Perfume River cruise is a popular activity in Hue, Vietnam. Different from other sightseeing rides, this experience is by a dragon boat that was used only for the king formerly. It might be a part of his hunting trips, a visit to ancestor tombs or a pilgrimage to holy sites in the upstream. After the fall of the Nguyen Dynasty, nobody forbade people to do the same. Today, travelers enjoy it so far in their own journey to explore the charms of Hue.
This article focuses on dragon boat cruises and the Perfume River, the largest and symbolic waterway of Hue. It’s not only an inclusion in guided city tours, but also day trips from Da Nang and Hoi An. The most popular ride is from the Hue center to Thien Mu Pagoda (the oldest Buddhist temple) or vice versa. While sitting on a plastic chair to unwind and get breezy air, the world is stunning to see from the boat.
About Perfume River in Hue Vietnam
Perfume River Introduction
The Perfume River (or Song Huong, Huong Giang) is a 30-km long river in Hue city. It begins from the confluence of Ta Trach and Huu Trach rivers, until flowing into the sea by Thuan An estuary. Along its banks, there are traditional and garden villages, emperor tombs, wooded hills, sacred temples, sand beaches, islands, fortresses, parks and promenades. Many top attractions in Hue stand in its waterfront, including the Imperial Citadel. Due to its pretty and peaceful beauty, this has been a source of inspiration for many generations of artists, from painters, writers, poetries to musicians. Local people reveal that the Perfume River is greenish in the morning, changes to be yellowish in the noon, and purple in the afternoon. This vista is best seen from Thien Mu Pagoda.
Some facts about the Perfume River:
– Perfume River and Ngu Binh Mountain are representations for Hue’s nature. This couple is shortly called “Song Huong Nui Ngu” in Vietnamese.
– Perfume River is one of the cleanest (most unpolluted) rivers in Vietnam.
– During the period of Annam Protectorate, the land to the left of Perfume River was controlled by Nguyen emperors, and the opposite one is controlled by French. That’s why visitors can see two different architectural styles on the banks.
History of the Perfume River
Perfume River took its name when Nguyen Hoang Lord came to the area. As a land ruler, he wanted to find out a perfect location for the seat of his power. He cruised along the river by boat, burned the incense sticks and prayed to the God of Heaven. He said that he would choose the place where the sticks were burnt completely. And of course, the wish came true. Since then, the river has been called Song Huong or the “Perfume River” (Huong means perfume or incense stick in Vietnamese). However, many people think that the name originated from its nice aroma when prayers poured herb waters into the river in the festival.
Perfume River is a source of inspiration for Vietnamese artists over centuries. There are plenty of artworks created to praise its beauty and the emotions of people about that. Some novels and films made by foreign authors were given birth during and after the Vietnam War.
Perfume River Bridges
In Hue city center, there are 4 bridges spanning the Perfume River. Providing the passage from Hung Vuong St to Tran Hung Dao St, Iron Truong Tien Bridge is the oldest. It’s constructed from 1897 to 1899 by French engineers, in the reign of Thai Thai King (the 10th). Ever broken by communist bombing and typhoons, what people see today is a rebuilding in 1997. Being a gentle addition to scenic riverscape, this becomes an iconic building, an unofficial city’s emblem and a source of inspiration for artists up to date. During the evening, changeable color lights make it marvelous and more special than others. Lots of Vietnamese call its name wrong, popularly to Trang Tien (a street in Hanoi).
Truong Tien means “school and coin factory” because it connects a school and a coin factory at the time of its construction.
The second bridge in history was Da Vien Railway Bridge, built in 1908 and a part of trans-Vietnam railway. In 2012, a modern and nicely-designed road bridge was inaugurated, providing the shortest time to get from Hue Train Station to HW1A. From its pavilions, pedestrians can see pretty scenery to riverfronts and a part of the city. Between it and the iconic bridge, that is Phu Xuan Bridge. Called by locals “New Bridge”, official name of this simple bridge is same to a Vietnam’s capital from 1805 to 1832, meaning “richness and spring”.
Perfume River Islands
There are two rhombus-shaped islands on the Perfume River: Con Hen (“Claim Island”) and Con Da Vien. Con Da Vien is smaller, uninhabited and the other is home of 4,000 people. First matches between elephant and tiger were held in it before the Royal Arena was built in 1829. Later, a landscaped garden was established by Tu Duc and its current name is birthed. Today, nothing from the king’s period is left and there is only a French fountain tower and railway bridge named Da Vien. Opposite, the Claim Island is famous for its delicious com hen (claim rice, noodles) that the main ingredients are catched in the Perfume River.
According to the Feng shui, two islands on the Perfume River function to shelter the front of the Imperial Citadel from bad spirits and evils.
Between Da Vien bridges and Truong Tien bridge, expansive and lush parks lie along the Perfume River that are rarely seen in Vietnam. The left bank features a huge flagpole, octagonal pavilions amid gardens, a market, and grasslands. On the opposite side, there are French-style constructions by the shore, including museums, memorials, an art theatre, city hall, reddish schools and lots of statue parks. Together with big trees, blooming flowers, walking paths and pedestrian wooden bridges to view sunset, banks of the Perfume River are idyllic for strolls. From a boat, modern houses with busy streets are hidden away behind forested parks.
