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Hanoi's Largest Indoor Aquarium Is Surprisingly Impressive for a Mall Attraction

I am a champion of the public aquarium. For many people, the aquarium is the only place where they can meet marine life outside of perhaps a wet market or seafood restaurant. Some research suggests that watching fish swim around can reduce stress and lower blood pressure, and that seeing marine life in their (simulated) habitats can inspire people to care more about these endangered species in their besieged environments. For the serious study of marine life, aquaria allow biologists to observe the behaviors of animals that are otherwise difficult to observe in nature. Vietnam has a few public aquaria: the Viện Hải Dương Học and Trí Nguyên Aquarium in Nha Trang, the Vinpearland-branded aquaria in Hanoi, Phú Quốc, and Nha Trang, and a handful of others. When Vietnam’s newest aquarium opened at the end of last summer, I had to go take a look.

Lotte World Aquarium Hanoi, in the basement of the new Lotte World Shopping Mall on the western shores of Hồ Tây, boasts several impressive qualifications: it is Hanoi’s largest indoor aquarium (handily beating out the small aquarium at Times City), the largest touch tank in Vietnam (filled with 90 tons of water), and the largest curved aquarium tank in Southeast Asia (18 by 5.8 meters). The aquarium has a total area of over 9,000 square meters and all of the 67 tanks combined hold 3,400 tons of water. Within those tanks live 31,000 aquatic animals representing around 400 species from freshwater and marine environments around the world. This is no pet store or wet market. Now, with those dry statistics out of the way, let’s get wet.

It took a minute to find the aquarium entrance since it’s below the main shopping area, but once I was downstairs it was pretty clear that I had found the right spot. Admission is a bit complicated: there are separate price categories for children and adults, for weekdays and weekends, and for Vietnamese and foreigners. The lowest price (Vietnamese children on weekdays) is VND190,000 and the highest (foreigners on weekends) is VND500,000, so expect to pay somewhere between those two price points. Even though I’m American, after chatting in Vietnamese a bit the admissions staff allowed me to pay the Vietnamese price, which I really appreciated. The aquarium is open seven days a week from 9:30am to a staggeringly late 10:00pm so even the night owls have a chance to see beneath the sea.

Lotte World Aquarium Hanoi is divided into four themed exhibit areas: Làng quê yên bình, Dạo bước trên biển, Thám hiểm biển xanh, and Quảng trường đại dương (the official English names of each zone are slightly different than direct translations: Fresh Town, Beach Walk, Sea Adventure, and Ocean Square). The aquarium is linear, so there is an A-to-B path that visitors are expected to follow from the first exhibit to the gift shop. The central theme of the aquarium is a journey down a river from the mountains to the open ocean. Visitors start in a mountain village and follow the river down to a beach, through a coral reef, and into the open ocean, finally ending up in a café and gift shop. The entrance promises a very Vietnamese theme: the tale of cá ông, presented to viewers through a short animation about a fisherman, his daughter, her hat, and a whale.

As a historian who studies the history of oceanography and fishing in Vietnam, I was mainly interested in how the aquarium would educate visitors about aquatic environments in Vietnam and Vietnamese people’s relationships to them, but in this respect I was disappointed. Most of the aquarium’s exhibits, while impressive, were generic, and not representative of specifically Vietnamese environments. Other than a cá ông temple in Beach Walk, the theme of cá ông is mostly ignored within the actual exhibit halls, and very rarely do any exhibits directly represent a Vietnamese environment.

