Eighteen years ago this morning, Vietnam started to put the pieces of a divided country and millions of shattered lives back together. A plaque commemorates the moment when a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the presidential palace in Saigon to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Saigon officially became Ho Chi Minh City, after the leader who took on the United States, but everyone still calls it by the pre-liberation name.

Saigon has a frenetic charm, which conceals a multitude of sorrows - and one of the world's last Communist systems. Ho Chi Minh was a nationalist first, a Communist second. He has attracted, posthumously, the kind of personality cult Fidel Castro can only dream about. A statue of Uncle Ho watches benevolently the antics of canoodlers cruising along elegant French avenues, posing and pouting, on Honda 50s.

It is only when you start ticking off the sights that the awfulness of history confronts you. The War Crimes Museum explains at least half the story of why Vietnam is as it is. The shady courtyard is filled with blossom and American tanks. The museum says nothing about Vietcong atrocities, nor does it reveal any details of the enforced 're-education' of thousands of South Vietnamese after the war. But the statistics are horrifying; for each Vietnamese person, two hundredweight of bombs were dropped and a litre of deadly chemicals was sprayed on jungle and crops.

An American sergeant, William Brown, has donated his war medals to 'the people of a united Vietnam', with a note reading: 'I was wrong - I am sorry.' Meanwhile, his country continues its economic boycott. At the entrance to the museum, the War Time Souvenir Shop is doing a roaring trade in US army surplus left behind in the rush for the helicopters.

To take to the streets in Saigon is to hurl yourself into a mobile tangle of traffic, most of it on two wheels. To get around fast, rent a ride on the back of a Honda 50. No helmet, no discipline, 50p to go across town, much anxiety. A gentler mode of transport is the ciclo, a tricycle with a padded chair. But as it places you at exhaust-pipe level, it is even less healthy than the back of a moped.

The Petro-Vietnam building attracts interest because of its previous existence as the American Embassy. It is a huge white monolith, wreathed in barbed wire and without a single window. On 30 April 1975, the embassy abruptly closed down amid a shambolic evacuation. The image of swarming helicopters and panic-stricken humanity shocked America.

The victorious Communists did not share Karl Marx's disdain of religion. The city has an Islamic mosque, a Catholic cathedral, a Hindu temple and dozens of Buddhist pagodas.

The cathedral is like a railway terminus temporarily bereft of trains: cavernous, functional and deafeningly noisy. It has somehow become the centre of Saigon's busiest road junction and the disharmony of a thousand motorcycles reverberates around the austere interior. Yet the celebration of Mass in Vietnamese is a delight, well worth straining to hear.

The French took control of Saigon in 1861 and the post office alongside the cathedral, built a hundred years ago when French influence was at its prime, contains a map of Indochine showing how the old colonial order held sway. Dominating every transaction these days, however, is a huge portrait of Ho Chi Minh.

The government broke with hardline Communism before the Soviet Union collapsed, and is now following its own version of perestroika, called doi moi. State controls are being eased and free enterprise is encouraged. One prominent example is a seven- storey floating hotel which was previously moored off the Australian coast. It was a commercial catastrophe, and was tugged off ignominiously to the Saigon River. Standing opposite is a statue of the Vietnamese warrior Tran Hung Dao, looking like a dynastic traffic cop. Demeaning the ancient warrior's territory is the dangling sign of the Shakes Pub, but there are still hundreds of impromptu cafes set up in side streets offering spicy soups and fresh baguettes.

A couple of miles from the centre is Cholon, a renegade twin city where you sense Communism never really took hold. This is Chinatown, a frenzy of capitalism centred on the multicoloured mayhem of the market. Like a perpetually impatient companion, Saigon exhausts you.

A trip beyond Saigon's city limits involves a daunting amount of bureaucracy (see below), but the charm and courtesy of the people, plus sights that are either stunning or devastating, makes an adventure or two essential.

The Vietnamese version of Brighton is the dramatic and decadent resort of Vung Tau. You reach it by Russian-built hydrofoil down the Saigon River. When the river floods into the South China Sea, commonplace commerce disappears to be replaced by a vision of an awesome outcrop. State socialism has hardly tainted the beauty of Vung Tau. Rugged yet wrapped in flora, it looks like the most perfect Greek island - except that it is linked by a tongue of land to the mainland, and at the moment a delegation of Russian transmitter engineers are fiddling with their aerials on the mountaintop.