From Da Vien bridge to Tomb of Minh Mang, urban facilities disappear and by that, visitors can see a real Hue suburban and countryside. There are tranquil villages, garden houses, temples atop the hill, low mountains, corn fields and more. All are free from noise, hustle and bustle and large constructions. In other works, the sceneries along this portion are nearly unchanged over centuries. In some festivals, it’s stuck by boats carrying prayers and pilgrims.
Best Time to Cruise the Perfume River
If aiming to sightsee, travelers should board when the sun is still up. During it, natural sceneries and historical buildings on banks of the Perfume River show their best. For a long ride like from downtown to the Tomb of Minh Mang emperor, it’s perfect to start in the morning. Visitors will have a lot of time to wander around, learn about history and photograph. The best short ride, from Thien Mu Pagoda to the city, is run in the sunset when the waters are golden. To witness performances of Ca Hue singing, the evening is only chance, available from 6 to 9.
On the other hand, the wet season from September to February features not a lot of sunny days and high rainfall. So, travelers should check the weather forecast in advance at this time, to avoid a rainy day to cruise the river. The view is not clear, and travelers may feel cold. From September to November, typhoons are formed and hit the area, causing strong winds, pouring rains and floods. No surprise, a boat ride is not recommended and even allowed to operate.
Perfume River Cruise Experience
A cruise by dragon boat along the Perfume River allows travelers to enjoy easy-on-the-eye sceneries, and see life of people from a different perspective. In the city core, it’s possible to expect landscaped promenades and parks dotted with pavilions, four bridges, a part of the Citadel on a bank and French colonial buildings on the other. This stretch of water becomes golden in the sunset and romantic after the last light fades. Booking a ride in the late afternoon if you’re a sunset lover, it’s really worth it. While on board, passengers can sit on a plastic chair by the window or in the bow, to feel the breeze.
After passing under the railway bridge, slices of life in the suburbs are provided. For example, locals use unpolluted water from the river to wash clothings, keep cows in grasslands or fishers catching clams by net. One of the most iconic Instagram pictures, the grandeur tower of Thien Mu Pagoda, is easily taken quickly after. From there to Minh Mang King’s mausoleum, the river is surrounded by more hills, true rural villages, corn fields on the mudflats and holy places (like famous Hon Chen Temple). Passengers feel most peaceful, relaxing vibes when the boat moves leisurely along this upstream part.
The boat owner often invites passengers to buy something for her, like clothings, souvenirs, postcards, etc. Because they can’t speak English, he/she gives a paper with English words to express what he/she wants to say.
Perfume River Cruise at Night
Ca Hue (Hue Singing) Cruise
After the sunset, travelers have a special Perfume River cruise experience. It includes a ride to view shimmering riverfronts at night and performances of Ca Hue singing, a local folk entertainment. About the first highlight, bridges with color-changing lights and graceful buildings on the waterfronts are reasons to make people book it. Cooler temperature is a plus point. During traditional festivals, plenty of candle lanterns are dropped down the river, placing on its water innumerable shimmering lights. A difference to day cruises is the folk songs that are performed by local ladies wearing traditional long dresses (ao dai). Hue’s local accents, unique rhythm and lyrics content, accompanied by 5 musical instructions, are what makes this art great to know. To book a cruise with singers, travelers can go to the hotel reception or nearest tour operator, or walk straight to Toa Kham pier.
Fact: Ca Hue singing is on the road map to be a Unesco-listed intangible cultural heritage, the second in Hue.
HRS cruise is the premium choice for a Perfume River cruise after it’s dark. Not just a ride to get sight of fantastic waterfronts and bridges, this is also a fine dining experience. In which, Ca Hue singing is performed while they enjoy their nice flavours from 6 different quintessence of Hue cuisine. Time on board is 2,5 hrs. Accommodating up to 24 passengers, the cruise is available from sunset to 8 p.m. Pre-booking is highly recommended, and parents have 25% off for their childrens from 5 to 7 years old.
Perfume River Cruise – Boats & Piers
Dragon boats were exclusively used by the emperors and members of their family during the Nguyen Dynasty. Besides viewing beautiful sceneries along the Perfume River, they aimed to visit sacred temples and imperial tombs in its upstream. After the abdication of the last king, the dragon boat cruise tradition continues up to date. In piers nowadays, travelers can see two types of boat: the bigger one with two heads of dragon, and the smaller one with a head of dragon only. Number of seats is more and the price is higher if booking the first type. To decorate, locals use colors representing the Five-elements, including yellow (“earth”), red (“fire”), blue (“water”), green (“wood”) and white (“metal”).
