1. Hop into a registered cab – and be careful not to be ripped off by your cabbie. Once you exit the Tan Son Nhat International Airport, ignore the general chaos and locate one of the two to three ao dai-clad young women who man the taxi lines and will get you into a registered one.
Top tip: Be sure to get lots of spare change as Vietnamese dong can easily run into hundreds of thousands – for instance, $1 gives you about 16,000 worth of dong. And be sure to check your money carefully. I was almost fleeced by a taxi driver who insisted that I had given him a 20,000 dong note when it had been a 200,000 dong one.
2. Buy bird’s nest in Chinatown. For a true look at Vietnamese life, pop by the super-busy Chinatown known locally as Cholon in District 5. Cholon is nothing like any of the Chinatowns I’ve seen overseas.
This giant indoor and outdoor wholesale market is where you can buy anything, from bird’s nest and pickled veggies to party supplies and cutesy face masks (most of the women ride scooters here and prefer to protect their skin from the sun and pollution). You won’t have to worry about over-zealous, touchy-feely storekeepers because they aren’t interested in you if you aren’t a bulk buyer.
3. La kopi at Ben Thanh Market. The touts are over at the more touristy and famous Ben Thanh Market in District 1 (also where most hotels are located). Fight your way past all the storekeepers who want you to buy their exorbitantly priced fake watches, straw hats, lacquerwares and whatnot, and get to the food stalls. I had Vietnamese coffee – kopi-tiam style – at a drinks stall. No fancy drip apparatus here, just thick, sweet and somewhat chocolatey coffee served in a small vintage shot glass for about $1.
4. Chow down on banh mi meat buns. And what happens when you get hungry? Have the yummiest banh mi at Bahn Mi Huynh Hoa, a takeaway-only hole-in-the-wall stall that offers a great variety of meat pates (they look like differently coloured ham slices). Each crispy yet fluffy bun costs about $3 and comes packed to the core with pickles, pate and mayo.
5. Slurp on sweet crab noodle broth. Of course, a bun is never enough. For the full works, I went on to slurp up the sweetest crab noodle broth at Banh Canh Ghe. This is like a watery laksa without the spicy kick in which the cook piles on fishcakes and prawn crackers, and a couple of what looked like flower crabs to me. I ate this sitting on super low stools by the road kerb. According to my guide, the floor-grazing stools are a leftover from the past when illegal hawkers found it easier to haul these away whenever the cops came by.
6. Try the sweet-and-savoury bo la lot rice rolls. We then headed to a very busy eatery that looked like one of our zi char restaurants. It was simply named Banh Xeo 46A Dinh Cong Trang, taking part of its name from the savoury Vietnamese pancake. Here, we ate ours with heaps of raw bean sprouts and mint leaves but what I really couldn’t get enough of was what my guide called bo la lot, a rice sheet roll filled with heavily marinated beef, pickled carrots and, wait for it, bananas!
7. Spam your friends with shots of pretty Instagram-friendly pastries. The Vietnamese are quite influenced by the French so expect to see a few
patisserie around. Besides the usual Mont Blanc, chocolate eclairs and fruit tarts, try the whimsically-decorated butter cream cakes. Definitely an Instagram moment here.
8. End your day by sipping cocktails on a leisurely cruise down the Mekong River. And since I didn’t want to feel that I was doing nothing but eating and drinking 24/7, I booked an overnight boat cruise down the Mekong River.
There are many cruise operators around so do your homework and read their online reviews. Mine was a small wooden boat that had just two air-conditioned cabins but all the works – think fully equipped bathrooms, an upper deck where five-course meals were served (wave at the boatpeople or the villagers doing their chores by the river bank and you’ll get the happiest smiles) and a friendly crew of five.
We hopped off for walking and cycling tours around villages and small towns and even got to eat freshly harvested jackfruit in one of the villagers’ homes. And as our eager-to-please boat guide (who was also our bartender) made us cocktails to drink before the sunset, I thought “Where have I been all my life?”