Despite its relatively small size, Vietnam ranks among the world’s top 20 countries in terms of population with over 98 million inhabitants. Many of those millions of individuals live in the largest cities in Vietnam, as the opportunities and conveniences found in urban centers increasingly draw aspiring citizens from the country’s vast rural interior.
With several cities boasting a population of over 1 million residents, it’s likely that one or more of these metropolises will feature on any visitor’s itinerary. Here we’ll consider the top five largest cities in Vietnam in terms of the estimated urban population, as well as some general information about what there is to see and what you should know about each city.
1) Ho Chi Minh City
What to Know: Ho Chi Minh City, which is oftentimes still referred to as Saigon, is the undisputed heavyweight among Vietnam’s cities. With a population nearing nine million, this urban jungle is situated in the southeast of Vietnam, covering over 800 square miles of low-lying terrain on the edge of the Mekong Delta.
This city is the largest economic and transportation hub of the country, hosting Vietnam’s busiest airport. Ho Chi Minh City sees two distinct seasons, a rainy season and a dry one, with relatively constant warm temperatures and high humidity.
What to See: Many of Saigon’s attractions harken back to its days as a colonial showpiece for the French and its subsequent infamy as the last bastion to fall during the Vietnamese Conflict. A popular attraction combining both eras is the Reunification Palace.
Originally built as the residence of the French colonial governor only to serve as the official residence of the president of South Vietnam, it was abandoned in 1975 ahead of the advancing North Vietnamese army.
Saigon also boasts many fine museums, with the War Remnants Museum being a popular destination for international tourists. Here, visitors can witness the story of the Vietnam War through the eyes of the victors, with tasteful displays chronicling the horrors of war for both sides. In the courtyard, guests can admire a range of vintage U.S. Military aircrafts and vehicles that were left behind.
Getting There And Around: Tan Son Nhat International Airport (SGN) is currently Vietnam’s busiest airport in terms of passengers and is the gateway to Saigon for international travelers. The city is also a hub for Vietnam Railways, which offers extensive regional service along with “The Reunification Express” that will take riders all the way to the capital Hanoi.
A metro system is currently being phased into use as an alternative to the cringe-worthy traffic in the streets above. Buses and taxis can get you around, but if you don’t mind inhaling the pervasive fumes of never-ending streams of motorbikes, tourists can opt for a ride in a cycle rickshaw, called a cyclo, for a very close-up look at life on the streets of HCMC.
Lastly, with its setting on the Saigon River and proximity to the waterways of the Mekong Delta, boat and hydrofoil service to the Delta and points beyond is another transport possibility.
What to Know: The Vietnamese Capital of Hanoi is number 2 on the list of the largest cities in Vietnam, covering an area of nearly 1,300 square miles. This is the political and cultural heart of the country, with a rich history going back far beyond its time as the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Located in the country’s north, it enjoys milder and more varied temperatures than in the south and sees a large number of international visitors seeking to explore the rich natural attractions that surround the city.
What to See: With a long history under the rule of various empires, Hanoi does not lack historical and architectural attractions. A popular destination is the Old Quarter, with its narrow streets and alleys brimming with an authentic Vietnamese vibe.
The adjacent Ba Dinh District (one of two so-called French Quarters) houses the political landmarks of the country, such as the Presidential Palace, National Assembly, and other monuments and ministries. Hanoi is also home to several lakes such as West Lake and Hoan Kiem Lake, with each offering an oasis of greenery and peace along with cultural and architectural landmarks.
Furthermore, Hanoi is home to some of the country’s best museums and historic sites, such as the Temple of Literature, the National Museum of Vietnamese History, the Vietnam National Museum of Fine Arts, and the infamous Hoa Lo Prison, more commonly known as the ‘Hanoi Hilton’.
Getting There And Around: Air travelers, both domestic and international, can arrive in Hanoi via the Noi Bai International Airport (HAN) just outside the city. As mentioned before, Hanoi is also the terminus of “The Reunification Express” train which connects the city with HCMC in the south and several other population centers along the way.
The city also serves as a rail hub for destinations in the country’s scenic north. At present, the long-awaited Metro system is still under construction, so getting around town involves a foray into the vehicular chaos that is road travel in Vietnam. All the usual suspects – buses, taxis, and motorcycles – abound, meaning that you can get just about anywhere rather cheap if not all that quickly.
