A collection of articles:
The rivalry started during the Le (Later) Dynasty:
The Le Dynasty
The Vietnamese advance to the south coincided with new challenges in the north. In 1407 Viet Nam was again conquered by Chinese troops. For two decades, the Ming dynasty attempted to reintegrate Viet Nam into the empire, but in 1428, resistance forces under the rebel leader Le Loi dealt the Chinese a decisive defeat and restored Vietnamese independence. Le Loi mounted the throne as the first emperor of the Le dynasty. The new ruling house retained its vigor for more than a hundred years, but in the 16th century it began to decline. Power at court was wielded by two rival aristocratic clans, the Trinh and the Nguyen. When the former became dominant, the Nguyen were granted a fiefdom in the south, dividing Viet Nam into two separate zones. Rivalry was sharpened by the machinations of European powers newly arrived in Southeast Asia in pursuit of wealth and Christian converts.
By the late 18th century, the Le dynasty was near collapse. Vast rice lands were controlled by grasping feudal lords. Angry peasants—led by the Tay Son brothers—revolted, and in 1789 Nguyen Hue, the ablest of the brothers, briefly restored Viet Nam to united rule. Nguyen Hue died shortly after ascending the throne; a few years later Nguyen Anh, an heir to the Nguyen house in the south, defeated the Tay Son armies. As Emperor Gia Long, he established a new dynasty in 1802.
Then it was the Vietnam War:
In the hopes the French would go home, the emperor wouldn't allow his subjects to openly defy the French, but things didn't get better only worse. The Vietnamese were exploited, heavily taxed and worked essentially as slave labor (little pay). When Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen Tat Thanh) began the Indochinese Communist Party in 1930, it was the beginning of a power struggle between the French and the Vietnamese.
In 1945, the Viet Minh established a capital at Hanoi and called Vietnam an independent republic in a struggle known as the August Revolution. The French wouldn't accept this declaration and refused to concede. After negotiations failed, war broke out when the Viet Minh attached the French in Hanoi. For the next 8 years, the First Indochina War continued, with the US getting itself involved. The government the French had set up with Bao Dai, the last emperor of the Nguyen dynasty, failed when he (Bao Dai) abdicated the throne in lieu of Ho Chi Minh. The US sent aid to the French as a result, due to concerns over the spread of communism while the Viet Minh turned to Communist China for help. Not much happened for the next three years, but the French grew tired of the situation and were defeated in an attack by the Viet Minh in 1954.
The result of this, and ensuing peace talks, was that Vietnam was divided into two sections, a Communist North, and a non-Communist South. This was contrary to what the US wished for, which was continued warfare. But for the next five years, things were relatively quiet except the the US was supplying South Vietnam with financial and military aid in an attempt to overthrow the Viet Minh. In the North the National Liberation Front was formed, and a year later the People's Liberation Armed Forces (Viet Cong) was established.
The United States sent troops into Vietnam in 1965, and by 1969 the number of troops had almost tripled to over 500,000. On January 30, 1968, the North Vietnamese attacked over 100 cities and town during the traditional Tet holiday. This surprise attack, known as the Tet Offensive, was a turning point in the war. With a presidential change in America, the plans for Vietnam changed as well. The US gradually withdrew their troops while supporting the South Vietnamese military in attempts to defend themselves. With the troops withdrawn and a compromise reached between the North and South, all seemed to be going well.
The Communists Vietnamese were not finished, in April 1975, Saigon fell after months of a military offensive. By 1976, the two divisions were reunited as a Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Since Ho Chi Minh's death in 1969, Le Duan had been the head of the Communist Party and he quickly started plans to promote the party. This was not to be due to the extensive damage caused by war and an economy that was in upheaval.
And now the economic and cultural rivalry:
Political (seat of government in Hanoi)
Economic (Saigon is the largest city, has the largest GDP and contributes 40% to national taxation income and the gateway of commerce)
Cultural (music and popular culture, and a trendsetter)
Wellbeing (Southerners as a whole are richer than the Northerners. Better fed and blessed by nature)
And here's an article by someone:
Hanoi: The Girl on the Motorcycle
Back during the war, we often heard Vietnam described as a small country on the other side of the world. But in truth it's rather large, with 78 million people—far more than France or Great Britain—and has a coastline nearly 1,800 miles long. Look at it on the map, and Vietnam resembles a skinnier reflection of California on the other side of the Pacific. And like California, there's a natural rivalry between northern Hanoi and southern Saigon that echoes the spat between San Francisco and Los Angeles: Hanoians freely express their disdain for the shallow materialism of Saigon, while Saigoners roll their eyes at the smug, P.C. moralism of those in the capital city.
