A sure-fire grinner

The open, friendly faces of the people she meets give Veda Sarangapany plenty to smile about.

I am a city girl and it shows. I walk the crowded streets of Sydney with my head down, barely noticing the people passing by. It's a hard-worn habit and one that took a tiny, elderly Vietnamese woman to break.

On my first night in Ho Chi Minh City I was walking along when a street vendor caught my eye. I gave her a quick glance and looked away.

As I drew closer I saw she was looking right at me with the most heartwarming of smiles and I couldn't stop myself from breaking into a huge grin.

It was a lovely exchange that broke down my city reserve and got me hooked on the country of smiles.

Everywhere I went I noted the constant eye contact of the locals, intent looks that would not waver until they were rewarded with a smile.

I had been told by friends that travelling to this part of the world was a special experience: that the people and the country were beautiful.

They were right.

In Ho Chi Minh City, I was so charmed by the locals that I fell for what I think was a time-worn travel swindle.

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My friend was chatting with a young Vietnamese boy who was selling postcards.

The boy explained he needed help to buy some milk because the storekeeper apparently wouldn't sell it to him.

I piped up and and said we'd help, so off we went to the supermarket, which ended up being a number of blocks away, entertained by the little boy's tales about his brother and sisters and how early he needs to get up to work and then go to school.

We finally got to the supermarket and found the powdered milk, which of course we ended up paying for. And as we all wandered out of the supermarket with ice-creams, I thought to myself - did we just get hoodwinked?

After a quick word to my buddy neither of us were sure. Was this little fella about to go and sell the milk on the black market or was he really taking it home to his brothers and sisters?

We watched our young friend confidently stride acoss the street, not giving a second thought to the traffic heading towards him.

He waved and gave us such a beautiful smile I had to be happy for him and his pot of powdered milk, whatever he was planning to do with it.

This set the tone for my travels - and it's a realisation shared by many when they travel to South-East Asia: these people have very little, yet seem so incredibly happy. There were more open and welcoming faces in the World Heritage-listed town of Luang Prabang in Laos.

On our first morning, we rose early to watch the feeding of the monks. Hundreds of them walk down from the monastery to receive their handfuls of rice from the locals. This quiet ritual looked almost like a walking meditation - beautiful to watch, the flashes of orange robes constant as the monks made their way down the street.

There were no smiles here, however, just a look on their faces of incredible focus.

I was struck by the many young monks, who looked no older than 12, and their dedication to the path they had chosen.

The final stop of our trip was Hanoi in the north of Vietnam. Here we hopped on motorbikes and toured the streets by night.

It was a great way to see the city, despite the fact nobody was wearing a helmet.

In the old town, there were streets dedicated to various goods - silk street, toy street, smile street! In fact, they were all smile street.

By now, I was so good-humoured I wasn't even fazed by the traffic (apart from a couple of moments of terror): The key to crossing the road is to not hesitate; you've got to walk with confidence or you're likely to cause an accident.

As I got ready to head home and reflected on my adventures in Vietnam and Laos, I realised this city girl was wearing the biggest smile of all - a testament to the places and people.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there

Vietnam Airlines flies four times a week from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh City and onward to Hanoi and Luang Prabang in Laos. See vietnamairlines.com.

Staying there

In Ho Chi Minh City, the Grand Hotel, 8 Dong Khoi Street Dist 1, see asiarooms.com. In Hanoi, the Hanoi Daewoo Hotel, 360 Kim Ma Street BA Dinh District, phone +84 4831 5000, see hanoi-daewoohotel.com.

Further information

See vietnamtourism.com, guidevietnam.com, laotourism.org.

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