Please be respectful.

The pagoda is also an outdoor attraction with limited cover. We suggest checking the weather forecast before you head on out to it.

Who would enjoy it?

It is a family friendly destination but not sure how much entertainment kiddos will get from it.

The Thien Mu Pagoda is perfect for history lovers.

We would suggest finding a guide who can tell you more about the history of the place. Learning about it would certainly make it a more enjoyable visit.

We opted to do it by ourselves armed with info we found online and that was fine too. We managed to learn quite a bit about it that way actually. We’ve also read some hilarious anecdotes relating to the Thien Mu Pagoda in the process.

How long does a visit take?

Our visit lasted about two and half hours. It gave us plenty of time to explore, take photos and get some footage for a vlog too.

You can easily combine a visit here with another spot in the area. The Imperial Palace or perhaps the Temple of Literature come to mind and both are interesting.

Leon and Tash Vlog

Follow us around the tranquil and surprising complex of the Thien Mu Pagoda

An famous historic event with ties to Thien Mu Pagoda

As I mentioned before, we were there for a little blue Austin. When Leon asked me if I recognized the car, I was a little confused. Then he told me to look at the picture on the back wall. 

That’s when it hit me!

Isn’t that the Rage Against the Machine album cover?

The picture I’m talking about is also called, “The Burning Monk” by Malcolm Browne. Feel free to Google it, but we warn you, it is graphic so please be careful.

It’s a harrowing story and well worth the read. We wrongly assumed it had to do with the Vietnam/American war and we couldn’t have been more wrong. The plight of this story had its own enormous significance. It resulted in a toppled government and made the whole world paying attention in united horror.

Total goosebumps

The monk in the picture, Thích Quang Duc was from Hue. The little blue Austin we’re talking about is the car he used to drive from Hue to Saigon in June 1963.

To stand there and see it in person was an experience I find hard to describe. The fact that someone thought to save the car and bring it back to Hue is mind blowing.

Seeing the photo broke my heart. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen it but I now knew the true meaning behind the act. Seeing the Austin didn’t just make it a photo anymore, it made it so real!

If a picture is worth a thousand words, imagine what seeing something from that picture could do?

What is the rest of Thien Mu like?

The Austin isn’t the only attraction. In fact, most people don’t even know about the Austin and its significance until they get there.

Phuoc Duyen Tower

Upon entering the pagoda, the The Phuoc Duyen tower greets you with all it’s glory. It’s an octagonal shaped, seven storey beauty. From what we’ve read, seven is a sacred number in Vietnam. Even the number of stairs can on each storey is divisible by seven.

In the same area is a six-sided pagoda, home to the Dai Hong Bell. Built in roughly 1710, this ~2,000 kg, this behemoth is audible from 10 kilometers away.

On the other side of Phuoc Duyen tower is a building that houses a stela that dates back as far as 1715.

Pagoda Grounds

Through the main gate is the Dai Hung Temple. This beautiful building is an active temple and loved by locals.

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Towards the rear there are a number of other temples and shrines. Each one has its own unique origin and legend around it. We’ve read so many different things that it would be good to have a guide to know which ones are true.

Just walking around the grounds leaves you with this calm and peaceful feeling.

Mind you we did get there right on open time and there weren’t many people there yet. Our advice is to get there just before it opens to enjoy as much of it in peace as you can.

If you get a chance, head on over to the Old Gate that used to the part of the original perimeter for the temple grounds.  It has an fantastic few across the Perfume River.

Things to do in Vietnam, things to do in hue, Thien Mu Pagoda, vietnam history, buddha, temple, the burning monk, austin, vietnam tourist attraction, Vietnam travel, vietnam tourist spots, vietnam destinations, where to go in vietnam, best places to visit in vietnam

What other things are there to do in Hue?

Hue has a lot on offer and it’s legit one of our favorite cities to visit in Vietnam!

It’s also home of some of Vietnam’s most famous dishes like Bun Bo Hue and banh beo.  There is also no shortage of eateries around. All you have to do is head to the tourist area  (Chu Van Anh street, Le Loi street, Doi Cung street and Nguyen Thai Hoc street)

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Experience the wonder of Hue from the historic Hue Imperial Citadel

If this is your first visit to our site, then welcome!  Head on over to our Things to do in Vietnam Page where we tell you about more things you should add to your Vietnam itinerary.

