North Vietnam vs South Vietnam – now that’s a tricky one to answer. Both of these sides of the country have their own unique draws, varied cultures, and jaw-dropping landmarks. They each boast sprawling cityscapes and mountain towns, beach destinations and eye-watering backcountry covered in jungles and rice paddies.
The north and the south of Vietnam were perhaps most famously divided for the 25-year period of the American War (also known as the Vietnam War). It pitted the Communist Viet Cong against the Republic of Vietnam, a capitalist regime that was supported by Western allies, most notably the USA. Thankfully, that harrowing period is now well and truly in the past, but there are still some things that set these two halves of the nation apart from each other; things that are of special importance to the would-be traveler.
That’s what we’ll focus on here. Our guide will weigh up North Vietnam and South Vietnam for a whole host of things, from climate to attractions, food to the destinations that are on offer. The aim? To help you pick where’s right for you this year, even if doing both in the same trip would always be our top recommendation!
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam for major cities
When it comes to major cities, there are two places to compare and contrast before all others: Hanoi – the capital of the nation and the biggest urban conglomeration in the north – and Ho Chi Minh City – the major metropolis of the south. Let’s take each in turn…
Ho Chi Minh City, or erstwhile Saigon, is a sprawling megalopolis with big skyscrapers and shopping malls. It’s a heady maze of French-style boulevards that are always (and we really do mean always) packed with streams of scooters and tooting taxis. We love it, but it’s certainly not relaxing. Seething nightlife streets like Bui Vien meet the bustling bazaar of the so-called Russian Market, and there are sobering war museums next to out-of-town sights like the Cu Chi Tunnels left over from the war.
North Vietnam boasts Hanoi. We’d personally rate that among the most enthralling cities in the whole of Asia, or even the world. The centerpiece is that moody and atmospheric Old Quarter, where you’ll wander market streets shopping for coffee, knock-off tees, and incense while rickshaws rattle on by. There are also some striking sights to check off the bucket list, such as the 1,000-year-old Confucian Temple of Literature and the Brutalist Mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself!
Winner: The north – Hanoi is the most atmospheric metropolis in the country!
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam for climate and weather
Just as the name implies, northern Vietnam is further north. That has an impact on the climate, making it all-round chillier and less tropical than the south. During the winter months, there are even days when the nights will warrant a jacket and an underlayer here, which is something of a novelty in Southeast Asia. And if you venture into the mountains of Sapa then it gets even colder, though you probably won’t feel a chill when you’re trekking under the sun. Warmer months still bring temperatures in the 20-30s each days, including plenty of sunshine for enjoying the coves and beaches of Ha Long Bay.
On the whole, though, the better beach weather and the weather you’re probably craving for a winter escape to Southeast Asia will be in the south. From Mu Ne down to Phi Quoc, the climate in this corner of the country is hot and balmy for the months between November and March. More rains come in the summer months but it stays pretty hot all year round.
Winner: South Vietnam. There’s more of a tropical climate.
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam for major attractions
The north of Vietnam is perhaps most famous for two things: Hanoi (which we’ve spoken about above) and Ha Long Bay. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s among the top draws of Asia full stop – think a sweep of craggy islets and turquoise lagoons that dots the glowing waters of the South China Sea. Once you’ve done that – on a luxury junk boat is best – consider heading to Sapa to trek along the mountains that line the Chinese border, or go south to Nin Binh to visit the ancient capital of Vietnam deep in the canyons.
The south hosts the best beaches in Vietnam. They come courtesy of the idyllic island of Phu Quoc, along with the beach town of Mu Ne and the sands that line Da Nang. You’ll also want to visit the historical town of Hoi An, A charming old city with coffee shops and rice paddies. There are plenty of relics left from the American War in the south, too, including the Cu Chi tunnels and the museums of Ho Chi Minh City.
Winner: North Vietnam probably, but only just.
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam for food
Don’t worry – you’ll be able to taste steaming pho soup and zingy noodle dishes no matter where you are in the country. But there’s no doubt that the cuisine differs just a touch between the north and south here. Generally speaking, the south tends to be more rustic when it comes to food, with traditional noodle and rice dishes taking center stage. The region also has a more lingering colonial influence, which comes through in the banh mi baguettes (popularized during the French era in Nam’) and the abundance of deep-fried chicken in buttermilk and fish sauce (there’s a touch of the US in there, no?).
