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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 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.


Seeing these sorts of scenes upon arrival in Saigon, I figured I could release my camera from the death grip I was holding it with.

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.

Most of the central districts of Saigon reflect the heavy French influence in the post-war architecture, which endured even after 1956, when the French left Saigon. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

The Saigon Opera House served as the parliament for the South Vietnamese Republic of Vietnam during the 20 years that country existed. It had previously been stripped of much of its ornamentation during World War II, but that was partially restored in 1998. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Here's the entrance to the Petit Palais in Paris, which inspired the Saigon Opera design.

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.

Easy to imagine Rudyard Kipling taking tea in the courtyard of the Continental Hotel here...

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.

That beige building in the center of the frame, with the white balconies, is the Caravelle Hotel. The light beige tower next to it is a recent, unfortunately addition. The pastel pinkish building behind it is not part of the hotel, but is also unfortunate. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Saigon's Central Post Office, and Uncle Ho. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Note the map mural on the wall dating from 1936, which displays the "Lignes Télégraphiques du Sud Viet Nam et du Cambodge. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Modernist googie-style villa adjacent to the Independence Palace in Saigon. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The bad signage on these buildings just kills me. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Gatehouse outside the Independence Palace, which has been converted into a café. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Great example of Modernist Vietnamese vernacular architecture, on a back street in Saigon. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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...

Modernist apartment building in Saigon, near the American consulate. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Here's another example of vernacular Vietnamese Modernist architecture. I'd love to know who was behind these, which seem to be found all over Vietnam. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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...

Apparently, the SH Garden restaurant and the other tenants on the right side of this building don't really care much about architecture... Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Three generations of architecture in one shot, with 19th and early 20th century French colonial on the left, post-war French Moderne style on the right, and a recent post-modernist high rise behind them in the center. Note the wide boulevards and spotless streets. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Saigon's skyline with the Bitexco Tower in the foreground. This building was designed by Carlos Zapata and built in 2010, with the french firm AREP as architect of record. Zapata claims that the lotus flower was his inspiration. This was the tallest tower in Vietnam for a short time, but was surpassed by another in Hanoi shortly after. There's also now a taller building in Saigon.

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.

Heart of Darkness Brewery... my favorite in Saigon. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Tunnel leading to the other brewery we tried, which was also great. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

Saigon's Presidential Palace, called the Independence Palace. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.

The Myst Hotel by A21 Studio in Saigon. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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.


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