Thursday, 2 February 2012

Hanoi vs HCMC

Apologies for the lack of updates, but I've been kind of busy... 

There will be a post all about that in good time, I promise. Please enjoy this column previously published in AsiaLIFE HCMC until normal transmission resumes:

I’ll let you in on a secret: I do not live in Saigon. I live in Hanoi. I’m here right now. If you hold this column to your ear, you’ll hear the gentle sound of pure Hanoi water lapping against the shores of one of our many (countless!) tranquil lakes in the crisp autumn breeze; if you take a great big sniff of the page, you’ll inhale the unmistakable scent of pure old world charm. You’re smelling it now, aren’t you? I know you are, because I can feel your jealousy from 1760 kilometres away. 

I have experienced inter-city rivalries before. I used to live in Sydney, which invests a great deal of effort into being better than Melbourne (not that it has to, because it’s better without even trying) but the competition between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City is off the scale. This is completely understandable from the Vietnamese point of view, given the historical enmity between north and south, but what’s remarkable is how the expat community seems to feel just as strongly about it. 

I know that I do. In fact, I would probably argue more strongly on behalf of Hanoi in the face of a Saigonese claim of being-more-awesome than I would for Sydney against Melbourne. And there is absolutely no logical explanation for this. The reason I live in Hanoi and not Ho Chi Minh City is random chance, and the reason I prefer Hanoi is because I happen to live here, and the reason I live here is random chance. It’s an argument as circular as the glistening shell of Hanoi’s legendary turtle. Incidentally, Saigon has no legendary turtles. Just saying.

Any time a Hanoi expat returns from a trip to Saigon, they must report back to their fellow Hanoians on what they did there. They must say that it was “fun for a weekend”, optionally noting that the nightlife and food is better, but immediately adding the essential and emphatic qualification: “I wouldn’t want to live there though”. The Hanoians must then all shake their heads, brows furrowed, as they imagine the plight of the poor souls down south who do have to live there. Terrible business!

The Hanoians must then rally the troops and deploy a tactical defensive move whereby they recap all of Saigon’s deficiencies compared to Hanoi, usually gleaned from a couple of brief jaunts down south. These must include, but are not limited to: 

Too many traffic jams
Lack of seasons
Too many tall buildings
Too many beggars
Lack of charm/character/quaintness
Roads too wide
No lakes
Iced coffee is too sweet
Can’t understand (superior) Hanoi accent
Trees too tall
Too much luxury brand-name shopping
City is too big
Expats all work in the private sector
Weird herbs in the pho
Too much construction
Has two names
Not Hanoi

The Hanoians will then sit back, pleased with themselves for having irrefutably proven that the city they arbitrarily chose to make their home is Better Than The Other One They Could Have Arbitrarily Chosen. 

But I’m sure that Saigon expats would never engage in this kind of nonsense about Hanoi. I mean, there’s not really much point when it’s a foregone conclusion who’ll come out on top, right? 


  1. Those ribbons are awesome!

    As a citizen of beloved Saigon I'm sure I could come up with a list of my own for all the reasons that Hanoi is good for a weekend visit only too, but I'm also secretly jealous of the seemingly tighter knit community there and all the cool cultural things going on seemingly all the time. Then I remember Hanoi winters/summers and think everything is just fine here.

  2. Even though I live in Melbourne I have to admit maybe it's true that Sydney's better. Perhaps if we can school ourselves in the ways of McMansions and racism we too might achieve that special Sydney atmosphere.

    The people of Hanoi are completely right. Much better to have culture and the gentle change of seasons than be some charmless expanse full of fatuous people with horrible accents.


    1. Its funny, whenever I hear a Hanoian accent I squirm in the knowledge that they are most probably dog eating, government working kick back merchants with 5 (post war claimed) houses in Saigon.

    2. It's always someone from Melbourne that starts the Sydney/Melbourne conversation. Massive inferiority complexes second only to Kiwis.

      I think you'll find it was Melbourne where the Indian students were getting bashed, and Melbourne's outer suburb sprawl is no different from Sydney's.

      But back to the topic - Hanoi would be a lot poorer without HCMC's funding. Personally whenever I go to Hanoi I wish that the Americans had never stopped bombing it. Woohooo!!!!

    3. Errrrmmm,,,

      ....actually Tabitha (from Sydney) started the Sydney/Melbourne thing.

      And if you say someone else has an inferiority complex, it's because you have one.

      The whole S/M thing is stupid, they are both great places, in different ways, good points, bad points.

      Haven't been to Vietnam since 1994, but preferred Hanoi - very quiet back then.

  3. Incidentally I DID bring up this topic with my long residing HCMC crew and their response? THEY NEVER EVER THOUGHT ABOUT IT. At all. Hanoi. Some place not HCMC.

    Hanoi wins for me. I left HCMC by choice and never wanted to go back. At least with Hanoi I am maybe thinking it would not be the worst thing ever if only til the end of year. Assuming I miss winter of course!

  4. As an expat in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City...I hear ya!! Like the Melbourne or Sydney provides for hours of entertainment, why? because we can. Either way Vietnam is a fabulous country to live in so it really doesn't matter which 'end' you live!

  5. just as any other city rivalry tales...nothing too special. Try to find something more peculiar about each city to write about.

  6. Wait, there's a rivalry? Might be more a story of one city's inferiority complex. At least I'm not aware of any Saigonese who care about such things. Saigon is full of Hanoians anyways, political, religious, economic refugees from the North who have voted with their feet for years on where they would want to live. :) Myself, I came to Hanoi first, expecting to stay there permanently, and only then decided to check out Saigon where I never ended up leaving.

