Exploring Culture in the Cities of Vietnam

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I wrote this post to compare Hanoi vs Saigon from a travel perspective, but Vietnam’s largest cities are also similar when it comes to my own recent history in both.

Most notably, I hadn’t planned to re-visit either, let alone within a few weeks of one another during the last part of 2019. In both cases, I traveled in order to resolve relationships (or situation-ships, really) I knew were doomed, albeit on different sides of the power dynamic.

I hope you’ll indulge me while I explain my personal ties to Vietnam‘s capital and its largest city, before I help you to decide which is best for you to visit, assuming you only have time for one. (I also hope you avoid romantic drama during your trip—more on that in a second.)

My Own History in Hanoi and Saigon

Last September, I visited Bangkok for the first time since moving to Thailand to Taiwan; I’d originally planned to return immediately to Taipei after tying up a few loose ends. Unfortunately, I became…involved with a malignant narcissist in the weeks leading up to my trip, and ended up changing course last-second to meet him in Hanoi on my way back east. As you might imagine, what transpired was nothing short of a disaster. Had it not been for the coronavirus destroying the entire world the past few weeks, I might still be hung up on him.

Serendipitously, during what should’ve been a somber Taipei Pride in the wake of my break-up with he-who-shall-not-be-named, I ran into a more benevolent ex-lover, a Vietnamese man I’d met in Bangkok just weeks before my move to Taipei. Although I knew nothing long-term would come of this (he was unable to re-locate to Taiwan and I have never for a second wanted to live in Vietnam), I met him in his hometown near Saigon in early December—as much, if I’m honest, to see him again as to continue numbing the pain of the narcissistic abuse I’d previously suffered.

How Saigon and Hanoi are the Same—and Different

Both cities are massive

With a combined population of 20 million spit almost evenly between them, Saigon and Hanoi are both huge cities. Of course, given that you are likely to spend most of your time in tourist hubs of either District 1 and the Old Quarter, respectively, the size of these cities (and especially their sprawling suburbs) might not be apparently to you as you travel. Well, at least not if you’re lucky enough to arrive at the airport of either outside of rush hour.

(And rough around the edges)

To be sure, most indicators of sheer scale of Hanoi vs Saigon are indirect ones, whether that’s the air pollution that tends to hang over both during most months of the year, or the constant buzz of motorcycles. I mentioned rush hour above; but the fact is that you’re far more likely to get stuck in traffic, even in the early morning or late at night, than to enjoy harmonious passage in or around Hanoi or Saigon.

Saigon is cosmopolitan

Whether because of visual reasons like the sky-scraping Bitexco Tower, the variety of international eateries and glitzy shopping malls, or simply the number of foreigners you see everywhere, Ho Chi Minh City (which is Saigon’s official name) is Vietnam’s most global metropolis. This changed dramatically in the decade that passed between my first visit (when it seemed huge but provincial) and my second, when it seemed closer to Bangkok than Bombay.

(But only when compared to Hanoi)

“Closer” but not congruent. To be sure, I only mean to characterize Ho Chi Minh this way in terms of the Saigon vs Hanoi. Outside the most central part of the city, Saigon still feels decades behind much of the rest of Southeast Asia in terms of development. Hanoi, for its parts, is not only more traditionally Vietnamese than Hanoi, but also feels much less international. It also doesn’t feel like it changed very much compared to Saigon, certainly not in the Old and French quarters.

Neither are my favorite city in the world

I’ll be honest: Even if I impending romantic doom had not been buzzing under my recent returns to Hanoi and Saigon, I wouldn’t have departed either with a huge desire to return. Apart from updating my itineraries (and photography) for both, I don’t feel I grew as a person or as a traveler by seeing either again; I wouldn’t list Saigon or Hanoi near the top of my list of favorite cities in the world, or even really in Southeast Asia. I’d probably put both below Kuala Lumpur or even Phnom Penh!

Where to Stay in Hanoi and Saigon

Because I was visiting at the behest of a fuckboy who happens to be monetarily poor in addition to his emotional bankruptcy, I stayed in a ratty-ass Airbnb, rather than checking out Hanoi hotels I’d been eyeing independently of this trip. Certainly, I’d never have been able to stay in the five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi when I first traveled to Vietnam all the way back in 2010; in reality, a boutique property such as Damsels Hanoi Boutique Hotel would probably be more my speed these days, as a bridge between my present and past travel styles.

In this regard, to be sure, I would say the Saigon vs Hanoi is pretty much even. While Saigon, too, has several high-luxury properties (namely Hotel Des Arts and Sofitel Saigon Plaza), I selected the colorful Maison de Camille as my love…er lust nest, in spite of it being somewhat outside of Saigon’s District 1. Vietnam’s cities are all hot messes in a way; the best way to make peace with this is to stay in places where your heart and imagination can distract the distress your mind (at least, if you have a Type A mind like I do) is sure to feel.

Other Places to Visit in Vietnam

Regardless of how many days in Vietnam you have, I would recommend spending as many of them as possible outside the country’s largest cities. The following list of destinations will get you started:

  • Paradisiacal Phu Quoc, Vietnam’s Phuket
  • The paved beach (and sand dunes) of Mui Ne
  • Nha Trang and its hot mess party scene
  • The high-altitude chill of sleepy Da Lat
  • Da Nang, the largest city of central Vientam
  • The imperial city of Hue and the tourist trap of Hoi An
  • The stunning (and sometimes snowy!) rice terrace of Sa Pa

The Bottom Line

I settle the Hanoi vs Saigon debate on a personal level—I prefer Saigon, if only because it’s slightly more tolerable to break someone’s heart than to have mine broken. Of course, you can also argue convincingly that Vietnam’s largest city is more cosmopolitan and dynamic than its capital, to say nothing of your preferences for the experiences on offer in either (or both).

Robert Schrader

Robert Schrader is a travel writer and photographer who’s been roaming the world independently since 2005, writing for publications such as “CNNGo” and “Shanghaiist” along the way. His blog, Leave Your Daily Hell, provides a mix of travel advice, destination guides and personal essays covering the more esoteric aspects of life as a traveler.

Source: weblogtheworld.com