Vietnam is one of the most amazing countries in south east Asia but there is a marked difference between the culture and scenery of the north and that of the south. Most foreign tourists arrive in Hanoi due to its proximity to the fabled Halong Bay, but steamy Saigon in the southern Mekong Delta also has its charm. So which distinctive side of Vietnam do you prefer?
I first visited Hanoi in 2013 and have returned a few times since, although for most visitors one visit is enough. Once you have seen the classic tourist attractions and sampled the traditional Vietnamese street food in the Old Quarter, then perhaps there is no need to re-visit Hanoi again (unless you travel for a hobby like me!). However, the main reason I return to Hanoi is because I love the culture of northern Vietnam; far from the catastrophically busy roads of Saigon down south, Hanoi is, by comparison, a moderately busy Vietnamese city, with friendly locals (by and large) and a established backpacker scene with cheap accommodation.
It took me until 2015 to visit Saigon (otherwise known as Ho Chi Minh City), and even then I only did so because of some interesting – and cheap – fifth freedom flights from Bangkok, namely on Qatar Airways and Lufthansa (neither of which still exist, by the way, although Qatar Airways do now fly from Saigon to Phnom Penh in Cambodia…). At first, there was nothing too much to interest me in the hot and humid ambience of Ho Chi Minh City, but it grew on me before I left. I would always recommend visiting Hanoi first, though, to ease you into Vietnamese customs.
For many tourists – including me – Hanoi is the main city in Vietnam for cultural tourist attractions. Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is here (not in Ho Chi Minh City!), as well as the amazing Temple of Literature, the charming Hoan Kiem Lake, as well as being the gateway – albeit a drive of 4-5 hours – to Halong Bay. Pace of life is slower in Hanoi compared to Saigon, and this lends itself well to tourism. European or American visitors to Vietnam will enjoy the local scene in Hanoi (though not without its dangers and scams!) and there are also plenty of war museums and exhibitions to link Vietnamese history with our own. Make sure you also sample the local street food scene, too, and in particular the national dish of Pho – a noodle soup with meat or fish!
In contrast to Hanoi, I found Saigon to be more for nightlife rather than tourist attractions to be enjoyed in the day. Everywhere you turn in Saigon you can find bars and nightclubs, most of which are catering for western tourists, as well as plenty of restaurants by day, in which you can try the phenomenal Banh Xeo, which are crispy crepes that need to be tasted to be believed! In terms of tourist attractions, well, Saigon, is lacking somewhat within city limits (check out the Cu Chi tunnels!), although remember that the Mekong Delta is very close by and most visitors here will take a day trip to this area to get out of the city and sample rural life!
I guess it comes down to personal preference, but which side of Vietnam do you prefer most? Or would you just head straight for the beaches in Danang and Hoi An instead?!