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 cover buildings.
For more than 4,000 years, from a humble fishing village to a busy seaport, the city has thrived along the banks of the Red River in Northern Vietnam. The seaport was given the name Ha (river) Noi (in) by King Minh Mang in 1831. Hanoi is the country's intellectual and cultural heart that draws the best and brightest artisans from around the country. Many streets in the old district are named after the products made there at one time, and you can still come across shrines here and there dedicated to an artisan's god.
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 6.5 million people, boasts parks with gnarled banyan trees and many lakes, some peppered with swan boats. The Hoa Lo Prison or "Hanoi Hilton" where U.S. Sen. John McCain was imprisoned as a POW is now the site of a high-rise. Really nice hotels and high-end shopping also beckon tourists.
Most cruise travelers reach Hanoi via Halong Bay where most of the large cruise ships anchor. The bay itself is one of Vietnam's most celebrated attractions, with about 2,000 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 travelers crave. Sit in a Vietnamese junk (boat) on silk couches and drink green tea or local beer as you cruise into the mist of the large bay, past giant, craggy limestone formations protruding from the sea.
According to legend, a dragon sent by the gods to help the Vietnamese fight Chinese invaders, fell into the bay and formed the islands. In fact, these islands have seen their share of warring -- the bay is in the Gulf of Tonkin, where Vietnamese and U.S. forces first fought.
The islands are mostly uninhabited, and many form odd shapes -- one looks like a man's face in profile, another like two roosters fighting. Their sheer cliffs and otherworldly presence has inspired writers, poets and artists. And it's easy to see why. The place is magical.
Many large cruise ships anchor in Halong Bay, and tenders take passengers on about a 10-minute ride into the tourist town of Bai Chay where an old car ferry is used to load and unload cruisers. Getting to land from the tender can be a difficult transition for handicapped walkers and those in wheel chairs; so contact the ship for help before getting on the tender.
Bai Chay, which along with nearby Hong Gai is collectively known as Halong Bay City, is the main tourist area for Halong Bay. Turn left from the tender pier and walk about 15 minutes to shop for souvenirs, coffee and other goods at tourist markets. Cafes there offer refreshments, and Internet access can be found at Emotion Cybernet Cafe for about 400 VND per minute. Adjacent "hotel alley" is another source of Internet cafes and Wi-Fi access.
At the Halong Bay commercial pier, a boardwalk offers souvenir stalls, casual cafes and outdoor disco stages.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum 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 there and can be viewed under glass in his khaki suit. View the change of the guards around noon. (Ba Dinh Square; open 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Tuesday to Thursday and Saturday; free admission)
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, head around back. The revolutionary, preferring a simpler life, chose to reside in a modest structure on stilts behind the palace. Beautiful grounds surround both residences. (Behind the Presidential Palace, Ba Dinh Square; open 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday; Tickets $1.20)
Around the corner, the Ho Chi Minh Museum (3 Ngo Ha; open 8 .am. to noon Monday and Friday, from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. all other days; tickets $1.20 and about $4 with English speaking guide) gives details of the Communist revolutionary's life and displays his personal items. A good photo op nearby is the One-Pillar Pagoda (open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; free admission), a reproduction of a shrine built in 1049 perched on a concrete pillar in a scenic lake. A prayer there is said to bring fertility and good health.
The Temple of Literature 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. (Quoc Tu Giam Street; open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily; small admission fee)
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.
If your ship is in port for two or more days, consider an overnight Halong Bay cruise on a deluxe Vietnamese junk. It's an entirely different experience from the full- and half-day tours that compete with dozens of other junks that visit the same islands and caves at the same time. The overnight junks are beautifully detailed and crafted with polished teak or mahogany. The cabins are a bit small, but each has its own bathroom, and the beds are full-size and comfortable. Most of these two- or three-story junks have more than a dozen cabins and serve delicious multicourse Vietnamese meals in nicely appointed dining rooms. A full bar with beer and a decent selection of affordable ($15-$40) wines is available.
One of the biggest complaints from day-boat junk cruisers is the large number of boats cruising the bay in the same areas and the even more crowded beaches and cave tours. The overnight junk companies that own these floating hotels have contracts with the government to cruise in waters the day boats can't. They cruise in out-of-the-way areas of Halong Bay restricted to their junks and the fisherman and families who live on the bay in floating villages. These companies also have permits for exclusive use of specific islands with private beaches offering cave exploring, kayaking, and swimming. But what really makes these trips special is the magical twilight time, when you're anchored in a cove among mist-shrouded islands with only the sounds of birds and the ice cubes clinking in your cocktail glass.
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. The facility 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. (3 Ngoc Ha Street)
Hoan Kiem Lake, in the heart of Hanoi, is the city's Central Park and 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, ride a swan boat or simply grab a snack at one of the small cafes and unwind. In the morning, residents go there 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.
Getting to Hanoi: The best way to get to Hanoi from any port is to arrange transport via your ship's shore excursion shuttles or a car or van with a driver hired from a reputable tour company. Taxis can be a cost-saving option, especially for three or four passengers (five will fit in some cars and vans), but their numbers are limited. Most taxi drivers do not speak English, so make sure the fare is settled before getting in the car. Also, be wary of English speakers around the port areas who are willing to negotiate with taxi drivers. If they ask you to pay them instead of the driver, be aware that you are probably being overcharged. Shop around if possible.
