How to find your Saigon smile in Vietnam

by jen dickson

Visit Uncle Ho's Palace, explore the chaotic streets and then drink a 30p beer or glass of weasel poo coffee (it's what you think it is!). Insane Saigon tantalises your senses... and your tastebuds

"Good morning Vietnam!" These immortal words will be ringing in your ears as the plane descends into the craziness you clearly see below. So you've watched all the movies, learned a few words, including crucially ”Khong cam on, di bo" which means “No thanks, I'll walk”.  You're ready, well as ready as you ever will be... so jump on bus seven and head into the Old Quarter, the heart of the classy, chaotic but above all very, very cool city of Hanoi.

Don’t panic about accommodation -  there is literally a hotel at every turn and one to fit every budget, and your potential host will find you and not vice versa.

The perfect begining is to find a cafe and grab a kaafa sua (coffee with condensed milk). If you're a bit hot and flustered, a kaafee den (coffee with ice) should do the trick.

Just sit and watch for a moment, be amazed by the sites and overwhelmed by the feeling that yes, I am in Vietnam, it’s insane and do I really have to try and cross that road? As daunting as this seems, remember two words “courage” and “trust” and walk all the way to Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum complex.

He does indeed have a whole complex, and why not? This is the man dubbed “Uncle Ho”, the father of modern Vietnam. The area around the complex is especially impressive. The French architecture is alive and well, as is the vegetation. Walking along the tree-lined streets will satisfy any Francophone.

The mausoleum will hit you like a sharp shot of Vietnamese coffee, the brick structure resplendent against the greenery and guarded so vibrantly by the soldiers in white. To some the mausoleum is an eerie anti-climax, as Uncle Ho liked the simple things in life.

Take some time as the house on stilts is lovely, as is the Ho Chi Minh museum; it documents his life in explicit detail minus the scandal of course (two secret wives, one who mysteriously disappeared and at least one love child). Draw your own conclusions from that but just don’t discuss it with a government official.

There is a big museum scene so if you’re not big on propaganda, war paraphernalia, and torture devices or if you’re American, I’d give them a wide birth.

All the expat bars and foreigners' haunts are located in the old quarter, and with beer at the absurdly cheap price of 8000d (30p) you can drink yourself into oblivion.

Avoid the temptation, and if you’re up for a cultural challenge, there’s the alarmingly named "weasel poo coffee." I feel an explanation is necessary. The bean is fed to the poor unsuspecting weasel which excretes it and then it is made into a fragrant and ever so tasty drink, mmm.

For dining you're spoilt for choice but in my experience some of the finest (and cheapest) Vietnamese food available is found on a miniature plastic chair on a street corner. Pho (noodle soup), is the staple and is bubbling away on the spot, with lashings of fresh ingredients. Just look for hordes of locals and you know you're on to a winner.

Good things can also be said about The Brother's Cafe, an eatery in the rear of an elegantly restored temple (26 Nguyen Thai Hoc).

A must is the water puppetry show, created by the farmers in the northern rice paddies and is performed daily at the Municipal Puppet Theatre. This art form has spanned the ages and is still popular, only now the artists wear wellies to avoid water-borne diseases.

Beyond the city your options are endless, head to Halong Bay and be amazed by the limestone islands ascending the placid waters. Cruise south to the lesser known Ninhbinh, and be paddled around phenomenal rice paddies. Then be peacefully ushered north into the hill station of Sapa or surf in Mui Ne.

Vietnam is such a vibrant and diverse country, it penetrates every pore. Sitting in a park observing scooter jenga or cruising through the mountains on the back of a Harley, it literally energises the spirit.

Vietnam has survived, and it’s unashamedly bold, brash and proud. For me drinking a cup of weasel coffee, perched on a plastic chair, helps me radiate my very best Saigon smile.