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Hanoi is a hectic collage of sights, sounds and smells. Masses of motorbikes roar down roadways, and bike and car horns are constantly honking. Women wearing traditional conical straw hats carry poles with baskets on each end, small shops overflow with colorful embroidery, food vendors sell cooked pigeons with their heads still on, and signs literally cover buildings.
As the northern capital, Hanoi was heavily bombed during the Vietnam War. Still there are reminders of the past, including French colonial architecture and 1,000-year-old temples and pagodas. The capital city -- home to four million people -- boasts parks with gnarled banyan trees and many lakes; the one where John McCain was shot down during the war is now peppered with swan boats. The Hoa Lo Prison or "Hanoi Hilton" where Sen. McCain was imprisoned as a POW is now the site of a high-rise. There is not yet a McDonald's in Hanoi, but you can find fine dining, really nice hotels and some high-end shopping options.
Most cruise travelers reach Hanoi via Halong Bay -- the name is shared by the body of water and the small resort town that abuts it. The bay itself is one of Vietnam's most celebrated attractions, with 3,000 limestone islands that make up a spectacular natural UNESCO World Heritage site.
A trip on the water of the bay is the kind of awe-inspiring experience that you crave as a traveler. Sit in a Vietnamese junk (boat) on silk couches and drink green tea as you cruise into the mist of the large bay past giant, craggy limestone formations protruding from the sea.
According to legend, a dragon that fell from the sky, sent by the gods to help the Vietnamese fight Chinese invaders, formed the bay's islands. And in fact, these islands have seen their share of warring -- the bay is on the Gulf of Tonkin, where Vietnamese and U.S. forces first came into conflict.
The islands are mostly uninhabited and many form odd shapes -- one looks like a man's face in profile, another like two cocks fighting. Their sheer cliffs and otherworldly presence has inspired writers, poets and artists. And it's easy to see why. The place is magical.
Note: Halong Bay is the primary port for Hanoi, but ships also dock at Cai Lan and Haiphong. This profile largely focuses on visits to Hanoi, though we do provide information on Halong Bay, as it is a destination in itself. However, unless you are overnighting in port, you will have to choose between exploring Hanoi and Halong Bay.
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Other Asia Cruise Ports:
Bangkok (Laem Chabang) • Beijing • Cochin • Da Nang • Hanoi • Hiroshima • Ho Chi Minh City • Hong Kong • Koh Samui • Kuala Lumpur • Langkawi • Mumbai • Nagasaki • Osaka • Penang • Saipan • Seoul (Incheon) • Shanghai • Sihanoukville • Singapore • Yangon (Rangoon)
Silk goods (purses, scarves and suits) and crafts, including lacquered and embroidered items.
Vietnamese is the official language. English is spoken in hotels, restaurants and tourist shops in Hanoi, but is less widely spoken in Halong Bay. For a spur-of-the-moment translator, look for a 20-something who may have recently studied English in school. Older folks may speak French (from the country's days as a French colony).
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The main unit of currency is the dong (VND), which comes in both notes and coins. The exchange rate, at the time of this report, is about 16,215 VND per $1 U.S. -- for the latest current currency conversion figures visit www.xe.com. U.S. dollars are also widely accepted, and we recommend carrying plenty of $1 and $5 bills to buy souvenirs (if you use larger bills, your change may be in dongs). You can find ATMs at branches of Vietcombank in both Halong Bay and Hanoi.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships dock at a number of different ports in the Hanoi area: Halong Bay, Haiphong and Cai Lan. Most ships dock at Halong Bay, about a 3.5-hour drive from Hanoi, because it's one of the deeper ports and is a tourist destination in its own right. Tenders take passengers to shore at Bai Chay, the main tourist hotel strip.
Cai Lan is a relatively new deep-water port and is connected to Hanoi by a real highway (better than the roads from other ports to the city). However, with traffic, the drive can still take 2 to 2.5 hours.
Haiphong is still used by some lines, such as Azamara, but most lines are leaving because the harbor is silting and getting shallower. Plus, there are no tourist attractions or facilities in the port area. Hanoi is a 2.5- to 3-hour ride from Haiphong.
At the Halong Bay pier, a boardwalk offers souvenir stalls, casual cafes and outdoor disco stages. There's nothing to do at any of the other ports.
To Hanoi: You can reach Hanoi either on a tour or by cab from certain ports (about $100 each way from Halong Bay). On the way to Hanoi you pass rice paddies, towns, and areas with hills and coal mines -- your bus might get dirty from the soot. You'll share the road with hundreds of motorbikes (the main means of transport here; few people own cars).
Taxis aren't available from Cai Lan, but your cruise ship can arrange a private car; the cost is around $620 per car for a full day of touring for two to three passengers.
In Hanoi: Once in Hanoi, either keep your driver for the day or hire a different cab or bike taxi in the city. These options are all reasonably priced; hassling with local buses is not recommended.
