Vietnam was once two countries: North Vietnam and South Vietnam.
Hanoi was the capital of North Vietnam and Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam.
Those two cities are the main cities of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
Hanoi (or Ha Noi)
Hanoi is the capital city of Vietnam, and its second largest city. Originally called Thang Long, it was named Hanoi in 1831. It is the cultural centre of the country. It is a city that shows architectural influences of earlier colonists: the Chinese several hundred years ago, and the French in the last century.
It is located along the right bank of the Red River. It is a city of many lakes and of wide streets, of ancient and modern buildings. Hanoi is a bustling, busy city, its streets crowded with motor scooters, bicycles and cars, as well as swarms of pedestrians. There are many street stalls, selling cooked and raw food and other products.
It is a city that has modern buildings and also very old buildings. In the old part of the city, called the Old Quarter, at the northern end of Hoan Kiem Lake and beside the ancient Citadel, small, winding streets are named for the ancient businesses that once did trade there, such as copper, chicken, jewellery, medicine and so on. Some of the streets are still full of traders of the same name as the street on which they are located, just as they were a thousand years ago, such as tinsmiths, tailors, silk, cotton, and lacquerware. This area is still the main commercial area, and the buildings are well preserved, housing restaurants, cafes, shops and galleries. The roads were built long and narrow to avoid being taxed, and are lined with shop-houses. Each building has its front on the street where business was conducted, and for several generations of the family lived in the rest of the building and its courtyards. Today, things are a bit different, and they house several families instead of just one.
The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum (say more-suh-lee-um) is an important tomb in the centre of Ba Dinh Square. In the centre of the building lies the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh, the man who brought north and south together as one nation. Hundreds of people, locals and tourists, visit each day. Ho Chi Minh stood at this exact spot in 1945 to declare Vietnam's independence from the Japanese. Soon after, he and his army fought for independence from the French, who wanted to take over Vietnam again. When Vietnam was divided into North and South, Ho Chi Minh became the President of North Vietnam. He died in 1969. It was not until 1975 that his dream of a united Vietnam was achieved.
The Hanoi Opera House was built by the French in 1911, during the time of its colonisation. The French architecture includes domes, pillars, and shuttered windows. It can seat an audience of 600 in three layers, and is the biggest theatre in Vietnam. The inside is equally magnificent. Performing at the Opera House is Vietnamese opera, orchestral and traditional music, ballet, international concerts, and plays.
Hoan Kiem Lake, at the centre of Hanoi, was once full of turtles. The turtle is considered to be a sacred animal. A legend says that in the 15th Century, the King of Vietnam found a metal bar in the lake and had it made into a sword. This sword helped him win the country's independence from China, and when peace came, a turtle called out from the lake, asking him to return the sword to the Dragon King. Without hesitation, the king threw the sword into the lake, the turtle caught it and dived down into the water. Today the turtles in the lake are considered to be representations of the Golden Turtle God, Kim Quy. At the northern end of the lake is a tiny island with a small tower honouring the turtle that guards the magical sword. The tower is important to Hanoi people, a symbol of peace and independence.
The Tran Quoc Buddhist pagoda is Hanoi's oldest, built in the 6th century. It is approached by a short palm tree-lined causeway, a pathway that has been built up above water level across a lake. The large entrance gate is an addition that was built in 1815.
The pagoda itself is 15 metres high and has 11 layers, each designed to represent the petals of a lotus flower, regarded as sacred.
Each level of the pagoda has six arched windows, in each of which sits a statue of Buddha made from precious stone, and on top of the tower there is a lotus flower also made from precious stone.
Most people live in small apartments, many of them in the old areas of Hanoi, but more and more new apartment blocks are being built.
There are big markets selling fresh vegetables, fish, meat and poultry. The Vietnamese diet is a very healthy one, and fresh food is essential. Most Vietnamese people visit the market daily. Hang Da market in Hanoi's central business district is a three-storey building full of stalls selling fresh produce, flowers, imported wines, clothing, meats, fabrics, ceramics and many many other products.
