it is tough to compare saigon and hanoi as two vietnamese cities because they are quite different. i am glad that i was able to see them both and i think that in terms of a place to live, i would prefer saigon, but as a place to visit, i prefer hanoi.
and why is that? the streets of the old quarter in hanoi are just a wonder to wander around, watching and listening and shopping. really, the shopping is pretty fantastic. but if you insist on a little culture (and you well should in such a great city!), there are some other things that will keep your attention.
i checked out ho chi minh's mausoleum and wasn't terribly disappointed when it was closed at 10:30am and i didn't have to stand in the winding queue of mostly vietnamese people waiting to see their national hero and former leader's body. seeing the complex where the mausoleum is was pretty interesting though and for some reason, the canadian embassy is right across the street from it, strange.
it appears as though all the government buildings are painted yellow and the presidential palace is no exception. all french colonial in architecture, they are quite stunning, but not open to the public.
the best way to get around the city is by moto, if you are not squeamish about riding around on the back of a motorbike/scooter (the drivers always insist you wear a helmet as they want to avoid the fine) and they rarely go very fast and the drivers also tend to be a wealth of information about the city and its sights (as information is pretty sparse on the ground). it is also a great way to cool off in the middle of a hot, humid day, which is exactly what i did when i headed out to the temple of literature, which is a complex of tradition vietnamese buildings and pagodas that are set up for tourists and to preserve the tortise sculptures that are rubbed for luck by students when they have exams.
in the middle of one of the lakes in the centre of hanoi is the ngac son temple, a picturesque island where i watched men play chess surrounded by the smell of incense (which i don't particularly like, but it does add a certain ambiance!).
i spent a lot of my time getting lost and then unlost in the streets of hanoi and happened upon a number of photo opportunities (coming on facebook, i promise), ice coffees, and things that i thought it best if i bought. one of my favourite shops was nagu and lucky for me, was right outside the doors of my hotel.
and if you stay in hanoi, i must insist that you also stay at the same hotel that i did. i cannot recommend cinnamon hotel enough. wonderful service, decent coffee, wine racks in the rooms, free wifi, fantastic location right across from st joseph's cathedral, and complimentary foot massages for their guests!