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Vietnam’s Two Biggest Cities

Hanoi Vs. Saigon

Vietnam may be reunited as one country, but its two largest cities–Hanoi and Saigon–are as different as night and day. Consider the differences between San Francisco and Los Angeles, or New York City and Miami, for example. They may all be in the same country, but architecturally, politically, and culturally, they stand alone.

One of the most apparent differences between these Vietnamese cities is in the name. Although most Hanoians refer to the big city in the south as “Ho Chi Minh City,” most southerners still call it “Saigon,” especially when referring to the downtown central area.

Another notable difference is in religion. Most Hanoians practice a distinctly Vietnamese-style of Taoism and Buddhism, with a bit of ancestor worship thrown into the mix. The south, though, is predominantly Catholic–a result of being under the occupation of the French, who gave preferential treatment to Catholics for many decades.

When we lived in Nha Trang, a town on the south-central coast of Vietnam, we took Vietnamese language lessons. Feeling vaguely competent in the language, we were dismayed when we tried to communicate up north in Hanoi, where we struggled to make ourselves understood. It was more than just a difference in dialect. Many words are so different that even native Hanoians say that they have a hard time making themselves understood when they go to the south. In Hanoi, for example, if you want to order a meal of pork, you’d ask for thit lon. In Saigon, you’d need to ask for thit heo. We’ve almost had to totally relearn the language and pronunciation since moving to Hanoi.

Although Catholicism never really took hold in the north, the French did leave their architectural style behind when they left the country. Buildings were taxed according to the amount of space that the structure took up on the street. As a result, people built very narrow buildings that were several stories high, with each story consisting of a single room. Many buildings in Hanoi are barely six feet in width but may be five or six stories tall. These “tunnel houses” make up most of the housing in central Hanoi and, to a lesser extent, can be found throughout the city.

The architecture in Saigon is noticeably different. Although the French certainly left their legacy of building styles here, too, America also made an impression, and many homes in this city are wider and more spacious than those typically found in the north. There are few skyscrapers and highrises in Hanoi. But to see the central districts of Saigon, you’ll need to stretch your neck. Huge shopping complexes and highrise condominiums dominate the skyline in this city, offering a stark contrast to Hanoi.

Hanoi recently celebrated its 1,000-year anniversary. The Turtle Tower, an ancient pagoda that sits in the middle of Hoan Kiem Lake, was built in the 15th century. The Tran Quoc Pagoda, which overlooks pretty West Lake and is within walking distance of the Old Quarter, was built more than 1,400 years ago. In the city’s Old Quarter, it’s easy to imagine life as it was a millenium ago.

In contrast, Saigon is relatively modern. As recently as 1929, the city had a population of less than 130,000–barely more than a town. Almost everything in Saigon has been built in the past century. Today, the city has a population of more than nine million.

Vietnam is so notable for its culinary delights that several tour operators offer exclusive food tours of the country. A menu in Hanoi will be totally different to the menu in Saigon. The Hanoi diet revolves around noodles and potatoes, pork and chicken, oranges and plums. Whereas the Saigon diet is more centered around rice, squid, seafood, and tropical fruits. Popular Vietnamese cuisine found in the U.S. is almost always influenced by the south. It’s hard to find the classic northern dishes of bun cha (a pork and noodle Hanoi speciality), bun bo nam bo (a rice-noodle and beef dish) or cha ca (grilled fish, Hanoi-style) outside of Hanoi.

If you like wandering around in large shopping malls, go to Saigon, where huge, super-clean air-conditioned buildings offer a huge selection of local and multi-national stores all under one roof. Although shopping malls are gaining in popularity in Hanoi, they’re still the exception rather than the norm. Entrepreneurism is king in modern Saigon; Hanoi is much more traditional and far less westernized.

Another big difference between the two cities is the weather. Hanoi lies 1,777 kilometers north of Saigon. Winters can be cold and summers are much hotter than they are in the south. Saigon has a tropical climate, with warm temperatures year-round.

As different as the two cities are, they do share some similarities. The people are some of the friendliest and most welcoming people that you’ll find anywhere in the world. Both cities have large numbers of expats and foreigners, and it’s easy to make friends with westerners and locals. Saigon and Hanoi offer a wide range of amenities for westerners who don’t want to “go native,” with fine dining, cultural shows, spas, and other activities that will appeal to everyone. If you’re thinking of Asia, it’s worth checking out your options in Vietnam.

Wendy Justice

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