North vs South: 7 Big Differences When You Travel in Vietnam
Written by Ezra Luckcock, Senior Recruitment Manager for APAX Leaders
Travel in Vietnam
You’ve decided on Vietnam as the destination. But where do you belong: the North of Vietnam or the South of Vietnam? Check out our guide below to help you make the decision. And of course, you can always move around. Travel to different locations during your time in this beautiful country. In fact, it’s expected! See as many sights as you can.
Without further ado… Let’s crack on with the differences!
Bun Bo Hue
Photograph via Monngonbamien
#1 – The Food in Vietnam! (Amazing in ALL regions)
We’ll start with the hardest, simply because the food is beautiful all across the country! In fact, you’ll find that each region, even within north and south, has its own delicacies and is famed for a certain dish. For example, Hue, slap-bang in the middle of Vietnam, has bun bo Hue, with its signature thick-noodle soup. Sure, you can find it in Hanoi or HCMC, but it won’t quite have that je ne sais quois!
Hanoi has three fantastic must-try dishes. All embody the “do one thing well” simple spirit of the north:
• Bun cha (left) is unrivaled, with its pieces of char-grilled pork in a sweet green papaya and carrot soup, to which you add cold rice bun noodles.
• Pho (center) is world-famous, with crazy inventions like the pho taco testament to this. Yet, you won’t get a better bowl than in the capital of Vietnam. Chicken or beef, take your pick, with its simple yet hard-to-replicate soup. Be careful though, as many places will overprice unsuspecting tourists! Best to ask a local (and make new friends in the process) where to find the hidden gems. Oh, and if you like cocktails, be sure to hunt down the pho cocktail. Ne bar is great for this!
• Cha ca (right) is the one to go for if you’re a fish-lover, with its meaty and succulent pieces of fish fried up with lush, fresh spring greens.
HCMC by contrast goes for packing as much flavour and diversity into one dish as possible:
• Hu tieu (left) noodle soup full of fresh seafood, boiled eggs, meat cuts, and tasty greens – is sure to give you a diverse flavour explosion.
• Banh mi Huynh Hoa (center) is the one-of-a-kind, essential HCMC pitstop for a lip-smackingly good lunch, packed with various meats and fresh green salad and herbs.
• Banh trang tron (right) gives you a beautiful chew with eggs, noodles, fresh herbs and dried beef, dressed with citrus zest.
This isn’t all though! In places as far-reaching Hai Phong on the north coast you’ll find a special kind of banh mi – long, thin sticks of the stuff jammed with pate and dipped into hot chilli sauce – and if you find yourself able to travel in Vietnam to the cool southern mountain town of Da Lat, you’ve got to try the huge range of street food from Da Lat “pizza” (get on a tour!). Finally, in the centre in charming Hoi An, you’ve got the eponymous com ga Hoi An; a chicken, rice, and pungent herb dish with mouth-watering chili jam. And there are many, many more dishes all over the country to explore.
Suffice to say, wherever you land, the food will not disappoint. The cheaper prices definitely lessen the cost of living in Vietnam!
#2 – The Two Major Cities: Hanoi in the North vs HCMC in the South
Not every teacher works and lives in either the capital or, in the south, the largest city in Vietnam, but most do. And while not everyone wants to head for the areas with the most expats, plenty do. We’ll look at some of the key cultural differences between the North and the South later. For now, we’ll dive into the fundamentals. What are you looking for? Read on to find out!
There’s a large and thriving expat community in Hanoi centred around Tay Ho. The area has all the amenities and comforts from home from many local businesses run by expats. Others prefer to cluster around Ba Dinh district. In both places, you’ll find a fair few English-speaking agents who can help you find a place to live.
In HCMC, also known as Sai Gon, there are a few districts known as the main expat hubs. To get knee-deep into the action, aim for one of the following 6: Districts 1, 2, 3, 7, Binh Thanh, and Phu Nhuan. Watch out if you want the real Vietnamese experience though. Some of these Districts may feel a little too close to home. Each has its pros and cons – choose with wisdom!
Are you looking to get away from familiarity and plunge right into authentic Vietnam? There’s plenty of opportunity to do so. Your chances are a lot higher in Hanoi than HCMC, as HCMC is far more westernised, catering to foreigners. Hanoi has a traditional feel to it, and there are less expats living there.
For nightlife, there’s way more going on in HCMC than in the north. Hanoi has its tourist street called Ta Hien and the Old Quarter is a tourist’s charm. But Ta Hien is tiny compared with HCMC’s imposing Bui Vien, lined with all-night clubs and bars. In the north, being in bed by 12AM is the norm, not the exception!
