Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City: Which Vietnamese city should you visit?

Vietnam’s north-south divide is more than geographical. Split into two nations in the 1950s, they were only reunited post-Vietnam War. Cultural Hanoi or Buzzy Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), which is for you?

7 mins

Hanoi 

Hanoi (Shutterstock)

Hanoi (Shutterstock)

Location: Northern Vietnam

Population: 7.78 million

Total area: 3,329 sq km

Famous for: Pho soup, pagodas, the resting place of ‘Uncle Ho’, tai chi by Hoan Kiem Lake and water puppets

Ho Chi Minh City

Ho Chi Minh City (Shutterstock)

Ho Chi Minh City (Shutterstock)

Location: Southern Vietnam

Population: 8.64 million

Total area: 2,061 sq km

Famous for: Fox holes, war museums, the Reunification Palace and boat trips on the Mekong Delta

History

Chairman Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi (Shutterstock)

Chairman Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, Hanoi (Shutterstock)

Capital Hanoi lays bare the north’s battle with modernity.

It mostly resists Western culture, and strolling the Old Quarter and its ‘tube houses’ (some just two metres wide) offers more historical context than the city’s one-eyed museums.

But the Hoa Lo Prison and the Mausoleum, in which ‘Uncle Ho’ Chi Minh lies, are good primers.

While the north resists, the south embraces.

It was set up by the French as a commercial centre in the 1800s, and remains resiliently modern.

Still, the Reunification Palace (pictured), where the Viet Cong stormed the gates in 1975 to end the war, and the no-punches-pulled War Remnants Museum ensure that its historic moments aren’t lost.

Food

Pho Bo (Shutterstock)

Pho Bo (Shutterstock)

Hanoi is a foodie icon, with tiny pho (noodle soup) shops like Pho Gia Truyen rightly lauded.

Vietnam’s coffee fixation – a legacy of the war, after which it sought a new cash crop – finds form in the ‘egg coffee’ (pictured) of Giang Cafe, while Vespa tours of the markets see you fill up on tasty bun cha (pork noodles) and nem (spring rolls).

Hanoi is all tradition, but HCMC’s mass of expats means there’s more dining variety in District 1 than in all the north.

Craft beer (try Pasteur Street Brewing), slick roasteries and Turtle Lake’s food carts, hawking banh misandwiches to busy workers, show all sides to the city. Finish at the Vietnam Cookery Center, polishing your pho-making skills.

DID YOU KNOW? When Communist leader Ho Chi Minh died in 1969, a team from the USSR flew in to embalm him (a la Lenin), but his body wasn’t unveiled at Hanoi’s Mausoleum until after the Vietnam War, so US troops couldn't capture it.

Culture

Ho Chi Minh's floating market (Shutterstock)

Ho Chi Minh's floating market (Shutterstock)

Despite the tide of Vespas, Hanoi is a slower burn.

Wander the chilled Hoan Kiem Lake, visit the ancient pagoda Tran Quoc (pictured), then hit the Old Quarter where workshops spill out onto the pavements.

Meanwhile, the Water Puppet Theatre – a tradition from the rice fields – offers a link with the city’s rural roots.

The pace rarely lets up down here. Vespa tours or going toe-to-toe among Ben Thanh Market’s 3,000 bustling stalls are a good way to get up to speed.

Catch your breath in the French Quarter, where the Gothic-style post office and spires of Notre Dame Cathedral recall its Gallic roots, while Jade Emperor Pagoda is an island in a neon sea.

Outdoors

A mother and daughter working in rice fields in Vietnam (Shutterstock)

A mother and daughter working in rice fields in Vietnam (Shutterstock)

The north has the landscape.

The peaks, hill tribes and paddies of Ha Giang and Mai Chau wrinkle the land on an epic scale, while the rainforests of Cuc Phuong were Vietnam’s first national park and remain a vital sanctuary for the Delacour’s langur.

Yet it’s the karst spires of Halong and Lan Ha Bay to the east that draw the most gasps.

The south is all about river life.

The Mekong Delta frays the coast below the city, and day trips to the floating markets of Can Tho or kayaking the mangroves of Can Gio are easy to do.

On land, the Cu Chi tunnels (pictured) let you inch along fox holes once used by VC guerillas; then climb up Ba Den (996m) to shake off the claustrophobia.

The verdict

Yen Stream, Hanoi (Shutterstock)

Yen Stream, Hanoi (Shutterstock)

Hanoi has the scenery and the tradition; HCMC boasts the history and the most iconic sight of all: the Mekong. Both are foodie havens and sorely test your Vespa-dodging skills, but whichever you choose, you’re guaranteed one thing: a lifelong love of pho!

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