Hanoi Nội Bài International – Made in Vietnam
If any airport has got ‘destination merchandise’ sussed, it’s Hanoi Nội Bài International Airport. Nowhere has this reporter seen more souvenir shops airside than here, oddly juxtaposed against traditional Duty Free shops and designer boutiques.Originally built for the Vietnamese Air Force, Hanoi Nội Bài became an international public airport after reunification of Vietnam in 1975, while also continuing to serve the military. The biggest airport in northern Vietnam, and second busiest in the country, it is located 28 miles (45km) from down-town Hanoi. The current international Terminal 1 opened in October 2001 but, designed for just 6 million passengers a year, is had become increasingly overcrowded as the country opens up to tourism.
The number of international airlines now using Hanoi (Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Malaysian Airlines, Tiger Airways, Qatar Airways Japan Airlines and , to name just a few) and ultra busy destination board with flights pretty much all over Asia is indicative of just how popular this part of Vietnam is becoming…and the current airport really can’t cope, particularly land-side where there is just not enough seating or facilities. Updated runways mean that the airport is now coping with some 10m passengers a year and while the addition of a new domestic terminal Extension ‘E’ completed in early 2014 has helped a little, checking in is not an overly pleasant experience.
But relief is at hand. Driving to and from the airport the new Terminal 2 under construction can be clearly seen. Funded with loans from Japan, and with a capacity of 16 million passengers per annum it’s testament to North Vietnam’s determination to continue developing its tourism business – a must in order to bring investment and jobs into this region still very much divided into those who have and those who have very little. The new Terminal is due for completion in early 2015, but judging by progress in May 2014…there’s considerable work to be done. A new highway connecting the airport to down-town Hanoi should also help relieve the traffic congestion at least on the way to the city if not within it!But back to the shopping on offer at the current Terminal 1.
Visitors to North Vietnam are more than likely to have visited at least one local market: in Hanoi itself or whilst visiting regional attractions such as the Bac Ha market, Cat Cat village with its onsite artisans near Sapa, or the string of stalls at Tam Coc in Ninh Binh province. Only the strong willed will have resisted the sales-charm of the locals and come away with nothing…but if you have, or if you still have some Dong to dispose of, then Nội Bài is the place to do it.
Everything here is priced in US$ but you can pay in local currency if preferred. You may even pay in Dong and be offered change in $ (everyone knows that you’re more than unlikely to be able to change the currency back when you get home).
The Departures Lounge is divided into two with gates on either side and shops to both, sweeping round in an almost circle. There’s also an upstairs level where you’ll find food-service areas and more shops. It’s rather impersonal and very much serves a purpose..but there is plenty of additional seating up here, though not much in the way of air conditioning.
So, as mentioned, immediately on entering the Departures Lounge from security (there really is nothing landside to speak of) you’ll be faced with an onslaught of ATS and Vietnam Souvenir Shops, which run the middle length of the area on both sides as well as at each end and upstairs. The strange thing is that almost all shops sell pretty much the same thing…and the same thing is everything! Everything local with odd elements of international brands peeking out here and there. Made in Vietnam covers everything, it seems, from bags, belts and beads to biscuits, beer and models of bicycles and boats; from t-shirts and tea to cigarettes, carvings, chocolate and coffee. There’s an awful lot of local vodka available – Hanoi, Men, Lua Moi and Ner Moi were just some of the brand names we found, at around $6 for an odd 600ml size. With prices starting at under $2 for a lucky wooden tortoise to $499 for a beautifully carved wooden Buddha, there really is something for every budget here! With very little shelf organisation, products really are mixed and matched, so you do feel like you’re back in the market. But, unlike the markets, here the price is the price.As said, this flea market style approach sits in stark contrast to the designer boutiques present which include Coach, Salvatore Ferragamo, Bally. Tumi and Le Sportsac,
If you’re looking for traditional duty free there are several different stores situated on both sides of the departure area, mostly selling liquor and tobacco. One fragrance and cosmetics outlet sells a predictable range of world brand leaders (most of them anyway) – no surprises here. Liquor and tobacco stores are run by NASCO and NAC (Northern Airports Corporation) Duty Free all focussing on premium whiskies and Cognac (Chivas Regal 12/18 yo, Johnnie Walker Black, Royal Salute, Hennessey, Remy, Martell all dominate). Large sizes are very much in vogue and if you’re in a position to be able to carry 450cl of liquor, then there are various options here such as Chivas Regal 12yo for $176. Leading tobacco brands are in the region of $19 for 200 (the souvenir shops also sell single packs and shrink wrapped 200s of local and main brands for about the same price). One liquor and tobacco shop was also offering body care products including The Body Shop – an odd and interesting version of cross merchandising.
There’s also a Watch and Jewellery shop with a useful selection of brands including Swatch, Emporio Armani, Fossil, Guess and a Sunglasses shop sporting brands including Gucci, Dior and Ray Ban.Upstairs you’ll find yet more souvenir shops, an ATS book stall, and ‘The World of Carved Wooden Products from Vietnamese Artisans’. To be fair, alongside the usual market stall type stuff, we were impressed at some of the utterly beautiful wooden carvings here including some superb models of the type of boat wanderlust travellers could see themselves living on one day to motorbikes, aeroplanes and – yes – more Buddhas. Tempted though we were, they were just a little too big and heavy for already full to bursting hand luggage.
Upstairs there are also plenty of food service outlets including Burger King, Big Bowl, Star Café and the Nội Bài International Restaurant. This level serves a purpose…that’s really all you can say about it. It’s very hot and sticky up here and singularly lacking in atmosphere.
Nội Bài is by no means the world’s greatest duty free/travel retail outlet but its certainly one of the most geared we’ve seen to selling local merchandise for the benefit of local people and there’s nothing wrong with that. It will be interesting to see if the new Terminal, once completed, gives the same amount of floor space to local handicrafts – to be honest, we doubt it.
Our last minute purchase at Nội Bài was a wire model of a Vietnamese fisherman for just US$3. We still had some 45,000 Dong left…about $2. We could have spent it, but preferred to keep it in the hope that one day we will return to this most beautiful of countries.