Hanoi Zoo houses about 90 different species of animal, including big cats, monkeys and reptiles. The zoo is located in Thu Le Park, near the city centre. The park also has a lake with pedal boats and an ornamental garden. The zoo is working hard to improve its facilities and expertise to make it world class. It has launched a conservation and breeding program for endangered native animals.
Ho Chi Minh City, still commonly called Saigon
Ho Chi Minh City was once called Saigon, named for the river on which it is located, and when Vietnam was two separate republics, it was the capital of South Vietnam. It is still often called Saigon, and is now the Vietnamese city with the most people. Modern buildings, Chinese pagodas, and gracious French style buildings characterise this city .
Ho Chi Minh City is home to almost 8 million people. Estimates say it will be 20-22 million by 2020
Ho Chi Minh City is a city of many restaurants and places of entertainment. There are many museums and markets. Many beautiful pagodas are in Ho Chi Minh City, including some very lavishly decorated ones.
Ho Chi Minh City is a shopping paradise, with a range of fine shops selling jewellery, ceramics, clothing, lacquerware and many other goods. There are also a huge number of smaller shops and stalls, offering a huge range of goods. Tailors can custom-make suits or any garments in just a a few days.
There are many notable buildings built by the French that still give Ho Chi Minh City great character. One of these is the former Hotel de Ville (City Hotel). It is no longer a hotel, but is now The People's Committee, a government building. It is generally still called by its original name, but is not open to tourists.
The Saigon Central Post Office was designed and built in 1886 by French architect Gustave Eiffel (can you think of something else he designed?). It is still one of the country's most famous buildings. It has a long, domed roof. Inside, the walls decorated with French colonial maps and the floors are decoratively tiled. Today there is also a portrait of Ho Chi Minh.
Opposite this building stands Notre-Dame Cathedral, built between 1877 and 1883 by French colonists, which is an equally impressive building. It is built of brick, classically styled architecture with two square towers 40m tall, tipped with iron spires. Inside, some of the original stained glass windows remain.
The History Museum, set in beautiful botanic gardens, is a beautiful 1929 French building. Exhibits show 4000 years of Vietnamese life and culture from all regions, from the Bronze Age. Ensconced among lush botanic gardens in a beautiful 1929 French colonial building is the history museum, showcasing 4000 years of Vietnamese life and culture, starting from the Bronze Age. There are even official gifts given to President Ho Chi Minh.
The palace that was once the grand home and offices of the president of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War is now called Reunification Palace. It is preserved as it was in 1966 as a history museum.
There are many markets in Ho Chi Minh City, but Ben Thanh Night Market is the most famous, with more than 3000 stalls.
There are many pagodas and temples around Ho Chi Minh City, but the Jade Emperor Pagoda, built in 1909 by Saigon's Chinese community, is generally considered to be the most spectacular. Its name is Pagoda Phuoc Hai Tu and it's dedicated to several Taoist and Buddhist gods, but especially to the Jade Emperor, the supreme Taoist god. It is sometimes called the Turtle Pagoda because it has a turtle pool. In Buddhism, turtles represent creation, endurance, strength and long life, and are sacred animals. Of particular interest are the tiles and sculptures on the roofs, and the carved doors. The pagoda doors are carved with figures of humans and gods. There is one room that illustrates hell and its 1000 torments. On either side of the main sanctuary stand 4 metre tall giant demon guardians.
Close to Ben Thanh Market is the Mariamman Temple, built in the 19th century by Indian traders to honour the Hindu goddess Mariamman. It is splash of colour among the plainer buildings around, its roof a tower of gods and goddesses. The goddess Mariamman is worshipped for her powers to cure heat-based illnesses, and in helping people find good husbands or wives. The walls of the temple, both inside and out, are covered with colourful statues. Worshippers and visitors remove their shoes and leave them outside before they enter the temple.
Read about Tay Ho Temple in Hanoi and the legend of the turtles in Hoan Kiem Lake:
Read about the One-Pillar Pagoda and legend:
Read about more things to see in Ho Chi Minh City: