Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City?

It is one of those questions that pop up whenever there is a new gathering of expatriates in Vietnam. Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City? Which do you prefer?

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This time it was at a soiree the day after Christmas, or “Boxing Day,” as the Brits call it. Around the table were folks from Europe, North America, South America and New Zealand. As the young German explained his preference for Hanoi, I nodded my concurrence.

This is a question that divides my wife and I. She was born in Saigon and left a few years later, after it was renamed in honor of the late Vietnamese president Ho Chi Minh. So naturally she thinks of Saigon as home. She speaks with a southern accent and enjoys visiting not-so-distant relatives. She finds the southern food more flavorful, the society friendlier. She does not mind the heat and she likes the hustle and bustle.

But I have never lived in Ho Chi Minh City. And Hanoi is starting to feel like. . . well, if not home, then maybe a bit homey.

But it is not a matter of sentiment and weather. While some cities are blandly generic, others have distinctive personalities. Visitors from Mars, I suspect, could sense the way that Ho Chi Minh City leans into the future, toward globalization and modernity, while Hanoi seems more resistant, more wedded to the past.

So like the German, I prefer the somewhat less hurried pace of Hanoi and its mildewed charm. Hanoi can be frenetic, of course, but the lakes seem to provide a natural antidote. What we both like about Hanoi – Indeed, what charms many foreigners about Vietnam’s capital – is the sense of antiquity, a living antiquity, and the way Hanoi conveys that past, present and future. Somehow the sight of a Rolls Royce or Ferrari seems stranger in Hanoi than down south.

To me the difference between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is visceral. You can see it in the people, in the streetscape, in the architecture. All leave an impression.

Consider: When you think about the people you see everyday that symbolize Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, which ones come to mind? What do they look like?

Down south, the stereotypical Saigonese may be more stylishly dressed and ride a shinier, newer motorbike. They work in offices and might follow the Ho Chi Minh Stock Exchange. These days they can also drop by Starbucks stores – still yet to arrive in Hanoi.

Up in the capital, among the workaday masses, there seems to be more men in uniform -more military, more police, and more authority figures. But even more so, there seem to be more women (almost always women) carrying ganh – the bamboo yokes hung with baskets at each end that in the morning can carry loads of produce and in the afternoon may carry cans and cardboard for recycling.

Think about the ganh for a moment. Vietnam is a young nation, dating to 1975 in its current borders. But the culture dates some 4,000 years. It is safe to assume that the ganh was used before the wheel. Why? It was used as a pram, of sorts, by my wife’s maternal grandmother. When my wife was a toddler, she and her younger brother would be balanced on a ganh and carried during her immediate family’s visits to her grandmother in the countryside.

Now consider the architecture. No landmark exhibits the aspirational ambition of contemporary Vietnam more than the Bitexco tower in Ho Chi Minh City. So what works of architecture best symbolize Hanoi?

It’s certainly not the 72-story Keangnam Tower, tall but boxy and far from central. Nope, to me, two postcard images come to mind. One is the austere, stately tomb of the late president Ho Chi Minh. The other is the old Turtle Tower on the tiny island in Hoan Kiem Lake. This humble, photogenic landmark is fittingly under the gaze, from across the street, of a statue of legendary 10th century King Ly Thai To, from the era when Hanoi was known as Thang Long, or “Rising Dragon.”

Hanoi’s public art honors its history. Ly Thai To is credited with repelling invaders from the north, and here he presides over the legend of the Lake of the Returned Sword – and the remarkably true, living legend of the surviving Ho Guom turtle. Meanwhile, a few miles away, the statue of Vladimir Lenin stands opposite the landmark Flag Tower, gazing toward an old MIG jet fighter from the American War era, as if wistfully saluting Vietnam’s triumph over another great foreign power. This is more poetic than the military history displays one sees in Ho Chi Minh City.

Vietnamese, too, can go on and on about the differences between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. I prefer to apply my pet theory for understanding the yin and yang of Vietnam, the duality of north and south. Imagine a ganh that balances two creatures of culture’s folklore, the turtle and the dragon.

Ho Chi Minh City is a dragon – quick, daring, creative and fanciful. Hanoi used to be “Rising Dragon,” but now it is more like a turtle – stolid, conservative, persevering, and as real as the old one in Hoan Kiem Lake.

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