Thursday, February 25, 2010

Hanoi - a curious capital

I haven't been to many capital cities but what they all had in common is that they are the centre of all things commercial, financial and social in their nations. I didn't get that feeling in Hanoi. For me, Saigon is much more of a capital city. The feel of Hanoi isn't quite right. I'm not saying that Hanoi isn't nice, it is. Far superior to Saigon in terms of beauty, elegance and greenery. However, it's missing something that HCMC has in abundance. That's buzz.

The first thing to note is that we went over the Christmas period. Xmas isn't widely celebrated in Vietnam and there's no commercial drive, excitement or the overkill of garish decorations of the west. It's largely a couples holiday, where you would take that special someone for a nice meal followed by coffee. Others meet their friends, get drunk and sing karaoke at varying degrees of competence. Large and international companies close for the day, but most small businesses stay open. For most of the city it's business as usual.

Business in VN is a little strange in my eyes. Everyone seems to be in a hurry to achieve not a great deal. It's odd. The biggest of fuss is often made for the smallest of things. Most businesses are tiny. There are coffee places galour, numerous restaurants that only serve one or two dishes, tourist nick-knack stores, big supermarkets and of course motorbike repair workshops. With the exception of the supermarkets, I'm not sure how any of these small enterprises survive as they never seem to be busy. However, I guess it's partly to do with the fact a lot of people use the ground floor of their home for their business and they live upstairs. Still, I often wonder how they make ends meet....but they do.

Anyways, on to Hanoi. What is lacks in buzz, it makes up for in other ways. I'm going to talk about a few of the places to visit. Unfortunately I didn't get the chance to go to Sapa or Halam Bay which I've been told are amazing to visit. We only went to Hanoi on a Visa run before our trip to England. What we saw in Hanoi is more than achievable in a couple of days and in all honesty, I wouldn't have wanted to spend to much more time there as I felt attractions were somewhat limited. That being said, I think it would be a reasonable place to live if I had the range of social activities that I have in HCMC, which I'm sure I'd find with some local knowledge. So here were my 3 highlights.

1) The 'One Pillar Pagoda'

Beautiful isn't it! This is one of the main attractions in the city. As you'll soon learn, most of the highlights in Hanoi are centred around Ho Chi Minh's tomb. This pagoda is literally about 100 yards from the Mausoleum. It's essentially a tiny pagoda in a ridiculously idealic setting. Apparently it was originally built in 1049 and the French destroyed in during there occupation before being rebuilt. However, it remains one of Hanoi's treasures and is well worth a visit.

2) Ho Chi Minh's Tomb and the Presidential Palace

Uncle Ho is somewhat of a God here. He is visited by thousands if not millions of people each year and it marks a significant moment in a lot of people's life. The Mausoleum is made from granite and is apparently built similar to the memorial made for Lenin. It has a military honour guard, dressed in white who uphold the strict laws within the tomb. It's a little iry to walk around the body of an icon, and the obvious significance to the Vietnamese was lost on me. However you can't come to Hanoi and not go there. As is typical with most governmental or significant buildings in Vietnam, you can't take photos of the body but it lives in the memory.

Another thing you can't take pictures of is above! And that's the Presidential Palace. When I say you can't take a snap, please bare with me. Outside of the Palace, there's a big black gate which has an armed patrol. It seems that there job is purely to warn of tourists trying to take photos as the place seemed pretty devoid of people. However, if you buy tickets to the mausoleum you can get a clear view, which is closer than from the front gate, and take pictures from there. It's all very strange to me. However the grounds around the Palace and behind the tomb are quite a sight...

Unfortunately I don't have many good pictures. It was a somewhat overcast day and there were too many people about to get clear shots but it was a beautiful walk. The gardens are well maintained with an abundance of flowers, the lakes clean, and various temples and function rooms charming, quaint and well furnished. You could also see some of HCM's cars which I thought was a little strange.

3) Wedding Picture Park

Unfortunately I can't remember the name and I can't find my map but again, this park is not too far from HCM square. It's a beautiful park where couples go to get their pre wedding photo albums made. The lake makes an ideal setting for romantic pictures and a pleasant afternoon stroll or picnic. We saw about 9 couples taking their pictures, holding the ridiculously unnatural and quite frankly uncomfortable poses that the photographers demand of their clients. However, it's a good example of Hanoi's greenery and I wish it was in HCMC so for a few minutes I could escape the smog, fumes and traffic jams for an hour or two.

Some final thoughts

Hanoi is busy, yet not chaotic. The outskirts are designed for cars, which is certainly something that can't be said of HCMC where the roads are barely sufficient to support 4 wheeled transportation! Therefore the traffic in Hanoi flows pretty well. The lake which the centre is built around is also a nice distraction and pleasing on the eye.

Hanoi also has a lot less street vendors which riddle the streets in downtown Saigon. They are also less persistent than those in the South. The capital also feels more affluent. This is probably because of the wide boulevards and relative abundance of cars compared to HCMC. However it's difficult to compare as Hanoi is less densely populated, the roads are designed for cars and the government officials are based in the captial. Ho Chi Minions tend to show their wealth in their possessions and how lavishly they furnish their houses as their is no point in owning a flash car.


Affluence - Hanoi
Commerce/Industry - HCMC
Greenery/Beauty - Hanoi
Shopping - HCMC
Nightlife - HCMC
Tourist Attractions - A tie
Quality of life - Hanoi
Job Opportunities - HCMC

At the end of the day, it depends on what you want. I personally prefer Hanoi as a place to stay for the peace and tranquility. However, at this stage in my life, HCMC is by far the best option for employment, entertainment and socialising hence my assertion that Saigon is Vietnam's capital in disguise.


  1. Just like once I thought that New York is the capital of the USA :)
    Actually I've never been to Hanoi but it seems a nice place to live according to your writing :)
    Anyway, in HCMC, you have RMIT and you have us :)