It’s a little past seven in the morning, and I’m awakened by the familiar screech of an exotic bird in the back house and by beeps from the first motorbikes on the street outside my second-floor apartment window.

Before I shuffle down the hall to make tea, I open the shutter windows to let in the breeze and the crackling sounds and steaming aromas of the neighborhood street stalls as their owners prepare for the morning breakfast rush hour.

I spy Bich across the street sweeping the sidewalk in front of her noodle shop, and she waves to me as she has every morning since my arrival. Mr. Phuc, the senile owner of the apartment, who always beckons me over with the same query — “Do you speak French?” — is already sitting on the sidewalk watching the city go by. I’ve been in Hanoi only four days, but I feel as if I’ve been a resident for years. If you want to live like Graham Greene, this is the way to do it.

It all began when I heard about a unique travel company called Untours that immerses you in local cultures in apartments instead of transporting you from hotel to hotel and from site to site on a tour bus. Here are a few vignettes from my diary on how I lived like a local for two weeks in the quiet, tranquil city of Hanoi and the wild, wild East metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City while saving beaucoup bucks in the bargain.

Day 1
I’m greeted at Hanoi’s airport by Markus, my Untours co-host, and we weave through a swirling current of bicycles and motorbike traffic and pull up in front of a two-story French colonial building that opens onto a bustling hive of street activity. Inside is my other host, a smiling dynamo named Ky, who presents me with a welcome bouquet of flowers.

A quick tour of my unit reveals a spacious, two-bedroom apartment with high ceilings, wrought-iron windows with wooden shutters, dark bamboo furniture, and ceiling fans (or optional air-conditioning for those who are romantically challenged and have never seen the movie The Lover).

Pluses are a refrigerator stocked with bottled water and colas, maid service, a mosquito net, a bicycle, a safe, a bowl of bizarre-looking fruits that look like props from Star Wars, and your own mobile phone with preprogrammed numbers of your hosts and local services. Minuses are weak shower-water pressure with intermittent hot water, a washing machine but no dryer, and a hot-plate instead of an oven (although, to be fair, the tour company never felt travelers would do much cooking because cheap and delicious food is available literally outside the door).

After unpacking, I check out the neighborhood. Within a block are two pho stalls (which serve hearty beef noodle soup for about 50 cents), three com stalls (which serve rice; a meat, fish, or fowl dish; a vegetable; and tea for the same price), two cafés, an ice cream and soda shop, a karaoke restaurant, two liquor stores, two laundry/dry cleaners, a film processing lab, and a market.

Day 2
I have many options. Do I want to do the Ho Chi Minh Museum, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, or Ho Chi Minh’s house? Do I want to bike along the tree-lined boulevards and admire the architecture of the French Quarter? Do I want to take a wistful walk around one of the city’s many lakes?

Day 3
My mobile phone rings. It’s Markus. “John, a bunch of us are meeting for dinner tonight. Wanna tag along?” I end up spending a captivating evening with expats from Cuba, Canada, and the U.K. on the rooftop of a seafood restaurant overlooking the Red River, and later migrate to the popular R&R Tavern. I’m beginning to like “living” here. Who needs a hotel concierge when your apartment comes with hosts, friends, neighbors, and adventures?

Day 4
I chill out at the apartment today, and in the evening take in the surprisingly delightful show at the Municipal Water Puppet Theater (tickets are a ridiculous $2, or $4 if you want a cassette of the accompanying traditional folk music, which you do).

Days 5 & 6
Road trip! It’s time to get out of Hanoi for a couple of days and see the countryside. I opt for a $22 two-day trip to Mai Chau, where I hike knee-deep through soggy rice paddies with the workers in the fields during the day and eat and sleep in a traditional stilt house with ethnic Thai people at night.

Day 7
On my last day in Hanoi I cruise the Old Quarter for bargains. I pick out a handsome hand-carved pipe for $6, a water puppet for $5, and a handwoven fabric from a northern hill tribe for $10. Then Ky invites me to his home for a farewell dinner, and we crown the evening at Hanoi’s hottest place, Highway 4, which lets you sample up to 33 traditional rice and fruit liquors in its opium den-like room.

Day 8
After a two-hour flight to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as everyone in the South still calls it), I’m greeted at the airport by Bach, my host, and am transported into town. Our taxi pulls into a tiny ally/driveway across the street from a lovely tree-shaded park. My Saigon accommodation is one-story and more contemporary in style and facilities than in Hanoi. Double doors open into sizable living/dining rooms decorated with luscious lacquer murals that you can purchase if you want. Pluses: The TV comes with cable, and the bathrooms sport brand-new toilets and showers. Minuses: None.

Unlike the street-life environment of Hanoi, these units are more secluded. And yet I’m actually closer to everything here. Within a block of the gate are three of Saigon’s premier tourist attractions: the Reunification Palace, the Notre Dame Cathedral, and the stunning French colonial General Post Office.

There’s a knock on the door, and I meet Paul and Elizabeth, my next-door neighbors who’ve taken an Untours trip before to Europe. They give thumbs-up to the apartments and host support here. In Europe, Untours travelers sometimes stay in guest cottages with live-in hosts. Their most pleasant surprises so far, and mine too, are how proudly and fiercely capitalistic this Communist nation is and how low the crime rate is.

Day 9
I skip my cereal and baguette this morning and hop on a 70-cent motorbike to one of the tourist cafés in the expat section of town. At Kim Café I splurge on banana pancakes, a Spanish omelette, and hot chocolate for $2.50, then shop along Dong Khoi Street, the city’s bargain mecca. I don’t find many deals, though. I nix two overpriced $25 silk shirts from Khaisilk (horrors, a store that won’t haggle!), reject a pricey Buddha painting a few doors down, then finally get lucky at Nguyen Hue Street’s Thieves Market by walking off with seven bootleg CDs for 70 cents apiece.

Day 10
I’m introduced to Mrs. Khanh, the charming co-owner of the apartment complex, who invites me and Mr. Giao, the artist whose paintings and murals grace the apartments, and his wife Thuy, a legendary writer/reporter, to dinner at Rex Hotel where they tell me their startling life stories, which they politely request afterward that I not reveal for political reasons. If you meet them, which you should, listen to their tales; they would make an HBO miniseries.

Days 11 & 12
It’s out of the city again for a languid two-day bus and boat trip deep into the Mekong Delta, an exotic world of floating markets, river traffic, and drop-dead scenery — one of the world’s great marvels at $20.

Day 13
On my next-to-last day I meet Ed, a 62-year-old American expat, fish exporter, ex-con, and a character right out of The Sopranos, who offers to show me Saigon at night. “But only if you can hang with me; not too many people can.” We start at the classy Saigon Saigon Bar atop the Caravelle Hotel, get down and funky at Apocalypse Now, swing over to the Speed disco, and wind up at my favorite, Vasco’s, a classy two-story garden bar with a band and an upscale mix of expats, tourists, and locals. As the last watering hole closes down, Ed slaps me on the back, says I’m all right, and makes me promise to look him up the next time I’m in town.

I amble down the street as a light mist tears my eyes and wake up a cyclo driver under a lamppost. On the slow ride back to my apartment, my mood is bittersweet. Just as I was starting to feel at home here, it’s time to leave. I’m going to miss this magical land of smiling faces. Nowhere in the world, with the exception of the Philippines, have I been embraced so sincerely as an American, which is unfathomable considering our tumultuous past. I make a resolution. Many veterans are returning for closure. I’ve come back to open my heart. There are friends I made who are too dear not to see again and magnanimity bestowed that was too bountiful not to give back in kind.

*     *     *

Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel (March/April 2002)

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