Vietnamese still feel north, south divide

HANOI - A man in a luminous yellow T-shirt bobs up and down alongside a group of women at 5am doing aerobics - a typical morning activity in Hanoi. At the same time in Ho Chi Minh City, another man is sprawled across a bed, fast asleep.

The scenes are from an episode of the popular comedy series Thich An Pho (Like Eating Noodles), published on YouTube. The video, titled "Hanoi, Saigon, how are they different?" illustrates many of the stereotypical contrasts between the two cities.

One scene takes aim at street crime: frequent in Ho Chi Minh city by reputation, and less in Hanoi. Another scene targets customer service: good in the south, bad in the north.

Rivalries between a country's major cities are not unusual, but two decades of partition in Vietnam compounded the cultural divide, even for those born long after reunification in 1975.

After the 1954 Geneva Accords, which split the country after nearly 100 years of French colonial rule, Hanoi in the North became the political heart of the Communist Party, while Saigon in the South - now renamed Ho Chi Minh City - became an United States-backed economic hub, dubbed "the pearl of the orient."

"When we, people from Hanoi and Saigon, look at pictures from that time, we know it was a completely charming city back then, not poor. Lots of Saigonese still miss that," said 26-year-old Hanoian Trang Phan Malo, who worked in Ho Chi Minh City for seven years.

"Cyclo [cycle rickshaw] drivers will take their families out for an expensive meal, but in Hanoi they just save the money," she said.

"People in the North had a lot of difficulties in the past, especially during the subsidy time," she said, referring to the period of rationing in the 1970s and 80s.

"There are a lot of differences, so many divisions and distinctions sometimes I think they are like two different countries," said a 34-year-old architect born in Saigon but currently living in Hanoi with his wife.

"Before 1975 the two economies were entirely different, like South Korea and North Korea," he said, asking that his name not be used.

While Saigon remains an economic hub, many Vietnamese see Hanoi as more like a village, with many relying on small-scale agriculture and handicraft villages, he added.

Hanoians are better at art and politics, whereas people in Saigon are better at commerce, technology and foreign languages, according to 26-year-old Saigon-born Nguyen Thanh Tam, organiser of the first Gay Pride march in Vietnam.

"I organised Pride in Hanoi because it is the political hub of Vietnam," she said. "From donors' perspective, they favour Hanoi over Saigon because it is generally more conservative and exerts greater socio-political impact, at least on the government."

For cafe owner Cuong Vu, one of the simpler, more noticeable, differences is the preference for stronger tea and saltier food in Hanoi compared to their southern counterparts.

He said he has personally benefited from differing attitudes in Vietnam's north and south poles.

"As a Hanoian, I was loved more by Saigonese people for working hard," he said.

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