First-time travelers to Vietnam often fret over one decision: should I arrive in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City?
The cultural differences between Hanoi and HCMC/Saigon are palpable, even for fresh-off-the-plane tourists. The differences are somewhat akin to L.A. versus New York, or Toronto versus Montreal:
- Ho Chi Minh City is stereotypically thought of as the hotbed of innovation, business, and pop-culture;
- Hanoi is the soul of art, culture, traditions, and government administration.
Depending on your personality and travel goals, you may love one place and resent the other. Therefore, use our guides to understand the cultural and behavioural differences between the residents of Ho Chi Minh City (once Saigon) vs Hanoi before you plan your trip.
SideNote: there is also a smaller international airport at Da Nang . With beaches, mountains, and amazing spicy food, you should definitely consider starting your trip from Da Nang. See our guide of what to do in Da Nang.
Deep History: Hanoi and HCMC in the Past
Hanoi and what is now Ho Chi Minh City have different cultural origins and histories. They have been, at times, united under the same empire or have been dominated by disparate rulers (e.g., China, Champa, Khmer/Cambodia). Today, the two cities seem more similar to each other versus neighbouring non-Vietnamese cities. However, their different historical legacies can still be recognized in subtle ways that influence culture.
Northern Vietnam has been the base and homeland of the Viet people: the dominant ethno-cultural group after which the country “Vietnam” and the Vietnamese-language are named. A contiguous line in history extends from modern Vietnam to various Viet kingdoms in the past, such as Dai Co Viet or Dai Viet. In many ways, this makes Hanoi more authentically Vietnamese than southern Vietnam.
The boundaries of previous Viet empires have shifted and morphed over time, but, generally, they comprised Northern Vietnam, parts of Laos and China, and extended into what is now Central Vietnam. In Central Vietnam, the Viet empires came abut the Champa empire, or the Cambodia/Khmer empires to the south. At other times, the Viet people and Hanoi were occupied by Chinese kingdoms. The various Chinese occupations has had a significant influence on Hanoi, which can be seen in the ancient architecture, religious iconography, cuisine, and other aspects of the North’s character and culture.
In contrast, what is now Ho Chi Minh City was part of different Champa empires and Cambodian/Khmer empires. Foreigners can notice a hint of Indian influence on the food and ancient architecture of the Champa or Khmer, and so too are these cultural influences obvious in the hinterlands and ancient ruins around Ho Chi Minh City.
Since the early 1700’s, the region of Ho Chi Minh City has been dominated by Viet people. Historically, there was a concerted effort by Viet empires, and, more recently, by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, to assimilate the southern ethnic groups into a common Viet identity. For example, northern Viet people were financially encouraged to relocate and farm undeveloped lands in the south, centre and highland regions of Vietnam — some people even received free land!
The Vietization of the south means that, today, many residents of Ho Chi Minh City see themselves as regular Vietnamese, and not as some separate ethno-cultural group.
More recently, in the early-to-mid 1900’s, Northern Vietnam was the centre of the Socialist revolution and independence movement which pushed-out colonial rulers (e.g., France, Japan), monarchical rulers (e.g., Nguyen monarchs) as well as reasserted control over what is now Southern Vietnam. Northern Vietnam was ideologically and economically aligned with Soviet Russia, and was relatively closed to Western influences, both economically and culturally (until recently). In contrast, what-was Saigon, prior to reunification, was the seat of an capitalist society that was more aligned with the West.
As a traveler in Vietnam, you may not be attuned to these historical differences while walking around the cosmopolitan CBD’s of either city. But, in the religious icons, cuisine, ancient architecture, you will quickly notice the heavy influence of Chinese-culture on the north, and the hint of Champa/Khmer/Indian influences in the south.
Stereotypes & Character
Although domestic stereotypes are often harmful at the individual-level, they are fascinating to outsiders as a way to gain insight into how Vietnamese people think about themselves and their countrymen.
Within Vietnam, people from Southern Vietnam have a reputation of being more laid-back and easy-going. They have a relaxed attitude to traditional culture and manners, and older cultural institutions are not held so dearly. Ho Chi Minh City, in keeping with its longer history of international capitalism, is often described as being friendlier to foreigners and easier to work with. On the flip-side, the residents of Ho Chi Minh are sometimes accused of being more superficial and shallow, focused more on trendy business opportunities and excessive money-making.
In contrast, the residents of Hanoi seem more serious and somber, as if they are constantly preoccupied with very important matters. It is like everyone has a “resting b—- face” in public. People do not seem altogether curious about foreigners (although that has changed rapidly in the recent past). In fact, it is within living memory that all-things Western, like bell-buttom jeans and US pop music, were banned. There is a greater respect for cultural traditions and traditional manners; for example, family-meals will feel more ritualized in Hanoi, in which children and elders behave and talk differently according to their station. This reverence for tradition and cultural institutions manifests in a deeper appreciation for old-styles of art, literature, and craft.
Business & Entrepreneurship: Where is there more opportunity, in Hanoi or HCMC?
