If you’re like me, you enjoy visiting a country’s capital. But if you’re short on vacation days or the travelers in your group have varying interests, Vietnam poses an interesting problem: Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have both been Vietnam’s capital.
So, what’s the difference between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City?
Hanoi has an older city feel with more traditional Vietnamese culture. In contrast, Ho Chi Minh is a modern mecca with high-end shops and international cuisines.
I spent one month in Hanoi and two weeks in Ho Chi Minh. I’ll share my biggest takeaways on Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City to help with your trip planning.
An Overview of Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh
Are you short on time? I’ve put together the chart below to give you a feel for whether Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi could be the right fit for you.
|Ho Chi Minh City
|Smaller population; larger area
|Larger population; smaller area
|Cool winters, hot summers
|Hot and humid
|Better for multi-day side trips
|Better for day trips
|Slightly more expensive
Keep in mind that the details above highlight some of the most notable similarities and differences between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. I’ll dive into these points and more next.
10 Differences Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi share more differences than similarities. Below are some of the most notable distinctions between them.
1. Ho Chi Minh Has a Larger Population
Population probably isn’t a major factor as you weigh whether to visit Ho Chi Minh or Hanoi, but it’s worth noting for point number two.
2. Hanoi Is Bigger By Area
Are you ready for some population perspective?
Although Ho Chi Minh has nearly four million more people than Hanoi, it only covers about 800 square miles. In contrast, Hanoi covers an area of about 1,300 square miles.
Therefore, Ho Chi Minh City feels extra populated because of so many locals confined to smaller city borders.
That said, you’ll be hard-pressed to convince anyone in Hanoi’s historical center that its streets aren’t as populated. Tourists and locals alike get around old town Hanoi day and night in elbow-to-elbow people traffic.
3. Ho Chi Minh Has a Tropical Climate
Calling all warm weather lovers! Regardless of when you visit Ho Chi Minh City, it’ll be hot and humid.
The average temperature in Ho Chi Minh year-round is in the upper 80s to low 90s. Lows dip into the 70s—barely a relief for anyone preferring cooler weather.
Ho Chi Minh is also home to year-round muggy weather. But the mugginess increases during the wet season, which is from around May to November.
If moderate weather is more your jam, you’ll be glad to know that when comparing Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi is significantly cooler most of the year.
You can expect highs in the upper 60s to low 70s during Hanoi’s winters, while its summers see highs in the low 90s and lows in the upper 70s.
I visited Hanoi during the winter (January) and will add this disclaimer: The temperature often felt much cooler than the 60s due to a combination of cloudy days and dampness that often hung in the air, causing me to wear a winter jacket inside my apartment.
Hanoi’s rainy season follows a similar pattern to Ho Chi Minh’s, with the most rain falling from May to September.
4. Hanoi Is More Quaint
One of the first differences that people notice when comparing Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City in person is that Hanoi has an old-town charm that Ho Chi Minh definitively lacks.
That’s not to say there aren’t modern parts of Hanoi—I stayed in the West Lake district, an up-and-coming area boasting high rises, high-end international grocery stores, and several Starbucks.
But when you’re in Hanoi’s historic quarter, which is home to most touristy things in the city, you’ll feel like you’re worlds away from modern buildings.
The buildings are old with beautiful architecture; the Temple of Literature is an iconic tourist stop. Many buildings have been restored (don’t miss the chance to get an egg coffee or an egg hot chocolate at The Note Coffee). Others need some serious TLC.
On the other hand, Ho Chi Minh indisputably has a more modern feel.
Yes, there are some older buildings, many with French designs, such as the Saigon Central Post Office. But most buildings are newer, and highrises are abundant. Construction is continuous in Ho Chi Minh, and the cost of apartments seems to be forever rising because of such high demand.
5. Traffic Congestion Is Worse in Ho Chi Minh
Claiming that the traffic is worse in Ho Chi Minh than in Hanoi is a loaded statement.
But I stand by it.
I had heard from several travelers I spoke with in Ho Chi Minh that the opposite was true. But after spending two weeks trying to navigate crossing what was often four lanes of traffic in Ho Chi Minh, the traffic in Hanoi felt like a breath of fresh (ahem…polluted) air.
Yes, Hanoi has
lots tons of traffic.
Here’s the thing, though: Most of the streets in Hanoi’s old town only require crossing two lanes. Plus, the government shuts down the roads around Hoan Kiem Lake on weekends, turning them into pedestrian zones.
So, when debating whether Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh has a better traffic situation, I found that Hanoi’s traffic felt more manageable.
That said, your head will still need to be on a swivel for oncoming scooters and cars in either city.
And in both cases, you’ll spend your vacation on the sidewalk if you wait for a break in traffic; making eye contact with the scooter drivers and stepping out in front of them is how crossing the street is done in Vietnam.
6. Lakes Abound in Hanoi
When you look at a map of Hanoi, you’ll see many blue spaces marking lakes. According to the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, Hanoi is home to 20 lakes.