  7. Whoah whoah whoah! Turns out that a post on the pointlessness of inter-city rivalries generates a lot of pointy comments and emails.

    I'm not quite sure if this proves me right or serves me right.

  8. Personally, my decision to move to Saigon was not at all by random chance. I very deliberately chose it after experiencing both cities during early research, based upon how I "felt" in each.
    Saigon simply felt like home, well before I had been here long enough to actually get to know it. Hanoi felt cold (emotionally), intimidating and unwelcoming. Perhaps, even a little sad or depressing.

    When I read blogs and tweets from individuals residing in each city, I can generally detect strong personality differences and philosophical divides between the two groups who live in each city. I don't believe they developed these after selecting their respective place of abode. I think the city chose them based upon who they are as people.

    So ultimately, city rivalries are really people rivalries, in my opinion.

  9. It seems that a surprising amount of local Hanoians think highly of Saigon. I've brought up the point to create camaraderie with Hanoians (as surely we both think Hanoi is obviously superior!) - but many have told me that they think Saigon would be better. Usually because of the wealth associated with it. These must be the people who haven't been there yet. ;-)

    I have wondered how being an expat in Saigon would differ than being one in Hanoi. I feel like my visits there don't do it justice.

  10. Oh Tabitha, the pot was there and you just had to stir it ;)

  11. as a canadian that does not miss cold weather, i can't say that get the melbourne-sydney analogy. however, i do know that hanoi gets cold. did i mention that i don't miss cold weather? right. methinks i'll stay right here in sunny saigon...

  12. You're all wrong: they are both shite and Dangman is the only truly real Vietnamese place left in this country

  13. Where is Dangman?

    The difference in philosophical perspectives make people from the two cities different, hence the two cities. Saigoneses have a future-oriented or business-like thinking whilst Hanoians have a more traditional-like view.

    Some of you may have heard: An Bac, Mac Nam (Eat like the North, Dress like the South), but it's hardly true these days. Both have their own unique foods and fashion senses.

    Interesting discussion!

  14. I live 5 years in Hanoi then moved to Saigon .... nothing to compare Saigon is WAY better !!! I m in Saigon for 7 years now and cannot even think about going back to Hanoi NOT EVEN FOR A WEEK END !! Trust me, Hanoi is just a dirty city with fake charms, Hanoi people are the most impolite people ever!! And traffic Jam are worst in Hanoi than in Saigon! At least in Saigon we drive properly ! (at least better than crazy hanoians). the weather is perfect in Saigon...Hanoi is too cold in winter and too hot in summer ... it s hell!! and to finish with the local expats in Hanoi are so cheap ... look at you guys... honnestly ... come to saigon to have a real life! i remember having conversation about Hanoi Vs Saigon while I was in Hanoi... Because we didnt know what we missed... and the worst of all... We had nothing else to do!!! In Saigon you just never stop, life here is so exciting !!! poor Hanoi people, I am so sorry for you but there is hope! may be one day you ll eventually be just like Saigon? just ten years behind!

  15. I works 15 years in Sai gon, Sai gon is real The city that never sleep, coffe morning, lunch, afternoon, night some time later night, you never want sleeping

  16. Im a married American expat with kids. We have spent the past year in Hanoi. Just travelled to Saigon for a week. I would LOVE to live in Saigon! Ill give you a list of differences we noticed. The women in Hanoi dress VERY provocatively, pretty much high heels and mini skirts and its noted as "professional." You just dont see it that much in Saigon. People in Hanoi are rude, pushy, rude and drive like idiots. The people in Saigon are not pushy and have more organization in their driving. Streets are wider-YAY!~ There are parks, were my kids can run and play and slide and swing and climb. hmmmm in Ciputra, Hanoi theres some rinky dink parks. Miss freezing on a moto bike in depressing dreadful winter of Hanoi? NO WAY man Ill take Sun Sun Sun! My final thought is this, the people in saigon eat. There bodies are skin and bone and they actually all look different and unique. In Hanoi there all tiny tiny tiny and rarely show differences. To each their own. Its unfortunate after visiting Saigon that we will have to endure another year in Hanoi.

  17. I agree with the points you made in this blog and actually, a lot of people I know boast about Saigon being better than Hanoi (when they actually never been to Hanoi). lol. But I actually prefer Hanoi better because it's like my home away from home. I was never born there but since I have relatives and friends there, I always come back there to visit and being in my comfort zone, it's the place I love the most in Vietnam and can imagine myself living there. Whenever I go to Saigon, I just feel claustrophobic and strange. The food in Saigon is different and while there is good food in Saigon, pho and bun cha in Saigon can definitely not compare to the pho and bun cha in Hanoi. However, perspective is all based on the experience, comfort, and personal taste. Hanoi may not be as big or might not have as much entertainment as Saigon, but it does keep its cultural roots, sense of community, and has a unique charm to it that I believe Saigon can't quite compare.

  18. @ Anonymous20 November 2013 4:53 pm Allow me to put in my thought. You have relatives in Hanoi that means you're connected to the north easily abd your parents must be from the north after 1975 and moved south . Your last paragraph carries your arrogrance in it. Let me understand it well. You're trying to say South Vietnamese are westernized ignoring their root? Every place has its own charm, tranquility vs energy. Sometimes a strong sense of community is quite equivalent to conservative. About food, we do love our southern style. You keep praising your northern style and that's it. What's the point of comparison here that southern style can't be compared with northern style? And bun cha is not for my taste so I don't really care.


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