We often write about the amazing entrepreneurial spirit and busy-economic activity that permeates Vietnam, which is obvious in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. However, within Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is stereotypically regarded as the place for innovation, economic opportunities, and participation in a rapidly growing trans-national economic system, whereas Hanoi is regarded as the centre of government administration, diplomats, and cultural institutions.
What does this mean for travelers? Unless you plan to live, work, or develop business contacts in Vietnam, you probably won’t notice the differences in business-climate in either city. If you are looking for opportunities, whether to find drop-shipping suppliers, or develop your own white-label product, or outsource marketing talent, you’ll find plenty of opportunity both cities.
That being said, Ho Chi Minh City has a deeper legacy of capitalism, and a greater history of working with international business-partners. This means that the whole system is better geared towards understanding the needs of foreign business partners and being able to execute smoothly. This is notable because in most of the country, there is a “Vietnamese Way” of doing business that can seem needlessly complex and predicated on social-bonds, in contrast to the hyper-efficient & impersonal ways of doing business in America/Canada.
On the other hand, as a simple tourist, you will likely be amazed by the scale of hustle-and-bustle and street-level entrepreneurship in both cities. One of our favourite DIY self-guided tours is to explore the guild-streets in Hanoi, to get a sense of the deep history of skilled craftsmanship and rich economic opportunities.
Hanoi is regarded as the cultural and artistic capital of Vietnam, whereas Ho Chi Minh City has more pop-culture creatives and marketing professionals.
We love the art scene in Hanoi. There is a rich variety of exquisite craftsmanship and artistry across many traditional art-forms, such as painting, lacquer art, instrument making, mesmerizing embroidery art, and more. We especially like the distinctively Hanoi style-of-painting that depicts macabre cityscapes (see our post of Hanoi-inspired impressionist art). The artist community in Hanoi is stereotypically thought of as more sophisticated, deep, serious, if maybe a little pompous — and their art prices reflect this self-importance! But, even if you can’t afford an original work by Quan Le, there are still dozens of “copy galleries” where you can masterful (and affordable) replicas to fill your walls.
If Hanoi is the Vietnamese centre of art, Ho Chi Minh City is, in contrast, the centre of “creatives” — not artists per se, but white-collar designers, architectures, marketers, animators who populate the offices and studios of pop-culture production companies and/or marketing agencies. Such creative-work isn’t venerated like the serious craftsmanship of Hanoi, but it helps drive the huge economic engine of Ho Chi Minh and, for a certain kind of entrepreneurial tourist, it can be a great place to find talent. For example, if you are looking to touch-up your real estate photos, or outsource web-designers, or hire a team of marketers, Ho Chi Minh City has a lot opportunity.
RELATED: the Macabre Impressionist Painters of Hanoi, our favourite cityscape paintings of Hanoi
Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are experiencing rapid economic growth, and a concomitant increase in the number of international communities living in their districts. Both cities have all the usual amenities of globally-significant metropoli, such as french bakeries, Indian restaurants, American stake-houses, whiskey bars, English prep schools, opulent malls, and endless ways to amuse-yourself into a stupour.
However, Ho Chi Minh City definitely has a larger expat community and is more multicultural. Official statistics are difficult to find, but in 2015, there were 3.1x more foreigners living and working in Ho Chi Minh City compared to Hanoi [source], despite the fact that Hanoi hosts all the embassies and diplomats.
On the ground, the difference is noticeable: Hanoi’s foreigners and international-serving amenities tend to be concentrated in a few neighbourhoods (e.g. Tây Hồ). In the rest of the city, it is a little surprising to see foreigners. In contrast, in Ho Chi Minh City, foreigners are more spread-out throughout the city and are more visibly common.
What does this mean for you as a traveler: it will be easy to find services in Ho Chi Minh City that are provided in English and/or dedicated to foreigners, such as English-speaking apartment brokers, baking ingredients, or authentic Scotch whiskey. There are more late-night/early-morning expat raging parties in Phạm Ngũ Lão street.
However, it also means that Hanoi feels more authentically Vietnamese. Why go half-way around the world to hang-out with expats?
Hanoi Districts with Large Expat Communities
- Tây Hồ – a lot of Western/European expats live, work, and hang-out in Tây Hồ. There are craft breweries, collective work-spaces, reggae-and-rock bars, artisan pizza, and more. For apartments, there are interesting maze-like back-alleys that snake through the complex geometry of the peninsular district.
- Kim Mã – This is the district that is popular with Japanese and, more recently, Korean expats. It is becoming like a second centre of Hanoi. Unlike the slightly hippie-bohemian flair of Tây Hồ, Kim Mã seems like an orgy of consumerism and opulence. There are lots of Japanese restaurants, spas, and products. You’ll find excellent fashion stores, large modern malls (e.g., the giant Lotte Mart tower is here), modern offices and many financial/investing institutions. It is an exciting place, and walkable to the West Lake and the Mausoleum.
- French Quarter – There is a lot of beautiful French colonial architecture here, but, few French people. A lot of embassies are in this area, but otherwise there are few expats.
