In one of the world’s most intriguing countries, what differences can you expect between Hanoi in the north and Ho Chi Minh City in the south? Where should you focus your Vietnam vacation if you only have time for one?
Many countries claim to be lands of contrast, but few offer a difference as stark as Northern and Southern Vietnam. It’s not all about old political divides either, though these have certainly played their part. In climate, culture, attitude, and energy, there’s a world of difference between Vietnam’s two largest cities. Most Vietnam trips link the two via stops in Halong Bay, Hue, Hoi An, the Mekong Delta, and possibly Nha Trang. But getting the most out of Vietnam means understanding the difference between north and south, and how to approach each of these two large cities.
One big difference between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City from November to April is the difference in temperature. Ho Chi Minh City has a year-round tropical climate that will delight some travellers while quickly overwhelming others. Here, hot and cold aren’t a thing so much as hot and hotter, with liberal downpours through the wet season, which runs from May through October. The mercury rises in Hanoi during this time too, and rains become more frequent, but the city also has mild winters where you’ll want a spring jacket, particularly after dark. You’ll also want one for visiting Halong Bay during the cooler months. While I’m sure you didn’t come to Southeast Asia to shiver, there’s also nothing quite like tucking into a hot bowl of pho or a cup of steaming, sweet coffee in this weather. In fact, while Hanoi’s cool dry season makes for easy exploration, its muggy, smoggy summers can be unbearable without the regular downpours that help clear the air in Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi is a more enjoyable walking city in the cooler months, but if you’re a hot weather baby, you’ll love Saigon at any time of year!
Sights and Attractions
Vietnam isn’t afraid to discuss the “American War.” French colonial and Communist rule have left a profound mark on its attractions as well, particularly in Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon’s most spectacular building, the former Presidential Palace, has been turned into a museum celebrating the country’s reunification, and it’s definitely worth going into the underground to find displays of communications equipment leftover from the war. A short walk away, you’ll find the War Remnants Museum, a sobering yet fascinating glimpse into the whole conflict from a Vietnamese perspective, complete with captured vehicles. Side by side are two buildings from the French colonial era, the Saigon Central Post Office and and Notre Dame Cathedral. While it’s a striking building to see in downtown Saigon, don’t expect anything on par with its Parisian namesake. A wander around Ben Thanh Market is essential as well. You can probably see the key sights within a day, but allow two if you want to get a feel for Saigon’s energy and dig a little deeper.
Wartime remnants aren’t quite so common in Hanoi, though the Hoa La Prison – aka the “Hanoi Hilton” – is an exception. Besides its odd reverence for former captive John McCain, the museum here offers an extensive, if heavily stage-managed insight into the building’s 130-year history, dating back to French rule (you’ll find one of the world’s few remaining authentic guillotines inside). You can also stop by the Military History Museum on your Vietnam vacation. Most of Hanoi’s attractions however are less concerned with the conflict. A morning in the government quarter is a must, paying your respects to Uncle Ho if his mausoleum is open, before visiting his museum. Another must-see is the Temple of Literature. This was Vietnam’s first university, and students celebrate graduation there to this day. A stroll around Ho Hoan Kiem while the morning mists are still clearing is another Hanoi “must-do,” as is getting lost in the thousand-year-old Old Quarter. You’ll want at least two days to see the city’s best attractions.
Both cities feature spectacular opera houses built during the French era, and a wide variety of interesting museums, including the Women’s and Ethnography Museums in Hanoi, and the Vietnam History Museum in Saigon.
Day Trips – Halong Bay to the Mighty Mekong
Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City offer some great Vietnam vacation excursions outside the city. From Ho Chi Minh City, by far the most famous takes you to the Cu Chi Tunnels. For war history buffs, this is an essential half-day out, inviting you to see the sometimes brutal, often ingenious guerilla tactics employed by the Viet Cong. A less confronting day trip takes you to the Mekong Delta, the food basket of Vietnam, where you can visit the communities that live in the marshy landscape and taste some of the country’s freshest flavours.
Hanoi’s “day trips” really aren’t day trips at all. You’ll want at least one night sailing Halong Bay, with time to appreciate the dramatic beauty of its limestone karsts and a guide to help explore its hidden caves and beaches. Keep an eye out for monkeys and other wildlife climbing over the rocks of uninhabited islands. Heading away from the coast, you might enjoy a day or two in Sapa, a hilly region of Northern Vietnam famous for its terraced rice fields and hill tribes.
The Best Ways to Explore Halong Bay in Vietnam
Cuisine and Food Culture
If great food is part of what drives your Globetrotting, Vietnam is a trip you need to take! The wildly different climate between north and south is reflected on the dinner table. The famous “pho” (pronounced “fur”) is a northern invention, as is bun cha, a heavy meat and vermicelli based dish. Arguably the south’s most popular contribution to the national cuisine is banh mi, a humble sandwich in French bread, stuffed with any toppings you care to enjoy.
Most popular Vietnamese dishes have worked their way up or down the country, so you can find them pretty much anywhere on a Vietnam vacation… but with regional variations! Fresh ingredients are always key, but expect things to get spicier and sweeter in the south. Pho in particular uses a wider variety of ingredients in southern Vietnam, giving it a richer flavour.
Do not underestimate the importance of coffee to a successful Saigon sightseeing day! A warm cup of the good stuff may start your Hanoi day off right, but most northerners tend to be tea drinkers. It’s the south that runs almost religiously on Vietnam’s sweetened iced coffee!
Nightlife and Entertainment
This is another vast difference between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. People in Hanoi are generally more reserved than their Saigon counterparts. The locals, while never being rude, tend to respect personal space and rarely reach outside their social circle unless invited. While bars and clubs are plentiful throughout the city, they “shut down” by midnight in the Old Quarter – at least officially. The local culture leans more toward going out for a drink after work with friends. That doesn’t mean the party’s over after midnight. It’s simply going on unofficially behind shuttered doors, giving bars in Hanoi a certain “speakeasy” quality. This can be a lot of fun to explore, though you’ll probably need a local friend to help you track down the late night party.
You’ll have no trouble finding the party in Saigon! New York may claim to be open 24-hours, but the late night rush of Vietnam’s largest city takes things to another level. From rooftop bars strictly for the elite to rowdy backpacker pubs, Ho Chi Minh City has it all. The chaos reaches its height on Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon’s famous backpacker street not far from Ben Thanh Market. Amid shouts of “Happy Hour!” (which seems to stretch all night), bars, restaurants, and street vendors here are eager to please, offering a staggering variety of goods and services to compliment your night out – not all of which are exactly legal, so use common sense. Saigon after dark moves at the kind of free-wheeling pace once associated with Bangkok, and many of the same opportunities, wild stories, and cautionary tales apply.