Hanoi, Vietnam’s northern powerhouse, is a city of stark contrasts: a cacophonous riot of motorbikes competes with the idyllic calm of Confucian lake temples; Brutalist war memorials sit alongside ancient Buddhist pagodas; and Vietnamese street food spars with classic French cuisine. One of the most enchanting stops on any South East Asian cruise itinerary, Hanoi is a super-charged adrenaline fix offering a deep dive into the rich culture of Vietnam’s magnetic north.
Hanoi lies three hours from the sea, where the Duong and Red Rivers meet. Most ships dock on the coast, many in the Unesco World Heritage-listed Halong Bay, out of which protrude more than 1,600 karst crags making it one of the most beautiful sailing destinations in all of Asia. Unlucky passengers will anchor at Cai Lan, a busy cargo port to the north, from which they will want to make a speedy exit. Several cruise companies tie-up at Haiphong, marginally closer to Hanoi (though still a good two and a half hours’ drive).
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Generally speaking, no. Passengers disembarking at Cai Lan and Haiphong should get the first bus out of the port. Mooring in Halong Bay puts you on the edge of some of South East Asia’s most spectacular scenery. Yet those tempted to rent a junk boat and skip the trip will miss one of the most alluring cities in all of Asia.
Docking so far from the city, the bus ride in can be a gruelling four-hour slog. Ditch the driver and book yourself onto a sea plane with Hai Au Aviation, which offers scenic flights over Halong Bay and flies direct to the city centre in 45 minutes.
What to see and do
With origins in the seventh century, Hanoi is a palimpsest of Vietnam’s vast and chequered history.
What can I do with half a day?
Start your tour of the city at the country’s birthplace, Ba Dinh Square, a Soviet-style concourse reminiscent of Tiananmen and Red Square where, on 2 September 1945, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence that catapulted the country into two decades of conflict.
The man himself lies embalmed – like comrades Lenin and Mao – here: tourists can visit his mausoleum each morning, but strict dress codes are enforced (no legs showing) and rules (hands out of pockets, no food, drink or cameras) apply.
Across the road is the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long, a royal residence for more than 800 years before the French invaded and dismantled the monarchy. More recently the headquarters of the North Vietnamese military command, the citadel is a reminder of the country’s enduring military might. Further remnants of the ravages of war can be found due south at Hoa Lo Prison (the 'Hanoi Hilton') where first the French and then the North Vietnamese locked up political prisoners and, latterly, American POWs. Though the prison itself was demolished in 1990, its gatehouse is maintained as a museum.
History checked, it’s time to head to Hoan Kiem Lake, home to the Confucian Turtle Tower, the centre of the city and a handy navigational aid. North of the lake lies the Old Quarter where, contrary to its name, the ferment of modern Vietnam can be found, along with a surfeit of street sellers, souvenir stalls and pavement pubs.
To the south lies the leafier French Quarter, home to the impressive Hanoi Opera House and a number of notable museums, including the National Museum of Vietnamese History and the Vietnamese Women’s Museum – the latter a fascinating look women’s role in the country’s rich history.
What can I do with a bit longer?
Turn your back on the coast and make for the hills: the most captivating trip in northern Vietnam is to the ethnically diverse frontier town of Sapa – home to some fabulously photogenic rice terraces and ethnographically enticing tribal villages. The launch pad for those looking to scale Vietnam’s highest peak – Fansipan – Sapa is home to much of the country’s best trekking. The overnight train is by far the best way to get there.
Eat and drink
As much as you can, mostly street food, which is always (or, nearly always) incredible. Timid about trying? Then join Hanoi Street Food Tours, which, over the course of between two and five hours, can take you to sample some of the very best the city’s vendors have to offer.
Don’t leave Hanoi without…
Visiting the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Sounds odd, but it is actually quite magical. Dating back to the eleventh century and unique to northern Vietnam, the folklore of this region comes alive through these maritime marionettes. Performances are scheduled throughout the afternoon.
Need to know
Hanoi is generally safe, though there have been some recent reports of foreign women being harassed when walking alone at night. Like other South East Asian cities, pickpockets are rife: keep your valuables close to you at all times.
According to the World Health Organization, you are eight times more likely to be killed in a road traffic accident in Vietnam than in the UK: avoid travelling by motorcycle.
Best time to go
September to November and March to April are the best months to visit Hanoi when the weather is spring-like and the skies are generally clear. December to February can see temperatures dip below 10C. From April, the temperatures creep up and the rain
Most museums are closed on Mondays.