Two women dressed in traditional ao dai costume riding bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City.

Two women dressed in traditional ao dai costume riding bicycles in Ho Chi Minh City.

It's a tough job deciding which metropolis, Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, is more worthy of a visit. Mark Dapin gives it a go.

Hanoi has the beautiful, other-worldly Lake Hoan Kiem, but Ho Chi Minh City, nee Saigon, has the disturbing, confronting War Remnants Museum. Hanoi has graceful, stately French colonial public buildings, but in Ho Chi Minh City, old Saigon's historic hotels overlook the Belle Epoque Opera House.

To compare the capital of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam with the first city of the vanished nation of South Vietnam is as absurd as contrasting, for example, Sydney and Melbourne. And who doesn't love that?

A woman from old Saigon sells crusty French breadsticks.

A woman from old Saigon sells crusty French breadsticks. Photo: Getty Images

I've been asked where I'd go if I only had the time to "do" one place. Well, it would depend on whether I was looking for pho or Ho, a lake or a river, the body of a leader or the ghost of a war ...

Hotels

Among old Saigon's historic cluster of the Majestic, Continental and Caravelle hotels, it's still just possible to feel you're in the city of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, particularly since street vendors try to sell you pirated copies of the novel every time you stand still. The vastly expanded Caravelle, where many of the press corps lived during the war, retains a little of its former atmosphere in the old wing. At the Continental, you can ask to stay in room 214, where Greene actually wrote every journalist's favourite novel.

Hanoi's Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel.

Hanoi's Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel. Photo: Getty Images

Greene, and various other writers and spies, also enjoyed a drink in the Majestic. Both the Majestic and the Caravelle have rooftop bars that rival the more feted joint on the roof of the Rex.

But the best hotel in all of Vietnam is surely Hanoi's Sofitel Legend Metropole, a gorgeous, tasteful colonial classic, like the Raffles Singapore, where the bunker that served to protect guests from air raids during the "American War" was rediscovered only last year.

Food

Vietnamese food is some of the best in Asia, if not the world. But you already know that, right? That's why you're going. You love Vietnamese mint and lemongrass, Thai basil and turmeric, cinnamon and dill. But most of all, you adore the earthy, hearty, deliciously meaty noodle soup known as pho (but pronounced closer to "fur").

While Ho Chi Minh City, with its thousands of small restaurants and street stalls, might be the food capital of Vietnam, Hanoi is the true homeland of pho. Try the pho at its finest at Pho Gia Truyen in Hanoi and discover why locals are prepared to queue for half an hour to buy a dish that can be found on every other street corner.

Pho Gia Truyen is hot and crowded and faintly primeval. It looks very much like you could avoid the queue and sit in the fan-cooled restaurant next door, from which they send out a bus boy to collect the pho every five minutes.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the pho at Pho 2000 is reliable. Nationally, the Pho 24 chain is sterile and efficient. If, for some reason, you don't feel like pho, try the marvellous Lemongrass on the top floor of the Palace Hotel. The Ly Club in Hanoi is laid-back and atmospheric, a romantic place to have dinner while listening to traditional music.

For something cheaper, there is excellent food hall-style dining (except in a prettier setting, with every stall specialising in a single Vietnamese dish) at Nha Hang Ngon in Ho Chi Minh City.

Day trips

Tours from Ho Chi Minh City to the Cu Chi tunnels, a network of subterranean guerilla lines, are hugely and deservedly popular. It is incredible to see how the Viet Cong lived and fought under the noses of the South Vietnamese and foreign armies. Stretches of tunnel have been widened, cleaned and opened to the public.

From Hanoi, it's a three-hour drive to Halong City, the gateway to the gorgeous Halong Bay, although a day trip barely does justice to the 2000 islands. Most travellers take cruises from here, and they are unforgettable.

Opera houses

The Caravelle Hotel looks out over the Opera House (known officially as the Municipal Theatre) in old Saigon. The Hanoi Opera House, modelled after the Opera Garnier in Paris, is close to the Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel.

