“So, Which City Is the Best?”
After telling people I’ve spent years living in each of Vietnam’s 3 most famous cities, I’m sometimes asked, “So, which city is the best?” or, “Which city is your favorite?“
The reality is, I can’t give any one single correct answer to those questions. It would be overly simplistic to try to use a linear 1-dimensional scale to declare either one of these cities as all-around “better” or “worse” than the others.
However, there may be a city that is the best fit for you and the point in your life where you are at right now. You might find that there is a city that aligns better with your current goals, hobbies, motivations, personality, and what you’re currently seeking from life. This post might help you to get some perspective.
Hanoi, Danang & Ho Chi Minh City are all different places with different characters, benefits and drawbacks.
There are, however, some common similarities shared among the three; let’s start there.
Similarities Between Hanoi, Danang & Ho Chi Minh City:
In all 3 of Vietnam’s most famous cities, as well as in the entire country, the vast majority of locals are incredibly friendly and kind people. From something as simple as a smile and a genuine “hello” to helping someone with a broken-down motorbike on the side of the road, Vietnamese people are some of the most open and helpful people you will ever meet.
From what I’ve observed, Vietnamese people want conversations to flow smoothly; they laugh and smile a lot and rarely try to shut someone down or make passive-aggressive comments. From my experience, most Vietnamese people look for things to agree on rather than things to argue about.
86% of households in Vietnam own at least one motorbike; Thailand is the only other country in the world that has a higher percentage of people who own motorbikes.
Conversely, only 2.3% of the population are registered owners of a car (although cars generally spatially occupy about 33%-50% of the streets during rush hour).
Although some places are more densely packed with motorbikes than others, wherever you do go in Vietnam, you’re most likely going to encounter more motorbikes conglomerated together than you’ve ever seen in a Western country before.
Charming, Unique and Eccentric Cafes (Coffee Shops)
There are all sorts of crazy cafes hidden away throughout each of the major cities. There are cafes with awesome views of famous traffic circles, cafes with Vietnamese historic themes, cafes where you’ll be surrounded by koi fish, cafes with cats & dogs, modern massive-glass-walled cafes, cafes where you get your own bed/workspace, cafes where you chill in beds with curtains by a swimming pool, cafes where you smoke Vietnamese tobacco (thuốc lào) in bamboo water bongs, hundreds of cozy small cafes nestled away in hidden corners, hundreds of cafes on the sidewalks of bustling streets and dozens of other different types of niche cafes that you can stumble upon among the mazes of the winding streets.
You could spend weeks or months checking out a different cafe each day and you’d still discover something interesting and unique every now and then. Perfect for if you’re a digital nomad who likes to work in cafes; in Hanoi, Danang & Ho Chi Minh City, there is no shortage of chill, eccentric and charming cafes.
Delicious, Afforable Food
Although each city has its own specialty dishes (check under each city’s “References” heading below for examples), you are able to find tasty food for a couple of dollars a dish on most streets, or in small open-air restaurants, within the urban centers of each city.
Good Launch Points For Weekend Trips
Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City are all within a few hours bus ride (or motorbike ride) of a variety of different breathtaking and distinctive locations boasting incredible natural beauty; check under the “References” heading of each city for some examples.
Ok, so now let’s get into some of the differences.
Hanoi (Hà Nội)
Down the Rabbit Hole
Hanoi is a special place; as in, there is nowhere else quite like it. Saying that being in Hanoi feels like stepping back in time kind of encapsulates the idea, but saying it’s like stepping into another world/reality/dimension is probably more accurate.
A completely one-of-a-kind place; you will see things in Hanoi you won’t see anywhere else. Most of the time I walked through the Old Quarter or near Hoan Kiem Lake I would see women walking or taking photos wearing “áo dài” (beautiful, elegant traditional Vietnamese dresses).
You’ll see people driving around on motorbikes with a tower of hundreds of egg cartons strapped to the back seat or all sorts of gravity-defying crazy sh*t; I’ve seen like 4 cut-in-half (big) pigs draped over the back seat of a bike. Almost every commute I’d catch a glimpse of something that’d make me do a double-take, like, “What the f*ck did I just see?”