- Old Quarter/Hoàn Kiếm – The Old Quarter is the centre of Hanoi and primary destination of tourists. You’ll find most of the tourist amenities here. Few expats actually live or work in the Old Quarter.
See our comprehensive guide to the Neighbourhoods of Hanoi
Ho Chi Minh City Districts with Large Expat Communities
- Lê Tháng Tôn street – Japan town in Saigon
- District 5 – China Town. These Chinese in China Town aren’t necessarily expats; many of them are the descendants of Chinese refuges who fled from persecution and starvation during the Chinese cultural revolutions. The children of these ethnic-Chinese are very integrated into Vietnamese culture, and are often indistinguishable from regular Vietnamese
- District 7 – Korean Town
- District 2 – Like Tây Hồ in Hanoi, this is the place for raucous backpackers and raging expat parties. It also has a lot of professional foreigners working in finance, for embassies, and large corporations.
Crime & Safety: Which is Safer? Hanoi or HCMC?
The kind of physical street-level crime that frightens most people is, in our experience, very rare in Hanoi, but more common in Ho Chi Minh City. In this we include crimes like pick-pocketing or drive-by phone-snatchers. Even residents of Ho Chi Minh City have been known to look around suspiciously before pulling-out their valuables on the street.
These issues don’t seem to plague Hanoi. Hanoi definitely feels like a safe city. Compared to the mass-homelessness of progressive American cities, or the immigrant ghettos of Europe, the blight of “no-go zones” doesn’t exist in Hanoi. Women especially seem to appreciate the feeling of safety and security while walking around in the evenings.
Most of the crime in Hanoi (and in Vietnam more general) isn’t the kind of scary physical altercation like in America; instead, you should be more concerned about being scammed in consumer- or business-dealings, such as being tricked into paying for free parking, buying fake whiskey, or getting a fraudulent visa extension. See our guide to 4 Common Scams that Target Tourists in Vietnam.
That being said, we do have one experience of being robbed by a drug-addled, knife-wielding maniac at night-time outside a Circle-K in Hanoi. It was dark, far from the centre, with no one else was on the street. After tossing him all of our cash, the miscreant left us alone. Had it been a little earlier, there would have been a security guard stationed outside the store, and probably it wouldn’t have happened. So, learn from our bad experience: even though Hanoi feels very safe, you still need to use common sense. Don’t be out alone in unpopulated places late at night — which is true everywhere.
Religion is a complex topic in Vietnam. What constitutes a “religion” isn’t so clearly defined. For instance, within Vietnam, there is a near-ubiquitous collection of rituals, superstitions, and supernatural beliefs (such as ancestor worship and reliance on fortune tellers) that are considered part of Vietnamese culture rather than constituting an organized “religion” en par with Buddhism or Catholicism. With that caveat, we can talk about religion…
In terms organized religions, the south of Vietnam is generally more religious compared to the north. For example, in Ho Chi Minh City, about 50% of the residents practice some form of Buddhism, 12% of people are Catholic. After those two organized religions, there is a wide variety of small religions, some that are entirely endemic to Vietnam, such as Cao-Daism (which is like an amalgamation of Buddhist, Taoist, and Christian teachings). There is even a religious group that worships the avuncular national hero Uncle Ho (e.g., see Đền Thờ Bác Hồ temple in Tra Vinh province). You’ll see many more monks and people doing outwardly religion things in public in Ho Chi Minh City than in Hanoi.
Southern Vs. Northern Styles of Buddhist Iconography
The southern styles of Buddhism have the flare and gaudiness of Cambodia or Thai Buddhism, whereas the somber, elegant iconography of the North shows the hint of Chinese influence
In contrast, we couldn’t find official statistics about religion in Hanoi. In keeping with Hanoi’s stronger allegiance to Socialist ideology, party, and practices, Hanoi is stereotypically thought of as being atheist or religiously unaffiliated. It is within living memory that, in order to work in the government, one couldn’t be ascribe to an organized religion. Instead, one should have loyalty and reverence for the government over any religion. For instance, there is a saying in Hanoi that exemplifies how important the government is to the spiritual-life of Northern Vietnam: “Gần mặt trời”, meaning the government is so heavenly that it is “close to the sun”.
However, the people of Hanoi definitely practice a lot of quasi-religious rituals, whether it is maintaining ancestor alters, visiting pagodas to get blessings from saints, or burning sacrificial paper-gifts in the street. They still celebrate a wide variety holidays such as the Lunar New Year (Tet) and Mid-Autumn Festival. A lot of these practices likely originated from Chinese Taoism during the long periods of Chinese occupation, but they aren’t considered religious. In keeping with the more dutiful and traditional nature of Hanoi versus Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi residents are much more conscientious about these rituals and ancestral duties.
In summary, even though Ho Chi Minh City has a greater diversity and affiliation with organized religions, the residents of Hanoi are much more serious about quasi-spiritual practices.
RELATED: Religion in Vietnam
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