When I visited Vietnam"s commercial capital of Ho bỏ ra Minh đô thị while travelling in 2009 I didn"t warm lớn it. Possibly that was due to lớn the bout of food poisoning I had been living with since Mui Ne, but I think there was more to it than that: it seemed lớn lack any charm or character, falling into the categories of "business centre" and "big city" rather than having any great tourist, or cultural, appeal.

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So when it came to lớn a decision about where to lớn live, although I recognised the business opportunities that Ho chi Minh thành phố would offer, I opted for the capital, Hanoi. Over two years later I stand by that decision: for what Hanoi lacks in big business, transport liên kết and nightlife it makes up for in an easily accessible expat network, an old-world ambiance và apartments overlooking the lake.

And if tourists ask for my opinion on which of the two to lớn visit I also recommend Hanoi. Here is why.

Just another day in Hanoi.

Let"s start with sights. Both have their fair mô tả of museums, & indeed you could match like for like as both have a history museum, a war museum, a women"s museum and so on. Hanoi"s Ethnology Museum is a stand out option, as is the Temple of Literature, but then Hanoi doesn"t have Reunification Palace. Both also have plenty of pagodas, churches và outdoor spaces.

However, Hanoi strides ahead in two areas: the Old Quarter and the lakes. The Old Quarter has the charm và character that HCMC lacks. Of course, this can be found down the alleys và away from the centre of the thành phố in both, but the blend of traditional architecture và local life is readily accessible & intensely felt in the Old Quarter.

Motorbikes and narrow streets - Hanoi in a nutshell.

I"ve read comments before about Old Quarter just being for tourists. This was clearly written by someone who hasn"t explored beyond the few central streets; I spend a lot of time wandering the streets of Old Quarter và local people are living their lives irrespective of the tourists who may, occasionally, wander past their home. It"s a great place to get lost too - just walk, see something you like, turn into a tiny alley, stop for a coffee at a hole in the wall, people watch as you sip on an iced lemon tea... Many happy days can be spent exploring.

Of course, you can explore in Ho bỏ ra Minh, but it just doesn"t match up. & let"s compare Old Quarter with the Pham đần độn Lao area of Ho bỏ ra Minh City, where most of the tourist life is concentrated. For me, this area of HCMC is closer khổng lồ Thailand"s Khao San Road (OK, so it"s still not that close) than it is to lớn Hanoi: it appears lớn be completely dedicated lớn tourism and is usually heaving with people taking advantage of the 10,000 VND Saigon beer. I"m not saying that"s a bad thing -- hey, it"s cheaper than bia Hanoi so who"s complaining -- but there"s something a bit tacky about the area. Although I must địa chỉ cửa hàng that the fruit shakes available along Bui Vien for under a dollar are amazing.

Time to lớn explore!

As for the lakes in Hanoi, they offer a real sense of space và life: the đô thị would feel claustrophobic without them, and walking or cycling around West Lake, stopping for a coconut drink along its banks or watching the fishermen wait patiently for the day"s catch is one of the pleasures of life in Hanoi.

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Hoan Kiem lake provides a different experience, as its banks are more crowded and it"s hard lớn escape the souvenir sellers, but it is still a delightful place for a walk or a rest with an ice cream.

Another sight that takes my breath away (metaphorically) every time I go past is the Mausoleum. Viewed across the park it is such a majestic sight. The Opera House and the Sofitel Metropole Legend hotel evoke similar reactions.

I would also recommend Hanoi as a start point for anyone visiting Vietnam for just a short period of time. A holiday comprising time in Hanoi, Ha Long Bay và Sapa, with short trips to lớn Tam Coc & Ba Vi if you"ve time, provides a wonderful breadth of experiences, all without excessive travelling.

Time for a sugar cane hit.

As for shopping, if you"re after souvenirs, particularly lacquerwork and silk, then Hanoi has an abundance of outlets, all clustered within Old Quarter -- try the streets around Hang Gai and Hang Manh. Noteworthy outlets such as Craftlink & Tan My Design, as well as some wonderful boutique shops, are also located along Nha Tho, near the cathedral.

I"m not going to lớn claim that Ho chi Minh thành phố doesn"t have its advantages. If you"re seeking a range of international cuisine, high-end bars và clubs or rowdy late night pubs, Ho bỏ ra Minh is the place lớn be. It"s enhanced the appeal of the đô thị for me -- my now regular visits are planned around where I can go to lớn eat and drink & I also love walking around the wide mở cửa streets between Hai ba Trung và Nguyen Du in the evening -- but most people don"t come lớn Vietnam for that.

And of course, Hanoi is not without its culinary delights. The street food is astounding in its variety and taste -- food in Ho bỏ ra Minh city is also great but they use more sugar so it has a sweeter taste -- & high-end restaurants such as La Badiane serve up world class fare at less than world class prices. There"s also a wide variety of cuisines available, including some excellent Japanese và Korean restaurants.

The other, little visited, Lakeside.

In summary, a lot of parallels between Hanoi and Ho bỏ ra Minh thành phố can be drawn in terms of the tangibles -- the sights, the accommodation, the local life, the food -- and the difference lies mostly in the atmosphere, the lakes và the overall architecture of the cities. Hanoi throws visitors endless surprises & delights -- & sometimes frustrations -- và is worth more than a passing visit en route to the next stop.

More itineraries

Where to go, how long to lớn stay there, where lớn go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long bởi you need? Itinerary planning can be almost as maddening as it is fun and here are some outlines to help you get started. Remember, don"t over plan!


Burma lends itself lớn a short fast trip with frequent flights thrown in or a longer, slower trip where you don"t leave the ground. There isn"t much of a middle ground. Ground transport remains relatively slow, so be wary about trying to fit too much in.