3) Can Tho
Population: 1, 701, 320
What to Know: Can Tho is the largest city on the Mekong River Delta in the far south of Vietnam. Located about 105 miles from Ho Chi Minh City and considered to be the “rice basket” of Vietnam, Can Tho is known for its many canals and floating markets. The climate is divided into a wet and dry season, generally seeing consistently high temperatures and humidity levels.
What to See: Can Tho is most famous for its floating markets, such as Cai Rang Floating Market, where shopping is done from boat to boat. The city and its surroundings offer a wealth of temples and pagodas to explore, and fruit lovers can have their pick from among a large selection of tropical produce grown locally.
Getting There And Around: Air service is available through Can Tho International Airport (VCA) for those looking to come directly to the city. Given Can Tho’s proximity to Ho Chi Minh City, one could also arrive at SGN and take a land transfer via National Highway 1A. Express hydrofoil service also links the two cities, and ferries also provide access to the island of Phu Quoc.
Around town, the usual taxis, vans, coaches, and motorbikes are all viable transportation options.
4) Hai Phong
What to Know: Hai Phong is a major port and industrial center located on the banks of the Cam River in the northeast of Vietnam, some 120 kilometers east of the capital Hanoi. The climate varies between warm, dry winters and hot, humid summers, with most of the precipitation falling between April and October.
What to See: As an industrial center, there aren’t many tourist attractions to draw visitors to Hai Phong. However, it is fortuitously located close to world-renown Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing an otherworldly collection of karstic islands. By taxi the ride takes about 40 minutes; double that if you go by bus.
There’s also a ferry from Hai Phong that will bring guests to Cat Ba Island, where frequent ferry service to Ha Long Bay is available.
Getting There And Around: Air travel to Hai Phong is via Cat Bi International Airport (HPH), though international travelers can also take advantage of more frequent flights arriving in Hanoi and transfer from there. A modern highway connects Hai Phong and Hanoi, drastically reducing the travel time between them.
The city is connected to the national railway network, and as was mentioned earlier, ferry service will allow for localized transport by sea. There are a pair of long-distance bus depots in Hai Phong, which provides service to many of the region’s popular destinations. Around town, buses and taxis are the best options for visitors.
5) Da Nang
What to Know: Da Nang is the largest city located on Vietnam’s Central Coast, lying quite near the former border between North Vietnam and the fallen Republic of South Vietnam. The city is a growing commercial hub, an important maritime port, and despite ranking lower in urban population, is commonly considered to be Vietnam’s ‘third’ city.
It occupies just under 500 square miles of area and is geographically situated at the mouth of the Han River and the South China Sea. The climate is similar to many other places in Vietnam, with distinct dry and wet seasons that vary more in terms of precipitation than temperature.
What to See: Being located nearby to some of the most popular attractions in Vietnam, Da Nang is an advantageous base of operations for tourists coming to see the wonders of the Central Coast. In the city itself, the most recognizable landmark in Da Nang is the Dragon Bridge, which features its namesake mythological creature incorporated in the arches of the design.
Several UNESCO World Heritage Sites are located just a short distance away from Da Nang, each a worthy entrant in their own rite. The Imperial City of Hue, the former capital of Vietnam with its impressive palace and pagodas, makes for a perfect day trip.
Visitors can also travel a few miles south to admire the multicultural charm of the ancient trading port of Hoi An, with French, Chinese, and Japanese influences built right into the architecture. There are also the ruins of My Son Sanctuary some 70 kilometers to the west, featuring the weathered remnants of Hindu stupas and temples in an intriguing jungle setting.
Closer to the city, the striking Marble Mountains jut precipitously from the coastal plain and are worth at least a half day’s exploration. With the other half, one can relax on one of the many fine sandy beaches along the coast.
Visitors can also immerse themselves in the unique setting of a former hill station that has been transformed into an amusement park at Ba Na Hills, which features one of the world’s longest cable car rides as well as the viral social media star, the Golden Bridge.
Getting There And Around: Da Nang’s location midway along the length of Vietnam makes it an inevitable transportation hub. Air travelers looking to experience the many attractions of the Central Vietnam Coast will arrive at Da Nang International Airport (DAD), the third busiest airport in Vietnam.
The city is a major stop on the North-South “Reunification Express” train route, as well as the intersection of two of the major national highways. While Da Nang is a major port city, most cruise ship visitors arrive via the small port of Chan May, located some 50 kilometers outside of town.
At present Da Nang doesn’t have a metro system in place, so getting around town is best done by taxi. To visit the many outlying attractions, organized tours will often use air-conditioned buses or vans to shuttle tourists to and from sites.