If you travel to Vietnam from North to South, you will see and explore the diversity of natural landscapes, various cultures, and people in every place, especially in Saigon and Hanoi. They are two typical metropolises where you would easily recognize interesting contrast in their lifestyle, activities, accent, and other specialties.
Most of the locals still call Ho Chi Minh City by its old name “Saigon” because it is reminiscing and easier to say. The city had a history of over 300 years and used to be known as “The Second Paris” in Southeast Asia during the French colonization in the 19th and the first half of the 20th century. The city was also a subject of many historical events and changes as well as received a lot of attention from the time of its establishment, and thus Saigon has become the economy central of Vietnam with busy trading and services such as tourism, education, and finance.
Not only being known as the capital of Vietnam, but Hanoi is also a place containing and remaining Vietnamese traditional and cultural values of over 1,000 years. Hanoi was recognized as the capital of the country by King Ly Thai To and by several later empires throughout its history. The city was named “Hanoi” in 1831 and became the official capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1945. You can explore and learn a lot about Vietnam's history and its different periods and dynasties when you travel to Hanoi.
Read more on What to do in Hanoi in 3 days Travel Guide.
Saigon. There are two seasons in Saigon, the dry season (from May to November) and the rainy season (from November to March). And sometimes during the dry season, you can also get unexpected rain, so you should prepare a raincoat just in case. Moreover, the average weather in Saigon is from 30 to 35 degrees Celsius; the sun is intense so you will need sunblock to protect your skin.
Read more on When is the Best Time to go to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon).
Hanoi. The weather in Hanoi is different from that in Saigon because there are four seasons with distinct temperatures. For example, it could be really hot in summer, about 36 degree Celsius, but that could be as freezing as 15 degree Celsius when winter comes. Therefore, autumn, from August to October, should be the best season for tourists to visit Hanoi because of its natural beauty and comfortable weather.
Read more on When is the Best Time to go to Hanoi.
Saigon. Hustling” and “bustling” are exact words to describe the lifestyle in Saigon. You would immediately notice that the traffic is complicated, and you may wonder how a lot of motorbikes can weave through the streets which makes it difficult for first-time visitors to cross the streets as the locals do.
Hanoi. Hanoi, like Saigon, is a busy metropolitan of Vietnam; its traffic is also crowded with many means of transportation, especially motorbikes, and pedestrians.
Saigon. In the early 1960s, the Saigonese fashion trends were inspired by Western clothing because of American cultural influence. Therefore, most of the Saigonese have gotten used to wearing casual clothes such as shirts, pairs of jeans, skirts, and jackets. However, the Ao dai was still the favorite dress of many Vietnamese women in Saigon at that time when they went to work or shopping. However, because of the unexpected weather in Saigon, casual clothing is often a better and more convenient choice for the locals who need to go to work or hang out. Therefore, today, Ao dai is only worn by women on some traditional occasions such as Tet holidays.
Hanoi. There is no clear difference between the cities in the two cities, but because of the season division, you can see that Hanoi's city wardrobe is more diverse than that of Saigonese. The clothes range from short and light cloth for the summer, but there are also comfortable and warm clothes for winter days.
Saigon. Some people claim that most cuisines in the Southeast of Vietnam are influenced by the seasoning and taste of Thai, Cambodian, and Laos foods; the locals often use coconut milk, juice, and sugar as sweeteners or many ingredients like tamarind, river-leaf creeper, and pineapple to make sour taste. For example, if you have some food paired with fish sauce such as Banh xeo, Com tam, or Bun thit nuong, you can often taste the sweetness in the fish sauce. Also, various kinds of herbs also play an essential ingredient in most of the dishes of Saigonese. A plate full of herbs like mint, Vietnamese coriander, Vietnamese balm, and basil is a usual companion of many recipes and people in the South usually eat them raw or use them as wrapping.
Hanoi. People in Hanoi also used herbs and vegetables in cooking, but each kind of herb usually goes with only one dish and cannot be used to replace others. These ingredients make the food special and unique. The taste of Hanoi’s food is lighter, without too much seasoning or spices, and sometimes you can find it a little sour. While people in Saigon, a “hotpot” city, tend to combine many ingredients from different regions and cultures to create their dishes, people in Hanoi are used to traditional cooking and recipes.
Saigon. Across Vietnam, there are more street food stalls and pop-up restaurants than expensive restaurants because they sell foods at a low price and it is more convenient to eat on the go. You will see the street food stores and stalls in Saigon vary in different sizes, from small, narrow ones in the alleys, to big ones with small plastic/steel tables and chairs, and their cooking areas are usually indoors or at the front of the stores.
Hanoi. Known as the source of Vietnamese cuisine, Hanoi would exhilarate your appetite with a lot of traditional local food. The food stalls in Hanoi are truly street foods style as their cooking areas are usually placed outdoors, letting out the attractive smell that will keep you staying. And there are many street foods that are famous in Hanoi but not in Saigon.
Pho cuon (Pho rolls)
Houses, Buildings, and Attractions
Saigon. Saigon is a young city in Vietnam of just over 300 years old. Therefore, most of the buildings and tourist attractions in Saigon have only been here since the 19th century. And the authorities in Saigon continue to build more new playgrounds with modern facilities for the citizens. When visiting Saigon, besides some historical monuments, you can explore and visit some interesting destinations such as the walking streets, local markets, and shopping malls.
Hanoi. Hanoi is an ancient city with a longer history than Saigon, so almost all the monuments and tourist attractions in Hanoi are historical destinations that appeared more than 700 years ago. That was when the dynasties of Kings still existed, and they established the capital to be the most developed city in the country.
Find a hotel for your Vietnam trip
Saigon. The population of Saigon is about 8.3 million people (2016), and the number increases steadily throughout the years. Many people from rural areas or other provinces come to the city to earn their living. Moreover, the culture of Saigon is friendliness and enthusiasm, which impresses many visitors who are foreigners traveling here.
After peak hours in the evening, the vibe of the city is still busy and full of life. It will be wonderful when you get around the center of Saigon at night and enjoy the local activities of the people in the districts. Many locals, especially the young ones, hang out with their friends or family in different kinds of places like the walking streets, street food stalls, restaurants, and bars.
Read more on Ho Chi Minh One Day Itineraries.
Hanoi. Like Saigon, Hanoi is also a busy city where you can find many people skillfully driving their motorbikes on the streets. But unlike Saigon in the early morning, the people here spend this peaceful and refreshing time exercising, especially in the Hoan Kiem Lake areas.
The nightlife in Hanoi is not as crowded as in Saigon, but you still see a lot of exciting activities in the Old Quarter and backpackers’ district. There are lots of people, especially the youth and foreigners, who kick back and spend leisure time chatting on the street with street food and drinks or do their shopping in the night markets.
Read more on Vietnamese Street Food Options You Should Try.
In spite of the differences, Saigon and Hanoi are always places worth visiting for any travelers to Vietnam. These differences are making the cities special and unique, and their coexistence creates the diverse beauty of Vietnamese culture and nature. Visiting these two cities, you can see and learn many aspects of Vietnam. Pack your bag and see how many differences can you spot between Saigon and Hanoi.
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It depends a lot on your preference and time. What city do you like more, and what time in the year are you going to visit Vietnam.