5 Faves: Hanoi Highlights

Hanoi Highlights: 5 Faves of Vietnam’s Capital City

For cruisers looking for that next exotic itinerary, today’s major cruise lines and river cruise operators are embracing the intrigue of Vietnam, exposing alluring destinations and the country’s colorful legacy.

While most river cruises feature the Mekong River and ocean-going ships call on Saigon and other coastal ports, Pandaw Cruises’ Vietnam and Cambodia itineraries include an exclusive opportunity of sailing on the Red River in the north with an actual call on the capital city of Hanoi. This city of contrasts features colonial buildings bordered by modern skyscrapers, world-class restaurants alongside street vendors, and a vibrant nightlife complemented by cultural events of a world-class city.

Here were my five Hanoi highlights:

Shopping Spree

I’m not a consummate shopper and tend to avoid that costly pastime, but in Hanoi it’s different. Streets are lined with stores and vendors, melded seamlessly into a mecca for shopaholics. One street may be dedicated to shoes, while another ladies handbags. Around the corner, luggage may be the article du jour and the next section is devoted to souvenirs of the weird. Store attendants are likely to be slurping a lunchtime pho or noodles while simultaneously barking out a starting price.

Capitalism is alive and well in today’s Vietnam and taking a stab at haggling is always considered good shopping etiquette. Some goods from China may permeate shelves to a small degree, but it’s quickly pointed out that Vietnamese products are of a higher standard and prices are unbelievably low. Silk, silver, tailor-made clothing, and did I mention shoes!

Set Your Sights on the Sites

As one would expect, this city of 1,000 years holds a treasure trove of history. There’s no shortage of temples, museums, and pagodas to fulfill your touristic travelogues, but perhaps the most visited site is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. This shrine contains the glass-encased, embalmed body of revered leader, Uncle Ho, as he’s fondly called by locals. The grounds surrounding the mausoleum invoke serenity and insight into his prominence as father of modern Vietnam.

The Hanoi Opera House in the French Quarter is one of the most elegant colonial buildings in the city with regularly scheduled cultural events, and no visit to Vietnam would be complete without attending a performance of traditional rich water puppetry. Entire theaters are devoted to this entertaining spectacle.

Hanoi Old Quarter

This area is the beating heart of Hanoi. The swarming motor-scooter traffic provides a complimentary sideshow of epic proportions. Imagine the congested traffic of Manhattan, but replacing cars with thousands of scooters absent any semblance of organized traffic patterns. And to emphasize the street’s chaos, take away traffic lights at intersections. This is the city’s main tourist attraction peppered with thousands of locals out for a stroll.

The scenic Hoan Kiem Lake borders the area, which provides a sense of calm over the kinetic choreography of daily life. Factoring in the hundreds of storefronts and street vendors leads to the next obligatory activity.

Nightlife and Dining

Start the night out sitting on a blue plastic seat at iconic Bia Hoi junction. This classic venue is a unique opportunity to enjoy a glass of fresh cold beer, blending in with hundreds of ex-pats, locals, tourists, and characters of all kinds. Where have you ever had a beer for under a dollar? Street vendors add to the color by hawking steamed peanuts, jerky, and exotic snacks.

When it’s time to take it up a notch, Hanoi, strangely, is home to excellent jazz clubs. While drink prices rise accordingly, so does the environment. Rooftop nightclubs, discos, and lounges provide entertainment through the wee hours for night owls and karaoke bars appear out of nowhere for a good laugh or two.

For the more culturally attuned, the Opera House and other theaters offer nationally renowned performances. While culinary creations abound in top-notch restaurants in any major city, I’m always inclined to experience food as a local. Street vendors abound throughout the city, but sanitary conditions may be suspect. So then, what can a street foodie do? See below.

Do as the Locals Do

It’s no secret that the motor scooter rules as the king of the road in Vietnam. These two-wheeled road warriors display utter fearlessness at intersections and total mastery of the streets. To become a temporary local, for example, Vespa Adventures offers a selection of tours that allows visitors the opportunity to combine a ride on an original Italian Vespa with the dining experience of a lifetime. This is the real deal, off-the-beaten path experience.

Sample water buffalo jerky and beer at one stop, classic Vietnamese Bun Cha or pho at another, and noodles with goat udder at another, all the while mingling with locals. All tours are guided by charismatic English-speaking guides, taking out all of the guesswork with unfamiliar comfort zones.

— Steve Leland

As a former Cruise Director, Steve has been cruising the world for the past forty years. Bringing a new dimension to cruise journalism, he continues to spin the globe searching for off the grid cruise adventures and unplugged destinations to share with Porthole Cruise Magazine readers.