When you are write something as subjective as this – helping visitors to pick one city over another – you always hedge your recommendations with “this is all subjective and depending on your interest…”.
The above still hold true because everybody do like different things. And very soon down this article I will be sharing observations from my personal experience (it’s my 11th year living in Vietnam so I do have quite a bit of experience). But to make your decision easier in picking either the north or south of Vietnam to visit if you have limited time, I will first highlight a simple fact. A binary. There is no 2 ways about it. And the simple fact is this: the neighboring attractions in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are VERY different.
Visit Hanoi and a 4-hour bus ride will let you tour Halong Bay,one of the 7 Wonders of the World. The beautiful mountainous region of Sapa is also only 1 overnight train ride away.
With Ho Chi Minh City (we will use Saigon for the rest of this article because one, Saigon sounds better and two, it’s 1 word vs 4 words), you can do a day trip to the famous Cu Chi Tunnels – one of the weapons the Vietnamese used to defeat the Americans. A slight detour to the tunnels will bring you to a unique religion that can only be found in Vietnam – a region which you worship 3 major gods as 1. Saigon is also only 1 hour away from the rice paddy fields and the floating markets of the mighty Mekong River. And if pristine and quiet beach is your thing, a 45 minutes flight will bring you to Phu Quoc.
So, if you can’t decide between Saigon or Hanoi, use their neighbouring attractions as a factor. This is black and white. Hanoi has attractions that you can’t find in Saigon and vice versa. That’s it. Very simple decision to make.
And now, if you need more comparisons, here they are.
The weather – Depending on the time of the year, Hanoi’s weather may be a plus or a minus when deciding on between her or the sister in Saigon. The winter months at year end is very pleasant but can get too cold to be riding the motorbikes which is an ‘attraction’ by itself when touring Vietnam. Thunderstorms during the mid year can get extreme to the point that it is not safe even step outdoor, let alone going on a Halong Bay cruise. Saigon, on the other hand, is more stable with the day getting hot from 10am onwards and dropping 10 degrees at night to a welcoming breeze.
Food and coffee – In Saigon, you can find a wider variety of Vietnamese food, including fusion with international fares. But Hanoi has the best pho, the famous Vietnamese noodle soup, since pho originates from there. Cuisine in Saigon is said to be sweeter and spicier. There are also more fancy and upscale restaurants for both local and overseas brands in Saigon. Many international brands would first open in Saigon and not arrive in Hanoi sometimes till a year later. 2 examples are Starbucks and McDonald’s.
When it comes to coffee, the same can be said of the difference between Saigon and Hanoi. Saigonese like their coffee to be sweeter and also have more choices of coffee house – from the cool to the cute to drinking from the 50th floor of a building. Hanoians’ cafe settings tend to be more humble with the focus on the coffee itself.
Attractions – Hanoi has the ‘Old Quarter’ which, if you take your time to savor, can take up to 2 days to fully explore. It is the convergence of the Vietnamese people, their daily activities, temples and commerce rolled into one. The Hoan Kiem Lake, just next to the Old Quarter, is another major attraction in Hanoi that can be enjoyed just sitting around the watching the world goes by. And if you want to pay your respect to the man who fought for Vietnam’s independence from the French and later the Americans, the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum can be found in the Ba Dinh Square.
There are very few museums in the world that explicitly display the horror of war. One of them can be found in Saigon called the War Remnants Museum. One point worth mentioning is that many of the major attractions in Saigon are all within walking distance of each other. The War Remnants Museum is only 2 blocks away from the Reunification Palace. The Reunification Place is only 1 block away from the Notre Dame Cathedral. And the Notre Dame Cathedral is right beside the more than 100 years old and still functioning Saigon Post Office.
Atmosphere – Saigon being the financial hub of the country has a hurried feel to it. People are often taking about business and making money to create a better life and living standard for their families. Yet because of this commercial environment and the influence of western international brands, the level of service is higher in the south with its people generally friendlier.
This is not to say that people from the north are rude. Not at all! Hanoians’ simply have a slower pace of life. This creates a more relaxed environment. Hanoi is also where you go to see more colonial buildings and Vietnamese women with conical hats carrying yolk basket.
So what’s your pick? Saigon or Hanoi? Let us know via the comment section below! 😀