When I lived in Hanoi, I felt like my life was a surreal adventure, like something in an adventure novel, more so than I felt in Danang or Ho Chi Minh City. In Hanoi, you can be completely submerged in a culture and way of life that is unlike anything that you’ve ever experienced.
A Strong, Proud Culture
Not only is Hanoi the political capital of the country, but it is widely regarded as the cultural capital of Vietnam, comparable to how Chaing Mai is regarded as the cultural capital of Thailand. Hanoi is over 1,000 years old and is often referred to as “the cradle of Vietnamese civilization” (as well as the entire Red River Delta).
When I met locals in Hanoi, they would generally be very enthusiastic to share with me different facts about their city’s culture and history; I could hear the genuine passion and pride in their voices. When I met Hanoian girls, they would actually want to take me out to show me a popular local street food spot, or a quick motorbike tour of historic landmarks. They weren’t expecting me to take them to a fancy, pretentious, expensive Western restaurant; they honestly didn’t care about that.
The City of Lakes
Hanoi has numerous different tranquil lakes; the most famous being Hoan Kiem Lake (Hồ Hoàn Kiếm) and West Lake (Hồ Tây). Truc Bach Lake (Hồ Trúc Bạch) is pretty nice too.
Hoan Kiem is like the center of the community in central Hanoi. On weekends, they close the streets surrounding the lake and thousands of happy people walk around, sing, dance, play games and do a variety of other activities together. All of it’s just for fun; nobody is trying to earn money.
During the day, you can sit on benches around the peaceful lake and listen to the wind rustling through the trees and the sounds of the city. Most of the time I would sit by this lake, a friendly local would come up and chat with me.
The West Lake is a large serene lake and is excellent for watching a sunset among one of the many cafes and restaurants along the perimeter; often people set up chairs facing the lake and you just buy drinks from them to sit in their chairs.
Also, West Lake is awesome to take a lazy motorbike, or bicycle, ride around. At night, couples will pull up their motorbikes to the edge of the lake; it’s quite romantic with the moon reflecting off the calm mirror-like surface.
Truc Bach Lake is a smaller lake adjacent to the West Lake, the streets surrounding it are packed full of great food spots and cafes.
Pollution and Traffic
As you can see in the above image, Hanoi’s sky is usually not clear. Although this blanket of haze does contribute a feeling of coziness and to some pretty crazy and colorful sunsets, this air pollution is definitely not good for your health. Hanoi objectively has the highest level of air pollution in the country.
The reason for this air pollution is caused by the immense amount of motorbikes on the road. For the most part, Hanoi generally has thinner roads than the roads in Danang and Ho Chi Minh City, so traffic can get pretty tight and congested during rush hours; if Hanoi’s roads were arteries, then Hanoi would be having a heart attack during rush hour. Luckily my schedule was in a way where I rarely had to drive during rush hour; I’d recommend that you also try to avoid driving during rush hour.
Home By Midnight
For the most part, bars, restaurants and everything else are completely shut by midnight (some spots in the Old Quarter stay open until 2:00 on weekends, but it’s not hectic). Hanoi is not a city where you will find people partying on the street together until the sun comes up.
Although traditional Hanoian women are typically very honest, loyal, caring and loving, it is extremely unlikely that you’ll find one who will want to go out drinking with you all night.
For a big city, Hanoi is quite safe, secure and pure; however, the flip side to that is that vices are going to be restricted.
Hanoi: A Special Place
Different Hanoians I’ve met have told me, something along the lines of, every time they leave the city, a deep-down part of them always misses it; every time they return, they feel like they’re finally comfortable again. It’s like an intangible feeling and they can’t exactly put their finger on it as to why.
I can understand and appreciate this. Something about Hanoi seems to creep into your psyche the longer that you’re there. Being nestled amongst the charming, rustic, authentic, narrow, thin, twisting historic streets makes you feel snug, secure and hidden from the edged realities of the outside world and your past. It’s like a fuzzy blanket for your mind; the feeling is difficult to understand without experiencing it firsthand.