Vietnam's long coastline and fertile Mekong Delta have long made it an alluring target for invaders. Indeed, this nation's history is the story of the Vietnamese struggle—which ultimately succeeded—to escape foreign rule. China dominated Vietnam for a thousand years, mainly in the north, but was eventually thrown out. Shortly thereafter, the Khmers (now known as the Cambodians) conquered the Chams of southern Vietnam, but the Chams fought back and eventually killed the Khmer king in his palace. Over the years, the Vietnamese turned back the Mongol hordes (in 1284), helped chase out the Japanese during World War II, and then threw out France: Less than a century after the mighty French seized Saigon in 1859, they were routed by the Vietnamese in the famous 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu.
The country was split in two, and would not be unified without another war, this one involving the United States. That war began in the mid-1950s, kicked into high gear with the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, and reached its grand finale on April 30, 1975, when Communist tanks crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon. As you land at Noi Bai Airport you can still see the craters, created by the bombs dropped on Hanoi, from your airplane window.
Ten years ago I was dazzled by Hanoi's ravaged beauty, touched by its poverty: chickens scrawny as Giacomettis, shoddy goods in the shop windows, magnificent French houses rotting into miasmic disrepair, citizens biking mile after mile along rutted muddy roads; a cycle driver would pedal you around for four hours and be grateful for a buck. North Vietnam had been a client state of the USSR, and you could feel the Soviet influence everywhere. Bureaucrats tooled around in Russian-built Volgas and Ladas, automobiles built with no concessions to comfort or style.
America and Vietnam still lacked diplomatic relations (they were finally restored in 1995), and while the ordinary people couldn't have been friendlier—inviting me to their homes, asking me to speak at a school—Communist Party officials were less welcoming. I got called in by the secret police, who accused me of committing various "serious" offenses and forced me to buy a new visa to replace my perfectly valid one (where the money went I can only guess). I was put on the next plane to Bangkok by an officer who whistled the chorus of "Hey, Jude" as he filled out the deportation notice.
Today, Hanoi is one of the most charming places on earth, a city that recalls pre-Castro Havana (but without the runaway vice) or '60s Bangkok (when the city wasn't a giant traffic jam). The Hanoi Hilton has been replaced by high-rise apartments.
Although still poor by Western or even Saigon standards, Hanoi's three million citizens are trilling with optimistic energy. And why not? The place is sexy. Hanoi is now a city of cafés and shops with names like Rebirth of the Cool, a city of gleaming new buildings and lovely lakes where, before 6 a.m., hundreds of thousands of people are already jogging, doing tai chi, and playing badminton—with or without a net. I've never seen so many beautiful women riding motorcycles, and when you catch their eye they respond with a gaze filled with innocent delight in their own attractiveness. This isn't the commercial come-on you get in Bangkok, but the sheer exuberance of women who feel they're being permitted to blossom.
Next to Saigon, which was a small Khmer village as late as the 15th century, Hanoi is positively ancient. Emperor Ly Thai To made it Vietnam's capital nearly a thousand years ago, and the city has the historical weight one associates with old European capitals rather than Southeast Asia's megacities, many of which seem to have been built last week. In Hanoi you can peel back one historical era and find another lying beneath it.
The most seductive area of Hanoi is the old colonial quarter, and the most comfortable place in the quarter is the Hotel Metropole, a fine piece of vintage architecture with a pure-white facade, green shutters, and finely filigreed wrought iron. Originally built in 1901, this has always been the place where VIPs stay when they come to Hanoi. The Metropole has hosted visitors as varied as George and Barbara Bush, Stephen Hawking, Robert DeNiro, and "Grangree" himself. It was here that Jane Fonda stayed during the trip that got her dubbed "Hanoi Jane" (naturally this champion of the people was staying at the poshest place in town), and it was here that Joan Baez serenaded frightened guests in the hotel bunker during a protracted bombing raid. When the French were chased out in the mid-1950s, it was renamed the Thong Nhat, or Reunification Hotel, and became the official government guesthouse. But apparatchniks have no gift for providing luxury, and the Thong Nhat slipped into a deep decline from which it was eventually rescued by Sofitel, which isn't shy about selling colonial fantasies along with its rooms:
The hotel has a 1930s Citroën Traction visiting car that lets you ride around the city just as the toffs did in the old days.
But Hanoi Opera House, whose Vietnamese name, Nha Hat Lon, is winsomely translated as House of Big Sing, may be the finest piece of colonial architecture in the city. Built by the French in 1911 with characteristic amour propre and modeled on the Palais Garnier in Paris, it is at once firm of line and ornate as a wedding cake. Its sheer confident Frenchness made it a symbol of foreign domination to the Vietnamese. When Ho Chi Minh's people took control of Hanoi in 1945, they pointedly announced their victory from the balcony of the opera house. The message was clear: This is our place now.
It's only a couple of blocks from the opera house to perhaps the loveliest spot in the city, Hoan Kiem, a placid lake bordered by feathery willows and featuring an 18th-century temple.
