From entrepreneurs looking for deals to veterans seeking closure to travelers discovering the next new paradise, everyone’s heading back to ‘Nam these days.

With its mountain tribes and misty bays, its pristine beaches, its verdant countryside, its rivers and deltas teeming with commerce and romance, and its cities and towns alive with culture and electricity, Vietnam is colonial France wrapped around an American flag atop an Asian dragon inside the pages of a Graham Greene novel.

Contributor John Wood served in the Army there during the Vietnam conflict. He returned recently to answer this question for us: How can a visitor best get the full Vietnam experience? “It’s not in a cramped bus, a rickety train, or a wheezing Russian plane,” he says. “Get around the way the locals do: by cyclo, boat, raft, bike, and foot.”

Cyclo Confessions
One of the best ways to mingle with the people — among the most gregarious in the world — is to hop on a cyclo (pronounced “seek-low”), a three-wheeled rickshaw attached to the front of a bicycle. Because the vehicles move slowly, you can observe the people and street life in much greater detail than if whizzing by in a taxi. In addition, many cyclo drivers are former South Vietnamese soldiers who speak English, so you’ll be deluged with questions about America.

Water Wanderings
To visit Hanoi and not take the obligatory side trip to explore the eighth wonder of the world, Halong Bay, would be like going to Las Vegas and not setting foot inside a casino. The crystal-clear gulf contains literally thousands of skyscraper-sized limestone caves, islands, and karst sculptures that look like they were carved by Wes Craven.

Or you can hire a boat and tour the pagodas and Royal Mausoleums along the Perfume River in Hue. While you’re inspecting one of the temples, your boatman will buy chicken, fish, and vegetables in town, cook them on your boat, and serve them as you re-board. At night, don’t forget to return to the waterfront for a moonlight cruise where beautiful Vietnamese girls will serenade you with ancient love ballads.

In Saigon, rise at dawn, take a cyclo to Kim Café, down a hearty breakfast of strawberry French toast, bacon, and hot chocolate, and sign up for a two-day floating tour of the Mekong Delta.

When you reach the bustling river hub of Can Tho, board a long boat for a glide into its exotic world of floating markets and stunning vistas. One moment you’re in Tahiti; the next, Africa; the next, the Amazon.

And everyone on or along the river will wave and smile. “Many people, upon seeing us, would scramble around shouting and rush down underneath to the hull of their boats, bring up an infant, and wave one of the baby’s hands at us,” John said. “Along the river banks, children would scream ‘Hellooo!’ and run after us until they could not run another step, waving all the time. And they wouldn’t stop waving until we were out of sight. We stopped a couple of times to visit people’s homes, and tiny tots would just come up, take our hands, and walk with us. And people wonder why I live Vietnam so.”

Rafting Rapture
Two vivid rafting memories: About 70 miles south of Hanoi near the town of Hoa Lu, beetlenut-chewing mama-sans will scissor-oar you in tiny skiffs down Hoang Long River, one of the most jaw-dropping waterways in the world because you meander through neon-green rice paddies and caves among the same limestone outcrops that distinguish Halong Bay.

And in Can Tho one evening, John and a German foursome were walking along the waterfront when a swarm of female sampan owners beckoned them for a river ride. They didn’t see the point since the night was pitch black. But they eventually agreed on a half-hour trip (75 cents each).

“It was one of those marvelous moments you least expect,” John said. “We lay back against the side of the boat, lost in our own thoughts, and swayed to the strokes of the oars. A cool breeze wafted over us. It was so dark and quiet that every star and sound was amplified. Dogs barked at one another from opposite sides of the river. A karaoke tune echoed from some distant bar. Kids did cannonballs into the river somewhere far back in the jungle. Fishermen floated by silently laying their nets. And the Big Dipper popped out the of sky as brightly as if someone had switched it on.”

Bicycle Bravado
“Excuse me, sir.”

John braked his bike and turned around. Poised on a bicycle on the dirt road a few feet away was a silhouette so stunning, he didn’t believe it at first: a lovely young woman in jeans, T-shirt, and long hair below her waist that snapped in the breeze like a horse’s tail.

“Where are you from?” she asked.


“Oh joy! I was wondering, could I ride with you? I would enjoy an opportunity to practice my English.”

John had heard that the women of Hue are the prettiest and friendliest in Vietnam, but he didn’t think it would take less than an hour after arriving to confirm it.

Another ideal place to bike is Hanoi because of its many lakes and shady, tree-lined boulevards. The social heart of the city is Hoan Kiem Lake, where residents practice tai chi in the foggy mornings and play badminton in the cool afternoons.

But the best spot in Vietnam to bike is through the historic waterfront of Hoi An, a composite of Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, French, and Portuguese influence that will have you gaping at every pastel-colored building, funky art gallery, and postcard-framed alleyway.

Walking Wonderland
Saigon is a walker’s dream. If you want to relive history, head down fabled Dong Khoi Street. Known as Rue Catinat during the French colonial period, it was the Champs Élysées of its day, sporting the latest French fashions. In the ’60s it was renamed Tu Do street and became one of the most infamous red light districts in Asia. Today it’s a great place to window shop and eat.

Another great stroll is along the harbor. John ambled along the waterfront one afternoon and came upon two women adorned in ao dais, the traditional Vietnamese dress. They posed for a picture, a conversation ensued, and within moments, a crowd had formed. One young boy offered to translate, cyclo drivers rushed over from their pedicabs to ask questions, and elderly couples looked on in amusement. Eventually the entire throng moved across the street to take over a restaurant for an afternoon of animated conversation.

His most memorable saunter, however, took place inside the mammoth Ben Thanh Market. The main action is in the market’s rear, or “wet” portion, where every imaginable food is offered — especially if you like it live and wriggling.

“As I passed through, I noticed a gaggle of women having a rip-roaring time chopping off fish heads,” John said. “I’d never associated chopping off fish heads with a rip-roaring time before, but these women were having one.”

He  said hello in Vietnamese, and that was all it took to make him the subject of a howling tug-of-war that soon encompassed the entire fish market.

“I vaguely remember somebody dragging a middle-aged woman from the crowd and introducing her to me at some point,” John recalled. “But I was having such a grand time, nodding yes to whatever they were saying and causing cries of delight each time, that I didn’t realize until it was too late that the conversation had become more urgent and strident. And that all of a sudden they were really, really trying to communicate something very, very important to me.”

Two women finally got up, linked each other’s arms, and pointed to John and the middle-aged woman. When John finally realized what was happening, he bowed gracefully, mimicked taking a ring out of his pocket, took the woman’s left hand in his, and pretended to place the ring on her finger. The place erupted.

“I blew her a kiss, waved them all goodbye,” John said, “then hightailed it down the nearest labyrinth of stalls to a hail of laughter.”

Lesson: Always wear a wedding ring while shopping at Ben Thanh lest you be lassoed into an arranged marriage.

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Rudy Maxa’s Traveler (February 2001)


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.

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