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.
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.
There are many buildings from the French colonial area, which still define the urban fabric and infrastructure of this place.
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.
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...
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.
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.
The outskirts of Hanoi are ringed with ginormous, gleaming new high-tech factories from companies like Foxconn, Samsung, Hyundai, and Toyota.
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.
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 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.
There are also a few Soviet-era brutalist monuments and buildings.
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.
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.
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 to visit. The northerners all warned me multiple times that Saigon was a crime-ridden, polluted, den of thieves, and that I should not even carry my camera out in the open or it would be stolen immediately. When they learned that I was planning to spend a few days there, they all - and I literally mean all - told me that I should instead go to the Mekong Delta, or Da Lat, or some other more agreeable place. Certainly NOT Saigon, though...
Needless to say, by the time I arrived in Saigon, I was terrified. So it was a shock to me to instead find a gleaming, modern city with wide boulevards, promenades, and leafy parks.
It felt like a different country than Hanoi. I could hear the southern, sing-song drawl when they spoke Vietnamese, compared to the harsher, more clipped tones of the north. It sounded like a different language to my ear. English is also much more widely spoken. Most of Vietnamese who had migrated to the US after the war were from the south, of course, and many of them have re-established contact with the country, even living in Saigon part-time. That is reflected in a lot of the shops and restaurants, which feel more American or European.
Evidence of Saigon's French colonial past are still evident everywhere, as in the building above. Like Hanoi, they also have an opera house, which at one time was at the center of French colonial life here, as well.
Instead of being modeled after the Paris Opera House (Palais Garnier) like in Hanoi, Saigon's version was inspired by the Petit Palais, which was being constructed in Paris at the same time as the opera building in Saigon.
The square on which the opera house sits has historically been a sort of center of social life in Saigon. The very genteel, 19th century Continental Hotel sits on one side of the square.
And on the opposite end of the square, the storied Caravelle Hotel was built in 1959. This hotel, built after the French departure - but in a French Modernist style - was the first modern hotel in Saigon and included air conditioning and bullet-proof windows. It was clearly ahead of its time and naturally became the de facto headquarters for most of the journalists in Saigon during the Vietnam War that followed. It was often half-jokingly said that a journalist could cover the war without ever leaving the rooftop bar of this hotel. There's a really bad tower that was added a few years ago, but the original section is still fairly intact, including the rooftop bar.
A short walk from here is the Saigon Catholic Basilica, and the Central Post Office. The post office is often erroneously accredited to Gustave Eiffel, including in the guide book I had. But it was actually designed in Alfred Foulhoux and Auguste-Henri Vildieu. Regardless, it's a beautiful building and a real time-capsule of the French colonial period, including the old map murals inside. Only the giant portrait of Ho Chi Minh brings you back to present day.
Of course, you're probably here more for the Modernist Architecture, and there's plenty of that in Saigon, as well. In fact, if anything, I saw a lot more of it in better shape in Saigon than in Hanoi.
Of course, not all of it is in great condition in Saigon. And some of it is also difficult to spot and photograph, like this apartment building...
There are also plenty of examples of where a building is really just on the verge of being cleaned up but there are a few hold-outs who really don't care. So you see lots of partial restorations, like this one...
For a pedestrian, Saigon is a much easier city to get around. The traffic tends to respect the street signs and stop lights more. And I even saw on several occasions where the local police, in seeing tourists struggle to try to cross the street where there was no light, stepped out in to the street to stop all the scooters to let them pass.
The locals were walking the streets at a leisurely pace, smiling and enjoying a sunny afternoon. Many of the streets were lined with carefully manicured gardens, and there were city cleaning and gardening crews everywhere. I hardly saw any trash in the streets - a stark contrast to the much grittier North. Even the temperature, which I was warned was much hotter and more uncomfortable than Hanoi, was actually slightly cooler. The city center reminded me more of Singapore or Shanghai, or even New York City, than of Hanoi.
In most places in Vietnam, you usually only have two beer choices: Tiger Beer (from Singapore) and whatever the local beer is - generally named after the city where it's brewed (i.e. Bia Hà Nôi, Bia Saigon, Bia Ha Long, etc.). They all basically serve the same yellow fizzy beer and are mostly indistinguishable from each other. But in Saigon, there are actual multiple local craft breweries, if you are so inclined. I sampled a few... They were great.
A word about the name, by the way. The city has always historically been called Saigon (or Sài Gòn, in Vietnamese). Hanoi and Saigon have been rivals since the French colonial period for almost a hundred years (until 1954), and alternated at various times as the capital of French Indochina. The country split in two with the French departure in 1954-56, with the north using Hanoi and the south using Saigon. I wrote about my visit to Saigon's Presidential Palace in a previous post here.
With the Communist victory over the south in 1975, Hanoi finally took that honor once and for all, and imposed a name change on their southern rival to both honor their founding father, Ho Chi Minh, and also to stick it to the South. But the name Ho Chi Minh city is not widely used in Vietnam. Of course, on any official government document or address, that is the name used. But nearly everyone in Vietnam- including those in the north - still refer to the city as Saigon.
In Saigon, new, innovative development is starting to happen there, too. My hotel there is a great example. It was a wonderful blend of Old Saigon in a new building, in a contemporary style that felt fresh and original. It was designed by A21 Studio, a local Vietnamese firm.
In summary, Saigon feels much more like an international city, and for that reason is probably still today far more accessible to westerners. Those searching out a more "authentic" Vietnamese experience may wish to spend more time in Hanoi. And I would highly recommend it. But I would still recommend seeing Saigon. And experiencing them both one after the other is about the closest you'll probably ever get to experiencing time travel.