There are those who say that it's a legacy of French colonial times, and others who insist that there's an innate sense of style in Vietnam. Whatever the reason, Vietnamese arts and crafts have an undeniable élan, and the jumble of streets north and west of Hoan Kiem Lake in the center of Hanoi have become internationally known as a shoppers' paradise. You can stroll down Hang Gai from the lake, scope out gorgeous modern furniture at Van Loi, or snap up a silk jacket like Hillary Clinton did. But if Christmas is around the corner, you've nothing for your loved ones, and a two-hour gift-buying blowout is what you need, head a little south to Nha Tho Street (Church Street), which is all of one block long, and go for it.
Start with a coffee at Moca, one of the many little coffee bars in Hanoi that make you think you're in an Asian Paris, then get the credit card out. Whether it's silks, jewelry or lacquerware, you can crisscross Nha Tho to your heart's content, spending next year's bonus. Whatever else you do, don't miss the beaded purses for which Hanoi is bizarrely famous at Tina Sparkle, a smaller branch of the better-known store, Ipa-Nima.
When you're done, pop into St. Joseph's cathedral, the 19th century gothic pile at the end of the street, give thanks and remember those less fortunate than yourself. But hurry: with foreign investment flooding into Vietnam, Nha Tho's astonishingly good prices for merchandise of terrific quality can't last.
by Michael Elliott