Destinations Explore Vietnam

Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City: A First Timer’s Guide to Vietnam

Boast floating in the Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh at sunset

If you’re torn between what to do in Vietnam on your first trip, our Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City guide will help you decide which to visit first.

Vietnam is a patchwork of bustling megacities, quiet backwater towns, emerald islands and cascading rice paddies. In this vibrant country, first-timers are spoilt for choice. Where to start – the dizzying hubbub of Ho Chi Minh City in the south or the historical foodies’ paradise of Hanoi in the north?

Our Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City guide will help you decide what to do in Vietnam and which of Vietnam’s most popular cities is for you.

Read more: Where to Eat, Drink, Stay and Play in Vietnam 

HANOI 

The vibe: A modern city with strong connections to the past

Vietnam’s capital is a captivating cacophony of beeping scooters and farmers hawking their goods, with expansive green spaces and lakes that offer pockets of tranquility. It’s a city hurtling into the future, while leaving one foot firmly in its past: remnants of Old Hanoi are evident in the French colonial architecture of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, the Presidential Palace and Hanoi Opera House.

Hanoi Old Quarter. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Hanoi is also the gateway to the glittering green bays and pristine islands of Ha Long Bay – there’s a shuttle bus that can take you there in just 2.5 hours. If you’d like a glimpse into the northern villages of Vietnam, you’re perfectly positioned for exploring the remote highlands of Mai Chau, Ninh Binh, Sapa and Ha Giang.

What to do: Immerse yourself in history and folklore

Whether you’re a history buff, foodie, nature lover or culture vulture, there’s something for every type of traveller in Hanoi. Check out the Temple of Literature, an ancient temple built in 1070 and dedicated to Confucius. Take a walk around Hoàn Kiếm Lake at sunset or opt for a sunrise wander to spot locals practising tai chi. Don’t miss out on visiting Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the resting place of Vietnamese revolutionary leader and president Ho Chi Minh.

A trip to Hanoi isn’t complete without witnessing a water puppet show at Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppetry is a tradition that dates back to the 11th century, when it was performed throughout villages across northern Vietnam. Expect singing, wooden puppets, music and a strong nod towards Vietnamese folklore.

What to eat: Market food with the locals

The love language of Hanoi is food. Locals sit on plastic milk crates, slurping noodles and an ice-cold Saigon beer. Markets are brimming with authentic street food, and guests are encouraged to mix with the locals, pull up a chair and get stuck in. Some of Vietnam’s most famous dishes originated in Hanoi.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Take pho, for example. While the pronunciation of this fragrant dish has been widely debated, there’s no questioning its popularity. Bun cha is another local dish you should sample during your travels. Imagine succulent grilled pork strips served over a bed of steaming rice vermicelli noodles (or bún) – yum! The best way to taste it all? Join a walking street food tour or take a cooking class and learn how to recreate your favourite Vietnamese dishes at home.

Planning a trip? Stay in the heart of the action at the French colonial-style Mövenpick Hotel Hanoi, get a taste of the good life at Melia Hanoi or enjoy the fabulous facilities at Pullman Hanoi Hotel

HO CHI MINH CITY 

The vibe: A captivating buzz fills the air

You can’t help but get caught up in the high-energy whirlwind of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), the business and financial hub of Vietnam. Scooters roar across narrow streets in one big cluster, night markets heave with visitors, the aromas of sizzling meat fill the air and music from the vibrant night clubs pump into the streets.

Church of the Sacred Heart, Ho Chi Minh City. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Rooftop bars are in abundance, and sleek designer malls and silver skyscrapers exist alongside crumbling French-colonial dwellings, incense-infused temples and ramshackle markets. Along Backpacker Street, you’ll discover an abundance of bars, upscale restaurants and street food stalls to curb every type of craving.

What to do: Visit bustling markets and ancient monuments

In the centre of the city, you’ll find the huge, bustling Ben Thanh Market, the oldest market in HCMC. Get there early to stock up on local produce, clothes and traditional handicrafts. In the evenings, patrons arrive in droves to taste mouthwatering street food. HCMC’s significant history has a stronghold over the city’s heart; learn more about the country’s war-torn past at the War Remnants Museum or Ho Chi Minh City Museum.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Alternatively, spend a day exploring the Cu Chi Tunnels, a huge network of underground tunnels used by the Viet Cong soldiers during the Vietnam War. A simple stroll across the city is enough to evoke excitement – spot the Independence Palace, the French-colonial style Notre Dame Cathedral and the iconic yellow façade of Sai Gon Central Post Office.

What to eat: The city’s best banh mi

If you’re only going to try one local dish in HCMC, make it banh mi. So much more than just a cheap and cheerful sandwich, the beauty of the banh mi lies in its simplicity. Imagine a fresh baguette with just the right amount of crunch, lashings of creamy mayonnaise, slabs of pressed meat, and a sprinkling of pickled vegetables and fresh herbs. For the perfect bite, head to Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa – one of the most famous banh mi spots in the city. Or follow the scent of fresh meat to Bánh Mì 37 Nguyen Trai, which serves up grilled pork banh mi from a street food cart. For the ultimate, traditional banh mi, make a pit stop at Banh Mi Hong Hua. Locals pull up here on their morning commute by motorbike to place a takeaway order, so you know this is guaranteed to be good.

Planning a trip? Stay in the heart of the city with a designer escape at SILA Urban Living, go for five-star luxury at Caravelle Saigon, or opt for a stay just outside the city at the tranquil An Lam Retreats Saigon River.