In Hanoi: A taxi is the best way to get around in the city. You also can arrange a driver and guide before the cruise. If a taxi driver tries to negotiate a flat rate, it probably is not to your advantage; reputable taxi companies will have metered cars. Two reputable taxi companies are Hanoi Taxi and Taxi CP. Public buses are not recommended.
In Vietnam, like the rest of Asia, rice and noodles are food staples. As a result of the French colonial period's influence, the cuisine is admired by food lovers around the world. Fresh herbs and hot chilies are found in many dishes including their equivalent of fast food, pho soup. Pho (pronounced fuh) is flavored with fresh vegetables and savory stock, and is a breakfast, lunch and dinner favorite. Vietnam's long ocean coast and abundant rivers and lakes are sources for fish, crab, shrimp and squid commonly found on menus. Nuoc mam, a pungent fermented fish sauce, is the preferred condiment, found on almost every dining table in the country.
Hidden away in the Old Quarter, Green Tangerine offers French-Vietnamese cuisine in an elegant, serene setting.. You'll find a colorful mix of travelers and well-heeled locals at this welcoming dining spot -- the sign of a successful restaurant. (48 Hang Be; 04/825-1286; open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily)
The Gourmet Corner restaurant is located on the 12th floor of the Elegance Diamond hotel, overlooking Hoan Kiem Lake, the Red River and the Hanoi skyline. The restaurant also offers outdoor terrace dining area for warm evenings. The menu includes authentic Vietnamese food, as well as Western-style cuisine including steaks and pasta. The food is excellent, the service is friendly and the prices are reasonable. (32 Lo Su Street; Old Quarter, Hoan Kiem District; open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner)
The Essence restaurant is located in heart of the Old Quarter in the Essence Hanoi hotel and offers authentic Vietnamese and Western dishes. Specialties include deep fried spring rolls and grilled bamboo beef. Dinner for two costs $20-$30. The staff is extremely helpful, and Wi-Fi is available at no charge. (22 Ta Hien Street, Hoan Kiem; +84 4 3935 2485, ext. 105; open daily for lunch and dinner)
For a change-of-pace from local cuisine, try the Moose & Roo Pub & Grill. Food is a bit more expensive than local Vietnamese spots, but well worth it if you crave an American-styled pulled pork sandwich, fish taco or cheeseburger. The restaurant boasts a great selection of foreign and domestic beers. Service is professional and friendly. (42b Ma May; +84 4 3200 1289; open for breakfast, lunch and dinner).
In Halong Bay City: Unless you're on an overnight junk cruise, Halong Bay isn't known for its dining scene, especially for visitors. It's probably best to return to the ship for a nice meal. New resort hotels are being built, which might improve dining options.
Cruise ships dock at a number of different ports in the Hanoi area: Halong Bay, Haiphong and Cai Lan. Most ships dock or are tendered at Halong Bay, about a 3.5-hour drive from Hanoi, because it's one of the deeper ports and a wonderful tourist destination in its own right.
Cai Lan is a relatively new deep-water port about 10 miles from Halong Bay and two to three hours from Hanoi. It is a busy cargo port serving only a handful of cruise ships and has no passenger amenities.
Haiphong is Vietnam's third largest city and northern Vietnam's most important seaport. The port city is located on the Red River, about 62 miles from Hanoi. It is still used by cruise lines, including Crystal, Oceania and Regent. The ships dock in the container port where there are no tourist attractions or facilities, although there is dining and shopping in Haiphong city. Hanoi is about a 1.5-hour drive from the port.
In Hanoi, motorbike traffic can make crossing a busy street rather terrifying. Tag along with locals to cross, because there is safety in numbers. Negotiate cab fares upfront to avoid "add-ons" at the end of the ride. And of course, don't wear flashy jewelry and always protect your valuables from pickpockets, especially in busy markets.
A junk cruise on Halong Bay can be the highlight of your trip or a major disaster. Many commercial junks are in poor repair and fall short of Western safety standards. The lower the ticket price, the more likely you'll find yourself on one of these sketchy junks. In this case, you get what you pay for. Booking once you've arrived in Halong Bay also increases your chance of getting ripped off or falling victim to bait and switch. Do your homework on TripAdvisor, Cruise Critic and other boards to find the junk trip right for you, and reserve it in advance.
The main unit of currency is the dong (VND), which comes in both notes and coins. For updated currency-conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. U.S. dollars are also widely accepted: Carry plenty of crisp $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 Halong Bay and Hanoi.
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 might have studied English in school. Older folks might speak French (from the country's days as a French colony).
Hanoi has great bargains, especially in Hang Gai located in the city just north of Hoan Kiem Lake. Some of the "antique" items there might not be so antique, but they can make great souvenirs for a good price. You'll also find silk goods (purses, scarves and suits) and crafts, including lacquered and embroidered items. Near the Temple of Literature on Van Mieu Street, there is a nonprofit store, Craft Link, with a great reputation for beautiful locally made crafts.