I recently received a question from a friend of mine that I have actually gotten from other people a few other times in the past. He and his girlfriend are planning an upcoming trip to Southeast Asia where they hope to visit a few places in Thailand and Vietnam. Since, like most people, their time is limited, he asked me which major city in Vietnam would I visit if I could only choose one, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi? Well, although both cities are certainly worth exploring in my opinion, if I could only pick one then I personally would choose Hanoi. Here’s why.
HCMC, which many people still call Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam whose metropolitan area is now populated by more than 9 million people. A city in perpetual motion compared to its sister city Hanoi, it’s the economic center of the country. But unfortunately it has the traffic and the pollution that goes along with the spectacular growth that has occurred there over the last several years.
Don’t get me wrong, there are still some very worthwhile things to see and do there. For instance, the War Remnants Museum, which gives a very graphic version of the Vietnam War as told from a perspective that of course you rarely if ever get in the United States, thoroughly fascinated me. I likewise enjoyed exploring the Reunification Palace which has been preserved almost as exactly as it was when the North Vietnamese forces took over in April 1975. Wandering around the Chinese-style temples in the district of Cholon was interesting as well. On top of that I have to admit that the high energy of HCMC does kind of rub off on you. And if you are into nightlife, HCMC is by far the place to be out of all places in the entire country. I guess they like to work hard and play hard there.
But for me personally, after a few days the hustle and bustle of it all starts to get a little tiring. Now if I were going to Vietnam for business, well then it’s likely that I would want to be in HCMC, because that’s where the money is. But if I am traveling for pleasure, then I prefer a slower pace and more pleasant surroundings to take it in the flavor of a country that I am visiting. In Vietnam that means going to Hanoi in my opinion.
Hanoi, the country’s capital, is pretty big as well with about 6.5 million people in its metropolitan area. But contrary to fast and furious HCMC, this is a city of lakes, shaded boulevards and leafy parks. French colonial architecture abounds so much in the city center that some people refer to it as the Paris of the Orient. Likewise the people in Hanoi seem to be living a more traditional style of life compared to those in HCMC, so you feel much more like you are in ‘old’ Asia when you visit there. And although it certainly has its share of traffic, it is easier and much more pleasant to walk around the city and take things in at your own pace. You can wander throughout the streets of Hanoi for three or four days and never feel rushed or out of sorts.
And there are of course plenty of interesting sites to explore and things to do while you are there as well. Some of my favorites were walking around the Old Quarter while poking around the endless little shops, checking out Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, and going to the Hoa Lo Prison, a.k.a. The Hanoi Hilton, which during the Vietnam War held American POW’s who were shot down – its most famous prisoner being John McCain. But probably as much as anything else I enjoyed merely hanging out at the numerous street-side cafes and restaurants, just watching the locals do their normal daily routines. For whatever reasons I felt more in tune with what was going on in Hanoi than I did in HCMC, and this made for a more satisfying travel experience for me.
I guess the bottom line is that it comes down to your particular tastes and interests. There is no right or wrong answer. And if it’s your trip that you are planning then you of course should do the things you want to do and have the experiences that you want to have. Just beware that these two cities have very different vibes to them and you should plan accordingly.