My recent trip to Southeast Asia brought me to Vietnam. Having my own preconceived concepts, I was very sure I was going to love Hanoi and that Saigon would be “eh”. I shocked myself to find I loved Saigon, and Hanoi turned out more of an “eh,” for me. Go figure.
Hanoi. Everyone has heard of the flood of motor scooters that plague and pollute the city. Every word is true. They ride without fear and without laws. There is no stopping for red lights, which are mere suggestions. Pedestrians are third-class citizens and no vehicle, be it car, scooter, cyclo or bicycle, will stop for a pedestrian. Therefore, one learns to walk around the traffic and play ‘dodge-em’ with the oncoming masses.
The old colonial French buildings are mostly government offices now, and form a square around the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. There is a beautiful lake, West Lake, in the city center, where the oldest pagoda in Viet Nam is located. On the other side of the lake sit two hotels, Intercontinental and Sheraton. (The Intercontinental sits right on the lake, a complete ‘over water’ hotel). Being on the lake is great, but you’re not that close to the old quarter or French quarter. At night, the lights of Hanoi make an exquisite backdrop while dining.
The “old quarter” is a hodge podge of cheap shops, street food, some hotels and restaurants. The streets are very narrow and going through the old quarter is a must for any visitor as you will get the most comical and interesting photos. The French quarter is elegant, with fine dining restaurants and 5* hotels including where I stayed, the Sofitel Metropole Legend, a historic building that boasts many well-knowns as its’ guests. The Sofitel offers a tour of their own bomb shelters, a small part of its very rich history. I would recommend no other hotel in Hanoi, and at the Sofitel I highly recommend the Metropole Wing – which is in the historic original hotel, as opposed to the Opera Wing, which is newer and not as elegant.
Hanoi still seems to have many remnants of a communist regime. The clothing shops are tacky and I didn’t really see any upscale shopping areas. There certainly might be, but I didn’t see them. If you’re interested in seeing the water puppet shows, Hanoi is where to do this. Water puppetry craft is indigenous to Viet Nam and this is the only place in the world that showcases this art.
Saigon. This is a clean and orderly city. Yes, they do stop for red lights and they don’t seem to go as fast or be in such a hurry as their counterparts in Hanoi. The old, graceful city center has the most beautiful French colonial Hotel du Ville, which was the town hall – and it’s now called People’s Committee Head Office.
This is on one side of a beautiful city center that also is home to the infamous Hotel Rex, the Diamond Shopping Mall, and their Opera House, which is a tiny replica of the Opera Garnier in Paris. In the middle of this is a great splashing fountain. Nearby is the historic Post Office, still operating as such, and the main Cathedral, Notre Dame. I was surprised about the cathedral. Apparently the French just rebuilt Paris here on a smaller scale.
There is a feel in the city certainly of Western influence. There are very high-end shops but even in the other sections of the city, away from the trendy center, the stores, cafes, restaurants all seemed more up-to-date, cleaner, and with more choices. The clothing boutiques were charming and seemed to have current styles displayed. There is more English spoken in Saigon. People in service jobs will know more English than in the north.
These are my opinions and impressions of a tale of two cities. They both offer quite a lot to keep the intrepid traveler there for at least three days in each city.