When it comes to which city to visit in Vietnam, Hanoi and Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City) are often popular choices among first-time travellers. At first glance, both cities offer plenty of sightseeing and shopping opportunities, dining and nightlife options, as well as hotels catering to just about any budget and preference.
Hanoi is located in northern Vietnam and is home to pristine temples and expansive lakes, while Ho Chi Minh City, at the southern end, attracts travellers looking to learn more about Vietnam’s rather bleak recent history. Still undecided on which city best suits your taste and budget? Have a look at our quick comparison below – categorised according to dining, accommodation, nightlife, and more – to make the right holiday choice.
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Hanoi: More temples & natural landscapes
Vietnam’s capital is teeming with well-preserved Buddhist shrines, beautiful lakes, and an Old Quarter filled with ancient ruins, some of which that are over 1,000 years old. Notable landmarks include the Temple of Literature, Ngoc Son Temple, One Pillar Pagoda and the Imperial Citadel of Thang Long. While there’s a fair share of colonial villas and mansions within the French Quarter, Hanoi is renowned for its proudly preserved Vietnamese culture and traditions.
Ho Chi Minh City: More war museums & colonial structures
While Ho Chi Minh City has seen rapid urbanisation throughout the years, it’s still home to plenty of colonial buildings, war museums and historic remnants of the Vietnam War. Travellers can visit the Central Post Office, Ho Chi Minh Square, War Remnants Museum and Reunification Palace in the city centre, while the Chu Chi Tunnels are a 40-minute drive away. Here’s a helpful guide on what to do in Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi: more boutique-style
Hotels in Hanoi (especially within the French Quarter) tend to be boutique-style properties with original design concepts, personalised services and a wide range of facilities. While backpackers can find relatively affordable accommodation in the Old Quarter, Hanoi mostly caters to mid-range and wealthy travellers.
Saigon: more variety
Thanks to its status as Vietnam’s business and financial hub, Ho Chi Minh City offers a wide range of accommodation options in the city centre, offering easy access to popular cultural landmarks and attractions. District 1 is home to sprawling five-star hotels while backpackers can find inexpensive guesthouses along Pham Ngu Lao Street and Cholon (Chinatown). Check out our list of 10 Best Hotels in Ho Chi Minh City to find that best suits your travel dates and budget.
Hanoi: more traditional
Dining-wise, street food reigns in Hanoi as its narrow alleyways host many roadside vendors, local markets and family-owned restaurants. The iconic Vietnamese pho (rice noodle soup) originates from Hanoi, where you can enjoy a generous bowl with plenty of fresh greens for less than US$1. We’ve also compiled a list of the best local restaurants and dishes you must try in Hanoi.
Saigon: more diverse
Ho Chi Minh City is known as the food capital of Vietnam, where travellers can enjoy not only authentic French and Vietnamese delicacies, but also expat-owned bistros serving Japanese, Chinese, Mediterranean and American fare. From luxurious fine-dining venues to casual pizza joints, read on for our top picks on where to eat in Ho Chi Minh City.
Hanoi: More casual bars
Hanoi is arguably the city to be in if you’re looking for cheap booze and chilled out vibes. Come sundown, a part of Hanoi Old Quarter transforms into Bia Hoi Junction, a bustling nightlife district where travellers can enjoy local beers (bia hoi) for as little as VND 5,000 per glass while sitting back on plastic stools.
Saigon: More nightclubs & rooftop bars
Catering to a more upmarket clientele, many skyscrapers and five-star hotels in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 1 have rooftop bars and swanky nightclubs that stay open until 03:00 or later. For travellers on a tight budget, live music bars and casual pubs can be found along the backpacker-friendly Pham Ngu Lao Street.
Hanoi: more markets
Offering a more authentic shopping experience, Hanoi features bustling markets and colonial shophouses selling handicrafts, local artwork and fresh produce. No two streets in the pedestrian-friendly Old Quarter are the same, as each specialise in certain products such as silverware, shoes and silk materials. Check out our guide for the best shopping in Hanoi.
Saigon: more shopping malls
By contrast, Ho Chi Minh City is renowned for its expansive and modern shopping venues, such as Vincom Center, Takashimaya Vietnam and Parkson Plaza Department Store. Meanwhile, fashion boutiques and art galleries are set along Dong Khoi Street in District 1, where bespoke items can be bought at a fraction of what they cost elsewhere. Shopping is truly one of the highlights for travellers in Ho Chi Minh City, so we’ve compiled a handy guide on the best places for retail therapy.
Hanoi: more traditional
Home to a thriving local Buddhist community, Hanoi remains traditional throughout the years. The streets of the Old Quarter still house colonial shophouses, markets, local restaurants and vendors, as well as coffee shops that have been serving the locals for generations. Hoan Kiem Lake is where you can experience the local lifestyle, such as the elderly practising Tai Chi and line dancing, people walking their dogs and couples enjoying the lake’s serene atmosphere.
Saigon: more westernised & urban
Ho Chi Minh City was greatly influenced by the American and French culture, resulting in rapid modernisation in the form of luxury hotels, trendy shopping malls, entertainment options and sleek skyscrapers. However, travellers can find plenty of historical landmarks throughout the city, such as the Reunification Palace, Cao Dai Temple and Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Vietnam’s traffic condition is undeniably notorious, especially in developed cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Although Ho Chi Minh City has newer and broader roads than Hanoi, traffic jams are unavoidable during peak hours, with motorists misusing sidewalks, pedestrian streets and narrow alleyways to get to their destination. As dangerous as it sounds, it’s important not to panic when you’re walking into six lanes of dense traffic - just keep a steady pace, don’t panic and you’ll probably be fine.
While Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are popular holiday destinations in Vietnam, it’s clear that each city caters to different types of traveller. Hanoi is ideal for those looking to experience a more traditional lifestyle while Ho Chi Minh City’s urban landscape is best suited for luxury travellers. You can also explore the best of both worlds as domestic flights between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are available on a daily basis. If you’re looking for a more budget-friendly way of getting around, the Reunification Express train is priced between USD50 (for hard seats) and USD90 (for soft berth).