Vietnam is a big country that will guarantee you more than just beautiful places and scrumptious meals. Together with its unique culture, Vietnam has all the legitimate bragging rights. But then again, sometimes, a girl just got enough days to spare.
There’s a very obvious rivalry between the north and the south– who has the better food, who has better people, who really won the war, etc. and the more research you do about the two cities, the more confusing it might even get. The first time I (impulsively) decided to make a trip to Vietnam, the first thing I needed to know was which city was more appropriate for my liking. I’m writing this short comparison between the two cities to make it easy for you, future Vietnam travelers, because I know how daunting it can be to commit to one city when all you really want is…to see them all.
Early disclaimer: This short summary is written by someone who only spent a mere 3-4 days in each city. That said, this piece is designed mostly for those who seek a quick Vietnam getaway. Also a little biased by my personal experiences, do consider that your encounters may very much differ from mine.
So let’s get started! Do you belong in Hanoi or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)? Let’s find out.
Now one of my main concern when traveling is the FOOD! It plays such an important role for me in determining cities I want to prioritize. It could also make or break a trip for me. This is exactly why despite how much I loved Bali, I don’t consider it one of my top favorite places. Vietnam, on the other hand, is a place I would go back to over and over and over again just for the food itself. Okay, so let’s get straight to the point. The food experience in both cities are GREAT. Hands down. But we all have our own preferences. For instance, northern Pho could very much differ from the southerners’. Hanoi pho has less garnish and fixings compared to Saigon’s. It’s more simple, but the broth is so rich and savory that you don’t really need to add any more– all the flavor’s in there. Saigon’s broth on the other hand has a little sweeter taste to it. In the end, I prefer Hanoi style pho…and Hanoi food overall. But the good thing about Saigon is that you can find Hanoi style restaurants all over the city!
Moving on to the sites and culture, if you’re big on history, Hanoi is probably a safer bet for you. Although Saigon has some pretty cool historical stories and places to share, Hanoi is more known as the historical hub of Vietnam. Walking through the Old Quarters of Hanoi is like living through history already. A friend of mine who lives in Vietnam simply put it this way; Hanoi is to Washington DC, as Ho Chi Minh City is to New York. Hanoi’s history to me shows more about the history of Vietnam in general, while Saigon’s history focuses more on Vietnam war, which incidentally is also covered by Hanoi as well.
Imperial Citadel of Thang Long and Hao Lo Prison Museum in Hanoi
In terms of scams, I’m not really the one to say which is more notorious than the other. When it comes to taxis, I got scammed on both cities and I still continue to get ripped off by drivers there. I’d say they’re just as bad (you can click here for a guide to avoid taxi scams) But outside the world of transportation, I came across more cunning schemes in Saigon. For instance, my excitement for a true Vietnamese mani-pedi experience was shattered when they barely really cleaned my traveling nails and half-assed their nail polish job. On top of that, they charged me more than what was advertised! Feeling stupid, I was pretty much over Ho Chi Minh City by then.
When it comes to nightlife, everyone would recommend Saigon in a heartbeat. Sadly, when I made plans to experience the Ho Chi Minh nightlife, it fell on a Tet season (Vietnamese new year) which means most establishments were closed. So although I can’t speak for Saigon, I will say I’ve heard enough stories that I would actually just take others’ word for it. But then agaiiiiiiin…. I did experience Hanoi’s social scene in the Old Quarters and it happens to be one of my best night out abroad so far. First, you have to understand that my idea of a good night life NO LONGER includes night clubs and glitz and glamour. If that’s what you’re looking for, then yes, Saigon is definitely the one. Old Quarter night life is more in a touristy/backpacker setting, although we’re surrounded by locals as well. Picture a street filled with tiny chairs and tables with craft beer for as low as…less than a dollar. If you’re about that laid back setting but still prefer to be in Saigon, Pham Ngu Lao is the backpackers district there which pretty much offers a similar taste of Old Quarters’ nightlife.
Shopping in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are quite similar. It all just depends on your bargaining skills. You’ve got the night markets right in the middle of the Old Quarters in Hanoi, and you’ve got the Ben Thanh market in Ho Chi Minh. They have pretty similar products for sale, although I can’t really distinguish which offers better prices. Like I said, it just really comes down to the universal shopping law in Southeast Asia– haggling.
If you’re considering out of town trips, both cities are close to some amazing places. From Hanoi, you can reach the UNESCO Heritage Site of Halong Bay, or you may even take a train to reach the mountains and rice terraces of Sapa. From Saigon, you can experience the local life along the Mekong Delta. It’s basically a win-win situation. (READ: The Mekong Delta, Snake Wine, and I)
Ha Long Bay of the north vs The Mekong Delta of the south
Finally, for the overall experience, which includes the people, I genuinely find Hanoi locals to be much nicer than the southerners. Yes, it’s possible that my negative experiences has impaired my vision, but everyone in Hanoi just felt so welcoming. Probably not the taxi drivers, but everyone just showed such kindness and warmth in Hanoi, as compared to the *hospitality* (or lack thereof) that I received in Saigon. From a hotel room upgrade to genuine locals teaching us how to properly experience Vietnamese food (without speaking a word of English), Hanoi instantly became a favorite. So after all is said and done, yes, I loved Hanoi, and I was not a fan of Ho Chi Minh City at all. In the end, Hanoi has won me over. (READ: Is Halong Bay Even Worth It?)
Now to summarize this, this is basically what it comes down to:
HANOI – history, more savory pho, less scams (taxi not included), near Halong Bay and Sapa, laid back night life, and nicer people.
SAIGON – poppin’ night life, more variety of food (since they offer Hanoi style), near Mekong Delta.
Hopefully, this short comparison guide makes it easier for you to choose which one fits your interest more. I apologize if I was a bit biased, but hey, I can only write with honesty from my own experience, right? Anyway, good luck, and whichever city you choose, it’s really just a matter of how you make the most of it 😉
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