Tiếng Việt (“Vietnamese”) is the official language throughout Vietnam, but regional dialects do change it in significant ways. The North and South each use different words, phrases, and phonetic elements, so sometimes even they can’t understand each other. If somebody were to tell you to “cheap right” when they wanted you to make a turn, you’d be confused as well. This is how the Vietnamese feel when they speak to somebody from another part of the country. It also makes the language difficult to learn if you live in the South, since many apps and courses only teach the Northern dialect.
The rainy season in Vietnam lasts from May to November, and during these months you’re pretty well guaranteed a daily soaking. In the South, storms come in fast, with little more than a cold gust of wind to warn you. Downpours rarely last longer than a couple of hours, though. In the North, however, it tends to drizzle throughout the day. Either way, these months aren’t the best for traveling in Vietnam.
The South is consistently hot. It almost never dips below 20°C (68F) in Ho Chi Minh City, even at night. In the North, average temperatures drop to as low as 17°C (63F) from January to March. During these months, you’ll see people in the North wearing thick winter jackets, and the mornings are especially cold, even dipping into single-digit temperatures. Farther North, in the mountains, you’ll see snow.
Life in the South would grind to a halt without iced coffees. The thick mixture of condensed milk and robusta beans—or black, with heaps of sugar—brings sweet relief from the relentless heat. In the North, coffee is less prevalent, and cafes are more difficult to find. Given the choice, many Northerners would prefer a cup of tea. They share this affinity with their neighbors, the Chinese.
Generally speaking, Northerners prefer noodles to rice. Many of Vietnam’s familiar noodle dishes, such as bún riêu, bún chả, and phở originated in the North. The South produces more livestock, rice, and fruits thanks to its warmer climate and large agricultural region. Vietnamese throughout the country eat phở for breakfast, but later in the day, Southerners will typically eat rice with some combination of pork, seafood and/or egg at cơm tấm (“broken rice”) restaurants.
Fashion in the north is more subdued, with outward displays of ostentatious wealth seen as a negative trait of their southern relatives. You can, however, expect to see fine silks and quality tailored outfits.
With its countless boutique shops and foreign brands, Ho Chi Minh City is the fashion capital of Vietnam. And thanks to the booming economy, local fashion designers are thriving as well. Young people in the south could easily pass for teenagers in America, with their jeans and t-shirts. When a new style or brand appears in Ho Chi Minh City, it spreads quickly. Young people will wait in line for hours to be at the leading edge of fashion.
Young people in the South also love American-style fast food. In the heart of any town, you’ll find some combination of KFC, Popeye’s, Lotteria, or Burger King. There are even McDonald’s in Ho Chi Minh City now. These same fast food chains exist in the North, but they aren’t as prevalent. For example, there’s approximately one Burger King for every 1.5 million people in Hanoi. In Ho Chi Minh City, that number drops to one Burger King for every 500,000 people. You can see it in Vietnamese waistlines, and childhood obesity is also on the rise.
Vietnam’s institutional power resides in Hanoi. It’s where the government operates from, with representatives managing operations in the rest of the country. Though the bureaucratic strength lies in the North, Ho Chi Minh City is the economic powerhouse. If you are a young Vietnamese person and have a keen sense for business, or if you have ambitions for wealth, you move to Ho Chi Minh City. When you chat with young people in Ho Chi Minh City, you find out just how many left their small towns in search of training and prosperity in the big city.
If you’re the type to stay out until the sun comes up, the South is where you want to be. In Ho Chi Minh City, many bars and clubs stay open all night. The infamous Bui Vien Street, in the backpackers area, never closes. In Hanoi, however, thanks to curfews and their more traditional ways, you’ll have to be more creative if you want to stay up all night and get wild. It’s more common for people in Hanoi to get together right after work, calling it a night at a responsible hour.
While you’ll certainly find exceptions to this rule, Southerners tend to be quick to smile, whereas Northerners are seen as more aloof. From my experience, workers in hotels and restaurants in the North are polite, but also businesslike. They may not smile as much, but you can always count on them to help you. And after some time, you’ll crack through their shells and develop warm connections. In the South, you’ll find yourself sharing laughs with strangers within seconds.
In the North, tourists come for both the natural beauty and the history. From Ha Long Bay, to the endless winding roads through the mountains, the region is rich with awesome sights and remnants from days long gone. Tourism in the South is dominated by beaches and resorts—Da Lat, Hoi An, and the Mekong Delta being the most notable exceptions. Foreigners come from far and wide to lounge on the many pristine beaches in the South, most of which are a short drive—or a cheap flight—from Ho Chi Minh City.
After the American war, about two million people fled the country. Now, more than 40 years later, many of the descendants of those refugees are back in Vietnam to experience their ancestral homeland. Because most of those who fled were from the South, that is where you will find most Việt Kiều today. In Ho Chi Minh City, they are common—a person who looks Vietnamese, but speaks with a perfect American or Australian accent, born and raised in places like Houston, San Diego, or Sydney. They provide unique outlook, and many strive to strengthen bonds between Vietnam and the rest of the world.
Power in Vietnam has always been in the North—mostly in Hanoi, but also in Hue during the French colonial years. While Saigon may have more glitz, modern art, and relics from the American War, it simply cannot compete with the North in terms of history.
The majority of foreigners living in Vietnam live in the South, mostly in and around Ho Chi Minh City. Koreans and Japanese top the list. They oversee many of the factories producing goods for overseas markets. In certain areas of Ho Chi Minh City—Districts 2 and 7, most notably—foreigners almost outnumber the Vietnamese. Those areas are filled with businesses catering to their international tastes and styles. And with the recent push for English language training in every school, the number of foreign teachers in Vietnam continues to rise.
Street food is a regular part of life in Vietnam—cheap meals and snacks served to millions every day. In the South, vendors prefer aluminum carts, which may be due to many of them operating illegally. Waves of fleeing food carts are a regular sight in the South, with a police truck not far behind. Street vendors in the North are more traditional, still using bamboo sticks with wicker baskets slung off each side, or modern versions made of welded steel.