Far more than Saigon, Hanoi is involved in a tug-of-war between the past and the future. Even as the city's future lies with the high-rises springing up outside the downtown area, many of its most memorable features are positively ancient. There's no place in Asia quite like the mazelike Old Quarter, right next to Hoan Kiem Lake, a neighborhood which goes back a thousand years. Plunging into the Old Quarter is like entering a different era of civilization, where dark, narrow streets travel in unpredictable directions, storekeepers live deep in the bowels of their narrow, centuries-old shops, and everything is organized so rationally that it incongruously feels like Wonderland. You start down a street that sells only shoes, then turn left onto a block where the shops all do tombstones with the faces of the deceased spookily photoengraved onto the stone. There are streets for jewelers and toy sellers, herbalists and lacquerists.
But the young in today's Hanoi are more excited about what's new. They relish the fact that Pho Hang Hanh (which means, drearily enough, Onion Street) is now nicknamed Coffee Street for the hip cafés where they can watch the inescapable Britney Spears on MTV, smoke 555 brand cigarettes (its slogan: "A brighter future"), and give foreigners their e-mail addresses, nearly all of them at hotmail.com because they can't afford to own a computer. Eager to connect to the outside world, they find it maddening that their government is run by old men whose ideas were all shaped by the war.
Ten years ago, it was hard to get a good meal in Hanoi. Today one can eat extremely well—from the humble street stalls that serve pho (the rice-noodle soup that is a national obsession) to elegant, high-end restaurants like Indochine with refined neo-Vietnamese dishes like beef fillet in toasted coconut and banana-flower salad. Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter is one hundred years old and still serves only one dish, cha ca—boneless chunks of fish that is marinated in turmeric, fried on a brazier, then eaten with dipping sauce, rice noodles, and a tray of herbs like basil and sweet dill. While there's nothing romantic about the restaurant itself (unless you find romance in the seediness of low ceilings and ancient fans), this is where I had my favorite meal in Hanoi.
Another Hanoi institution is Café Lam, the city's leading boho hangout for the last half century—for years this was the only place where artists could show their work.
Any trip to Hanoi demands a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum, the Ho Chi Minh Stilt House (the minimalist counterpoint to Saigon's old Presidential Palace), and especially the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a grim cubicle where the embalmed Ho lies in a glass sarcophagus.
Communism's strange pseudoreligiosity has always included an addiction to icons, cult objects, and relics: Moscow has its pickled Lenin, Beijing its Mao. Even though Ho had requested to be cremated, he hadn't even died before the Soviet Union's top embalmer arrived in Hanoi eager to do his work.
One doesn't know how much credit belongs to Ho's example, but the idealism and hardship of Hanoi's past have given its citizens something I do not find in Saigon—an almost palpable sweetness and decency. These are deep people, you might say. And open-hearted. I've never traveled anyplace where so many locals came up to me wanting to talk, and talk seriously. One night at a fancy villa restaurant, my waiter spilled the story of his life as I ate my coconut ice cream. The next morning I went to the new Museum of Ethnology, devoted to Vietnam's minority tribes. As I examined an ancestral altar, a computer specialist came up and followed me from exhibit to exhibit, asking about America and capitalism, and posing the deep-dish questions you'd expect from a student in a Dostoyevsky novel. As we neared the gift shop, he blurted out, "Do you believe in God?"
He didn't. But if you wanted to make someone a believer, you could do worse than send them to Ha Long Bay, a spectacular scatter of 3,000 islands in the Gulf of Tonkin that provided the most dazzling scenery in the Oscar-winning film Indochine. The drive takes three hours along often tortuous roads. The vast majority of Vietnamese still live in the countryside, and the trip to Ha Long showed me their Vietnam, where water buffalo stop traffic, women in conical hats stoop over ridiculously short hoes, a Vietnam where rice paddies stretch toward the horizon like miles of green Velcro, and farmers buzz along on their Hondas with as many as ten squealing piglets bound behind them. The villages outside Hanoi are all famed for individual specialties—there's the pottery village, the green-bean-cake village, and the dog village, whose restaurants specialize in dog. "You are American," smiled my guide, an amiable man named Hai. "You will not want to go there."
You travel Ha Long Bay by boat, and everywhere the views are magnificent. The locals earn their livelihood by fishing (and through tourism, of course), and we passed a green-tarped vessel perhaps five feet by ten, on which a whole family lived with its dog and tiny TV that is their lifeline to the world—a jerry-rigged antenna angled toward the sky. This is one of the most sheerly gorgeous places on earth. For now. Soon it too will be overwhelmed by tourists.