Adjusting to, and getting around, Hanoi has its challenges, but if you take the plunge and fully immerse yourself in the world of Hanoi, you will find a place quite unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Consequently, when you’re surrounded by a reality where absolutely nothing reminds you of anything you’ve ever known, you’ll grow to be a more open-minded and diverse individual than you ever could in a familiar environment.
Hanoi holds a special place in my heart and mind, it is truly a unique and enchanting place full of tough, proud people; I’m looking forward to returning there someday.
Hanoi Quick References
Famous Architecture in Hanoi:
The Mausoleum of President Ho Chi Minh:
St. Joseph’s Cathedral:
Long Biên Bridge:
Delicious Hanoi Specialty Food (Look For These Names On Signs):
Bún Chả Hà Nội:
Excursions from Hanoi:
Hạ Long Bay:
Hanoi Main Party Street:
Tạ Hiện Street:
Hanoi Expat Area:
Danang (Đà Nẵng)
The first time I went to Danang in 2017, I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “Ok, so what’s the catch? There’s this incredible beach and breathtakingly lit-up city, and I can just live here for like $1,000 a month? Really? Why the f*ck doesn’t everyone do that then?”
Danang honestly looks like heaven on Earth; it’s hands-down the most aesthetically gorgeous city I’ve ever seen.
There are actually a few beaches near Danang, but the most popular and most impressive (imo) is My Khe (Mỹ Khê) Beach. When standing on the wide serene white-sand beach, you can look to your left to see the massive marble “Lady Buddha” statue nestled into Monkey mountain on the Sơn Trà peninsula that sticks out into the cerulean sea.
Danang is awesome because if you’re living anywhere near the city center, you can be at the beach within a 5 to 10-minute motorbike ride. If you’re living in the expat area, you can be at the beach within a 5 to 10-minute walk.
Danang is completely lit up by colorful LEDs. The famous Dragon Bridge (Cầu Rồng) alone has 5,000 LEDs. This bridge not only symphonically blends between vibrant hues of color but also “spits” out fire and water on the weekends.
It’s not only the dragon bridge that’s covered with LEDs. When taking a breezy nighttime stroll beside the expansive Han (Hàn) River running through the center of Danang, you’ll see multiple different lit-up bridges, mini skyscrapers and even a giant Ferris Wheel displaying sensory-stimulating patterns of lights; except you’ll be seeing double because everything will also be reflecting radiantly and symmetrically off of the inky river below.
In my experience, I found things in Danang to be about 25% cheaper than in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Danang has a much slower pace and laidback vibe; you can feel it in the air.
Danang is an extremely safe city, even petty theft is relatively rare in Danang (but it does happen). I’ve been blackout drunk, on the street, with jewelry around my neck multiple times in Danang and I’ve always been completely fine. I’ve left my motorbike unattended on the street for days, and my phone in bars all night, never had a problem.
The streets are wide and the traffic is negligible compared to in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Most days you’ll be greeted with a crystal-clear blue sky, but in recent years the air pollution levels have started to creep up.
Being a fraction of the size of the other cities, Danang understandably has much more limited options for restaurants, bars and personalities. There are a few big nightclubs in the city center, a couple of beach bars and maybe a couple dozen sports bars and pubs scattered throughout the city center and expat area.
The expat population is quite homogeneous in that most expats in Danang are middle-aged white dudes; the expat area is actually nicknamed “Crackertown” (really). Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met a lot of cool middle-aged white dudes; I’m all for sitting outside on a breezy day and day-drinking with middle-aged white dudes. I’m slowly gettin’ to be a middle-aged white dude myself. However, personally, I like chilling with middle-aged white dudes in moderation, not necessarily 365 days a year. They don’t much like my type of music either. Also, the guy-to-girl ratio in most bars in Danang is generally around 5:1 or worse (the clubs downtown are usually a bit more even though).
