On a balmy evening by the shore of a lake in the centre of Hanoi, we sat enraptured as Su-Su sang to us, just the two of us. Meanwhile, in the red glow from a nearby floodlit Buddhist temple, couples sedately practised their newly acquired ballroom dance steps. Strictly Vietnam.
We imagined Su-Su thought we were a couple, as two middle-aged men together on holiday could only be. In fact, I’d gone to Vietnam with one of my oldest friends: Jimmy, an Australian who has written books about Aussie ‘Tunnel Rat’ troops in the Vietnam war, and organised several tours for veterans.
But really, this was just a pair of old hacks on an adventure without our womenfolk, fired up by a rereading of The Quiet American. We sought our inner Graham Greene, but after much beer-fuelled analysis of old England versus Australia Test matches, we settled for our inner Graham Gooch.
Bright spectacle: The town of Hoi An is full of beautifully preserved buildings
Kieran Prendiville, pictured here pondering lunch, went to Vietnam with one of his oldest friends: Jimmy, an Australian who has written books about Aussie ‘Tunnel Rat’ troops in the Vietnam war, and organised several tours for veterans
A woman prepares meals on the streets of Hanoi
Su-Su was our enchanting guide and it was her delightful way to end the evening. You’ve never heard that tune from Frozen until you’ve heard it in a Vietnamese accent with ukulele backing, competing with traffic. I can hear it still: ‘Let it go, let it go…’
This was our first night in Vietnam and, as Jimmy and I would discover, whether you are crossing a road in Saigon or clambering into a secret Vietcong cave, ‘let it go’ was the best advice we could have had.
This first expedition started off as a privately guided street food tour of Hanoi, the capital. Hiring a guide is less expensive than you’d think and allows for much more interaction with local people. But you’ll interact anyway. One of the most charming aspects of Hanoi was the way schoolchildren would approach you with their English homework and ask you to correct it.
Su-Su, a tourism student, led us into the Old Quarter of Hanoi. We ate on the pavement, we ate down side streets, we ate in what looked like a motorcycle repair shop – six stops in all, not one of which we would have stumbled across if we tried.
We ate all manner of spring rolls, rice noodles, sweet sticky rice, salty sticky rice, all kinds of Pho – the ubiquitous meat and noodle broth – we drank sugar cane juice, coconut milk, coffee with raw egg…
OK, enough. But it wasn’t enough, it was never enough. And then there’s the fish sauce. Made from rotting, fermenting fish and sea salt, I can’t think of a meal we had in Vietnam that wasn’t accompanied by a saucer of the always tangy, often pungent liquor. Apparently the Americans once mistook a fish sauce factory for a chemical weapons plant. But smelly sauces are not the most confronting aspect of Vietnam. Crossing the road is. There are two million scooters and motorbikes in Vietnam and they followed us everywhere. But that’s OK. Let it go.
Step out into the road, walk steadily across and all two million bikes will flow around you like reeds in a river. Very Zen… very scary, too, at first. But after a while, it’s a breeze and locals will applaud your madness. A Vietnamese sees their scooter the way a Texan sees his pick-up truck: a way to move big items, large quantities of stuff… or families. One guide showed us a photograph of a man riding his Honda 90 with a live cow on the pillion.
From Ho Chi Minh City, still widely called Saigon, we took two more private tours. In the Mekong Delta we hired bicycles to take in the rice paddies and visited a market where we declined to gaze at skinned live frogs, ready for the pot.
An idyllic riverside scene in Hoi An, with fishing boats moored on the gentle water
In a forest on the slopes of the Long Hai mountains, another guide took us up rocky paths to the Minh Dam Secret Zone. Here, in the heart of the jungle darkness was a large wartime Viet Cong command base.
Only accessible by squeezing carefully between boulders and crawling on hands and knees beneath others, the cave network below was worth the effort, even with my dodgy back.
We also took the regular tours that weren’t so far off the beaten track: Halong Bay is so beautiful you want to laugh out loud when you see it for the first time.
Further south, the town of Hoi An has beautifully preserved temples and merchant houses, and skilful and speedy tailors.
However, the endless, relentless haranguing to buy, buy, buy makes you wonder: is this really a communist country?
And so to Saigon and the Cu Chi tunnels. Take the boat if you can – it’s a blast powering up the Saigon River at James Bond speed.
One guide showed Kieran a photograph of a man riding his Honda 90 with a live cow on the pillion
Charming: People gather on a beautifully ornate and colourful bridge in Hoi An
If you think the War Remnants Museum is a snappy title, consider what this Saigon institution used to be called: Exhibition House for US and Puppet Regime Crime.
Still not quite hitting the sweet spot, it became Exhibition House for Crime of War of Aggression.
As old hacks, we spent a lot of time in the press photos gallery, marvelling at the bravery and skill of wartime photographers.
There’s plenty more to see around the city, including its own Notre Dame cathedral and the fabulous Central Post Office built by one M. Eiffel.
So, wherever you are in Vietnam and whenever your plans take an unexpected turn, just let it go. It’s more fun that way.