Popular Hanoi Shore Excursions
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.