Bring a Book
As there are fewer options for entertainment and mental stimulation compared to a big city, if you tend to have a more hyperactive mind, you may find yourself getting a bit bored and stir-crazy after a while.
Despite having a population of over 1 million people, Danang has a small-town-sorta vibe, complete with small-town charms such as people gossiping about each other, running into your ex at the night market and just a general lack of anonymity.
Danang: Idle Paradise
Danang allows a super-relaxed, chill and easy lifestyle, but it may not necessarily be somewhere where you are going to expand your mind and become a more diverse, worldly individual, or make a lot of profound memories that you will look back on. However, if you’re feeling like you’re at a point where you just want to kick back and enjoy life, then Danang is the ultimate place for that.
Danang is insanely beautiful; walking along the riverside you’ll feel like you’re in a dream, especially around dusk. Stress-free and uncomplicated, you’re not likely to ever feel overwhelmed or disoriented like you easily could in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City.
If anyone asked me for a recommendation as to where they should go for a relaxing vacation, I would 100% say Danang. Many Hanoians and Saigonese regularly holiday in Danang. Once covid f*cks off a bit, I’ll probably make it my mission to spend at least a couple weeks there each year.
Danang Quick References
Famous Architecture in Danang:
Delicious Danang Specialty Food (Look For These Names On Signs):
Excursions from Danang:
Huế & Hải Vân Pass
Bà Nà Hills:
Danang Main Party(ish) Street:
Bạch Đằng Street:
Danang Expat Area:
Ho Chi Minh City (Thành Phố Hồ Chí Minh) AKA Saigon (Sài Gòn)
The City That Never Sleeps
On my first night in Vietnam, a local on Beer Street in Hanoi said to me, “Ho Chi Minh City never sleeps, because the money never sleeps.”
Although New York City was originally termed the city that never sleeps, Ho Chi Minh City is like a SE Asian cousin of New York City in some ways. For one, they’re both the financial centers of their respective countries.
Many bars are open late, especially in District 1. Some bars won’t close at all if there are still people buying drinks. When I go out drinking, I usually end up getting home as the sun cracks the horizon.
Bars are open until early hours and people go to the market at 4:00 AM to buy fresh ingredients for their kitchens, shops and restaurants; Ho Chi Minh City truly does never sleep.
The city is full of bustling open-air Vietnamese-style restaurant-bars (where groups of locals usually pound cases of cheap beer), as well as hundreds of Western-style establishments with closed doors and aircon. On a typical weekend (and on some weekdays too), thousands of restaurants and bars, large and small, are completely full.
Ho Chi Minh City is notorious for having dozens of rooftop bars (and pools) with outstanding views, but most of them aren’t cheap (although I have found one or two reasonably-priced spots).
As New York City is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in America, Ho Chi Minh City is undisputably the most cosmopolitan city in Vietnam. There are a variety of different types of restaurants boasting cuisines from all over the globe.Near the city center, you’re liable to find an Indian restaurant, a steak house, a sushi restaurant, an open-air Vietnamese restaurant-bar, an Italian restaurant, a Chinese hotpot restaurant, a cafe, a Western fast-food joint, a Korean BBQ and a Vietnamese food stall all lined-up adjacent to each other on the street.
Ho Chi Minh City has more expats than any other city in Vietnam; in 2019, Ho Chi Minh City was actually ranked as the 3rd best city in the world for expats.
In Ho Chi Minh City, you will encounter a variety of different types of expats and travelers, people of different races, ages, countries, personalities and genders; a heterogeneous mix. You’ll often see Vietnamese (guys and girls) and foreigners mingling with each other on the street and in bars (except less so in the expat area).
The City Has a Pulse
When going out at night, whether on your bike or on the back of a motorbike taxi, you can feel the excitement in the air like static electricity as you zip through the city. Within 5 minutes, you could pass by hundreds of people eating, laughing and drinking on chairs and plastic stools on the sidewalk; the energy is contagious.
