The perks of Vietnam's two major cities

By Darren Barnard   June 1, 2024 | 10:31 pm PT
There are countless justifications to suggest which of Vietnam's two biggest cities, Hanoi and Saigon, is more favorable to travel to. This article picks out a few for each city.


Cleaner air

Ho Chi Minh City has experienced excellent air quality recently, including the first weekend of May when the AQI level was 17 in District 2, a score much lower than western cities that day such as Paris, New York or London.

This is almost unprecedented in Hanoi. Although the air in the concrete jungle of Saigon is not as fresh as the coastal cities or the mountains elsewhere in Vietnam, it regularly outperforms Hanoi in terms of its AQI score.


Bui Vien, a popular beer street in HCMCs downtown District 1, is busy after 11 p.m. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong

Bui Vien, a popular beer street in HCMC's downtown District 1, is busy after 11 p.m. Photo by VnExpress/Bich Phuong

Vietnam's biggest city has far greater possibilities for nightlife with countless bars and clubs staying open until the early hours of the morning. Many of Saigon's locals do not start their evening until after 9 p.m., whereas in Hanoi many are contemplating their bed around this time due to places closing much earlier.

Superior food marts

Saigon's smaller stores are extraordinarily convenient. There is a huge range of 24-hour stores with selected imported products that are plentiful compared to the north and the majority of them stay open continuously compared to Hanoi, where Circle K is the only store that does not close and their franchises are much more sporadic across the city.

As of 2022, Vietnam had about 6,740 convenience stores, with more than 2,600 of those in Ho Chi Minh City. The imported brands in the south give customers a selection of huge variety, whether it is a Circle K (Canada), Ministop (Japan), GS25 (South Korea) or 7-Eleven (Thailand), they have something for everyone. The amount of stores is staggering, for example, GS25 officially opened its first store in District 1 in 2018 and six years on, you can now find nearly 200 of their stores dotted across the city.

Higher English level

All across Vietnam you will encounter the welcoming friendliness and generosity of locals, but one distinction that can be made between the two major cities is the level of English from the locals. Travelers and expats are pleasantly surprised by the more advanced level of English by individuals working in customer service roles in Saigon.

For example, receiving a call from a delivery driver and saying: "Excuse me sir, I am waiting for you downstairs. Can you please come down to meet me" with perfect pronunciation is something many never experience in Hanoi, however is relatively common in Saigon.

Wider range of cuisines

Ho Chi Minh City has far greater variety of international cuisines compared to Hanoi, so much so, that when new restaurants open their doors is much less of an event compared to Hanoi. Additionally, Hanoi’s traditional dishes of pho and bun cha (rice vermicelli with grilled pork served in a bowl of light fish sauce), may be the most famous in the country, however, further south the food is perhaps more conducive to the heat with less soups and broths, as fresh dishes such as sizzling pancakes banh xeo, rice vermicelli with grilled pork bun thit nuong and broken rice com tam become the preferred option.


Four seasons

Tourists walk around the Sword Lake in Hanoi as trees change leaf colors during spring, February 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Kieu Duong

Tourists walk around the Sword Lake in Hanoi as trees change leaf colors during spring, February 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Kieu Duong

One of the biggest arguments in favor of Hanoi is the more temperate weather compared to the sweltering south. The ancient capital experiences four seasons in the year, while spring and fall are what many would describe as an ideal temperature where you can exercise during the day without fears of collapsing from heatstroke.

Although many may complain about the colder conditions whilst commuting in the winter, it makes everyone more appreciative of different moments throughout the year. Personally, I would choose a motorbike journey in the winter of Hanoi compared to driving in the more frequent biblical storms of Saigon.

Tay Ho

West Lake is arguably the best spot in the city for a sunset cycle or a morning run, but it offers so much more. It is in the heart of the city and central to multiple social plans and activities as many enjoy gathering at the water's edge and enjoying the view of the city.

Although there's the Saigon River in the south and numerous parks, they do not compete with West Lake for their serenity or offer anywhere near as much respite from the metropolis as Hanoi's most-cherished body of water.

Historical charm

Another factor that Saigon cannot possibly compete with Hanoi is the history. Dating back to 1010 when Ly Thai To established the city as the capital of the former imperial Vietnamese nation of Dai Viet, Hanoi, or Thang Long as it was previously known, is richer than any other area of the country with history and heritage sites to visit.

Landmarks such as Temple of Literature, Hoan Kiem Lake, Imperial Citadel and Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum depict crucial elements of Vietnam's past. In contemporary times, the city continues to beautifully capture the past with components of modern Vietnam woven into its rich tapestry. The architecture of the city ranging from French colonial villas and narrow ancient alleyways to modern skyscrapers is another example of the unique experience one has when in Hanoi.

Lower cost of living

Saigon may dwarf Hanoi in terms of its modernity, however that comes at a price. In Hanoi it is common to find a relatively spacious one-bedroom apartment with a lake view and some greenery for around $450 per month. For the equivalent price in Vietnam's most populous city you are certainly going to sacrifice some acreage in the room and say farewell to any chance of a tranquil view.

The higher expenditure is not limited to rent, if you compare the prices of Vietnamese dishes in popular expats neighborhoods of Thao Dien and Tay Ho, you can also expect to pay between 25-50% more for each meal. For example, ordering a traditional street side bun cha with a spring roll and iced tea in Thao Dien will likely set you back around VND80,000-100,000 (US$3.14-3.93), whereas in Tay Ho, it will cost nearly half this amount.

Close proximity to some of Vietnam's most beautiful destinations

Hanoi fortuitous northern location means that popular places such as Ninh Binh, Mai Chau, Pu Luong, Cat Ba and Ha Long Bay can all be reached in four hours or less. You could even extend your travel by a couple more hours and include Sa Pa, Ha Giang, Mu Cang Chai and Ta Xua as other locations that are reachable from the capital for a weekend trip.

Although, Saigon is close to spots such as Vung Tau, Can Tho, Ben Tre and Mui Ne, which are delightful places, they do not match the northern mountains or coastal attractions for their beauty and accessibility.

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