Nothing encapsulates the spirit of Hue more than the Huong River, with the life on its banks and waters reflecting the city’s poetic beauty. It’s the pride of Hue citizens, as well as the source of inspiration for many artists.
When speaking to the people of Hue, I realise they have a common pride – the Huong River. From street vendors, taxi drivers to our concierges, they all admire this delightfully atmospheric river. One even said that it’s the gift of Nature to their home city that no other place in Vietnam can compare.
A bit flattering but true. Hue owes its charm partly to its location on the Huong River. It’s picturesque on a clear day, yet still somewhat poetic in less favourable weather. The river twists and turns like a piece of blue silk, bringing grace to Vietnam’s former imperial capital.
Originate from the majestic Truong Son Mountain Range, the Huong River has a total length of 80 kilometres. After its two sources join at the Bang Lang Fork, the river flows northward, passing the final resting places of the Nguyen Emperors. From there, it flows in the northeast direction past Thien Mu Pagoda and to Hue city.
Before reaching the city, Huong River stretches its “arm” to embrace the entire Imperial City, granting some protection to the former capital. The river continuously flows past Hen Islet and a dozen of tranquil villages, before emptying into the Tam Giang Lagoon.
In the autumn, flowers from the riverside orchards fall into the water, giving it a fresh, perfume-like aroma. Hence, the river was named Huong Giang, literally translated as Perfume River. Coincidentally, its sobriquet speaks up the river’s poetry and romance.
On a sunny day, the Huong River appears like a huge silver strip traversing the green fields and mountains. It then turns into a purple-hue blue colour at dusk, evoking serenity, yet somewhat melancholy. And when the city lights up at night, the river reflects the kaleidoscopic nature of the life on its bank. That’s why many artists, poets and composers have immortalised the Huong River into their works.
The Royal Tombs
Before the construction of any royal mausoleum, feng shui masters were consulted to find the most propitious location. Typically, the deceased emperors should rest with their back leaning on the mountains, while their front facing the river. That’s why you can find several tombs in close proximity to the Huong River. Among them, Minh Mang Tomb is the most profound. It is located directly at the Bang Lang Fork, where the river’s tributaries intersect.
Thien Mu Pagoda
Another attraction along the river is Thien Mu Pagoda (or Celestial Lady Pagoda) – Hue’s most popular religious architecture. Set on a small hill overlooking Huong River, this temple was originally constructed in 1601 by order of Lord Nguyen Hoang.
While touring the vicinity, he was told of a local legend in which a mystical old lady dressed in red and green often appeared on the hill at night. She foretold that a Lord would come and erect a pagoda on this site to pray for the country’s prosperity. Upon hearing this, Nguyen Hoang ordered the construction of a temple at the site. And the temple was named Thien Mu, in honour of the presiding deity of this plot of land.
Over the centuries, Thien Mu Pagoda underwent several reconstructions. Its most iconic element – the Phuoc Duyen Tower – was first built in 1844 under the reign of Emperor Thieu Tri. The tower has seven storeys, representing seven reincarnations of Buddha. Beyond this are an inner courtyard and a humble temple where the statue of Buddha and two Bodhisattva sit. The temple is surrounded by a collection of bonsai, many of which are considered rare species.
Besides the architectural value, Thien Mu Pagoda is known for its connection to the late-monk Thich Quang Duc who self-immolated to protest against the Buddhism suppressing policy of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in 1963. The photo of his martyrdom was captured and it’s one of the most internationally known images of the Vietnam War. And his relic, the blue Austin car that he used to drive to Saigon, can be found on the ground of Thien Mu Pagoda.
Passing Thien Mu Pagoda, the Huong River continues to flow into Hue. It winds through the city, with the imperial citadel looming over its northern bank. Emperor Gia Long himself chose this exact location after two years of examination and consultation with the geomancers. It follows strict feng-shui principles in which the Huong River plays an essential role. The river also contributes to the defence of the citadel. Its water is deliberately led to the citadel, creating multiple moats, ponds and streams.
Truong Tien Bridge
Crossing the river is Truong Tien Bridge – a typical example of French architecture in Hue. Constructed at the beginning of the 20th century, the six-span steel bridge has the famous architect Gustav Eiffel’s fingerprints all over it. To date, the Gothic-style bridge has connected the banks of the Huong River for over 120 years.
Truong Tien Bridge was built under French Governor Levecque to replace an old bamboo crossing. Over the last century, it has undergone several modifications (its name alone has been changed five times). The graceful bridge has witnessed the ups and downs of the former imperial capital, as well as the devastation of wars. Together with the citadel, Truong Tien Bridge stands for the resilience of Hue and its people.
The bridge is almost mesmerising at night when it’s illuminated by hundreds of electric lights that is constantly changing colours. Furthermore, a pedestrian walkway on the southern bank allows visitors to enjoy the cool breeze from the river, as well as to take in some of the most picturesque views of the bridge.