A first wise choice!
Posted on 05 April 2019
Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City: where should you visit first?
Located at the northern and southern extremes of this broad country, Vietnam’s two main cities lie more than one thousand kilometres apart.
Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) (Saigon) is renowned to be a part of the history, now transformed into a thoroughly modern, thriving metropolis. The somewhat less modern capital, Hanoi, runs at a noisier pace, with its lively Old Quarter full of winding lanes.
Both cities can at times seem hyperactive, and you’ll need your wits about you to navigate their astonishingly hectic traffic. Can’t choose which one to visit?
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Which is best for culture?
Neither city is short of museums, temples, pagodas and impressive colonial architecture. Both have a cathedral, relics of the French occupation and entertaining traditional water-puppet shows.
South Ho Chi Minh City consists more theme parks than Hanoi, so if rollercoasters are your thing, head south. If you’re more at home in a gallery than doing loop-the-loops, Hanoi will be a better bet, as it pips the post for both fine and contemporary art.
Ho Chi Minh City are more influenced by foreign cultures than Hanoi – particularly American and French – has a more spontaneous and open feel to it.
Which is best for food?
It’s not difficult to find cheap, local culinary delights in either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City – street food is ubiquitous and, on the whole, mouth-watering in both cities.
Hanoi is the home of pho (noodle soup), Vietnam’s national dish, which can find it at about any street corner for as little as a 3 Malaysian Ringgit.
The street food in Ho Chi Minh City is just as readily available as up north, but tends to be slightly sweeter. Fantastic smells waft through the side streets of both these foodie-heaven cities, and there’s so much more to offer.
Café culture, a hangover from the French, permeates both cities too, in Ho Chi Minh City, the coffee is sweeter and not quite as punchy as the equivalent brews in Hanoi. Both cities have an astounding array of international cuisine - check out Market 39 - Seafood and International Cuisine and Home Hanoi Restaurant.
What about nightlife?
Ho Chi Minh City has managed to retain far more late-night options, though a handful of Hanoi bars still manage to stay open until sunrise.
The narrow streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter come to life at night, with thousands of locals and tourists crowded the alleyways, consuming cheap drinks on tiny plastic stools while snacking on steaming plates of barbequed pork and fried chicken feet.
More of the bars in Ho Chi Minh City have live music at the weekend, and it’s certainly the place to be for classy cocktail lounges. If you’re looking for a refined evening out, or for a club with air conditioning where you can party till the small hours, Ho Chi Minh City is your best choice.
For cheap booze and backpacker vibe,Hanoi has far more going for it for the laid back, on-a-shoestring traveller. If you didn’t pack your formal shoes, Hanoi is where you want to be.
Where should I shop?
Hanoi has the superior choice of crafts, silk accessories and handmade goods. Craftsmen specialize in wood-and stone-carvings, embroideries and lacquerware, the finest can be found at the southern end of the Old Quarter.
Ho Chi Minh City offers a plethora of cheap souvenir options, such as at Ben Thanh market, or for upmarket boutiques try Dong Khoi.
The southern city is also the king of the malls, with vast, modern air-conditioned edifices housing abundance brand and designer shops – ideal for cooling off from the humid urban heat.
Which is best base for day-trips?
Ha Long Bay, a scenic seascape of jagged limestone rocks jutting out over calm waters, is Vietnam’s number top tourist attraction and can be visited in a day-trip from Hanoi.
Under two hour’s drive from Ho Chi Minh City, the Cu Chi Tunnels are also a top option for a day-trip. Tours are best booked with a travel agency around Pham Ngu Lao (roughly 180,000 VND).
So which one should I go to?
Naturally, this depends what you’re looking for. Hanoi opens to more historical, less glitzy side, allowing visitors a glimpse of traditional Vietnamese culture, giving ample opportunities to see the best of the country’s artistic and creative offerings while appreciating the low-key street life.
Ho Chi Minh City, as the commercial centre of the country, inevitably has more investment, fancier hotels, smarter restaurants and an exclusive nightlife scene.
However, both these metropolises have excellent museums and cultural sights, plenty of tranquil places to unwind, superb food and day-trips to some of Vietnam’s most interesting locations.
This is a tale of two great cities of Vietnam. Take your time and choose wisely!
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