Up north is where you’ll get to sample those quintessential Vietnamese dishes in the place where they were born. Hanoi gave the world pho, arguably the most iconic of all Vietnamese dishes. There, it’s made with beef stock and thick noodles, topped with wild herbs like mint, and dressed with chili oil. The capital is also the place to try egg coffee, another uniquely Vietnamese specialty that’s really not for everyone. Then there are the mountains of Sapa, where you get lots of influence from Thailand and Laos, and a heavy use of rice in the cooking.
Winner: The north wins this one again.
North Vietnam Vs South Vietnam for price
To be honest, there’s not likely to be all that much difference in price between the north and the south of Vietnam. On our last trip to the country back in 2018, we recall paying around $25-30 per night for a very good midrange hotel that included breakfast and access to a swimming pool. That happened in both Nin Binh in the north and in Mu Ne in the south. We also remember street food costing around $1 a pop and beer in a traditional Vietnamese roadside bar costing something ridiculous like 50 cents a glass.
The only time you’re likely to notice a significant uptick in prices is when you head to the cities. Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh reign as the two costliest locations in the country. And it’s the latter that comes in as the pricier of those two – travel price collator Budget Your Trip estimates that you’ll need around $69 per day to get by in onetime Saigon, compared to only $41 per day in Hanoi.
Winner: North Vietnam is probably just a touch cheaper, but only because Hanoi is cheaper the HCMC.
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam for beaches
The south has a bit of a trump card up its sleeve when it comes to beaches. Cue the island of Phu Quoc. That’s the pearl in the crown of Nam’s coastline; pretty much the only place that can match the sugar-white strands found over in Thailand and Cambodia. The west coast of the island is now pretty built up, but does have some charming beach hotels right by the water. We should also mention Nha Trang, a popular resort city with sweeping sands peppered with bars, and Am Bang in Hoi An, which is a charmer. Then there are the yellow-sand beaches of Mu Ne. There’s loads in the south.
As you move north, the coastline tends to get a bit wilder and less developed. There aren’t so many out-and-out beach resorts. Eventually, the Vietnamese shores fragment into Ha Long Bay. Getting stuck in there is a real must for coast explorers, what with caves and lagoons and secret islands. The place isn’t perfect for beach lovers because some of the best bars can be tricky to reach unless you have a sea kayak or private boat.
Winner: the south wins on beaches.
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam for adventure
You shouldn’t have to look too far for adventure, no matter what part of Vietnam you choose to visit. Probably the most famous getaway from the big cities is the mountain region of Sapa in the north. It’s actually tucked under the easternmost mountains in the same chain as the Himalaya, and comes topped by Fansipan, the tallest peak in the country. There are trekking expeditions aplenty to be had there. Don’t overlook Nin Binh, though, for its needle-like peaks and color-changing rice paddies. And then, of course, there’s Ha Long Bay, a spread of isles with treks and sea kayaking routes galore.
In the south, adventurers might want to plan outings to cycle through the meadows of the wonderful Mekong Delta. You can go for days whizzing on two wheels from village to village amid fields of daffodil-colored maize. For mountains, make for Da Lat, the hub of the Central Highlands, which is a mecca for motorbiking and paddy walking. Phu Quoc offers scuba and snorkeling aplenty from its place in the Thai Gulf. And then there’s the world-famous windsurfing bays of Mu Ne.
Winner: Go north for Sapa.
North Vietnam vs South Vietnam – our conclusion
We usually recommend that first-time travelers to Vietnam choose the northern part of the country. There are a few reasons for that. For one, it’s the most traditional part of Vietnam, with a fiercely independent character that wasn’t so influenced by the west during the American War. You can come to see temples and ancient capital cities and more. Secondly, the north has some star attractions, such as the mountain towns of Sapa and UNESCO-tagged Ha Long Bay. Thirdly, Hanoi is simply not to be missed! Of course, the best option of all would be to choose to do the WHOLE country, which is now possible thanks to the long-distance Reunification Express train that connects Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City multiple times per day.