The first exhibition area is Fresh Town, which showcases freshwater life from around the world. Starting with a highland village of stilt houses over ponds in a bamboo grove, visitors follow an imaginary watercourse downstream from the mountains to the coast. Under the stilt houses live freshwater fish from around the world: some South American cichlids, giant gourami, tigerfish, and red-tailed catfish. A jungle room with tiny green jewels of aquaria nestled in concrete trees showcases the kinds of fish one can easily buy at a pet store: tetras, smaller gourami, angelfish, discus, and goldfish. The only exhibit here directly related to Vietnamese environments is the Mekong River tunnel, which is also the largest tank in the hall. In it, visitors can see some of Southeast Asia’s truly magnificent freshwater fish: Mekong giant catfish, Siamese barbs, basa catfish, and the non-native arapaima that have been introduced for sport fishing. This tank is the standout exhibit in Fresh Town. It is impressive, well-designed, and does a good job of showcasing regional biodiversity.

After Fresh Town, visitors arrive on the coast at Beach Walk, which in, my opinion, is the most interesting section of the aquarium. Exhibits here include a recreation of a mangrove forest, a large beach exhibit, and a large touch tank where visitors are able to touch a variety of marine life. Vietnam’s coastlines used to host large mangrove forests, which protected the coast from typhoon damage and hosted many of Vietnam’s important marine life. Today, these important yet vulnerable environments are under constant attack by developers and shrimp farmers, and the presence of an exhibit and some signage explaining the importance of mangrove ecology is appreciated — all the more so because the exhibit is home to one of my favorite animals: the humble and beautiful horseshoe crab. At the touch tank, aquarium staff supervises guests who want to touch hermit crabs and starfish and in the beach tank, visitors can see batfish, grey snappers, sergeant-majors, and cute little cat sharks that swim under the tourists at Vietnam’s various beaches. Above the beach sits a mock cá ông temple, to remind visitors that this exhibit represents a Vietnamese environment.  

Following the beach is the most psychedelic of the exhibition halls: a fluorescent and blacklight-lit coral reef. It is supposed to be a series of tanks exhibiting coral reef ecosystems, but also a great approximation of how it feels to watch Finding Nemo on psychedelic mushrooms. The tanks are nestled in giant neon-colored coral sculptures, each one a miniature tropical reef. Clownfish, lionfish, cowfish, decorator crabs, razorfish, and other colorful crowd-pleasers are on display in the jeweled boxes. Almost all of the marine life in these tanks comes from the tropical Indo-Pacific, so even though the signage is never explicit about it, it is likely that much of Sea Adventure represents Vietnamese coral reefs. Vietnam is at risk of losing much of its coral diversity as various development projects and increasing environmental degradation affect these vulnerable spaces, so any chance for people to see and appreciate these endangered ecologies up close is much appreciated. Finding Nemo fans, this exhibit hall is for you.

Tucked away to the side of the hallway here, visitors can see behind the curtain and peer into some of the aquarium’s animal care/veterinary labs, as well as an education space called Lớp Hải Dương Học or Marine Education Class. It was empty when I passed by, but it gave me hope that school groups or perhaps interested summer classes could come through to learn a bit more about marine environments and how to care for aquatic animals in captivity. Even though I never saw it in use, the presence of an education space puts the Lotte World Aquarium above any of the Vin-sponsored resort aquaria. A few other exhibits here and there throughout the four halls interested me: one on marine soundscapes played sea animal noises to teach visitors that the sea is not silent, while another provided info on plastic and pollution. I lingered a bit at each of these, listening to whale songs, and so did some of the other guests around me.

Sea Adventure takes us into the open ocean and is home to the largest single aquarium tank in Vietnam. The centerpiece here is a sunken western sailing ship, ruptured and rotting on a seabed surrounded by sand flats and rocks. This tank is full of schooling jacks, batfish, and snappers, with some large Napoleon wrasses, groupers, stingrays, and sharks. The sharks are standard tropical aquarium residents — zebra sharks, white-tip reef sharks, and black-tip reef sharks. The tank inhabitants are from the South Pacific, and western sailing ships traded in the East Sea for centuries, so this exhibit could represent a shipwreck off of the Vietnamese coast. A tunnel goes through it, and a window inside the shipwreck peeks out over the blue. The sharks are the big draw here, but just the scale of the exhibit space makes it impressive.

