A tale of two cities if you’ve ever heard one. Not many places are more wrapped up in the recent history of a war-torn country than these two. Vietnam’s current capital city & long-standing capital of the North, with the former capital of the south, Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh).
It's difficult to compare & contrast the two; they are similar, bustling cities well known throughout the world, but at the same time feel very, very different from each other. While it doesn't do it justice, the best I can say is Hanoi feels like D.C., a capital city with government & history while in comparison, HCM would be closer to a New York City vibe, though admittedly far smaller.
The beautiful capital of Vietnam, a cultural haven for colonial French architecture & a mix of ancient Chinese influences. At times, strolling through the streets felt more like walking through the French Quarter of New Orleans. We were at first surprised, then easily charmed by the beautiful city.
Besides playing “frogger” with the thousands of scooters on the streets, you can spend hours walking along the Old Quarter’s various cafes, shopping stalls, or food markets. One of our first activities was to indulge in a food tour.
Hitting 8 places in 3 hours is more like a sprint rather than a marathon of food, but it’s the best way to associate yourself quickly with local Vietnamese food. Lucky for me, being vegetarian is not an issue! I had no problem stuffing my face as much as Ben did 😊. While you’re in the city - do not pass up a chance to eat at Phở Gia Truyền. It may at first seem too “fancy” or modernized to be local, but we never tasted a better pho throughout the entire country! Also make sure to sample to delicious egg coffee, a true Northern delicacy not easily found in the South.
For your dose of history or museum going, you can head to the (enormous) Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum & nearby museum. Frankly, we opted to just walk around it rather than spend too much time there. We did take the quick tour of the lovely old palace grounds & gardens.
Spend at least a full afternoon walking the numerous pagodas & a visit to St, Joseph’s Cathedral. Each is a beautiful display of architecture & a testament to the country’s diverse religions.
And finally, if you aren't too tired from the eating, walking & night market shops, take in an evening show of the famous Thang Long Water Puppet Theater. Because, why not?
Ho Chi Minh
After the fall of Saigon, the city was formally renamed Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in 1976, during the reunification of Vietnam. But to be honest, we never really knew what to call it. Throughout our entire month in Vietnam, we were constantly being corrected. If we mentioned we were making our way south to HCMC, we’d get the “oh, you mean Saigon”. However, if we used Saigon, we’d be angrily reminded it was now Ho Chi Minh City. We couldn’t really win; old habits die hard.
Ho Chi Minh was completely different than anywhere else we had been in all of Vietnam. By far the most “western”, we had our choice of food & entertainment. The famed “Backpacker Street” was crawling with visitors of all ages, from all over the world & every block was covered with multi-story bars, neon lights & plenty of “Despacito” on repeat. And actually, to our surprise and enjoyment, there is a thriving craft beer scene exploding in the area. Though the traditional beer is not bad by any means, I found a spot to get my hands on a proper IPA again!
After visiting so many laidback, slower-paced regions, HCMC was like an assault on the senses. Besides finding yourself lost in the frenzy of bars & nightlife, given HCMC’s history during the war, there are more than enough historical sites to see.
Take an afternoon to walk around & explore the “Reunification Palace” & War Remnants Museum. There is no way you could travel all the way to Vietnam & not see these exhibits. It's the only way to gain a better perspective & a history from the experiences of the people in Vietnam. See it through their eyes.
Additionally, you can take a day-trip out to the Củ Chi tunnels, the elaborate network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War as hideouts, living quarters & supply routes. Just try & imagine what it must have been like all those years ago in such conditions.
To get a better idea of HCMC as it is today, stroll past the historical Saigon Notre Dame or old Postal Office. These beautiful examples of historical architecture today mix with new city high-rise buildings & the large, casual pedestrian walking street lined with more coffee bars than people.
Neither city was anything like we expected. Hanoi was beautiful, charming & a quaint old city I would have gotten lost in for at least a few weeks more. Ho Chi Minh is as large & buzzing as any major US or European city we’ve seen. With its overwhelming supply of western restaurants & goods, it was far more commercialized than we ever thought it would be.
Many Vietnamese typically prefer one to the other & who could blame them as they are so different. Though as a visitor, you can’t really understand one without seeing the other. To understand the history of Vietnam, gain a full appreciation for all the country has been through & where it stands today, you must experience the stories of both cities & how they are completely entwined, forever linked by a long hard journey.