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The Imperial Palace Hue Vietnam

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What is the Imperial Palace and what makes it worth a visit?

Should you ever find yourself with spare time in Hue and not sure what to do with it, then we’re here to tell you why the Imperial Palace is a good place to start.

One of our favorite things to do in Hue is visit the Imperial Palace.  These ancient ruins convey a history of power, struggle, courage and culture.

This famous UNESCO World Heritage site should be on your must see list for a Hue one day itinerary!

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Things to know before you go

Length of visit

Reviews we read said visits lasted anywhere from two to four hours. Four hours seemed excessive, so we planned for a two-and-a-half-hour visit.

As soon as we walked through the first gate and saw the Nine Holy Canons, we knew it was going to be an epic day. We enjoyed five whole hours there and we weren’t disappointed!

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If you love taking photos, then prepare to spend some time here. I couldn’t pick what to point my lens at first.  Leon too struggled to work out how to fit the whole citadel visit into our vlog.

Best time to go

Hue weather is typical for central Vietnam. Hot and humid in summer and wet and cloudy in the wet season.

We visited Hue in June, at the beginning of summer, probably the hottest time of the year. There isn’t much shade but we’ll cover ways to combat that later.

It is cooler from September to March during the wet season. There is also a lot rain during those months, making your visit less pleasant. If any of our readers have been to the Hue Imperial City in winter, please feel free to share your insights.

Crowds

Tour buses roll in early! A few tour groups went through the main entrance with us and we wondered what the crowd would be like on the inside. Once on the other side, we realized it wouldn’t be an issue. The complex is so big that there’s enough space for everyone. Hooray!

Citadel Hours

To the best of our knowledge, the park opens at 6:30AM during the summer months and 8:00AM during the winter months.

It pays to get in early during summer to avoid most of the heat.

Getting there

We walked from our hotel on Chu Văn An in the tourist area and it took us about 20 minutes.

Hue is also home of the cyclo and a good way to see this gorgeous city and all she has to offer. If that’s not your thing, there are plenty of taxis and Grab share rides on offer too.

Imperial Palace Hue address: Thành phố Huế, Thua Thien Hue

Imperial Palace dress code

For the heat, wear light, lose clothes and good shoes.

Please take noteTo enter some building and all the temples, one has to cover both shoulders and knees. This includes men and women.

I had shorts on but threw a sarong over the top and that got me in. Also, hats are another big no-no when entering these buildings.

They have attendants on guard enforcing a zero tolerance policy. We saw them turn a few people way.

Also, keep an eye out for signs by entrance doors for no cameras. Again, frowned upon and reinforced.

These places have cultural and religious significance to locals. Please try to respect that.

Things to take with you

Water, lots of it! You can buy food and drinks on the grounds but it’s pretty pricey. For example, we bought a couple of Revive drinks that would normally cost VND8,000 (~USD0.30 / ~AUD0.50), each in the city. They charged us VND20,000 (~USD0.90 / ~AUD1.20) each in one of the cafes in the palace. We had our 1L water bottles with us and they lasted all day.

Shade, there isn’t a whole lot of it. A couple of ways to combat this is to

  • carry a UV umbrella with you,
  • wear a hat (wide brim or even the traditional conical hat is best – don’t laugh, it works!), or
  • plan your visit so you hit the indoors a few times more than wandering outside in the heat.

Around the Imperial Palace there are tree lined roads with benches. Not only are they beautiful but a great way to escape the heat for a picnic.

Snacks are a good option too or if you prefer to pack your own lunch, there are plenty of spots to sit down and enjoy it.

There are also plenty of roadside vendors outside the citadel. They sell fresh fruit, beverages and snacks if you want to stock up before you go in.

Imperial Palace Entry Fee

Between the outer wall and the citadel gate is free. If you want to go into the palace grounds you have to pay an entry free.

Entry to the Imperial Palace is VND150,000 (~USD6.00 / ~AUD9.00) per person (same rate for children).

To buy tickets, head to the small wooden kiosk next to the map of the citadel located at outside the Meridian Gate. Tickets are the form of electronic swipe cards.

Also, at the entrance there are two sets of turnstiles. Tourists on the left and Vietnamese visitors on the right (looking at the gate). We’re not sure why that but make note to rock up to the right gate.