This area also has a darkened room that holds three large kriesel tanks, a specialized tank designed for fragile free-floating friends like the moon jellyfish displayed here. The kriesel tanks are freestanding, giving the public a chance to walk around them and not only view the jellyfish from all angles but also view the entire tank system. Modern aquaria often conceal the various filters, pumps, and other life support systems necessary to their functioning, but this wasn’t always so: the first modern public aquaria in Britain and France were built with all of these pipes and tubes and pumps externally to show off the complicated systems to interested viewers. Though the rest of the aquarium’s exhibits conceal the complex engineering from guests, this glimpse alone can satisfy the nerds who drop by. If anything, the design of this jellyfish room is just too good, and it risks becoming just another trendy TikTok or Instagram check-in background instead of a chance to say hi to some of our oldest and most distant cousins, a place to ruminate on how far we all have come from those Precambrian days of floating mindlessly in the azure.

Ocean Square, the final hall, is more open than the previous three. Here, a viewing window with stadium seating and a Wayne’s Coffee provide a space for visitors to sit a bit, watch the fish, and reflect on the ocean. Ocean Square also offers sea lions dancing in their pool and penguins waddling around their rocks. Staff members occasionally give talks on marine life husbandry to interested guests, and a schedule of talks and feedings is posted near the aquarium entrance.

After Ocean Square, visitors exit through the gift shop. The gift shop is just a generic MyKingdom toy shop, no different from any of the others scattered across Vietnam except that this one is painted with blue highlights and sells perhaps one more plastic toy shark than most others. There are no gifts for adults and no books on marine life for sale, one last reminder that Lotte World Aquarium Hanoi is primarily the kind of place where kids go to look at fis, and any oceanographic education is, at best, a side effect of their visit.

Many other aquaria around the world do a great job of showcasing local environments: the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a stand-out, as are many Japanese aquaria, but even regionally, some Southeast Asian aquaria like the Viện Hải Dương Học in Nha Trang, the Angkor Aquarium in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the Indonesian Aquarium at Taman Mini Indonesia in Jakarta, and (formerly, unfortunately) the S.E.A Aquarium in Singapore succeed in taking visitors through an educational voyage through Southeast Asian waters. Lotte World Aquarium Hanoi does not. Besides the Mekong tunnel and the cá ông temple, any exhibit’s resemblance to a real Vietnamese environment is purely coincidental. A visitor who is particularly interested in learning about Vietnam’s varied and diverse aquatic ecosystems or long cultural history of interacting with marine environments will find nothing here worth the high admission price — a real shame, since besides the Viện Hải Dương Học, no other public aquarium in Vietnam tries to educate Vietnamese guests about Vietnamese environments or Vietnamese history. On the other hand, I understand that most visitors don’t mind that as much as I do, and even though I would have liked to see more of a focus on local environments and fauna, I did enjoy my visit enough to come back several more times.

Compared to other Vietnamese aquaria, Lotte has the most impressive visitor spaces. There is not much particularly new or notable about Lotte World Hanoi in terms of marine life or exhibit design when compared to aquaria and oceanographic research institutions around the world. Within Vietnam’s ranks of for-profit shopping mall aquaria, however, Lotte World Hanoi is a revelation, a technical marvel, handily beating out all of the Vin-affiliated aquaria at the Vinpearlands dotting the resort cities of the coast. At Lotte World Hanoi, the fish are at least alive. It does not have the august history of the Viện Hải Dương Học (located in Nha Trang), which remains my favorite aquarium in Vietnam, nor does it have the kitschy old-school charm of the Trí Nguyên Aquarium (also in Nha Trang), but for families looking to take the kids somewhere cool or for couples looking for a wholesome date, Lotte World Aquarium Hanoi makes for a perfect outing. Treat yourself to some sushi upstairs after you spend a few hours looking at the fish. Watch Finding Nemo or, if you’re up for it, Jaws on the night before you visit to get in a fishy mood. Just, try to visit the aquarium on a weekday, when it’s less crowded.

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