Vietnam’s two largest cities – Ho Chi Minh City in the south and Hanoi in the north – are quite different from each other, perhaps reflecting differences in the north and south themselves. Saigon (which hasn’t been the proper name since the war but it’s the one everyone uses) is open, wide, and buzzing with modern energy; Hanoi’s older, more traditional, and chaotic.
Saigon’s wide open boulevards are lined with trees. Remnants of French colonization like the cathedral and post office dot the city, but many of the buildings are more modern. It is easy to turn away from a buzzing traffic circle, and find yourself wandering down a narrow alleyway where people live their lives at street level. Saigon’s got a rather lively nightlife. Besides the bars filled with foreigners, teenagers spill out from cafes and frozen yogurt shops and young people sit on their parked scooters in Saigon’s green spaces to scope the scene.
Hanoi’s streets are narrow, twisting, and filled to brim with scooters and food stalls. The trees that line these streets wind upwards while their roots twist downwards as they have for many years. Instead of drinking at modern bars or clubs, most people have their beers at the corner bia hoi, where homebrewed beers are served for 33 cents. The buildings are old and full of traditional shops; in the Old Quarter, each street has a theme. Music shops sell instruments on music street; sewing shops sell thread, ribbons and fabric on sewing street; silk shops sell traditional silks on silk street. Hanoi feels solid and practical; no space is wasted. While we ate bun cha on the street, a street beauty salon was in full effect next to us. A women got a manicure, another was having her hair washed.
In a showdown, I’d have to give Saigon the edge for weather alone – it was warm, sunny, and bright while Hanoi was cold, rainy, and overcast. When it comes down to shorts and flip flops versus rain gear and fleeces, Hanoi doesn’t stand a chance. But if we’re talking food, it changes things. We had some tasty eats in Saigon, like traditional Vietnamese country cooking in a trendy architect’s home. But although I suspect Saigon has it available, just perhaps located in a different area from where we stayed, you can’t walk down the street in Hanoi without encountering a food vendor every two steps. Crouching down on stools several inches off the ground to eat adds that cultural flavor you just don’t get when eating at a proper table and chairs inside. We devoured all of what Hanoi had to offer and only had to part with minimal amount of dong, making Hanoi the winner in the food category.
In the end, we’re glad we got to see both cities. Hanoi was frustrating but fun to visit, and Saigon’s the all around pleasing city you could see yourself living in.