Hoan Kiem Lake is the most popular lake in Hanoi since it sits in the heart of the old town.
West Lake (Hồ Tây in Vietnamese) is another common lake tourists visit since the Tran Quoc Pagoda sits on its shore. You can also rent a swan-shaped paddle boat on West Lake, a fun family activity.
Although Ho Chi Minh City isn’t known for having lakes, the massive Saigon River runs through it.
I was also impressed by the number of parks that Ho Chi Minh had. I don’t have statistics to back it up, but Ho Chi Minh felt like it had more parks than Hanoi.
7. Ho Chi Minh Is the Financial Hub
Communism is woven tightly into the fabric of Vietnam.
But when comparing Ho Chi Minh vs Hanoi, from my experience, it felt that there’s still a north and south economic divide. People living in Ho Chi Minh seemed proud of Vietnam being part of economic organizations like the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
Earning money and seeking ways to make even more money was a theme among my tour guides in Ho Chi Minh. They proudly said that Ho Chi Minh City is a financial center not only for Vietnam but for Southeast Asia as a whole.
With a building named the Bitexco Financial Tower being a popular tourist attraction, it’s all the more reason that people think of a thriving economy when they read about Ho Chi Minh.
Meanwhile, many locals in Hanoi have more traditional communist views. My tour guides didn’t talk about money like my guides in Ho Chi Minh.
And although Ho Chi Minh City is known for being an economic hub, both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi attract foreigners who move to them for work.
8. Hanoi Is Better for Multi-Day Trips
“You have to spend time in the north” was a common phrase I heard among people who had traveled to Vietnam. And they were right not only because of northern Vietnam’s beauty but because it takes time to see the north well.
Whether you visit Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi, you only need two or three days of exploring to get a good feel for each city.
But unlike Ho Chi Minh City, where you can take its most popular tours as day trips (the Cu Chi Tunnels and Mekong Delta), the best sights around Hanoi require overnight trips.
The most popular overnight trip from Hanoi is visiting Halong Bay (also spelled Ha Long Bay). While a full-day Halong Bay tour is possible, it’s fast-paced. So, it’s more common for people to take a 2-day or 3-day Halong Bay tour.
Psst! Before you book your tour, don’t miss my guide on 27 Halong Bay Cruise Tips.
Another favorite multi-day trip from Hanoi is Sapa. The Sapa rice fields are so beautiful that they just might make you want to become a rice farmer.
That said, if you only have time to take a day trip from Hanoi and want to see rice fields, I recommend a full-day Ninh Binh tour.
9. Ho Chi Minh Offers More Upscale Shopping
By now in this Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City comparison, it likely comes as little surprise that you’ll have access to more modern shopping experiences in Ho Chi Minh.
Diamond Plaza, Saigon Center, and Takashimaya are among Ho Chi Minh’s many popular shopping malls.
If markets are more your style, you’ll find plenty of those around Ho Chi Minh, with Ben Thanh being the most popular tourist market.
Hanoi also offers its fair share of upscale shopping. But unlike Ho Chi Minh, these modern stores aren’t within the heart of the tourist district.
10. Hanoi Is For Foodies
If you’re itching to try authentic Vietnamese cuisine, you’ll have more options in Hanoi than in Ho Chi Minh. Street vendors selling traditional dishes like noodle soup, bun cha, banh mi, spring rolls, and more abound in Hanoi.
Regardless of which city you visit, though, you can be sure of one thing—restaurants selling Vietnam’s national dish, pho, are abundant in both destinations. Pho is a bowl filled with noodles, pork or other meat, and fresh veggies.
If you want to eat pho like a local, don’t forget to add hot pepper. But don’t let the pepper pieces soak for more than a few seconds to start; Vietnam’s peppers give the word “hot” a whole new meaning.
As a vegetarian, I was impressed by how many vegetarian and vegan restaurants I had access to in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh. As long as you avoid Vietnam’s fried dishes (and, gosh, those street food fried bananas are tempting), Vietnam’s cuisine is also easy on the waistline.
6 Similarities Between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi
Now that you’ve got a feel for how Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh differ, let’s explore in what ways they’re similar.
When comparing Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City in terms of safety, the biggest safety threat in both destinations is getting hit by a scooter. And I don’t say that lightly—scooter accidents, whether you’re driving one or walking in front of one, are a real risk.
But scooters aside, there’s little need to worry about serious crime in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
I traveled alone to both destinations and basked in how safe I felt. I didn’t receive a single catcall, and I never contemplated not going to a particular district within either city for fear it could be dangerous.
I walked alone both day and night in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, sometimes even with my laptop when working at cafes.
Of course, that’s not to say that crime doesn’t happen in Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. But pickpocketing is usually the biggest crime tourists have to worry about, and the U.S. Department of State has no travel advisories for either city (or any destination in Vietnam, for that matter).