Sadly, the pollution in the north is awful and unavoidable, even in some smaller cities. Hanoi often ranks as the worst capital in the world for air quality. Some days it even outranks China’s and India’s worst-polluted cities. With the south, the air tends to be much better, even in HCMC. If you’re planning to live in Hanoi, make sure you buy a quality mask. This will protect you from the dreaded 2.5PM, which is a serious problem in the northern regions. You’ll also want to invest in an air purifier for your new home. It can be pricey, but it’s a necessity if you’re concerned about your health – even indoors.
#3 – Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, or… Rainy and… Dry
The North has four identifiable seasons. The South has a rainy season (cooler) and a drier season (hotter). Which sounds like a better place to live or travel in Vietnam?
If you’re the kind of person for whom the sun always needs to shine, then South Vietnam is where you want to be! Even during the rainy season it’s still warm and you’ll be able to get ample vitamin D. It runs from around May to November. Most days during the seasons will start sunny and rain hard in the afternoon. Temperatures don’t go below 28°C as a rule. From December to April during the dry season, it’s a bit hotter, round 33-35°C. One thing’s for sure: year-round in the South of Vietnam, you’re guaranteed sunshine!
The North of Vietnam is a bit more complex. There is a rainy season, but it only lasts a few months during the late summer. Flash flooding is common, and this can be a serious problem!
Autumn is much drier, and is the time to visit the north of the country, when it’s at its most beautiful. Because there are so few days of rain but the weather is cooler, you can take advantage the perfect balance.
Winter is drier and cooler, and it’s not uncommon to see temperatures dipping below 16-18°C. This is unheard of in the South (except in Da Lat – more on this later). And in the very far North mountainous regions, you can sometimes see snow! It is rare in Vietnam though; many Vietnamese have never seen snow in their lives.
When spring rolls around it’s a bit of gamble on whether it’ll be wet or dry. Who doesn’t like a bit of uncertainty? You’ll get midrange sunshine, rain, and temperatures. Like autumn, spring is quite a short season. It will help gear you up for the coming summer after the very-much-welcome cooler winter days.
And once summer kicks into full effect, temperatures soar. It can be far hotter than HCMC ever is. Do not underestimate the northern summers – they are merciless! You’ll likely be spending a lot of time indoors with the AC ramped up during May and June.
So which sounds more workable for you?
#4 – Each Region is Rich in History and Heritage
For Americans, the Vietnam War was, and in some ways still is, a big deal. (By the way, the Vietnamese call it the Resistance War Against America). But it’s not the only thing about Vietnam to explore. If you’re a culture junkie, there’s loads to check out!
Vietnam has more than its fair share of beautiful pagodas and temples. They’re dotted across the country, no matter which town or city you’re in. Some are very old and magnificent to explore!
Then there are the expansive national parks. For the north, check out lesser-known Ba Vi around 90 minutes west of Hanoi. You should also take a trip to Tam Dao in Vinh Phuc province. Finally Cao Bang in the far north has a very impressive waterfall. Then you’ve got the hidden treasures of Cat Ba island off the northern coastline. For the south, there’s the massive Cat Tien next to HCMC. The beautiful islands of Phu Quoc and Con Dao are short plane rides out of the capital, right off the mainland.
Cuc Phuong National Park
Nui Chua National Park
Cat Ba National Park
Photographs via Culturetrip.
And while it’s a dark period in Vietnam’s past, the French colonial influence is never too far. Old mountaintop outposts like Sa Pa and Ba Na Hills have turned into tourist hotspots. These are well worth a visit (more on that later)!
Finally, for history buffs, be sure to check out the many museums in Hanoi, with just as many in HCMC! If you’re visiting, these are musts. You’ll further enhance your understanding of what drives Vietnam and how it came to be.
Wherever you are in Vietnam, you’re sure to find something to keep you learning and growing!
#5 – Travel Vietnam & Holiday Destinations
You’ve been teaching for months now, and you deserve a holiday. Tet break is coming up, or your contract is coming to an end. You want to explore a bit more of this country before embarking on the next phase of your career. So, where can travel in Vietnam for that well-earned time off? Well, you’ll want to check out the South of Vietnam if you’ve been living and working in the North, or vice versa.
There are too many places to check out to go into a lot of depth. We’ll outline your absolute musts for North and South Vietnam.
To name but a few, the cooler north boasts:
• Ha Long Bay, a world UNESCO Heritage Site you’ve most likely heard of. Take a boat cruise, see the rocky islands in the sea, and enjoy the many beautiful beaches.
• Cat Ba Island, which lies off the coast by Hai Phong, the biggest port city in the North of Vietnam. This is a very popular day-trip outing for those living in Hanoi.
• Sa Pa, in Lao Cai province – the most astounding mountainous getaway. It’s particularly misty during the winter months.
• The Ha Giang Loop, an oft-travelled 4-day road trip near the Chinese border to the far north.
