Vietnam was the third country Breada and I visited in 2016, right at the beginning of our epic 14 month trip abroad. I can still remember our bus ride from Phnom Penh. I was so excited, as always when going somewhere new. By this point I had traveled to 13 countries in my life and had more than one long-term backpacking trip, but Asia was still very new to me.
The bus dropped us off on the side of a random road, which we now know to be Phạm Ngũ Lão aka the epicenter of District 1 (the backpacker district). We didn’t have local SIM cards yet and our T-Mobile plans didn’t include data in Vietnam, so we were left to find our homestay the old-fashioned way : ask around. Phạm Ngũ Lão may be just one street but it breaks off into an endless maze of alleys that share the name, so finding our place was easier said than done.
To be honest, we really didn’t do much our first time in the city. We went to the War Remnants museum and went to some markets, but overall it was a fairly low-key few days. The weather was terrible, Breada was sick for two days, and I was tracking down a couple motorbikes to buy for our trip up to Hanoi. My first impression was it was the most hectic city I had ever seen in my life, and at the time it was. Crossing a street took forever because of the endless sea of traffic and trying to cross felt like a real life version of Frogger. I had seen Youtube videos of the traffic, but its hard to grasp until it’s right in your face. Don’t even get me started on leaving the city by motorbike. I’ll leave Breada to tell that tale. Overall I’d say I was happy to be in a new city, but not particularly blown away.
Fast forward almost two years later and here we are, back in Saigon. Since our first time here we’ve been to Vietnam four times, traveled the entire country by motorbike, and truly fallen in love with the country and its people. Now, instead of being the people afraid to cross the street, we’re the ones people follow when they see us making our move.
It’s funny because after we had finished our motorbike trip and had seen the best the country had to offer, I said to myself I liked Hanoi more than Saigon. I think it had more to do with my experiences in each city that led me to that impression. After a second glance, my tone has changed.
I still like Hanoi, but after spending a little more time in Saigon I could see myself living here. It’s cleaner for one, both on the ground and in the air. The air is so bad in Hanoi. It’s regularly ranked in the top ten most polluted cities in the world. Living there full-time involves wearing a mask.
It’s just as crowded but for some reason seems to have a little more order to it, but don’t let that lower your guard. A motorbike could be driving on the sidewalk at any given moment in both cities.
Overall I’d say I’ve just had a change of heart. At one time I thought I’d rather live in Hanoi than Saigon, but now I don’t know how I could have thought that.
I guess if I had to take anything from this change of heart is don’t let first impressions be the end all be all of anything! And don’t take what I say as the end all be all either. Travel to both and find out for yourself!
Have you been to either city? What did you think?