Ha Long means "descending dragon," and according to legend, Ha Long Bay was created by the movements of a giant dragon, which shifted both the land and the ocean as it made its way from the mountains to the bottom of the sea. The islands themselves are huge outcroppings of limestone and dolomite that leap from the sea in harrowing verticals. It would take a rock-climber to go ashore on many of these isles. Utterly useless, their only purpose is to be ravishingly beautiful; their extravagant solitude is surreal.
Saigon: The View from the Roof
It's a two-hour flight from Hanoi to Saigon's Tan Son Nhat Airport, which was used by the U.S. Air Force during the war. Tan Son Nhat! Decades later I can still hear Walter Cronkite intoning those syllables. In its day this was one of the two busiest airports in the world (along with O'Hare), and even ten years ago your jet would taxi by the rusted hulks of American-built warplanes. But present-day Tan Son Nhat seems little more than a small, drowsy, slightly decaying provincial airport—like Des Moines', say, 20 years after the bottom fell out of the corn market.
For all its exotic allure, Saigon is not a beautiful city. "[It] is a French town in a hot country," Norman Lewis wrote 50 years ago in A Dragon Apparent, the single best travel book ever written on Indochina. "It is as sensible to call it—as is usually done—the Paris of the East as it would be to call Kingston, Jamaica, the Oxford of the West Indies. Its inspiration has been purely commercial and is therefore without folly, fervor or much ostentation."
These days Saigon is a Vietnamese town in a hot country. If the nation's soul is Hanoi, Saigon is its cash register. It's loud, fast, greedy, prodigal, incandescent in its energy. But not beautiful. In the winter dry season, the leaves are coated with coppery dust; on hot summer days, the air seems filled with a never-ending supply of exhaust. There are six million people in Saigon, and they all seem to be out and about nearly all the time. Life is lived on the streets, and you need only step from your hotel to see the human pageant in all its multiplicity—people eating and drinking, railing in anger, smooching with their lovers, urinating against public walls. What an assault on the senses! You're bombarded with the scent of fish sauce, charcoal, gasoline and joss sticks, your eyes bedazzled by the roads teeming with vehicles: an endless stream of bicycles, motorcycles, cyclos, vintage Hondas, spanking new SUVs. You keep waiting to see massive pileups, but miraculously everyone just weaves in and out. The triumph of inspired anarchy.
Only the architecture remains to remind you of French rule. But it is worth adding that the loveliest buildings in Saigon are the colonial buildings on Dong Khoi: the Hotel Majestic, with its air of exhausted elegance; the ornate 1891 post office, all cornices and vaulted ceilings, with colonial maps on the wall (and a FedEx window at the counter!); and above all, the Continental Hotel, a triumph of lavish style with high ceilings and a marvelous courtyard where you can sip cocktails amid redolent frangipanis. Thick with atmosphere and character, the Continental should be one of the world's great hotels, and it tells you something about Saigon's recent history that it's not: Rather than having the renovation done by people who knew how, the bureaucrats at Saigon Tourist settled for a low-budget job. You'll rarely see worse fixtures and furniture in finer rooms: "All that cheap chinoiserie," moaned a hotelier I met later.
Saigon is a city of rooftops, especially rooftop bars, where one can sit above the streets and look down on the life below. There's the rooftop bar at the Majestic, where you can watch the sampans and hydrofoils move up and down the river. There's the breezy rooftop bar Saigon Saigon, at the Caravelle Hotel, where many of the correspondents stayed during the war. And then there's the rooftop bar on the fifth floor of the Rex Hotel, America's wartime base of operations, where the infamous "five o'clock follies" press briefings were held. The Rex is something of a castle of kitsch, but sitting at the bar along with the topiary dragons, you have a great view of what may be the most extraordinary single sight in Saigon: On weekend nights, tens of thousands of young people, all astride motorcycles, do the circuit of downtown, up Dong Khoi, across on Le Loi, and down Nguyen Hue. The locals call this song voi, living fast.
While Saigon's great allure for most tourists lies in its war remnants (the Reunification Palace, the underground labyrinth of tunnels called Cu Chi), the people of Saigon are tired of the whole thing—especially the young: Over half of the city's population is under 25, which means they hadn't even been born when the war ended. For them it's a dead letter. Still, deep feelings linger, especially in the attitude toward the United States. America's relationship to the South was like a failed marriage that left both spouses disillusioned and heartbroken.
On my last day in Saigon I wandered down Le Duan Street to catch a glimpse of the U.S. Embassy, which housed a Soviet petroleum company the last time I was in town. But the city is developing, and instead of the embassy I found a new U.S. consulate, and outside its fortified gates a gray-haired Vietnamese woman who told me, "Old embassy gone." She handed me a packet of bleary snapshots, carefully annotated, chronicling that ugly white bunker's demolition. She told me that the whole set cost three dollars, and I cheerfully paid it. In its day the roof of the U.S. Embassy was one of the most famous places in the world. Now all that's left of it are these photos in the hands of a gentle old woman.