Vietnam: Saigon city tour in a French open-topped Citroen 2CV

Too faint-hearted for a tour of Saigon, with its teeming traffic, on the back of a motorbike or scooter? But does a minibus or taxi tour of Vietnam's largest city feel just a touch too tame, even lame?

Finally, there's a neat and stylish compromise: a tour in a genuine French open-topped Citroen 2CV or its Vietnamese cousin, the La Dalat, designed by Citroen, using its own spare parts, and manufactured in Saigon in the 1970s.

It's a car, so you feel you have some protection from other vehicles. But then again, in an open-topped vehicle, you're a part of that maelstrom too, rather than an isolated observer staring at it through a window.

"It appeals to a lot of visitors," says our guide Miss Ha who takes it in turns to ride with each couple in our group of four divided between the two vehicles, each with its own driver. "They find it is very different."

It certainly is. It's fun, it's quirky and even most locals perform a double-take when they see – and hear – you roar up with that familiar "two steam-horses" clatter.

The 2CV is a pillar-box-red blast from the past and brings smiles to the faces of scooter riders who laugh and wave. The bright yellow La Dalat is a similar crowd-pleaser and, with such a warm welcome from locals, turns every passenger into an instant celebrity.

For our morning tour, having been to Saigon before, we opt for the less well-known attractions, starting with the Pont Des Messageries Maritimes, better known as the Rainbow Bridge – Gustave Eiffel's only major surviving work in Vietnam.

Built in 1882, seven years before his Paris tower, the 370-metre single span, wrought-iron arch bridge was refurbished in 2010 and is a popular spot for filmmakers and wedding photographers.

From there, we drive on to Hoang Sa, an area centred on a restored canal, overlooked by colourful cafes and restaurants. As locals chatter noisily in the doorways of the little shops, you feel part of street life as you cruise along.

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Our next stop is the massive 6000-square-metre Vinh Nghiem pagoda. With a series of altars and golden Buddhas over two floors amid a riot of fresh flowers, and offerings of fruit, vegetables and chocolate biscuits, it's a strange mix of new and old.

There, saffron-robed monks chant prayers via microphones and huge speakers, and there are flashing, multi-coloured neon signs alongside the images of ancient goddesses.

We take a break for a Vietnamese iced coconut coffee, a delicious confection in a tall glass, at one of the many Cong Caphe cafes in the city, where we're served by young staff in trendy approximations of army green uniforms.

Then, in a local market, we wander through tight aisles of clothes, fresh vegetables and fruit, fish, meat and enough plastic to fill the Mekong River. The French influence is never too far away here either. There are 50 different varieties of snail on sale, Miss Ha tells us helpfully, and the skinned frogs quivering in a bucket are irrefutable, but disturbing, proof they are fresh.

Then we visit Tan Dinh, the stunning Catholic church painted in pale pink, built by the French in 1876, the second largest church in the city behind the Notre Dame Basilica in the centre.

Finally we're delivered for lunch to the funky Propaganda Bistro, with its walls painted with Vietnamese naif local art, in gorgeous country scenes, in the style of inspirational posters for which the country is famous. Just like our journey to the past in our 2CVs, they are both old and very new as, with heavy hearts, we finally wave a fond farewell to our own glorious time-machines.

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Qantas, Vietnam Airlines and Cathay Pacific all fly regularly to Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City.

STAY

Saigon's The Myst Dong Khoi is a boutique hotel in the city centre.  See themystdongkhoihotel.com

TOUR

Saigon 2CV Tour runs a Morning Discovery Tour, that can be tailored to individuals' tastes, for two hours and 15 minutes, costing 1.200.000 VND an adult, 900.000 VND a child (five to 11). There are also evening food tours.. See saigon2cvtour.com

MORE

traveller.com.au/Vietnam

saigontourism.com.vn

Sue Williams travelled at her own expense.

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