Mountain walks, though impeded by mechanics, are rewarded by blissful views. The beach is a serene seam between shocking green land and placid blue sea. Trying to edge down the hill leads you to a tiny cottage. You stumble on down the hillside and get muddled up with a temple guarded by a dragon made out of old crockery, its crown made of teapot spouts. The whole unlikely scenario is bathed in a haze of joss sticks. A ceremonial boat, with a built-in rock garden, patrols in front of a huge reclining Buddha. It looks suspiciously as if the person who dreamed it up was chemically assisted.

The road journey back to Saigon brings you down sharply. Real life in Vietnam is harsh: most people scratch a living in an overcrowded country still deeply scarred by violence. Tourist buses scream past donkey-drawn carts, asserting the supremacy of the dollar-toting visitor.

A pound buys you not only a 60-mile bus ride from Saigon, but three hours of continuous theatre. You soon find you have a cameo role in the soap opera of public transport, a constant animated bustle of smiles and giggles all the way to Tay Ninh. The idea of 'round-eyes' travelling with the locals is universally regarded as hilarious.

At the end, you find the home of one of the world's strangest religions. Cao Dai is a Church without a head; its last 'pope' died in 1933, and a successor has yet to be chosen. The cathedral at Tay Ninh is from the Walt Disney school of architecture, via Antoni Gaudi and perhaps a dose or two of hallucinogens.

Cao Dai is a spiritualist religion which numbers among its saints Victor Hugo, described as 'France's famous poet full of compassion for the miserable', and Sun Yat-sen, leader of the 1911 Chinese revolution. Some remarkably well-known spirits get in touch through Cao Dai mediums, including Joan of Arc, Shakespeare and Lenin. The rituals are a curious blend of Buddhism and Catholicism, laced with elements of Confucianism, Islam and even the best bits of humanism.

The reality of the recent past intrudes during the journey back to Saigon. The bus passes through Trang Bang, the village where the picture of the screaming girl running down the road severely burned by napalm was taken. Apart from the throaty splutters of the bus, nothing disturbs the tranquillity of an Indochinese afternoon in 1993. The gentle emerald paddy fields conceal the horrors visited on Vietnam only a childhood ago.

You have a visa? Sorry, you can't come in

VISITING the old East Germany seemed like a day trip to Butlin's by comparison. I foolishly assumed that having paid pounds 60 for a visa, it would actually let me into Vietnam. The application form made no mention of restricting points of admission to one or two places.

The bus from Cambodia to Vietnam seemed a bargain. Three pounds takes you across Indochina, from Phnom Penh to Saigon. The journey was scheduled to take 12 hours, enlivened by a ferry ride across the Mekong River and an hour or two of formalities at the frontier. This turned into four frustrating hours.

As far as the immigration officer was concerned, I was going to have to find my way back on the five-hour haul to Phnom Penh, buy an air ticket for the next morning and fly to Ho Chi Minh City: at a rough guess, I would get there 24 hours late and pounds 50 poorer. Since I was running out of time - and had just negotiated away my last few hundred Cambodian riels for a bottle of pop - I was dreading this idea. The alternative was to pay pounds 15 for an on-the-spot visa.

There followed a shuttle back and forth between the commander's office, the immigration hut and the customs shed. Each venue gave different instructions, and only when a stray official was coerced into acting as an intermediary was it all resolved. To give some idea of the meticulous bureaucracy, the commander even wrote down the serial numbers of the notes I used to pay for the visa.

Physically getting across the border was trivial. I was able to amble unchallenged back to Cambodia to post some cards, then wander back among the traders who make good money by wheeling and dealing on the margins.

The bus driver had no intention of hanging around for passengers with irregular paperwork, so I was obliged to get a taxi from the border - driven by the commander's cousin; I suspect this is a lucrative arrangement for both of them.

Once you arrive in Saigon, allow another two days for further form-filling. Registering with the immigration authorities cannot be done at the immigration office; the staff direct you to a tourist agency, which charges pounds 10 for the service you queued for but were denied at the immigration office. If you want to leave Saigon city limits, you need another form specifying where you intend to go and by what means of transport.

Leaving the country was another battle. In most countries, it is reasonable to go to an airline office to buy a ticket. Not in Vietnam. Cathay Pacific has a daily flight from Saigon to Hong Kong, and it has a fine, air-conditioned office. Yet it is not allowed to sell tickets for its own flights. Vietnam Airlines sells Cathay tickets, but only for cash. I had assumed I would use my Visa card to buy my getaway flight. Due to unforeseen pillaging of my wallet by Vietnamese bureaucracy I had almost run out of dollars. So I was directed to the travel agency next door. They take Visa, but only with your passport to back it up. Yet the immigration authorities have this.

When you finally get the passport back, the computer retrieves your booking. The staff then say the cost of your ticket exceeds their credit-card limit, and special authorisation is required. The office which deals with that has long since closed, so you have to go and get another credit card to spread the cost.

