If you’re arriving in Vietnam on an international flight, chances are you’re coming into one of its two metropolises: Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City. These sprawling urban centers housing millions of inhabitants are also cultural, governmental, transportation, and tourism hubs.
The question then remains: what’s the difference between the two, and which one should you visit? We’ll provide an overview of each city, then highlight a few key differences. to help you decide which of these Vietnamese powerhouses you should visit; in the event that time and resources allow you to explore only one.
Hanoi is northern Vietnam’s largest city
Hanoi is the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and home to a sizable portion of the country’s 96 million inhabitants, around nearly 5 million. Situated along the banks of the Red River, it has a storied past under both Chinese and Vietnamese rule. As the seat of government, Hanoi is at the center of Vietnamese politics both past and present, and its many monuments attest to that history.
Most tourism is centered around the so-called Old Quarter – a historic warren of streets that retain a traditional Vietnamese vibe. There are also several lovely lakes that draw visitors and locals alike seeking an oasis of serenity amidst the incessant energy of the city.
Hanoi is also home to the lion’s share of national museums that range in subjects from history to the arts to the Vietnam Conflict that shaped the current nation into what it is today.
Ho Chi Minh is southern Vietnam’s largest city
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly and more conveniently referred to often by its former name of Saigon, is the largest city in Vietnam. It boasts nearly 9 million residents, so about 4 million more than Hanoi. As a financial hub, the city has seen rapid growth in terms of both population and development.
Sprawling along the edge of the Mekong Delta, Ho Chi Minh City is most renowned for the iconic scenes that took place there during the closing days of the war. This was when American forces withdrew and North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city, bringing the conflict to an end.
Much of Ho Chi Minh’s tourism attractions center around that relatively recent history, with the world-class War Remnants Museum and other famous landmarks such as the Reunification Palace common stops on any city tour.
HCMC is considered to have more of a western feel than Hanoi. It’s also noted for having more trees, as many of Hanoi’s were cut down in the past. There are several lovely tree-lined streets that stretch on with towering plant life. Hanoi has its famous lakes though.
Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City
While there are certain similarities between the two most prominent Vietnamese cities, travelers in the know are aware of the differences. The following is a comparison of some of those differences, leaving the choice as to which is better entirely up to your own personal preferences.
In this category, the advantage slides heavily over to Hanoi. With roots going back to the Third Century and its own UNESCO World Heritage Site (the Imperial Citadel of Thang) Hanoi is brimming with historical buildings and institutions that date well before the 1960s and ’70s.
The Old Quarter is at the heart of it all, and visitors can soak in more than just the recent past in one of Hanoi’s many museums. This is not to say that Ho Chi Minh City is devoid of anything historic, in fact, there are many buildings showcasing its French colonial past. But when it comes to historical gravitas, the edge certainly goes to Hanoi.
When it comes to lodging options, this time the scale tips in favor of Ho Chi Minh City. With more options and especially more luxury options, Saigon has a wide assortment of hotels catering to any budget, ranging from five-star properties to backpacker guesthouses.
Such things can be found in Hanoi as well, but many properties can be better described as boutique hotels, catering from a more mid-range to a wealthy clientele.
Both cities have plenty of options for a fun (and cheap!) night on the town, but in this case, once again the edge goes to Ho Chi Minh City.
Whether it’s a rooftop bar atop one of District 1’s swanky skyscrapers or dancing the night away at a live music bar in a backpacker dive along Pham Ngu Lao Street, Saigon is still partying hard after dark. Similar options do exist in Hanoi, but with a generally mellower tone.
Hanoi is definitely the favorite when it comes to natural oases dotting the urban landscape. Trendy areas such as West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake bring an air of tranquility to the Vietnamese capital that is unrivaled in its counterpart down south.
Not surprisingly, these green spaces are a popular destination for tourists, with historic pagodas and bridges that adequately fulfill visions of Southeast Asian architecture and design.
Vibe and Lifestyle
If Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City were siblings, Hanoi would be the conservative, calmer older sister, while Ho Chi Minh City would be like the more adventurous, progressive, and hip little sister. As was already alluded to earlier, with a deeper history, Hanoi retains a more conservative, traditional Vietnamese vibe.
