It’s culture versus progress; old versus new! Things get heated as two of our experts discuss the finer points of Vietnam’s North-South divide.”Hanoi versus Saigon” originally appeared in issue #2 of East, the Inside Asia Tours magazine.
Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Before joining us as a travel consultant, Liam spent two years living in Ho Chi Minh City. Here, he flies the flag for his former home.
“If you’re looking for Vietnam’s most energetic, creative and cutting-edge city, you’ve found it in Saigon. As a former resident myself, there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the most dynamic and progressive place in the country.
“There’s always a new art exhibition to go to, a new restaurant about to open, or a new band playing – the arts scene is constantly expanding and changing in so many exciting ways. Sure, there are exhibitions and gigs in Hanoi, but it’s just not on the same level. You only need to look at the difference between Saigon’s sleek skyscrapers and Hanoi’s colonial style to see that this is a city that has embraced progress, and it is this forward-thinking attitude that gives Saigon its unique energy.
“Hanoi might take the crown for ancient monuments, but Saigon’s modern history is just as rich. Every traveller today has heard about the Vietnam War, and it’s a primary source of interest for many visitors to the country. As most of the actual fighting occurred in the South, Saigon is home to the bulk of Vietnam’s most fascinating war sites. The Cu Chi Tunnels (a network of passages where the Viet Cong sheltered from American troops) make for a fascinating day trip, and the city itself is home to the country’s finest collection of war memorabilia at the War Remnants Museum. In my opinion, these are both must-sees for anyone interested in the history of Vietnam.
“Saigon also has the benefit of numerous excellent side trips, meaning that it’s easily combined with a wide variety of destinations – an important consideration if you’re short on time. The watery world of the Mekong Delta is an easy day trip or overnight excursion, and one of the country’s finest beaches is just over four hours away by car at Mui Ne. Vietnam’s best national park, Cat Tien, is also only three hours away by road (see p24). Sure, the North has Halong Bay and the highlands, but for its sheer variety of options, Saigon wins out.
“For me, the choice is easy. If you want to experience a city on the move, it’s Saigon all the way.”
Working as an adventure tour leader, Tyler first made his home in Vietnam 15 years ago. Here, he explains why the northern capita still reigns supreme.
“Sure, Saigon has glitz and glamour, but if it is the heart and soul of Vietnam that you are after, Hanoi is where you will find it. Where but Hanoi can you see so many layers of history coexisting in one place, from the tallest building in Vietnam (yes, Hanoi does high-rise too) to the thousand-year-old temples and winding tree-lined streets of the Old Quarter? With countless French, Chinese, Soviet and Southeast Asian influences all jostling for attention, Hanoi is a melting pot of architectural styles.
“A day in Hanoi begins with French drip coffee and a pastry, or perhaps a bowl of pho and a walk around the serene Hoan Kiem Lake, where locals congregate in the morning to perform t’ai chi. Only in Hanoi can you step into the French-era glory of the old Post Office or Presidential Palace, see Vietnam’s Confucian roots at the Temple of Literature, and catch a modern concerto at the old opera house all in one day. It is in Hanoi where you will meet the father of modern Vietnam with a visit to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and former residence. And it is here that traditional culture splashes to life at the country’s best water puppet theatre.
“Visit the meandering streets of the Old Quarter and pull up a plastic stool to eat with the locals at a street-side food stall. Who knew that food this delicious could be so cheap? Of course, if street food isn’t your style, you needn’t worry. Hanoi’s restaurants serve some of the finest food that Vietnam (and consequently the world) has to offer. Finish up a perfect Vietnamese day with sunset cocktails at a luxurious colonial-era hotel and you will wonder why anyone would want to venture south at all.
“Saigon’s wealth of side-trip options gives it undeniable appeal, but even the Mekong Delta can’t challenge the sweeping majesty of Halong Bay, only a three-hour drive from the capital. What’s more, Hanoi is the perfect jumping-off point for Vietnam’s northern highlands, where lush rice paddies climb the mountainsides like giant staircases and the hills hide the ancestral villages of over 50 different ethnic tribes.
There is little in the world, let alone the south, that can rival Northern Vietnam’s geographical beauty. Hanoi’s merits are in its old-fashioned ambiance and time-honoured cuisine; its streets packed with character and its peaceful lakes that provide a respite from the rush of the city. There’s nowhere in Vietnam that compares!”