Before coming to Vietnam, we spent a lot of time researching which cities to visit. While there are several cities worth going to that we didn’t have time to visit (Hue, Danang, and Hoi An in particular have been highly recommended), we made sure to spend some time in both Hanoi and Saigon (AKA: Ho Chi Minh City).
We didn’t realize how different the two cities would be, though. It’s not that we assumed they’d be the same. But, I guess we just assumed both would have a similar “feel” to them.
After spending several days in both, we’ve gotten a pretty good feel for both cities. Here are some of the main differences we’ve noticed between the two:
1. TRADITIONAL: Hanoi just celebrated its 1,000th year anniversary. That’s right – one THOUSAND years.
And, it shows. The city streets are narrow, the buildings are hundreds of years old, and even just walking around the city, it’s easy to immediately sense the ancient vibe of the place.
Life is lived very similarly in the way that it has been for hundreds of years. Sure, there are the modern conveniences of motor bikes, rice cookers, and portable gas stoves. But, the charm of the city in its traditional style of dress, living outdoors, and the multi-generational families all working together to run the family business offers a 21st century window into an ancient past.
Which leads to point #2:
2. CHARACTER: I think this is the word that best summarizes Hanoi.
While on a city tour of Saigon, Scott and I were sitting next to a father and daughter on holiday from London. The daughter best summarized the #1 selling point that Hanoi has over Saigon: “Hanoi has far more character.”
Due to its age, there are far more beautiful, charming things to see in Hanoi. The twisting alleyways, the far off laughter and dull music coming from a radio in someone’s shop, buildings with French architectural influence next to historic Vietnamese buildings, and a traditional citizenry lends itself much more to a character filled city.
3. COUNTRYSIDE: While Saigon definitely has countryside readily available to it, Hanoi really is the hub to go see the greener side of Vietnam.
Side trips to Halong Bay, Cat Ba Island, Sapa, Perfume Pagoda, and so much more are easily, readily, and cheaply available everywhere. Practically every block has a travel agency ready to book a cheap tour for you, with as little notice as next day.
Of course, there is plenty to lend itself to recommending Saigon for a visit, as well. Here’s what we noticed about Saigon almost immediately upon arriving:
1. MODERN: Our tour guide explained (I think probably half-joking) that Hanoi is a very old city. By comparison, Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is only 300+ years old. (Practically a baby, still!)
That being said, since so much of the city was bombed out during the war, there was alot of rebuilding that needed to happen around there. Whereas Hanoi is the governmental capital of Vietnam, Saigon is definitely the economic hub.
Nearly 70% of foreign businesses in Vietnam have their setup in Saigon. All of the foreign investment dollars has lent itself to a tech-savvy, much more commercial city than Hanoi.
This, of course, leads to selling point #2:
2. WESTERN INFLUENCE – INCLUDING GOODS: While Hanoi certainly still has a lot of its French, historical influence around the city, overall it’s a much more traditionally Vietnamese city.
Saigon, on the other hand, is very much influenced by Western culture, particularly the Americans. There are several shopping areas that if it weren’t for all of the Vietnamese signs and motorbikes could just as easily be a shopping area in San Francisco or Miami.
This makes it a lot easier for Westerners to get the comforts of home. Whereas we were just screwed if an electronic device broke in Hanoi (bye bye, international outlet converter), any necessary item is readily accessible in Saigon (as long as you know the right part of town to go to).
Because of the Western, and particularly the American influence, this leads to the third perk of Saigon:
3. ENGLISH SPOKEN HERE: In Hanoi, there were several times where fairly simple questions in English (“Train on time?”; “Where is the bathroom?”; “How much?”) were met with completely blank stares.
While enough people speak enough English that it shouldn’t ever be too much of an issue to get the basic necessities taken care of in Hanoi (food, boarding, and transportation), it does make it particularly difficult to bargain, or to meet and chat with locals.
In Saigon, though, everyone speaks English, and they speak it well. While there’s an occasional thick accent that might make it hard to understand some people, generally people can carry on a fairly detailed conversation in English. (It’s definitely American English, too.)
And, best of all, because English is so widely spoken here, it’s much easier to bargain when shopping. Combined with there being more businesses around and more readily available goods, prices overall in Saigon are noticeably cheaper than in Hanoi.
So, which is better: Hanoi or Saigon? I believe it depends on what exactly a person is looking for in their trip to Vietnam.
If a person had only one week to spend in Vietnam, and wanted to decide which city to go to, I’d ask which description sounds better:
A.) PROS: A traditional, more authentically Vietnamese city with lots of ancient culture, charm, and character. There are lots of readily available day trips into the countryside. This is the city to visit for people who want beauty, charm, and a more genuine experience of the traditional Vietnam.
CONS: Dirtier and less services available. Can be difficult to navigate and to get good deals as English-speakers are limited in this area. Forget replacing wrecked high-tech gadgets here – you’re screwed.
B.) PROS: Modern and much more cosmopolitan — it’s like New York City with a whole bunch of signs in Vietnamese. People are friendly and speak English well. It’s easy to get around; and, if you get lost, there’s always someone around who can help you find your way back. It’s much more convenient and feels much easier and comfortable for Westerners. A lot more places to eat and party.
CONS: Not nearly as charming or as much character. Because people can speak English so well, street vendors and shop owners are much more aggressive – lots of “hard selling” will await you.
If “A” sounds like your cup of tea, spend more time in Hanoi. If “B” is more up your alley, spend the bulk of your time in Saigon.
Personally, while I do like Saigon and all of its modern conveniences, I do think I still prefer Hanoi for its culture and charm. But, it’s a personal decision, and I can certainly see why someone would prefer Saigon.
At the end of the day, I’d recommend seeing both if at all possible. But, do yourself a favor and either fly, or take a train to Hue, Danang, or Hoi An and spend a couple of days there. The 33-hour train from Hanoi to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City is BRUTAL. But, that’s another blog for another day.