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Other things to consider

You can hire a tour guide to take you around the citadel and palace for VND300,000 (~USD13.00 / ~AUD18.00). We read plenty of reviews. Some were griping about not getting value for money and other not learning much at all.

Private tour guides are available too. You’ll find them easily by walking the streets of the tourist area around the citadel or in Hue city. Don’t be afraid to shop around though. We didn’t look into these options as we prefer to do our own research and do our own tours most of the time.

Recommended spots for self guided tours

If you’re on a tight schedule then head to these spots first to get the most out of our visit,

  • The six Imperial City gates or cua (Chinh Bac, Chinh Dong, Dong BacDong Nam, Tay, The Nan/Ngan)
  • The forbidden city main gates or cua (Hoa Binh, Hien Nhon, Ngo Mon, Chuong Duc)
  • The Inner and Outer courts
  • Temples and Pavilions
  • Thai Hoa Palace (perfectly restored)
  • Cung Dien Tho (the Queen Mother’s residence)

Let's head inside the Imperial Palace

First off, who knew Vietnam even had royalty?

This Imperial Palace certainly taught us a thing or two! Things like they had an emperor up until 1945! We didn’t even know Vietnam had a monarchy. It wasn’t the only surprise the citadel had in store for us.

We walked across a small bridge over an impressive looking moat towards a hole in an intimidating looking wall. Walking towards the entrance to the Imperial Palace gave us a good idea of just how massive the palace was.

Turns out it wasn’t the entrance to the palace after all but rather a gateway into the whole citadel! The Imperial Palace was still a fair walk away.

How did it become the imperial Palace?

Nguyễn Ánh was the first emperor of the Nguyễn Dynasty, one that would span 140 years and also be Vietnam’s last dynasty.

Nguyễn Ánh, know as Gai Long took control of Vietnam in 1789.

One of his first acts of state was to use geomancers to find the most auspicious location for the new royal palace. And they delivered!

(Definition of geomancy – a method of divination that interprets markings on the ground or the patterns formed by tossed handfuls of soil, rocks, or sand. Per Wikipedia)

Who built the actual palace?

The exquisite craftsmanship used to build this city is evident everywhere.

For example, the ceramics used as decoration for both the palace and grounds. All pieces designed and made by one family.

Even ceramics used in modern restoration efforts are by the same family!

Imagine that!

He’s an 18th generation decedent from the original ceramicist, still creating works of art today. How awesome is that?!

It gets better too! They can make the exact same ceramic piece, using the original palace design specifications from the early 17th century. Right down to the original color. That’s something special.

In fact, there was a family for pretty much each craft, from stone, metal and wood to ceramics. Each a master of their craft. Each intricate craft meticulously handed down to the new generation.

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Delivering a Palace fit for a new emperor

Ancient oriental philosophy helped determine the chosen site for the proposed citadel. It also decreed the city had to respect the conditions of the site.

The chosen site sat between mountains and two rivers (Perfume and Sia). The mountains provided protection from malevolent spirits and the rivers from physical attacks.

Even the buildings within the citadel had to cosmologically align with;

  • the Five Cardinal Points (center, north, west, south, east),
  • the five elements (fire, wood, earth, metal, water) and,
  • the Five Colors (yellow, white, blue, black, red).

Construction started in 1802 and completed in 1832. The citadel is 502 ha in size and the Imperial Palace alone made up 12 ha of that!

The geographical location was carefully chosen to ensure effective defenses.

It was the best location to deter their biggest threat at the time, China. It meant that the citadel was out of reach to almost all physical attacks.

The capital at the time, Hanoi was within an easy reach two-day reach. It left the capital venerable and within reach of well stocked enemy forces. They would get there in one day, execute an attack and spend another getting back to base.

Not so great for Vietnam.

Hue however, was far enough out of reach that the enemy had to travel two or more days to get there. Even if they got that far, they wouldn’t have enough provisions to attack a well-protected citadel. Let alone and make it back.

Score for the Emperor and his team of geomancers!

Defending the new Imperial Palace

A 10-kilometer moat protects the entire citadel. A system of slues fed directly from the Perfume river constantly feeds the moat. Very clever for its time indeed.