Hanoi has the better-looking opera house, but Ho Chi Minh City's is arguably more significant, as it was once the meeting place of the National Assembly of South Vietnam. The Hilton Hanoi takes its name from the opera house because the name "Hanoi Hilton" carries certain negative connotations. But, let's face it, nobody goes from Australia to Vietnam to look at an opera house.

Water

The lovely Lake Hoan Kiem, with the mystical Turtle Pagoda at its centre, is a symbol of Hanoi and the place to come to watch locals practise tai chi, martial arts and ballroom dancing, but watch out for thieves. I had to break up a fight between a pickpocket and a tourist outside the toilet block earlier this year. The Saigon River is filthy and widely reviled, but there are stretches between the city and Vung Tau that offer fascinating and sometimes lovely views of life in the city and on the water. Honestly.

Museums

The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly the Museum of American War Crimes, was never supposed to be a tourist attraction but the travellers came anyway. It used to be viscerally moving, a true atrocity exhibition, but has been toned down to suit the sensibilities of the post-embargo US.

But nobody, even the French, cares what anyone says about the horrors of French colonialism any more, and the Hoa La Prison Museum, where the French tortured and executed Vietnamese rebels from 1896, retains all its gloomy, brutish horror. Later, Hoa Loa became the famous "Hanoi Hilton", where former US presidential candidate John McCain, a bomber pilot shot down in the skies over Hanoi, was incarcerated - and tortured - for 5½ years. A stilted, unconvincing display shows the lighter side of McCain's imprisonment.

The Australian War

The Vietnamese call it the "American War", but about 61,000 Australians served in South Vietnam from 1962-72. Most were based at the 1st Australian Task Force in Nui Dat, about 100 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City, of which little remains but the Luscombe Field airstrip, now a main road through a village. Support troops were stationed at the 1st Australian Logistics Support Group in nearby Vung Tau, now a lively, slightly sleazy holiday resort with a so-so beach and a visible sex industry. From Tommy's Bar, former Australian infantryman Glenn Nolan (who is knowledgable but not a Vietnam vet), runs tours to Australian war sites, including Long Tan.

It's a 90-minute drive from Ho Chi Minh City to Vung Tau. The hydrofoils are 15 minutes faster, but they may cover the windows, in which case you won't be able to see out.

In Hanoi, the only evidence of Australian involvement in the war is a couple of photographs of Melbourne anti-war demonstrations in the Hoa La Prison Museum.

Ho Chi Minh

Hanoi is the place to get your fix of Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese guerilla leader and first president of North Vietnam, who declared independence from the French in 1945 but died in 1969, five years before the fall of Saigon and the unification of his country.

You can visit Uncle Ho's simple Stilt House behind his final resting place and hear unlikely stories about how even the fish in the lake rose to his call. You can take an unenlightening look at the cars in which he drove, and follow the masses around the lake to the One Pillar Pagoda.

But more startling, and unaccountably moving, is a visit to Ho Chi Minh himself, lying embalmed and on public display at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, looking part Confucius, part Mao, part Abraham Lincoln and part Colonel Sanders. He was a merciless politician whose saintly bearing belied his ruthlessness, but the communist president embodied the hopes of generations of nationalist Vietnamese.

There is little Ho Chi Minh to speak of in Ho Chi Minh City, apart from the name, although the rarely visited Ho Chi Minh Museum in District 4 is home to his sandals and spectacles, which might be of interest to chiropodists and opticians.

Shopping

Hanoi's old quarter is a captivating maze of 36 streets of shophouses selling the products of ancient and modern trades as diverse as tombstone masonry and DVD piracy.

Reproduction retro-trendy propaganda posters at the Hanoi Gallery include such standards as "Following the road that Uncle Ho has chosen" and "Bravo the great victory of the people and soldiers in the frontier", along with the lesser-known "Be zealous in injecting the insecticide for spring rice" and "Grow lots of chilli to increase the product for exportation".

Shopping in Hanoi's old quarter is one of the great delights of Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh City really has nothing to compare, although Ben Thanh Market is worth a look for cheap clothing, street food and pirated everything. Designer boutiques are found around the top-end hotels.