Within the distance, you’ll be able to see Landmark 81 (the 16th tallest skyscraper in the world) lighting up the skyline with hundreds of meters of LEDs, like a lightning rod attracting buzzing electrons to add to the elation in the atmosphere of the lively city below.
Most Vietnamese hip-hop comes out of Ho Chi Minh City too, you’ll be hearing a few Vietnamese bangers if you spend a lot of time at bars, clubs and even cafes (outside of the expat area).
Girls in Bars, Not Bargirls
Ok there are a lot of bargirls too, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
In Ho Chi Minh City, you’ll see a more even ratio of guys and girls in the bars. Whereas in Hanoi and Danang, women are generally more likely to go for milk tea or to a cafe at night, in Ho Chi Minh City it’s much more common to see women sipping cocktails or beers in most bars. In my experience, if a girl doesn’t work the next day, then there’s a decent chance she’ll be down to go out drinking late with you.
Although there is a lot of freedom and opportunities to play, there are repercussions to that. You’ll see more drug addicts, local and foreign, than in the other two major cities in Vietnam. Petty theft is quite common, especially phone snatchings from motorbikes. Also, watch your jewelry and the stuff in your pockets when you’re out on a busy street.
More Materialistic than the Rest of Vietnam, but Less than a Western Country
For better or for worse, Ho Chi Minh City has more of a Westernized attitude than anywhere else in Vietnam. Although still much less materialistic and consumeristic than a Western country, you will occasionally encounter greedy Western tactics such as deceitful advertising of prices, bars and restaurants trying to inflate the bill with hidden charges, or even bars just straight-up adding sh*t you didn’t order.
Some of the more upscale Western clubs and rooftop bars try and keep their extortionate prices a secret until after you’ve already paid the cover charge. They train their staff, and even the doormen, to not answer questions about the prices until people are already inside and paid cover; a super greedy, deceitful, tryna-Westernize-everything, greasy maneuver.
Although most people in Ho Chi Minh City are awesome, you are much more likely to encounter someone with a gold digger mentality in Ho Chi Minh City than anywhere else in Vietnam; gold diggers tend to conglomerate to Ho Chi Minh City from all over the country, like tech startups to the Silicon Valley.
Pollution and Traffic
Pollution and traffic in Ho Chi Minh City are better than in Hanoi but much worse than in Danang.
Ho Chi Minh City: Big City Mentality
Ho Chi Minh City is excellent if you crave the hectic mania that comes from living in a large high-energy city. You’ll most likely encounter a wider variety of different types of people than you would in Hanoi or Danang.
It’s a city where you can truly have a night out that twists and turns; there are more possibilities and there’s a much broader range of outcomes to your night (for better or for worse).
Fall in love cautiously. Keep your street smarts about you to avoid getting ripped off or your belongings snatched. There are safer cities and there are more dangerous cities in the world. Don’t be paranoid, but don’t forget, Ho Chi Minh City definitely has teeth to it.
Although more similar to a Western city than the rest of Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City still definitely claims its own character, a vibrant, energetic, dynamic, thrilling, slightly-dangerous character that’s easy to get addicted to.
Ho Chi Minh City Quick References
Famous Architecture in Ho Chi Minh City:
Independence Palace AKA Reunification Palace:
Notre Dame Cathedral:
Delicious Ho Chi Minh City Specialty Food (Look For This Name On Signs):
Cơm tấm sườn:
Excursions from Ho Chi Minh City:
Ho Chi Minh City Main Party Street:
Ho Chi Minh City Expat Area:
So Which City Is Right For You?
If you are trying to decide which city you want to live in for years to come, I would highly recommend spending at least 2-4 weeks in each city, and try to experience the city as much as possible. Talk to strangers, try out food you’ve never tried before, check out bars and restaurants, wander around the city center, swipe right a few times, whatever.
If you’re just traveling, then definitely try to spend at least a few days in each of the big 3 cities, and try to check out some of the notable locations surrounding each city too if you have time.
If you’ve already spent time in Hanoi, Danang and Ho Chi Minh City, then let us know what your thoughts were; let’s hear it in the comments.
James | MosaicWriting.com