A tale of three cities

Hanoi, Danang and HCMC are all quite different in their own way.

By Karim Jacobs on June 11,2018 04:19 PM

A tale of three cities

Photos: Viet Tuan

What I love about Vietnam is the contrasts from place to place. It sounds like a cliché, and everyone loves to say that places are a ‘land of contrasts’ or a ‘melting pot’. But I feel that this is true of Vietnam more than many other places. Few countries have sprawling, northerly mountain ranges with snow-capped (yes, snow-capped in winter!) peaks, while also offering white-sand, blue-water tropical beaches and coral reefs. Likewise, not many countries can lay claim to having thick, endless jungle a stone’s throw away from the expansive flats of the Mekong Delta. I feel that compared to my country, the UK, there is a lot more on offer here in terms of landscapes and biodiversity. That’s why I often, when I have the chance to travel, opt to explore the rural areas rather than the urban centres. This year, I’m trying to change that, and get more into a ‘city’ vibe. So I thought in this article I’d consider what I love about the three cities that represent the north, centre, and south of the country.

A tale of three cities

First, an admission. When I used to talk about travelling with my friends, I would always say that ‘cities are cities’. They’re the same. Same Starbucks, same KFC, same skyscrapers and buildings and same traffic. On reflection, I think this was a mistake. Cities, whether in Taiwan or Tuvalu, do share a lot of common features but they also have their own unique eccentricities that make them special, and this is definitely the case in Vietnam.

While I’ve got a lot more to explore (next on my list is some of the lesser known urban centres like Uong Bi or Pleiku), I’ve now spent a good deal of time in the three ‘big’ ones - Hanoi, HCMC, and Danang - and one thing I’ve noticed is that the more time I spend in these places the more I begin to recognise the differences, the things that make something uniquely ‘Hanoian’ for example, and how this contrasts with the things that I associate with HCMC or Danang. Sometimes I worry that friends who visit me and then usually travel to the south (often by motorbike, as they’re much braver than me) get so absorbed in the trip that they see all of these places as the same. Memories of Hanoi merge into memories of HCMC and vice-versa. Smells and sights and sounds become one big, indistinct memory, one mental picture of ‘Vietnam’ without the understanding of the differences in each place.

Starting with Hanoi, one of the key things that jumps out at me is how small it feels. As the place I’ve spent the most time, and lived for the longest, I still have a moment of confusion now and then when I think ‘7 million people live here’. It truly is an astounding figure. Maybe it’s just that I don’t see the swathes of suburbs that make up the outside districts, but there’s definitely a feeling in the central areas that you’re in more of a village than a city. Of course, there’s traffic, there’s urban development, and there’s huge skyscrapers and apartment blocks under seemingly permanent construction, but there are also narrow laneways that give way to small, self-contained worlds and courtyards, tree-lined streets, and unique houses, buildings, and neighbourhood stores. All of which give off a very distinctively ancient, village-like feel.

Contrast this with HCMC, where I get the sense of being part of an ever-expanding metropolis. The architecture in much of the city centre may not be as unique as in Hanoi but there is a vibrant, energetic and frenetic feel throughout. This is even present in the traffic, which seems to often be a little more chaotic, a little faster, and a little more on the footpath than in Hanoi and Danang. Put simply, if I think of Hanoi as Rome, then HCMC is Milan. Danang, on the other hand, is more like the Amalfi coast. Even when you’re over the bridge and in the town, away from the coast, the smell and feeling of the sea air is present throughout and there’s a certain relaxed, calm feeling to all that’s going on. I always feel that the pace of life in Danang is more relaxed than in the other two cities. Things are quieter, more spread out, and sometimes the city even feels a little empty (with the exception of the tourist coaches on the beachfront of course). For its size, Danang also feels exceptionally progressive and modern, as I found out when I noticed, while lying on My Khe Beach, that seemingly the whole city has free public wi-fi (why don’t we have that in London?).

A tale of three cities

Then there’s the food. Hanoian food to me seems to be more earthy, more about umami flavours and warming ingredients. There’s more use of salt as opposed to sweet, and there’s a more ‘meaty’ quality to many of the local dishes. Perhaps this is the influence of the colder winters, something which is relatively unknown in the central and south of the country. Having lived through five winters in the north, I understand the need for a warming bowl of sốt vang or a hearty phở, especially when it’s 7 degrees outside and you’re riding a motorbike with no gloves.

Compared to HCMC, with food centred around sweeter ingredients, lighter broths and somewhat spicier flavours, this is one of the key things that typifies the cities for me. The flavours seem to correspond to the characteristics of the cities. Danang is fresh squid, oysters, and BBQ shrimp, while Hanoi is warm phở with thick doughnuts (quẩy) and HCMC is a bold, spicy bowl of hủ tiếu with lime and chilli.

The food, architecture, and weather all typify the cities for me. They give me an insight into the uniqueness of their traditions and past and future. People often ask me to pick a favourite, or sum them up in one word, but it’s no easy task. I suppose if I had to, I’d say to pick summer in Danang, autumn in Hanoi, and winter in HCMC, but the truth is they all have their charms throughout the year. Maybe in another five years I’ll have a clearer answer, but for now, I’m going to make sure my visiting relatives are clued up on the cities and what makes them special: food, architecture, and atmosphere.

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