The Contrast between Hanoi and Saigon
Final Reflection Essay on Understanding Vietnam

Vietnam’s cities and towns have their own unique personalities depending on their layout, history, representations of and attitude towards money, and their roles in the country today. There is a wide range in the degrees to which each of these characteristics are found throughout the country but they are most clearly presented in the contrast between Hanoi and Saigon (now officially named Ho Chi Minh City).

Hanoi is the city that seems to me to be much more representative of Vietnam in nearly every key characteristic. When it comes to its organization, Hanoi is very different from Saigon. It is made up of many small, winding streets without clear beginnings, ends, or corners. This set up makes it extremely difficult for outsiders to navigate. In addition, it seems that when this urban organization is combined with Hanoi’s long and storied history, it leads to Hanoi being a cultural center for Vietnam.

One of the things that I found to make Hanoi so representative of Vietnam and it’s culture is its businesses and how they fit into the city. The short winding streets are filled with short, narrow buildings. These buildings are usually visually mismatching and do not fit any single style; yet what is most important about the buildings of Hanoi is that they are home to local “mom and pop” shops: small shops owned by one family (and in some cases here, lived in as well). While “mom and pop shops” are certainly found in the U.S. they do not make up such an overwhelmingly large majority of the businesses as they do in Hanoi. This is very different from the modern and westernized Saigon.

On the other hand, Saigon is a sprawling city with wide streets, big businesses that scream foreign investment, and western influence on every block. Without even visiting the city one can tell from looking at a map that from an organizational perspective, Saigon has been very “westernized,” like most western cities I’ve been to and/or know of, it is organized fairly linearly (i.e. many straight streets and clear corners like New York’s grid) in a way that makes it easy to navigate in a short amount of time.

In Saigon many of the stores and businesses are international or western brand names that probably wouldn’t appeal to the average Vietnamese person (nor would they fit into the average Vietnamese household disposable income). Another important distinction to note is the physical design of the stores themselves. In Hanoi the storefronts are all wide open like a garage and have products and sales people leaking out into the crowded street. In Saigon the storefronts might as well have been from a United States outlet mall with glass doors, posters of models, and products dazzlingly lit on display.

The differences in storefront styles and store brands is particularly important because they show a lot about the amount of money and the role it plays in each of the cities. For example, Saigon’s marble covered high rises have stock exchange and five star hotel logos. It has two five star hotels on the same block, one of them the Sheraton that houses brands like Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, or Louis Vuitton. While both cities seem to be fueled by money, it’s for different reasons. In Saigon the money is more like in the upper east side of New York, it’s needed to support the lifestyle and foreign investment that are so apparent throughout. I first noticed/realized that the money was about supporting the lifestyle when I saw several Bentleys parked on the street. As I looked around and paid attention for the next few days I found that there was a higher concentration of cars than I had seen anywhere else in the country, and that instead of waves of mopeds, there wee more actual motorcycles in the streams of traffic.

Again, Hanoi is more representative of the majority of Vietnam’s citizens. During our five days in Hanoi we saw very few cars. In place of luxury cars and shiny motorcycles there were endless amounts of mopeds, most of which had sustained repairs in the wide-open local motor shops. Whereas Saigon needs money to sustain its lavish lifestyle, Hanoi is fueled by money because every bit is needed not for fashion and show, but for survival and basic needs.

Beyond the poor mom and pop shops are enormous amounts of people on the streets. Some street food stands cook for themselves and sell to anyone who will buy. Others are beggars poking people with their conical hats and hoping a tourist will drop a coin in. Yet the ones that stick out the most are the men and women carrying their products and hounding foreigners to buy their products for outrageous prices. They carry poster boards full of fake sunglasses, trays of lighters and hats, or just handfuls of postcards and gum. Unfortunately these men and women who follow us as we try so hard to brush them off represent the majority of Vietnam. When the night is over they take the trash, drop it into the fire and leave the ashes for someone else.

Saigon’s streets are yet again unlike Hanoi’s. There are less people walking the streets and even less people cooking and living on the streets. In addition, the streets are remarkably clean with only the occasional trash pile left by a street vendor.

