When I visited Vietnam's commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City while travelling in 2009 I didn't warm to it. Possibly that was due to 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 to lack any charm or character, falling into the categories of 'business centre' and 'big city' rather than having any great tourist, or cultural, appeal.
So when it came to a decision about where to live, although I recognised the business opportunities that Ho Chi Minh City 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 links and nightlife it makes up for in an easily accessible expat network, an old-world ambiance and apartments overlooking the lake.
And if tourists ask for my opinion on which of the two to visit I also recommend Hanoi. Here is why.
Let's start with sights. Both have their fair share of museums, and 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 and outdoor spaces.
However, Hanoi strides ahead in two areas: the Old Quarter and the lakes. The Old Quarter has the charm and character that HCMC lacks. Of course, this can be found down the alleys and away from the centre of the city in both, but the blend of traditional architecture and local life is readily accessible and intensely felt in the Old Quarter.
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 and 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 Chi Minh, but it just doesn't match up. And let's compare Old Quarter with the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City, where most of the tourist life is concentrated. For me, this area of HCMC is closer to Thailand's Khao San Road (OK, so it's still not that close) than it is to Hanoi: it appears to be completely dedicated to 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 add that the fruit shakes available along Bui Vien for under a dollar are amazing.
As for the lakes in Hanoi, they offer a real sense of space and life: the city 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.
Hoan Kiem lake provides a different experience, as its banks are more crowded and it's hard to 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 and Sapa, with short trips to Tam Coc and Ba Vi if you've time, provides a wonderful breadth of experiences, all without excessive travelling.
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 and Tan My Design, as well as some wonderful boutique shops, are also located along Nha Tho, near the cathedral.
I'm not going to claim that Ho Chi Minh City doesn't have its advantages. If you're seeking a range of international cuisine, high-end bars and clubs or rowdy late night pubs, Ho Chi Minh is the place to be. It's enhanced the appeal of the city for me -- my now regular visits are planned around where I can go to eat and drink and I also love walking around the wide open streets between Hai Ba Trung and Nguyen Du in the evening -- but most people don't come to 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 Chi Minh City is also great but they use more sugar so it has a sweeter taste -- and 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 and Korean restaurants.
In summary, a lot of parallels between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City 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 and the overall architecture of the cities. Hanoi throws visitors endless surprises and delights -- and sometimes frustrations -- and is worth more than a passing visit en route to the next stop.
Where to go, how long to stay there, where to go next, east or west, north or south? How long have you got? How long do 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 to 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.
Roughly apple-shaped, you'd think Cambodia would be ideal for circular routes, but the road network isn't really laid out that way. This means you'll most likely find yourself through some towns more than once, so work them into your plans.
How long have you got? That's not long enough. Really. You'd need a few lifetimes to do this sprawling archipelago justice. Be wary of trying to cover too much ground - the going in Indonesia can be slow.
North or south or both? Laos is relatively small and transport is getting better and better. Those visiting multiple countries can pass through here a few times making for some interesting trips.
The peninsula is easy, with affordable buses, trains and planes and relatively short distances. Sabah and Sarawak are also relatively easy to get around.The vast majority of visitors stick to the peninsula but Borneo is well worth the time and money to reach.
So much to see, so much to do. Thailand boasts some of the better public transport in the region so getting around can be fast and affordable. If time is limited, stick to one part of the country.
Long and thin, Vietnam looks straightforward, but the going is slow and the distances getting from A to B can really bite into a tight trip plan. If you're not on an open-ended trip, plan carefully.
This is where itinerary planning really becomes fun. Be sure to check up on our visa, border crossing and visa sections to make sure you're not trying to do the impossible. Also, remember you're planning a holiday -- not a military expedition.