By contrast, the south holds:
• Phu Quoc island, south of Cambodia, is a perfect destination during Tet due to its weather! (Summer is generally off-season)
• Con Dao, a lesser-known gem. It’s an island with a Mediterranean vibe and crystal clear blue waters. It’s perfect to check out in early spring.
• Da Lat is a cooler mountain town and offers delightful street food.
Let’s not forget about some of the most famous and popular destinations in Vietnam. Right in the centre of the country, you can find:
• Da Nang is a very popular destination for teachers. But because supply is so high, demand is much lower, and employers are far pickier. This means the job market isn’t quite as booming here as elsewhere. The beaches are downright beautiful though, so you should holiday there! Ba Na Hills, the old French mountain outpost, is cooler even during the summer. It has a fully-fledged theme park at the very top, which you’ll need to travel by cable car to reach. There are many things to do in Da Nang!
• Hoi An is one of the most well-known towns in Vietnam. It has a historical feel, as you stroll along the streets spying traditional shop vendors. It also harbours some lovely smaller beaches to rival Da Nang! Most trips to Da Nang can incorporate Hoi An, and vice versa. If you’re in the area, don’t miss either!
• Hue is the old imperial city of Vietnam. Its recognisable citadel is one of the main features of this up-and-coming city. If you’re up for a bit of adventure, check out the abandoned water park, Ho Thuy Thien. Watch out though, as you can still get injured and it’s quite far from the rest of civilisation.
All we can say is: get out and explore! There’s a lifetime’s worth of it across the whole of Vietnam.
#6 – Language & Culture
Some say they’re different countries. They’re worlds apart in culture! The north has more of a conservative vibe, and the south has a more liberal, extroverted feel to it. Hanoi is the political power centre of Vietnam, and HCMC is the financial one. There are some stereotypes revolving around these differences, but a lot of truth in them too.
If you’re coming to live here, you should be planning to learn Vietnamese. Even so, you might find you have a tough time understanding people in different regions. North, Central, and South Vietnamese can find it tough to understand each other!
The main differences in language are that the “zuh” sound in the North can become a “yuh” sound in the South. So “bay gio”, meaning “now”, sounds like “bay yuh” in HCMC, but “bay zuh” in Hanoi! “Dua gang”, which means “melon”, you say as “zewa gang” in Hanoi, but in HCMC they’ll say “yewa gang”. The odd word here and there should be easy enough to pick up on after months studying. But it’s easy to get disorientated when you’re stringing full sentences together. Even after years of learning the language it can still be challenging!
Check out the free language learning apps DuoLingo and Memrise. There are many user-generated courses on Memrise which are terrific for vocab expansion. DuoLingo provides more than the basics of the language to get to grips with. But beware: these apps gear learning towards the North. As such, you might want to invest in a Vietnamese teacher (very cheap!) if you’re planning on heading South. In any case, this should be your next step. No app can make up for interactions with the Vietnamese people, culture and language!
The variety of Vietnamese coffee.
Photograph via Lasinfoniadelreyhotel
By now, you’ve heard of the legendary strength and flavour of Vietnamese coffee. While Vietnam does grow arabica and it is possible to get hold of, robusta is what the coffee shops stock. Robusta is the bean every self-proclaimed coffee-lover must experience. The North and South of Vietnam specialise in different styles, though. Let’s walk through the differences!
There are two main ways to take your coffee in Vietnam: with or without condensed milk. Ice in the west – a cold brew – is quite a big difference and a bit of a trend, but in Vietnam it’s a simple choice, like added sugar. In the south you’ll almost always get it iced due to the climate, as we discussed above. In the north, it’s common to opt for a hot coffee (“nong”).
HCMC loves its iced, sweetened white coffees – ca phe sua da. These are so beloved in places like the UK and US that imitations have popped up. There is the bac xiu. This is sometimes served with fresh milk, and sometimes as a sweeter, less strong version of the ca phe sua da. This depends on where you are and which shop is serving you.
In the north, you can get a sua da or bac xiu with ease. What many people drink is straight-up black. This provides you with a real kick, especially without sugar. It’s very strong, and some actually end up preferring the wonderful flavour of robusta to arabica. There are some further differences between brewing up black, HCMC-style and Hanoi-style. We won’t go into them here, but you’re free to explore. Finally, you’ve got to try the famed egg coffee!
Whatever’s your flavour, you can’t come to Vietnam without trying the coffee!
And there you have it!
Golden Bridge view in Ba Na Hills.
Photograph via Archdaily
These differences give you some insight into what the North and South have to offer when you live and travel in Vietnam. Most people have a favourite location, and people feel more comfortable in one or the other.
Which one fits you best? You’re only going to find out by coming on over here, so let’s make it happen! As the great author Graham Greene wrote, “you come to Vietnam and you understand a lot in a few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived.”