In my opinion, one of the biggest and most relevant distinctions is in the histories of the two cities and how they are represented today. While both cities have interesting and relevant histories, they are very different from each other and each matches their respective city. Hanoi’s position in Vietnam’s history is one that I feel is similar to Boston’s in the U.S.: it has many sites that are important in the nation’s/culture’s roots and very early history. For example, on our first day in Hanoi we got a great sense of Vietnam’s cultural roots when we saw the Temple of Literature, the Tran Vu Temple, the One Column Pagoda, and Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum.

The Temple of Literature dedicated to Confucius, and honored the country scholars and men of literary accomplishment. Within the complex was also the first imperial college established in 1076 to educate children of the royal families, of the mandarins. The talented young men of the poor families who were able to pass the exams also attended this school. It was important for us to realize that after a millennium under years of Chinese domination, Vietnam founded its own college hundreds of years ago in central Hanoi. While the temple is no longer in use today, it is so important that it is still open for visitors and is a fixture of Hanoi.

The Tran Vu Temple that we visited does a great job of showing how alive ancient history is in Hanoi. While the temple is no longer practicing by priests, the site is still every active and seems to be frequented more by locals than tourists. When we were there families came to light incense and pray. In addition, the courtyard of the old temple is used as a public park space. While the families prayed, in the yard behind them where ceremonies were once held, young men were learning techniques in an open martial arts class that used the temple space as a place to teach, learn, and practice.

Hanoi’s One Column Pagoda showed the significance and importance that Buddhism and religion have played in Vietnam’s History. The centuries-old pagoda was built for the Bodhisattva of Compassion, or Quan The Am, by Ly Thai Tong, and takes the form of a lotus flower. As we were getting lecture on its story, people were waling up, making offerings, lighting incense, and clasping their hands as they chanted and prayed to the lady of mercy.

In a change of pace, Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum is a piece of more modern history that only applies to Vietnam’s more recent generations. The mausoleum helped us to understand the mentality of Vietnam today. The respect and importance surrounding even Ho Chi Minh’s name reveal a lot about the values that are held today. While Ho Chi Minh may have been an important character for the U.S. during the war, the mausoleum is Hanoi’s only historic site relating to that period, but instead of referencing the war, it celebrates the ideas he left behind.

Overall, Hanoi’s history is a long one that spans generations and relates to the heritage of each and every Vietnamese. The history one encounters in Saigon is much more recent because of the prevalence of the war. It would be more like visiting New York and stopping to see ground zero from 9/11. During our visit we saw the War Remnants Museum and the Reunification Palace.

In Saigon, the War Remnants Museum is an unbelievable place that brings the horrors of modern warfare to life. Throughout our entire study tour the war only rarely came up. Yet seeing the pictures taken of soldiers fighting on both sides and of Vietnamese civilian survivors, brought it to the surface. Its exhibits have served as a clear reminder that just a generation ago, Saigon was at the heart of a bloody and brutal war that took place throughout Vietnam.

The Reunification Palace (or Dinh Doc Lap) carries a significant amount of history relating to the war (such as the Viet Cong tank driving through its gate). But more importantly, it is a reminder of why Saigon is so westernized and its almost entirely recent history. The palace was designed by a French trained Vietnamese architect and was essentially held by the French and American puppet governments.

Overall, because of Saigon’s role during the war as the Untied States headquarters, the majority of its history surrounds the war. It remains extremely western and plays the role of being the constant reminder of the terrible war and Vietnam’s relatively recent independence.

In conclusion, as evidenced by their key characteristics, Hanoi and Saigon are very different cities that are independently and uniquely important for the country of Vietnam. While Hanoi is the political capital of the country, it is also without a doubt the cultural center that represents life for Vietnamese people throughout the country; its layout is uniquely Vietnamese and its attitude towards aggressive business is found in even the smallest of towns, and its history is a key part of the Vietnamese psyche and ethos. Saigon is in my mind the business capital whose westernization is a reminder of the suppression and war suffered in recent history. While the story of its history is filled with foreign conflict, its recent economic success (even if at the moment it’s fueled by international investment) represents the potential that Vietnam has to rise as an economic force. With Hanoi as the cultural center that provides an understanding of Vietnam, and Saigon as an example of the success that lies ahead, one can look at these two cities and gain a great understanding of past, present, and future of Vietnam as a whole.