Saigon on the other hand has been greatly influenced by its French and American past, and its modern skyscrapers, indoor malls, and abundant entertainment opportunities reflect as much. Such distinctions also flow into their cuisines, with more traditional Vietnamese dishes taking center stage in Hanoi, and a wider gamut of international dishes more commonly on offer in Saigon.
Base of Operations
If you’re coming all the way to Vietnam, you’re going to want to take in some of its stunning natural beauty found outside city limits. In this case, Hanoi is more advantageously located as a base of operations.
Hanoi is the natural jumping-off point for trips into World Heritage Halong Bay, as well as the start and endpoint of multi-day excursions out to Sapa and other magnificent mountain destinations of the North.
In contrast, Ho Chi Minh City is surrounded by the flat landscape of the Mekong Delta, with historical sites like the Chu Chi Tunnels and traditional riverside villages an easy day trip away. Both serve as transportation hubs, so getting out to the sites is relatively easy.
There’s not a huge difference between the two cities when it comes to average temperatures, though you’re far more likely to encounter some cooler, even comfortable weather at certain times of year in Hanoi, given its location in the north. At the night with the humidity during the winter it can get chilly.
In Ho Chi Minh City, you can pretty dependably count on the weather to be steamy, sultry, or any other adjective you like that describes temperatures and humidity that is consistently hot and sticky. Either way, you can leave your winter coat at home. The general consensus is that Hanoi, although further north, feels hotter in the summer and colder in the winter.
Vietnam in general is a foodie’s dream. That said, there are some differences between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City when it comes to cuisine. Many traditional Vietnamese dishes can trace their origins to Hanoi, such as the iconic noodle soup served with vegetables and a protein called pho.
There’s some debate about the differences between Hanoi pho and Saigon pho, with many asserting that Hanoi pho gives greater emphasis on the beef broth and depends less on the condiments, whereas Saigon pho is known for its garnishes and either sriracha or hoisin sauce flavors.
It’s unlikely that the issue will ever be definitively resolved, so your best bet is to sample them both and decide for yourself.
A strong point in favor of Hanoi is the fact that as you wander through the quaint Old Quarter, you will encounter a thriving street food culture selling authentic Vietnamese dishes at sometimes absurdly cheap prices. In fact, some claim that you’ll find better food on the sidewalks than in the restaurants.
In Ho Chi Minh City you’ll also find all the usual dishes such as pho, Vietnamese coffee, and the ubiquitous (and delicious!) grilled meat sandwiches known as bahn mi. The difference here is mainly the presence of international cuisines that are harder to find in the capital up north.
If you’re hankering for some pizza, Starbucks, or McDonald’s, you’ll have no problem finding a location in Saigon, whereas in Hanoi chain restaurants are thankfully still an anomaly. McDonald’s opened its first location in 2017 in Hanoi near Hoan Kiem Lake in the Old Quarter.
Chances are that if you’re visiting Vietnam as a tourist, you probably haven’t learned the language well enough to sufficiently detect the differences in dialect. However, they are there, with many apps and language courses teaching the “Northern” dialect as the official Vietnamese language.
As in many other cultures, there are subtle differences in phonetics, accents, and phrasing that distinguish the type of Vietnamese you’ll hear spoken on the streets of Hanoi, and what you would hear in a market in Ho Chi Minh City.
This won’t likely be an issue for most visitors, since the language is equally unfamiliar regardless if a word is pronounced with a hard or a soft vowel. But one can rightfully expect to hear differences in accent or word choice depending on if you’re in the north or south of the country.
Visit Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh?
So which is a better option for you: Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City? The answer lies wholly within your own travel preferences.
Ideally, you would visit both on your sojourn in Vietnam, but if that just isn’t in the cards, either way, you’re guaranteed a lot of energy, traffic bordering on the absurd, and mind-blowing pho that’ll spoil you for life.
The best times of year to visit are similar in both locations and would include traditional fall and spring months in the northern hemisphere, such as October, November, and April, May. Really, there’s no wrong choice, and that is certainly a reason to visit either Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City in and of itself.