Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are located in Vietnam’s northern and southern extremes and nearly a 1000 km apart.
The country’s capital city, Hanoi is awesome to visit and known for its rich culture and centuries-old architecture. It is especially appreciated for the winding lanes of the lively Old Quarter district. Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is in the south of the country and has prospered into a thriving, modern metropolis since the times of the Vietnam War.
Both of these cities run at a frantic pace with astonishingly hectic traffic that is difficult to navigate for the first time travellers on the Vietnam private tour.
Here is an overview of what these cities have to offer:
Both of the cities are rich in impressive colonial architecture, pagodas, temples and museums. Neither is short of relics of the French occupation, and both include a cathedral, as well as traditional shows such as the water puppet theatre.
Hanoi is the preferred destination for contemporary and fine art, and slightly more favourable than what is offered in Ho Chi Minh City.
The people in the south as seen as more approachable compared to those in Hanoi, who has more formal manners and traditional values.
Ho Chi Minh City has more openly accepted foreign cultures – particularly from countries like France and America – and has the most open and spontaneous feel.
Ho Chi Minh City has more late-night venues to entertain travellers interested in the local nightlight scene.
However, Hanoi has the Old Quarter district with the narrow streets and alleyways that fill with thousands of tourists and locals in the evening. This is a great place to experience an authentic introduction to Vietnamese life with plenty of places to sit on tiny plastic stools and enjoy the local drinks and food.
Ho Chi Minh City has plenty of classy cocktail lounges, as well bars that put on live music at the weekends. The best clubs or a refined eating experience is likely to be found in the south of the country.
For the travellers interested in a backpacker vibe and low-cost booze, De Tham in Ho Chi Minh City is a worthwhile option. But, Hanoi is the preferred destination for shoestring tourist looking for a laid back time.
The street food scene is mouth-watering in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City with plenty of local and cheap culinary delights. Vietnam’s national dish is pho (noodle soup) which has its home in Hanoi, and is available on virtually any street corner you pass.
Ho Chi Minh City is equally blessed with the delicious street food but the taste of the dishes is slightly sweeter compared to the north. Many of the streets are food havens for the travellers on the Vietnam holiday looking to tempt their palate with pho or banh mi (filled baguettes).
An obvious hangover of the French occupation is the café culture which is still noticeable in both cities. The brews in Hanoi are noticeably punchier, while the coffee in the south has a sweeter taste. The international cuisine is rich and fresh in both cities. But, Ho Chi Minh City is likely to have the greater number of high-end restaurants.
A visit to Hanoi is superior for the shopaholics interested in handmade goods, silk accessories and crafts. Local craftsmen have passed traditional skills from generation to generation and continue to make the finest lacquerware, embroideries and stone-carvings. The finest crafts are likely to be discovered in the Old Quarter district.
Travellers to the south of the country on the Vietnam family tour have high-end boutiques like Dong Khoi, as well as the low-cost shopping at places like the Ben Thanh market, which is great for cheap souvenirs. Ho Chi Minh City is your destination for modern malls filled with plenty of designer shops. These air-conditioned buildings are a great place to cool off from the local urban heat.
Hanoi has seen a lot of transformation in recent years with the skyline dotted with new skyscrapers outside of the Old Quarter. Both cities have similar populations with Hanoi at about 7.5 million and Ho Chi Minh City at 8.5 million. However, Ho Chi Minh City is the smallest region with people more crammed in. Hanoi also has quite packed in areas, such as the pedestrian streets of the Old Quarter. Also, the major parts of the cities seem to have ceaseless noise during peak hours, which can be tiring for some.
Traffic in both of these major cities can be quite hectic with the noise of the scooters and hooters continuously heard. Ho Chi Minh City has the wider and more modern streets, but they still get as congested as the other end of the country.
Hanoi has the cool and more pleasant climate with the average temperature cooling in winter months. Travel to Hanoi in January and expect a cool 17° C, while the temperatures in Ho Chi Minh City stay persistently high and rarely fall below the high 20’s. Plus, there is the high humidity to contend with while touring the sights in the south.
From Hanoi it is convenient to book a trip to visit to Sapa, Mai Chau valley, Ninh Binh and Halong Bay. From Ho Chi Minh city, tourists can easily go to Mekong delta and find one of the nice beaches like Phu Quoc, Vung Tau, Mui Ne or Nha Trang.
A relaxing destination in Ho Chi Minh City is the city’s Botanical Garden and the Cong Vien Van Hoa Park with its tree-shaded lawns. In the centre of Hanoi is the charming Hoan Kiem Lake, which gives a perfect opportunity to get a break from the nearby chaotic streets.
Hanoi does of course have the dreamy seascape setting of Halong Bay within a four hour drive and this is one of Vietnam’s must-see tourist attractions. Also, there are the trips further north to places like Sapa to experience the lush landscape of the rice paddies, and a favourite place for the trekking adventure.
Ho Chi Minh City also has great day-trip options with the Cu Chi Tunnels a favourite and only a two hour drive from the city. The tunnels are leftovers from the Vietnam War and were used by the Viet Cong as a place of shelter and a point of attack.
Where to visit first?
Where you should visit first depends on what you hope to get from your Vietnam travel destination. Hanoi is the less glitzy and more traditional and historical city with plenty of opportunities to experience the local culture. On the other hand, Ho Chi Minh City is more modern with its exclusive nightlife scene, smarter restaurants, fancier hotels and all-round more investment. But, both are great to see some of Vietnam’s most interesting sights, as well as superb food, places to unwind, cultural sights and excellent museums.