Soon after hitchhiking to Vietnam from Cambodia, I stayed a few weeks in Saigon with some journalists. They told me that if I got a press pass from the USIA (United States Information Agency), I could hop on any in-country military flight. Mind you, I didn’t have to be a journalist, all I had to do was say I was a journalist. I thought, “Now that’s the way to hitchhike!”
All the same, hitchhiking on solid ground is by far the best way to experience travel… with as much hiking as possible. As I recall, I hitchhiked up to the northern border of South Vietnam and then flew back down via various military transport planes operating in the country.
At that time, the Viet Cong would put up surprise roadblocks for a few hours here and there and check IDs and such, just to assert their authority. As a precaution, before leaving Saigon, I wrote an “I am a student of the world” type letter and had it translated into Vietnamese. The idea was that, in the likely event that the Viet Cong stopped me, they would see that I was no threat. At that time, I’d probably do all right for this was in the early 60’s before the Tonkin incident ramped up our involvement in that foolhardy war.
Fortunately, my rides never encountered a roadblock, although, one evening while walking down the road, I did hear a lot of gunfire nearby. That should have worried me, but heck, a young man in his early 20’s is invincible… right?
About halfway up country, a typhoon hit, and there I was, walking down the road. Luckily, I was able to find refuge in a Buddhist temple for what was a dark and stormy night. My most vivid memory is the devastation I saw the next morning. Although, being out in the countryside, the damage was limited mostly to vegetation.
Normally, when hitchhiking, I would walk for a few hours before attempting to catch a ride. It’s a good way to get to know Mother Earth wherever your feet happen to be. However, this time a jeep pulled up soon after I had started walking and some U.S. advisors (there were a few thousand of them in Vietnam before Tonkin) “requested” that I accompany them. They took me back to the base and grilled me for half a day. What was I doing there? Why was I walking down the road? What did I really want? Was I a communist? They had a hell of a time believing my student of the world story. It just didn’t mesh with their paradigm. If they had water-boarded me, what story could I tell that they would believe?
They finally released me and off I went down the road. As nothing enticed me to stay longer in Vietnam, I soon returned to Thailand to settle down and get a job to rest up for a few years. Indeed, working at a job is a true vacation from the toil of day-in day-out hitchhiking type travel. Little did I know that I’d be back in Vietnam some years later, working as a surveyor, getting shot at, and translating Vietnamese for a boss at RMK-BRJ (a US infrastructure contractor). Really now, isn’t living life like reading an unfinished novel… except that we know the ending.
(See: The Further One Goes for background on this Times of Yore series of posts.)