Watch Out For
In Hanoi, motorbike traffic can make crossing a busy street rather terrifying. Use extreme caution. If you get in a cab, negotiate a price up-front to avoid last minute "add-ons." And always protect your valuables from pickpockets.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (Ba Dinh Sq., open Tuesday - Thursday and Saturday, 8 - 11 a.m., free admission) is a concrete structure modeled on Lenin's tomb in Moscow. "Uncle Ho," the Communist revolutionary who began the revolution in 1949 and died in 1969 (six years before unified Communist Vietnam was established), is embalmed here and can be viewed under glass in his khaki suit.
Nearby is the pretty, yellow French colonial Presidential Palace, built in 1901 for the French governor. If you want to tour the Ho Chi Minh Residence (behind the Presidential Palace, Ba Dinh Sq., open Tuesday - Sunday, 8 - 11 a.m. and 1:30 - 4:30 p.m.), head around back. The revolutionary, preferring a simpler life, chose to reside in a modest structure behind the palace.
Around the corner, the Ho Chi Minh Museum (3 Ngo Ha, open Tuesday - Sunday, 8 - 11:30 a.m. and 1:30 - 4 p.m.) gives details of the Communist revolutionary's life and displays his personal items. A good photo op nearby is the One-Pillar Pagoda (open daily 6 - 11:30 a.m. and 2 - 6 p.m., free admission), a reproduction of a shrine built in 1049 (a prayer here is said to bring fertility and good health).
The Temple of Literature (Quoc Tu Giam St., open daily 8 a.m. - 5p.m.) dates to 1070 and is dedicated to the Chinese philosopher Confucius. The beautiful buildings and temples, set around four courtyards, were bombed during the war but have been restored.
Hanoi's crazy, hectic Old Quarter is a must-do stop for souvenir shopping (in a little shop we found a silk purse for $6 that we paid $60 for in Boston) and to view the market scene.
Been There, Done That
If you have already explored Hanoi and are interested in military history, hire a cab and head about 8.5 miles south to the city's outskirts and the Ho Chi Minh Trail Museum (3 Ngoc Ha St.). This place details the efforts to supply the North Vietnamese front lines by bicycle, truck and manpower. You can view three floors of photographs and many pieces of weaponry and war machinery. Be aware, traffic heading south can be a nightmare, so it can take an hour or more to get there.
Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of Hanoi, is the city's Central Park, and as such is a peaceful place to stroll, jog or observe local life. Explore the stunning pagodas and temples, take a photo op at the long, Chinese-style Bridge of the Rising Sun, or simply grab a snack at one of the small cafes and unwind. In the morning, local residents come here to practice tai chi and martial arts; later in the day, elderly men gather to play chess. Giant turtles inhabit the lake, so be on the lookout. Trivia alert: The lake is also where Senator John McCain's plane was shot down during the war.
In Hanoi, Green Tangerine (48 Hang Be, 04/825-1286, open 9 a.m. – 11 p.m. daily) is the place for French fare. For fancy Vietnamese, the elegant stalwart is Emperor (18b Le Thanh Tong St., 04/826-8801, lunch 11:30 a.m. - 2 p.m. and dinner 5:30 p.m. - 10:30 p.m., reservations recommended). We don't recommend you eat in Halong Bay (where there's nothing special) unless you are on a junk.
Staying in Touch
You'll see signs for Internet cafes on practically every corner in Hanoi. In the Old Quarter, the numerous options include Lang Viet Cafe (122 Hang Bac St.), Classyzone (137 Hang Bac St.) and Threeland Cafe (22 Hang Bac St.). In Halong Bay, an Internet cafe, Dilmah Cafe, is situated right across Halong Rd. from the pier (look for the large neon sign).
Halong Bay: Even if you don't kayak, we highly suggest you book the Kayak Adventure (8.5 hours) in Halong Bay. You'll depart in a luxurious junk (Vietnamese boat) to explore some of the 3,000 rock formations in the bay. The first stop is in a boat village. You can maneuver around the floating homes in your two-person kayak or just stay on the deck of the junk and get some sun. The trip may also include a stop at one of the caves in the area, such as Surprise Cave -- you enter through a hole in a mountain and find yourself in a huge space spectacularly filled with stalagmites and stalactites. Lunch is a fresh seafood feast accompanied by Vietnamese beer or soft drinks. Short boat trips may be available to explore the bay as well.
Hanoi: The 12-hour Hanoi tour is the best way to see the city. Sights include the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Temple of Literature and One Pillar Pagoda. You'll have time to explore the Old Quarter on your own, and lunch is served at a nice hotel. The ride to Hanoi is about 3.5 hours each way past rice paddies, towns and coal mines.
For those who want more, a Hanoi overnight tour may also be offered, which includes a hotel stay and additional Hanoi sights including a visit to Ngoc Son Temple on an island in the Sword Lake, the Fine Arts Museum and a water puppet performance (the puppeteers pull the strings underwater).
For More Information
On the Web: http://www.halong.com and http://www.hanoitourist-travel.com
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--by Fran Wenograd Golden. Boston-based Golden, whose contributions to Cruise Critic include features, ship reviews and destination-oriented port profiles, is the former travel editor of the Boston Herald and also co-author of Frommer's Europe Cruises & Ports of Call and Frommer's Alaska Cruises & Ports of Call.