Finally, you are presented with your receipt with a flourish. And where is the ticket? Well, this agency takes money but does not actually issue tickets, that has to be done at Vietnam Airlines. And, of course, they need your passport.

Red Tape: The Vietnamese Embassy in London now handles visa applications direct. Application forms and tourist visas are available in person or by post from the embassy at 12-14 Victoria Road, London W8 (071-937 1912). A visa costs around pounds 20.

Getting There: The cheapest flights to Saigon are on Aeroflot from London, for pounds 460 return through Unique Travel and Tours (071-495 4848). Unfortunately flights depart only once a week, and involve a compulsory overnight stay in Moscow at your expense (about pounds 40). The best alternative is to get a cheap fare to Bangkok and a separate ticket from there to Saigon. Low fares to Bangkok are widely available in the UK, such as pounds 389 return on Philippine Airlines through Major Travel (071-485 7017).

Accommodation: Cheap rooms are plentiful outside Saigon. In the city, an air-conditioned room with bathroom costs about pounds 20 single/ pounds 30 double. The Saigon is adequate, and well-located at 47 Dong Dhu Street. The Rex Hotel, at 141 Nguyen Hue Boulevard, is steeped in fading grandeur and charges around pounds 25 single/ pounds 40 double.

Organised Tours: Numerous long-haul tour operators now include Vietnam. Regent Holidays (0272 211711) offers a range of custom-made tours which can include Cambodia and Laos. Voyages Jules Verne (071-723 5066) is running a train ride from London to Saigon in May 1994, price pounds 7,950. Oriental Magic (0253 791100) runs add-on packages from Bangkok and Hong Kong to Vietnam; the company takes care of visa formalities. A four-day tour from Bangkok to Saigon costs around pounds 239 including scheduled flights.

Health: No vaccinations are compulsory, but precautions are recommended against tetanus, polio, cholera, typhoid, hepatitis and malaria. If you are staying in cheap hotels, a mosquito net will considerably enhance your prospects of sleep.

Guidebooks: The Thailand, Indochina and Burma Handbook 1993 (Trade & Travel Publications, pounds 13.95) has a reasonable section on Vietnam. Lonely Planet's Vietnam, Laos & Cambodia ( pounds 9.95) is older but comprehensive.

Tunnel City: first the war, now the tourists

Visitors worm their way through a labyrinth used by the Vietcong and emerge with their flippancy intact

IT IS the oddest tourist attraction I have ever seen. You are greeted graciously by a man who turns out to be your guide. A bit more than a guide, in fact: he sits you down in a classroom, under the watchful eye of a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and gives a 10- minute lecture about the tunnels of Cu Chi.

Two hundred kilometres of tunnels were dug by the Vietcong in a part of the country where the people were fiercely loyal to the North. The tunnels were expertly constructed and concealed, to the extent that the Americans built a base directly on top of them.

Made painfully aware of their existence, the US military began trying to remove the menace. All sorts of methods were employed to try to root out the tunnel-dwellers, including defoliating the entire area to remove the cover. Dogs were then sent down the holes to sniff out the Vietcong, followed by humans suffering from excessive courage; they stood hardly a chance in a network of tunnels built by the enemy. But of the 16,000 people who lived, ate and slept in the tunnels, 10,000 did not survive the war.

Suddenly you are issued with a distinctly dodgy torch and invited to submerge into a distressingly narrow hole in the ground. You crawl along, sweating, yearning for some daylight and fresh air.

The scramble through the tunnel seems to take an age, but lasts only three minutes. You emerge, gasping the sweet air and wringing wet with perspiration. Someone points out that these tunnels have been especially widened for visitors. The real thing is smaller and scarier.

Finally, your gracious guide asks you to fill in the visitors' book. I wrote a platitude about the awesome capacity of the human spirit to withstand suffering. The previous entries showed that not every visitor had been emotionally affected by the experience: 'I should have practised by crawling around in the sauna with my Teach Yourself Vietnamese tape on the sound system.' 'Great tunnels] Please don't forget to feed Fat Robert in tunnel 3.'

Someone signing himself simply 'USA' writes: 'We're back]]]' He then launches into a diatribe against the US's allies in the Vietnam War: 'The Australian entries in this journal are a true testament to the low levels of academic and intellectual achievement in that pathetic country.'

There is one telling comment on the futility of war: 'The fact that you can buy a Coke here proves that time eventually makes history of us all - plus the ideas we think it is worth dying for. So don't'

First the war, then the tourists: I hope Vietnam survives.

(Photograph omitted)