Thien Mu Pagoda and its iconic Phuoc Duyen Tower situated on the left bank of the Huong (Perfume) River, the central town of Hue / PHOTO: BUI NGOC LONG
The Huong River starts at Bang Lang junction, three kilometers north of the mausoleum of Minh Mang, the second king of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945).
The junction is where the Ta Trach and Huu Trach, two rivers originating in the Truong Son Range, meet to become the 30-kilometer-long river that is often described as "beautiful" and "poetic" by Vietnamese writers.
But for tourists the river is more than just a beautiful site: It is a route connecting historical, religious, and cultural sites including the most famous of all, the complex of Nguyen monuments that was named a UNESCO world heritage site in 1993.
So I recommend you hire a boat and start downstream.
The first destination should be Thien Mu, a 400-year-old pagoda situated on Ha Khe Hill on the left bank.
For Vietnamese, especially those who live in Hue, the complex is more about the Phuoc Duyen Tower that was built in front of the pagoda in 1844. It is 21 meters high and has seven floors, each with Buddha idols.
Both the pagoda and the tower are good places to observe the Huong River.
From the pagoda entrance, you can see how the river's color changes through the day, while the top of the tower gives you a clear view of how smoothly and gently it flows.
After Thien Mu, the river passes Nguyet Bieu Village, which is believed to date back to 1559, before the houses along its banks give way to trees and hills.
The next destination is the wharf at the tomb of Tu Duc, the fourth Nguyen king, but I advise you to skip the place. Instead, you should head to Bau Ho Hill, which is a half hour walk from the wharf.
Though it is left out of most guidebooks, Bau Ho was actually recognized by Tu Duc as a perfect place for observing his imperial citadel and other sites in Hue nearly 150 years ago. This can be found in the king's autobiography that was carved on both sides of a four-meter high stone stele.
The hill is 57.1 meters high, or 13 meters more than nearby Vong Canh Hill, a popular observation spot.
From Bau Ho, you can see the Huong flow straight past fields and the Ngoc Ho Church situated at the foot of the Truong Son Range.
The Catholic church, believed to have been built between 1917 and 1921, is like a nha ruong timber house with carved wooden beams and pillars that is common in Hue and many central provinces.
Vong Canh Hill, a few minutes down the river from Bau Ho, offers a view of the complex of historical sites, including the tombs of Nguyen kings like Tu Duc, Dong Khanh and Thieu Tri.
The last destination is Hon Chen Temple, situated on Ngoc Tran Mountain and looking over Bang Lang junction, and with some 10 large and small religious structures.
According to the Hue Monuments Conservation Center, Hon Chen was originally built to venerate Po Nagar, the Cham goddess, but later people also worshipped Dong Khanh, the ninth Nguyen king and several other deities there.
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