Exploring Culture in the Cities of Vietnam • We Blog The World

Exploring Culture in the Cities of Vietnam • Tour Travel Hotels

Saigon, Vietnam

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

More specifically, I hadn’t planned to revisit either, let alone a few weeks apart during the latter part of 2019. In both cases, I traveled to resolve relationships (or vessels of situation, really) I knew I was doomed, although on both sides of the power dynamic.

I hope you will make me happy as I explain my personal connections to the capital of Vietnam and its largest city, before helping you decide which one is best for you to visit, assuming you have only time for one. (I also hope you will avoid romantic dramas during your trip – more on that in a second.)

My own story in Hanoi and Saigon

Last September, I visited Bangkok for the first time since I moved to Thailand from Taiwan; I originally planned to return to Taipei immediately after making ends meet. Unfortunately, I became… involved with a clever narcissist in the weeks leading up to my trip, and I ended up changing course the last second to meet him in Hanoi on the way back east. As you can imagine, what happened was nothing short of a disaster. Without the coronavirus that has destroyed the whole world in recent weeks, I might still be hooked on it.

Fortunately, during what should have been a dark pride of Taipei following my break up with the one who should not be named, I came across a more benevolent ex-lover, a Vietnamese man whom I had met in Bangkok a few weeks before my move to Taipei. Even though I didn’t know anything about this in the long term (he couldn’t relocate to Taiwan and I never wanted to live in Vietnam for a second), I met him in his hometown near Saigon at the start December – as much, if I’m honest, to see it again to continue to numb the pain of the narcissistic abuse I had suffered before.

How Saigon and Hanoi are identical and different

Both cities are massive

With a combined population of 20 million spitting almost equally between them, Saigon and Hanoi are both large cities. Of course, since you will likely be spending most of your time in the tourist centers of District 1 and the Old Quarter, respectively, the size of these cities (and especially their sprawling suburbs) may not seem like it during your trip . Finally, at least not if you are lucky enough to arrive at the airport outside rush hour.

(And rough on the edges)

Certainly most of the indicators on the Hanoi scale relative to Saigon are indirect, whether it be air pollution that tends to hover during most months of the year or the constant hum of motorcycles. I mentioned the rush hour above; but the point is, you’re much more likely to get stuck in traffic, even early in the morning or late at night, than to enjoy a smooth ride in or around Hanoi or Saigon.

Saigon is cosmopolitan

Whether for visual reasons like the sky-scraping Bitexco tower, the variety of international restaurants and glitzy malls, or just the number of foreigners you see everywhere, Ho Chi Minh City (which is the official name of Saigon) is the most global metropolis of Vietnam. 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 to Bombay.

(But only compared to Hanoi)

“Closer” but not consistent. To be sure, I just want to characterize Ho Chi Minh that way in terms of Saigon vs Hanoi. Outside of 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 part, is not only more traditionally Vietnamese than Hanoi, but also feels much less international. Nor does it feel like it has changed much compared to Saigon, certainly not in the old and French districts.

My favorite city is not in the world either

I’ll be honest: even if my imminent romantic destiny hadn’t buzzed during my recent returns to Hanoi and Saigon, I wouldn’t have left with a huge desire to return either. Aside from updating my itineraries (and photography) for both, I don’t feel like I have grown as a person or as a traveler by seeing one or the other. ; I wouldn’t mention Saigon or Hanoi at the top of my list of favorite cities in the world, or even really in Southeast Asia. I would probably put both under Kuala Lumpur or even Phnom Penh!

Where to stay in Hanoi and Saigon

Because I was visiting at the request of a fuckboy who happens to be financially poor in addition to his emotional bankruptcy, I stayed in a shabby-faced Airbnb, rather than checking the Hanoi hotels that I was looking at regardless of this trip . Certainly, I could never have stayed at the five-star Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi on my first trip to Vietnam in 2010; in reality, a character property like Damsels Hanoi Boutique Hotel would probably be more my speed these days, as a bridge between my current and past travel styles.

In this regard, of course, I would say that the Saigon vs Hanoi is about equal. Although Saigon also has several luxury properties (namely the Hotel des Arts and the Sofitel Saigon Plaza), I chose Camille’s house colored as my love… er nest of lust, although it is somewhat in outside District 1 of Saigon. 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 from the distress that your mind (at least, if you have a type A mind like me) is sure to feel.

Other places to visit in Vietnam

No matter how many days you have in Vietnam, I recommend that you spend as many days as possible outside the largest cities in the country. The following list of destinations will get you started:

  • Paradisiacal Phu Quoc, Phuket in Vietnam
  • The paved beach (and sand dunes) of Mui Ne
  • Nha Trang and her hot party scene
  • Da Lat’s high altitude cold asleep
  • Da Nang, the largest city in central Vientam
  • The Imperial City of Hue and the Hoi An Tourist Trap
  • The magnificent rice terrace (and sometimes snowy!) De Sa Pa

The Bottom Line

I settle the Hanoi vs Saigon debate on a personal level – I prefer Saigon, if only because it is a little more tolerable to break someone’s heart than to have mine broken. Of course, you can also convincingly state that the largest city in Vietnam is more cosmopolitan and vibrant than its capital, not to mention your preferences for the experiences offered in both (or both).

Robert Schrader

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

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