Vietnam is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. The country has great beaches, world class cuisine and friendly people. In addition, Vietnam is a good base for exploring other countries in the region such as Laos, Cambodia and Indonesia.
But planning a vacation in a country you’ve never visited before can be a challenge. Especially if you have limited time and carefully need to select the places to visit. It’s a frustrating feeling when you realize much too late that you could have planned a much better itinerary.
I know. I have been there.
The good news is that I can help you. I have lived in Vietnam since April 2016, and I have helped many friends with their travel planning. And to be able to help as many people as possible I compiled all my knowledge into this handy guide. Here I’ll compare the two major destinations Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City and rank them in the following categories:
- Cost Of Living
- Day Trips
Ready to plan your dream vacation? Let’s dive right in!
Hanoi Or Ho Chi Minh City?
Hanoi is the capital of Vietnam and home to about 7,6 million people. Most of the cities cultural sights are located in the old quarter, with Hoan Kiem lake as the focal point. The city center is fairly walkable and there are plenty of taxis and Uber/Grab cars to choose from.
Ho Chi Minh City is the largest city in Vietnam and serves as a good base for all travels in South Vietnam. The city has a population of 8,4 Million and is divided into many districts. Most sights are located in central District 1, where you’ll find the main business and commercial areas. The traffic situation is worse in Ho Chi Minh city and you should take extra care when crossing streets. As an alternative use Vinasun or Mai Linh taxis or Uber/Grab to get around.
Cost Of Living
Compared to most of the western world, Vietnam is an inexpensive country to live in. In both Hanoi or Hi Chi Minh City you’ll be able to find accommodation for as low as $20 per day and meals for $2. Ho Chi Minh City is the more developed of the two with better tourist infrastructure. Here you’ll be able to find more budget options and better 5 star accommodations, as well as more food choices. For much more details about the cost of living in Vietnam check out my article.
Ho Chi Minh City does have a slight edge due to more options, both for budget and upscale. If you are looking for accommodation in Ho Chi Minh City I recommend that you check out my article Where To Stay In Ho Chi Minh City.
In Ho Chi Minh City the average temperature is pretty stable throughout the year: around 80 degrees Fahrenheit (27 degrees Celsius). Rain season starts in May until October with heavy rainfall. Typhons are common during the rain season and they can be a destructive force along the coastline. Flooding of city streets are common during this period. The rain combined with the high humidity can make it quite uncomfortable, especially if you’re doing any strenuous activities.
In Hanoi the period from November to April experiences cooler and drier weather compared to Ho Chi Minh City. The average temperature is 20°C with January being the coldest month with an average temperature of 17°C. The wet season starts in May, and by July the rain has increased to its heaviest. July and August are the wettest months of the year. Temperatures are high at this time of year with daily highs over 30°C and night time temperatures never dropping much below 25°C.
It all depends what time of the year you’ll visit. Hanoi can be quite cold during the winter months, while Ho Chi Minh City has the same temperature year round. Hence Ho Chi Minh City has a slight edge during the winter months, if you consider warm weather a necessity. Rain season hits both cities hard during the summer months, and heavy rain and flooding is common. Since it’s so dependent on the time you visit Vietnam, I consider this Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City category a draw.
In Hanoi you see the delicious noodle soup Pho served on every street corner. In addition there’s a myriad of other local dishes such as Banh Mi (baguettes filled with meats and vegetables), Bun Cha (pork and noodles) and Goi Cuon ( Vietnamese spring roll). You won’t go hungry in Hanoi for sure!
Down in Ho Chi Minh City you’ll find more variety when it comes to food. The city has a more modern and international food scene while still having all the traditional Vietnamese food. In addition, Ho Chi Minh City has a vibrant cafe culture inherited from the French colonialists.
In both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City you will be able to experience great local cuisine. The difference between the two cities is the cafe culture and more availability of international food in Ho Chi Minh City, giving the southern city an edge in this Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City category.
In general, I find the people of Ho Chi Minh City to be polite and friendly. I’ve never had any major issues, except some occasional cases of rudeness towards foreigners. But those are few and far apart. The level of English is not great but you can make yourself understood with some effort. In addition there’s a lot of expats living in Ho Chi Minh City due to the many international corporations with offices in the city.