Ben Toa Kham Pier
This 300 meters-long quay (pier) is between the Truong Tien Bridge and Ben Toa Kham Café. Both small and large dragon boats docking there to choose from. It’s easy to meet an owner and deal with the prices if traveling by yourself. Parking lots are near the bridge and at the end of Doi Cung St. The fee is 5,000 VND for a bike. Toa Kham is a short phrase of “Toa Kham Su Trung Ky” meaning the Hall for Resident-Superior of Annam (French Protectorate). Daily, lots of locals come here to cool off and do exercise.
Toa Kham Pier is closest to Hue Walking Street, the main international tourist area in the city. Only a few walks are required to get from hotels, restaurants and bars from there to it.
Ben So 5 Le Loi Pier
At the end of a road between Azerai La Residence Hue and Ho Chi Minh Museum, this pier is the nearest dragon boat docking area to Hue train station. Not many choices are there to select, but self-guided travelers may have a good deal because there are a few people coming to book during the day. Guests from nearby hotels are still the major passengers for boarding, for example.
Thanks to the beginning of Dien Bien Phu St, So 5 Le Loi Pier is the best choice to land after leaving Thien Mu Pagoda and imperial tombs are next places.
Huong Giang Hotel Pier
At the crossroad of Le Loi – Nguyen Cong Tru St, this small pier has several dragon boats. Both upstream and downstream rides are not too busy, because it’s near Toa Kham Pier where there are so many more choices.
Nghinh Luong Dinh Pavillion Pier
This is the official boat station of the Imperial City where the kings lived, so his Perfume River cruises always boarded here. Today, there is only a luxury boat docking in it, serving prime rides and dining experiences. If planning to get to Thien Mu Pagoda from the Citadel by common dragon boat, travelers need to book and set up time to meet up in advance. In reverse, a 750-meters walk is required to start the visit to the best of Citadel after landing.
Perfume River Cruise – Routes & Destinations
Dragon Boat to Thien Mu Pagoda
It takes around 30 minutes to get to Thien Mu Pagoda from the city centre (Toa Kham pier) by dragon boat, and vice versa. If boarding/landing in Ben so 5 Le Loi pier, only 20 minutes needed. Because of being shorter, passengers only pass under two Da Vien bridges, instead of 4 like the longer ride. The best time to go upstream is the morning when the temperature doesn’t increase yet. About the downstream voyage, the sunset is definitely best. Travellers can expect a really mesmerizing beauty of nature in this last appearance of the sun. In later times, lights on the bridges, waterfronts, and the city are good to see.
The Upstream Cruise – Hon Chen Temple & Tomb of Minh Mang
There are many religious and imperial buildings constructed upstream of the Perfume River. Except Thien Mu Pagoda, travellers can take a cruise and stop to sightsee Hon Chen Temple where the Goddess of Mother is worshiped or Tomb of Minh Mang, the 2nd king of the dynasty. Travel time is often one day in guided tours, to allow travellers explore with relaxation. During the ride, the rural scenery is another highlight, including wooded gentle hills, corn fields, pomelo gardens, traditional villages and scenes of local daily lives.
Perfume River Cruise by Yourself
To start your Perfume River cruise, you need to go to the nearest pier first. If staying in/near walking streets, it’s Ben Toa Kham (close to Truong Tien Bridge), and near the train station, the pier by Azerai La Residence Hotel is the only choice. There, asking directly to boat owners the cost (read reasonable range of price below). Solo travellers, couples, and families, should pay a small boat. Popular stops to sightsee are Thien Mu Pagoda (read travel guide here), Hon Chen Temple and Tomb of Minh Mang (read travel guide here). In the mausoleum, local eateries are available there to have foods and drinks. Before leaving the hotel, remember to prepare cash, sun cream, water, and wearing clothings respectively (not too short).
Cost of Perfume River Cruise
– At Toa Kham Pier: A ride to Thien Mu Pagoda costs from 100,000-150,000 VND pp for a small boat and 150,000-200,000 VND pp for a big boat. Double or triple for a round trip for temples and tombs in the upstream.
– At So 5 Le Loi (Azerai La Residence) Pier: 80,000 VND pp and 120,000 VND pp for small and big boats respectively. Double or triple for a round trip for temples and tombs in the upstream.
Note: These are selling prices that the boat owners offer. Better deals are absolutely made if you bargain, but feeling okay for that, just go.
Perfume River Cruise Tour
Da Nang to Hue Day Trip
A day trip is the best way to visit Hue from Da Nang or Hoi An. It begins in the morning (earlier in Hoi An) and then travellers see Hai Van Pass and Lang Co Lagoon before arriving at Hue. During the day, a Perfume River cruise and 3 places in the Unesco heritage site list are introduced, representing different slices of this former Vietnamese capital. Lunch, all entrance fees, hotel pick up drop off, knowledgeable English speaking guide, experienced driver, modern car and water are inclusions. See detailed information in Hue Day Trip from Da Nang/Hoi An.
To be quicker, you can text us directly to ask and request assistance. Our whatsapp number is +84968009827. We may help to look for an English guide with good knowledge and speaking skills if you need for a self-guided tour (with your own transport arrangement).
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