The inner court, further fortified with a smaller wall that had one gate and three bastions. Protected by a secondary, smaller moat.

A defense structure of a different kind popped up during our explorations.

Each on sat directly behind a palace or temple gate. We found this both odd and interesting.

To get to the building on the inside, we had to walk through the gate and around the wall. Every time.

We later learnt these walls helped stopped malevolent spirits from entering the space. Much like a nice ‘do not enter’ sign for nasty spirits.

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How the Imperial Palace and history collided

The citadel and palace survived three major wars.

The last significant event being The Battle of Hue in 1968. Considered one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam/America war.

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Eighteen Southern battalions fought ten northern battalions for 33 days straight. Each side suffering significant losses.

Sadly, the battle destroyed most of Hue and lot of her history. The true tragedy is that of the more than 5,000 civilians who lost their lives during that battle too.

Battle scars mar the entire palace grounds. Sadness seeps into your soul when you think of the loss and impact.

In 1993 the citadel became a UNESCO World Heritage site. Kicking off efforts to save what remained of the citadel and restoring it as much as possible.

Donations and international auctions have proved invaluable in obtaining historical palace artifacts, many of which are on display today.

What remains of the Imperial Palace today?

Most of it is ruins and what surprises most visitors.

The citadel walls and a small number of original city buildings still stand. It’s hard to fathom the true scale of the citadel based on what you can see today.

Organisations responsible for leading conservation efforts are,

  • the Vietnamese Government,
  • the Hue Monuments Conservation Center,
  • the local Thua Thien Hue Provincial People’s Committee and
  • other international organizations lending a hand.

Conservation and restorations efforts look to continue well into the future too. You can read all about them on the info boards around the complex.

What remains of the citadel, can only lead one to day dream about what this city used to looked like. Hopefully restoration can fill in the gaps one day.

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Three things we enjoyed most about the Hue Imperial Palace

Cung Dien Tho

Elegant residence of the Queen Mother. Built in 1804, and located in the outer courtyard of the Imperial City. The smaller building overlooking the koi pond used to be the Queen Mother’s hobby and tea room. It was also where she kept all her favorite art pieces. Words has it she was an avid art lover with an impressive collection to boot.

Today you can sit at one of the wooden tables and enjoy a cool beverage, catching your breath. There are still koi’s in the pond and for VND5,000 (~USD0.20 / ~AUD0.30), you can buy a packet of food and feed them. They’re huge too and a lot of fun to feed!

Finding a bullet casing

Seeing bullet holes in the walls was surreal but picking up an actual shell casing is something else! It felt like holding history in our hands! Thing is we weren’t even looking for them. This one just happen to be lying in the dirt by a spot we chose to sit and cool down.

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The last emperor of Vietnam

What surprised us the most is that the last emperor of Vietnam was still alive in our lifetime. Nguyễn Phúc Vĩnh Thụy was the 13th and final emperor, reigning from 1926 to 1945. He abdicated the throne in 1945 and died in 1997.

Not certain why it surprised us so much. Guess it was the fact that we didn’t even know Vietnam had royalty, let alone one a living one in our lifetime. Also, Da Lat also happened to be his favorite summer destination in Vietnam and we went to a couple of his palaces there too.

The Hue Imperial Palace in a nutshell

It’s massive! It’s interesting, it won’t be what you’re expecting and it’s worth the visit. This felt like it was our first real Vietnamese history experience and we loved it.

We relished every nook and cranny we could, wishing for more. If you do come for a visit, we highly recommend you pop into the Imperial Palace in Hue.

Things to do in Vietnam, Vietnam tourist attraction, things to do in Hue, UNESCO World Heritage site Hue Vietnam ancient architecture Vietnam history culture

Leon and Tash Vlog

Watch as we wander around the once spectacular Imperial Palace of Hue and relive some epic moments in Vietnamese history

More Hue adventures to be had

We have a whole playlist of adventures in Hue for you to enjoy, go check it out.

And if this is your first visit to our site, welcome!  Head on over to our Things to do in Vietnam Page where we tell you about more things you should add to your Vietnam itinerary.

Don’t forget to subscribe and join our Tribe!  You’ll find us on Twitter, Facebook , Insta  and YouTube too!

Thanks for reading guys and we’ll see you in the next post…