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A Tale of Two Cities: Hanoi vs. Saigon

Photos ©Darren Bradley

Admittedly, before going to Vietnam, my impressions of the country were largely shaped by what I knew about the wars there, supplemented by a few episodes of Anthony Bourdain's various shows. Historically, Hanoi was a city steeped in French colonial history, and then became the capital of the communist north. Saigon was the capital of the capitalist south, and had been a much more international, cosmopolitan, and even decadent place, with lots of American influence and investment during the 20 years that the south was an independent country. But that was 43 years ago. Surely, the country had evolved since then, right? Turns out, not as much as you think...


In many ways, it was exactly how I had imagined it. I went to Hanoi first. It felt like a crumbling old French colonial city, being overtaken by nature.

Typical Hanoi street scene. Photo ©Darren Bradley

As a child of the Vietnam war, Hanoi still - to my ears, at least - has an ominous air to it, and a sense of foreboding. Yes, I know that the world has moved on from the Vietnam War, and the city has been open to investment and tourism since the mid-90s. But the idea of visiting this city still seemed a bit strange to me.

Hanoi's Central Prison was built during the French colonial period, and was also used as a prison by North Vietnam during the war. American POWs were housed here, including John McCain. Most of the prison has been demolished, with a small portion kept as a museum. The rest is now occupied by a luxury high-rise with shops, apartments, and offices. Photo ©Darren Bradley

There are many buildings from the French colonial area, which still define the urban fabric and infrastructure of this place.

I believe this was an old French préfecture. Underneath the shield with the communist star above the door, you could still see the French shield with RF emblazoned on it. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Hanoi Opera House, modeled after the Paris Opera House (le Palais Garnier). Photo ©Darren Bradley

Another view of the Hanoi Opera House, designed to look like the Paris Opera House. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The Paris Opera House, otherwise known as the Palais Garnier. Photo ©Darren Bradley

And there were also other cultural monuments, such as the Temple of Literature. The temple was founded in 1070 by the Ly Dynasty, as a sort of university for higher learning, based on the teachings of Confucius.

The Confucian Temple of Literature in Hanoi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But the city is also teeming with a young, dynamic population - all trying to get somewhere in a hurry (usually on a scooter). It is difficult to walk in the center of Hanoi. There is a constant, chaotic flood of scooters and cars (regardless of what the traffic lights are doing). The sidewalks are generally very narrow, if they exist at all, and are reserved for scooter parking, cooking, appliance repair, and dining - but rarely walking...

The key is to just start walking steadily across the street. The scooters will swerve around you. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Everyone is in a hurry, darting about in every direction on scooters and cars, often ignoring basic traffic laws and even driving the wrong way down streets. Walking around the center of Hanoi is a dangerous, disorienting, noisy, and exhausting experience. Whatever you do, do not walk absent-mindedly with earbuds, listening to music while staring at your phone. You will die.

Typical Hanoi street scene. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Quan Chuong, or Gate of the Commander of the Regiment, is the only remaining gateway to the old quarter out of the original 36. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Despite all we've heard and read about Vietnam as an Asian economic tiger, with lots of investment and development, Hanoi and its environs seems for the most part to have been left out of much of that - at least in the old city. Or to put it differently, that investment hasn't yet translated into significant redevelopment of the urban core.

Yes, that's a Bentley. In the heart of Communist Vietnam... Also, apparently owned by a very brave person, or someone with very good insurance. Note the glass building, which is one of the strangest things I've ever seen in a building facade. The entire glass front has water pouring down it at all times, like a waterfall. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The outskirts of Hanoi are ringed with ginormous, gleaming new high-tech factories from companies like Foxconn, Samsung, Hyundai, and Toyota.

One of the largest Samsung plants in the world is in the outskirts of Hanoi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But the city center is a labyrinth of narrow, historical streets lined with often crumbling buildings and infrastructure largely left over from the French colonial period, or built by the Soviets in the Cold-war era.

Hanoi street scene. Photo ©Darren Bradley

What new development does exist seems to reflect a marked preference for gaudy, French baroque-inspired bling architecture that would make Donald Trump feel right at home.

I believe this is a new government building, inspired by mid-19th century French 2nd Empire style. I took this from a speeding car. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Believe it or not, this is a single-family house. I took this from a speeding car, so the photo is blurry. There are many of these concrete monstrosities scattered around villages in the north. Some of them are half-built and abandoned. Wealthy Vietnamese in the north like to build these gaudy palaces by the side of the road. In Vietnam, the most prestigious place to build a mansion is not in a secluded hillside, or on a remote beach. Instead, they want to be right on a busy road somewhere. I'm told the reason is so that they can open a business on the roadside. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I had hoped that this lack of recent development would translate into lots of opportunities to photograph Mid-Century Modern architecture that had been preserved largely untouched since it was built. But between the dense foliage, the signage, and the steel cage-like balconies and other bits that have been hung off of these buildings in the intervening years, it was often difficult or impossible to photograph anything of note.

Modernist building buried behind stuff. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Was completely enchanted by this building, despite (or perhaps because of...) it's dilapidated state. Love the font of the sign, as well. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Some sort of Modernist office building underneath there. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I'm sure this building with its organic curved balconies was quite something once. Would love to have seen it back then. Photo ©Darren Bradley

This Art Déco building was likely built in the 1930s, and was a pharmacy, originally. Those crosses above and probably also the fins would likely have been painted green, originally. Photo ©Darren Bradley

A 1950s Modernist apartment building hidden in the old quarter of Hanoi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

An elementary school in central Hanoi, built likely in the 1950s. Photo ©Darren Bradley

There are also a few Soviet-era brutalist monuments and buildings.

The Palace of Soviet-Vietnamese Friendship is now a convention center that was housing a trade show on household appliances when I visited. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Another view of those monumental columns at the Soviet-Vietnamese Friendship Palace. Photo ©Darren Bradley

There is definitely evidence of development and investment in Hanoi, especially in the outer districts of the city. And even in the core, there is the occasional new glass high-rise.

Office building in central Hanoi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Appliance store in Hanoi. Photo ©Darren Bradley

But it's minor. For the most part, Hanoi still feels like a trip back in time. And it's a wonderful thing to experience.

You'd be surprised about the kinds of things you can carry on a scooter. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Of course, the people were wonderful as well, and very welcoming. Getting into stereotypes is always dangerous territory, but we do it anyway because humans like to categorize things to more easily understand them. Most people in Hanoi and the north, in general, consider themselves to be more reserved, quieter, cultured, and intellectual than the southerners.

People in Hanoi told me that the southerners are loud, rude, brash, and had funny accents. My guide, who was born and raised in Hanoi and had worked for an international aid agency prior to becoming a travel guide, explained to me that he had previously had a fiancée who was from Saigon. But they had to split up because she was unable to move to the north with her job and family, and that there was no way he could ever live in the south. He visibly shuddered at the idea.

While in Hanoi, the people there unanimously criticized Saigon, explaining that it was an ugly city, not worth spending any time