2. International Airports
Regardless if you fly into Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, you’ll have access to an international airport.
But of the two, you’ll find more options—and often cheaper flights—when flying into Ho Chi Minh than into Hanoi. Much of this is because Ho Chi Minh has a larger international airport.
That said, you can often find low-cost flights when flying into Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi from other Asian countries. It’s also cheap to fly domestically within Vietnam, especially if you’re only traveling with a carry-on bag.
3. Low Costs
You might be wondering—Is Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh cheaper?
From a tourist perspective, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are both cheap cities. However, of the two, Hanoi is slightly cheaper than Ho Chi Minh.
As a tourist, you likely won’t feel much of a cost difference when traveling from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi.
But if you’re comparing Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City in terms of the cost of long-term living, you’ll have an easier time finding more reasonably priced accommodation in Hanoi than in Ho Chi Minh for a place of comparable quality and location.
4. Cafe Culture
Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi both have a huge cafe culture. I even wrote a guide on the best cafes in Ho Chi Minh City for working remotely, a task I happily took on for you, my dear readers, as I ate and drank my way through Ho Chi Minh’s cafes.
If you visit both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, you’ll notice there’s some overlap with coffee shop chains you’ll see. Phuc Long and Highlands Coffee are the most notable local chains. You’ll see a lot more of these coffee shops than Starbucks.
However, when comparing Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City, both cities also boast near-endless independently owned coffee shop options.
Don’t forget to try egg coffee while you’re in Vietnam!
5. Lots of Markets
Markets abound in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi, although I’m partial to Hanoi’s markets.
The markets in Hanoi feel more authentic, even those within the old quarters. You’ll encounter loads of locals shopping at them in addition to curious tourists.
Ho Chi Minh has its fair share of great markets too. But if you want a more local experience, I recommend skipping Ben Thanh Market and visiting any other market Google Maps suggests.
Regardless of the markets you visit in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, bring lots of small change and be ready to barter. Prices won’t be on items, so bargaining is expected.
6. Day Trip Options
We already covered the difference between Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City in terms of day trips vs multi-day trips. However, both cities also offer fun day trips.
Some great day trips from Ho Chi Minh include:
- Mekong Delta
- Cu Chi Tunnels
- Cao Dai Temple
- Cai Be Floating Market
The Cu Chi Tunnels aside, if you’re interested in learning more about the Vietnam War (which they call the American War in Vietnam), be sure to build in time to see the War Remnants Museum, located in downtown Ho Chi Minh.
The day trip options from Hanoi tend to be more nature-oriented than in Ho Chi Minh. Some examples of day trips from Hanoi include:
- Ninh Binh
- Tam Coc
- Halong Bay
- Perfume Pagoda
So, when you’re planning how long to spend in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, be sure to factor in extra time for day trips.
How to Travel Between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City
If you don’t want to choose between Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh and would rather visit both cities, here’s the good news: You have several travel options.
Flying is the fastest and preferred method to travel directly from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City. Several non-stop flights serve this route daily, and the flying time is just over two hours.
If slow travel is more your style, you could take a train or bus between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh, which takes around 10.5 to upwards of 45 hours, respectively.
Yes, you read that right—the bus between Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi can take up to 45 hours.
Needless to say, the only time when it might make sense to take the bus is if you want to stop over in other cities as you go. Hoi An is a popular city to visit and is a good halfway point between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
FAQs About Visiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City
Do you still have questions about visiting Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh? Read below to see if I answer them. If not, leave your question in the comments and I’ll get back to you.
Is Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh better?
Whether Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh is better depends on the person. Hanoi is better for people seeking a more cultural and traditional Vietnamese experience. In contrast, Ho Chi Minh is better for people who want modern amenities at their fingertips and nightlife that extends into the wee hours of the morning.
Is south or north Vietnam better?
South Vietnam is better for people who have their hearts set on seeing the Mekong River Delta and who want to spend time in the thriving financial hub of Ho Chi Minh. On the other hand, north Vietnam is ideal for people who want to see many of Vietnam’s natural attractions and experience more traditional Vietnamese culture.
Should I start in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City?
It doesn’t matter whether you start in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh since wet summers and dry winters are typical of both destinations. That said, if you’re traveling between seasons, you might want to be more careful about choosing when to visit Hanoi.
Since good visibility is important for the Halong Bay cruise and trekking Sapa, being mindful of when you arrange your travel dates to Hanoi can improve the chances of a more favorable trip experience.
Hanoi vs Ho Chi Minh City: Which Will You Choose?
Personally, I’m glad I had the opportunity to spend time in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I liked each for different reasons. But if you were to twist my arm to choose a favorite, I’d pick Hanoi (minus what was, for me, unbearably cold winter weather).
Feel free to leave your questions in the comments and I’ll do my best to help.
I’d also love to hear what city you think is the best fit for you. Do you plan on visiting Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, or both, and why?