The people of Hanoi are a bit more more mainland Chinese in their behavior. It can be summed up as more traditional and blunt compared to people in the south. Also English is not widely spoken. Sadly, cutting in front of other people when queuing is epidemic and happened to me several times per day. This behavior is very rare in Ho Chi Minh City. That being said, I have friends who have lived in Hanoi for a long time and they made some wonderful local friends. It may just be that people from the north take a bit longer to warm up to foreigners.
Personally I prefer to be around people from Ho Chi Minh City. In my opinion they are friendlier and more open to foreigners. This may partly be because their past history, combined with the fact the south receives more visitors and international expats. But this may change in due time.
The nightlife in Ho Chi Minh City is a pleasant experience, and there’s something for everyone’s wallet, ranging from inexpensive bars around Bui Vien to more upscale places around Nguyen Hue. For much more details I recommend reading the best Ho Chi Minh City nightlife.
Hanoi has less nightlife options compared to Ho Chi Minh City, especially for upscale places, but it’s still a good place to let your hair down. In the old quarter you’ll find the inexpensive backpack bars that serves $1 beers while you chill on the iconic red plastic chairs. For more trendy places head to either the area around Hoan Kiem Lake or West Lake, where the wealthy Vietnamese and the expats hang out.
This is a close race but a slight edge to Ho Chi Minh City due to a more international club scene. That being said, a night out in Hanoi will definitely cost you less than in Ho Chi Minh City.
Most of the shopping in Hanoi is centered around the Old Quarter. In these quarters not much has changed since colonial times, and you’ll find a myriad of small shops selling locally produced clothing, shoes and silver items. Souvenirs, textiles and other handmade items are also common here. As of 2018, there aren’t many modern shopping malls in Hanoi.
If you’re a shopaholic, Ho Chi Minh City will not disappoint. Start your day at Ben Thanh market where you’ll find everything from inexpensive perfume, tasty Vietnamese coffee to counterfeit luggage. Afterwards, head over to one of the modern shopping malls for example Saigon Centre or Vincom where you’ll find tons of upscale stores selling brand clothing and electronics.
When it comes to modern shopping, Ho Chi Minh City is a clear winner. But for more genuine, locally produced products I believe Hanoi has an edge. So it’s really what kind of shopping experience you’re after. I would say for this Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City category it’s a draw.
Most of Hanoi’s sights are located in or around the Old Quarter. This area is one of the best places to get a feel for how life in old Vietnam used to be. Here you can stroll for hours exploring small alleys and streets lined with old shops, pagodas and markets.
In addition there’s the splendid Temple of Literature, Vietnam’s first university, and the Imperial Palace, the powerhouse of the now long gone emperor. And don’t miss the excellent water puppet performances in a theater located by Hoan Kiem lake.
In Ho Chi Minh City most of the sights are located in District 1. The highlights includes the Independent Palace, Notre-Dame cathedral and the war remnant museum. I recommend reading The 5 Best Things To Do In Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where you’ll find much more details about sights in Ho Chi Minh City.
In my opinion, Hanoi offers the best cultural sights. You can’t find sights like the old quarter or the imperial palace in Ho Chi Minh City, though the city has many good museums and parks. Hanoi is the winner in this Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City category.
In Hanoi you’ll find one of the countries top sights within easy reach: Halong Bay. In addition, there’s Hoa Lu, the ancient capital of Vietnam, and Perfume Pagoda, a splendid string of Pagodas located on a limestone mountain. If you venture even further out you have Sapa, a region with some stunning natural scenery.
Ho Chi Minh also has several good day trips. Most popular are the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of tunnels used by Vietcong during the war, and Mekong Delta. Both can be visited on an organized tour but it’s also possible to plan it on your own as I talk about in How To Visit The Can Tho Floating Markets.
When it comes to daytrips Hanoi has more to offer. Halong Bay is one of the top sights in all of Vietnam, maybe even for all of South East Asia. Hanoi is a winner in this Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City category
If we sum up the Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City challenge, Hi Chi Minh City wins by 6 to 4. But let’s just not blindly stare at the points, since we’re all different people with different goals for our trip.
In conclusion, Hanoi will be a better destinations for those who wish to discover more of ancient Vietnam. The city is less developed and has more remnants from old imperial Vietnam and the French colonialists. In addition, the city offers better daytrip.
Ho Chi Minh City on he other hand is more modern and international. Here you can eat and live more comfortable, visit great museums during the day while party the night away in world class clubs.
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