OLD CITY VS NEW METROPOLIS: Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City
Vietnam welcomed over 15.4 million visitors in 2018, a near 20% growth over the previous year, and the world is not done with the country just yet. The most visited destinations in Vietnam are Ho Chi Minh City, with 5.8 million international arrivals, followed by Hanoi with 4.6 million and Ha Long with 4.4 million. All three are also ranked in the top 100 most-visited cities in the world, but for different reasons.
Many old temples and expansive lakes dot old city Hanoi, located in northern Vietnam. At the country’s southern end is Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), an energetic town where economic progress has taken precedence. Despite similarities like friendly and easy-going people, endless traffic, and plenty of street food options, each city has its own unique allure.
LIVING IN VIETNAM
Regardless of where you travel in Vietnam, the people you meet will be kind, friendly and happy. Scamming taxi drivers are universal, so travelling smart and haggling for price is sensible when visiting Vietnam too.
Although used all over the country, scooters are particularly suited for getting around French-influenced Hanoi. Like bees annoyingly buzzing all day, they zoom about the narrow streets. Living out of your ride has a whole new meaning in this city, where riders sleeping on their parked scooters at street corners is a common sight. Vietnam’s capital Hanoi is one of the few cities to remain traditional, with a thriving Buddhist community. The buildings are mostly colonial and some restaurants and vendors have been serving the locals for generations.
Ho Chi Minh City, on the other hand, is more westernized and urban. Economic growth is a priority here, as seen by luxury hotels, trendy malls and skyscrapers. It has also got some French period architecture with a modern touch. Life is busy and exciting here, with an ever-expanding arts scene – always a new exhibition to go to, new restaurants opening or a new band playing at venues dotted around the city.
CUISINE THAT MAKES YOUR MOUTH WATER
Vietnam’s unique cuisine is now global. However, it’s said that you haven’t been to Vietnam until you’ve eaten a bowl of pho or mi quang while perched on a tiny plastic stool by the roadside. Fresh seafood is a staple here, and you can be guaranteed of being served the day’s catch no matter what time you dine.
In traditional Hanoi, street food reigns in narrow alleyways at local markets and family-owned restaurants. The iconic Vietnamese pho (a rice noodle soup made popular with the movie Kung Fu Panda), which originates from Hanoi, has a mix of fresh greens for a healthy and filling meal.
Cha Ca Thang Long is one of the best places to try cha ca, a Hanoi delicacy of fish fillet seasoned with garlic, ginger, turmeric and dill. After placing your order there, the staff will bring the ingredients to the table and help you assemble and cook your own food using a sizzling pan at the table! The fish is complemented with rice noodles, peanuts, spring onions and nuoc cham sauce – which can be mixed together as you prefer.
Also stop in at Café Giang for Ca Phe Trung (egg coffee), a traditional brew they’ve been serving for over 70 years.
A little more structured Ho Chi Minh City is known as the food capital of Vietnam, where everything from Vietnamese and French delicacies to world cuisines and even expat-owned bistros are common. If you walk around enough, you can find anything from home-based pizzerias to luxury fine dining venues.
Roadside eateries, with food costing around a dollar a bowl, are the best bet for budget travellers. But don’t expect a menu at these stalls. They usually specialize in just one perfectly executed dish. You may be squatting by the roadside to eat, but you will be enjoying the most exquisite dish in the city.
Ho Chi Minh City, however, is better suited for upmarket options. Catering to visitors to its business and financial hub, there is a wide range of accommodation options from B&Bs to five-star hotels.
WHAT TO SEE, WHAT TO DO
Vietnam has at least 8 UNESCO-listed sites, including Ha Long Bay, the old town of Hoi An and the Champa complex at My Son sanctuary, but visiting all on one trip may be too much of a stretch.
Hanoi is more famed for ancient Buddhist shrines, expansive lakes and its well-preserved Vietnamese culture. Must-visit tourist sites include the Temple of Literature, Ngoc Son Temple, One Pillar Pagoda and the UNESCO-listed Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. Ironically, the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum and palace complex is located in Hanoi, where tourists can learn about the country’s revolutionary leader.
Visit Hoan Kiem Lake if you want to experience local life, like watching the elderly who come there to practice Tai Chi and line dancing.
About 3 hours from Hanoi, with emerald green waters, limestone islands and mystical caves, Ha Long Bay is the most magical location in Vietnam, and touring on Junk Boats is the best way to experience it. Junk boats are a kind of house boat, where a 3+ day cruise includes visits to floating villages along the coast, rowing tours, and jumping off the boat into the clear water when you need to cool off. This is also a good way to get an insight into local living.
As most of the fighting happened in the south of the country, Ho Chi Minh City is known for its war museums from the Vietnam War. Renamed after the war in honor of the North Vietnamese leader, the city is known for its historical landmarks like the Reunification Palace, Cao Dai Temple (which practices a religion that has taken bits of Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Taoism and Confucianism) and Jade Emperor Pagoda.
A must-visit site is the Chu Chi Tunnels, a 40-minute drive from the city. Here, travelers can retrace the steps of soldiers who used a network on tunnels to move around undetected by their enemy. Ho Chi Minh City also has its own Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral that rivals the one located in Paris Square, built by French colonists in the late 1880s.
Each of the two cities caters to a specific type of traveler – while Hanoi is ideal for those looking to explore Vietnam’s history, Ho Chi Minh City may be better suited for luxury travelers. Our suggestion: Visit Hanoi on a short-term stay to experience true Vietnam and pick lively Ho Chi Minh City for longer and business stays, with its modern coffee shops and co-working spaces.