Bars

The rooftop bar of the Rex Hotel is often rated as one of the great bars of south-east Asia, but you need a high tolerance of note-perfect but passionless 1970s covers bands to spend any time here in the evening. Chill Skybar, with great views of Ho Chi Minh City from its glass balconies, is a much trendier alternative - although even here there is a retro night on Wednesdays. Younger locals rate the Yoko Bar, a laid-back live-music venue with covers bands but no cover charge. More cutting-edge is Hanoi's Cama Atk, a self-styled speakeasy where you might even catch a dubstep act. The Rooftop Bar on the 19th floor of Pacific Place is the spot to see Hanoi from the sky. And don't forget the Bamboo Bar at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi.

And the winner is ...

So what would I do if I only had time to visit one city or the other? I'd make more time.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Vietnam Airlines has fares to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi return for $1025 from Sydney, or $1010 from Melbourne, including taxes. Flights to Hanoi go via Ho Chi Minh City but cost the same as direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City. If you choose to stop over in Ho Chi Minh City, however, you pay an additional charge. See vietnamairlines.com. Australians need to apply for a visa before travell; see vietnamconsulate.org.au. A single-entry 30-day visa costs $70.

Staying there

Hotel Sofitel Legend Metropole, 15 Ngo Quyen Street, Hanoi. Doubles from $193. Phone +84 4 3826 6919; see sofitel.com.

Hotel Continental, 132 Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Doubles from $100. Phone +84 8 3829 9201; see continentalhotel.com.vn.

Hotel Majestic, 1 Dong Khoi Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Doubles from $140. Phone +84 8 3829 5517; see majesticsaigon.com.vn.

The Caravelle, 19 Lam Son Square, Ho Chi Minh City. Doubles from $190. Phone +84 8 3823 4999; see caravellehotel.com.

When to go

Hanoi is best in autumn (mid-September to end of November) when it's drier but not too cold. Ho Chi Minh City's dry season runs from December to April, when temperatures can be high but the humidity is lower.

Drinking there

Cama Atk, 73A Mai Hac De, Hanoi; see cama-atk.com. Closed Sunday to Tuesday.

The Rooftop, 83B Ly Thuong Kiet, Hanoi. Phone +84 4 3946 1901; see therooftop.vn. Open seven days.

Chill Skybar, AB Tower, 76 Le Lai, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 8 3827 2372; see chillsaigon.com.

Rooftop Garden, Rex Hotel, 141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 8 3829 2185; see rexhotelvietnam.com.

Yoko Bar, 22A Nguyen Thi Dieu, Ho Chi Minh City. Open seven days.

Eating there

Pho Gia Truyen, 49 Bat Dan, Hanoi. Open 7-10am.

Ly Club, 4 Le Phung Hieu, Hanoi. Phone +84 4 3936 3069; see lyclub.vn.

Lemongrass, 4 Nguyen Thiep, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 8 3822 0496.

Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 8 3827 7131.

Pho 2000, 1-3 Phan Chu Trinh, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 8 882 2278. There's another one in district 1, 26A Le Thanh Ton, Ho Chi Minh City. Phone +84 8 829 2612.

Shopping there

Hanoi Gallery, 42 Cau Go Hang Bac, Hanoi. Phone +84 4 3824 1854.

Ben Thanh Market, Le Loi, Ho Chi Minh City.

Sightseeing there

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, corner of Ngoc Ha and Doi Can, Hanoi. Closed October-November. Free entry.

Hoa Lo Prison Museum, corner of Pho Hoa Lo and Hai Ba Trung, Hanoi. Phone +84 4 3824 6358. Closed Monday. Entry 20,000 dong (91¢).

Ho Chi Minh Museum, Nguyen Tat Thanh, Ho Chi Minh City. Entry 10,000 dong.

War Remnants Museum, 28 Vo Van Tan Street, Ho Chi Minh City. Open daily. Phone +84 8 3930 5153. Entry 15,000 dong.

Tommy's Tours, 3 Le Ngoc Han, Vung Tau. Phone +84 6 4351 5181; see tommysvietnam.com.