Dearest fellow travelers, I wanted to start off the month of Vietnam research with a good book review, but instead Karin Muller’s Hitchhiking Vietnam made me more anxious. I was excited to read about her solo trip up and down the narrow Southeast Asian country in 1997. Muller envisioned traveling to remote villages on bike, making friends with the locals, and capturing it all on film for a documentary. She had a straightforward plan, a Vietnamese-English dictionary, and a lot of optimism, but instead of a thrilling adventure, she got a shitshow.
Vietnam in the late ’90s was still recovering from the war of the ’60s and ’70s, and corruption pervaded every level of government, which made traveling outside the rigid parameters of officially sanctioned tourism difficult. Muller wasn’t allowed to go outside the city limits of Saigon on her own, so she had to travel with two guides selected for her by the Communist Party. Her guides fleeced her for at least twice as much as the agreed-upon price, took her to suburbs instead of the villages she was promised, and even hid her shoes during their naptime to keep her from exploring on her own. Later, she shook off her guides and met up with an American with a motorbike, and the two of them went north off the beaten path. But the roads were terrible, the bike broke down literally every day, and they had to dodge any military personnel who might ask for the travel papers they didn’t have. Muller and her American companion didn’t get along very well, but she stuck with him because she needed someone to train the video camera on her for the documentary. She didn’t make friends, and until the last few weeks of her trip, she didn’t see any of the remote villages she’d flown to Vietnam to see. It sounds miserable!
I don’t have quite the same agenda as Muller, or the same desire to steer clear of any and all tourist locations, but I am traveling alone and looking for some adventure. What if my trip turns out to be a series of misadventures like hers, a succession of wretched missteps and broken promises, no one to trust or enjoy spending time with, frozen out by locals and cheated out of cash by officials? She tries to spin it as the exciting journey she was looking for, but her frustration burns through every page.
That’s the danger of travel; we say we’re looking for the unexpected, but we’re expecting a positive experience. We don’t expect to have a bad time. It’s worse than just having a bad few weeks in our day-to-day lives, because we’ve planned and anticipated the travel for so long that it’s a greater disappointment when it all goes wrong.
Yet that’s a risk I’m willing to take, over and over, each time I take off on a new trip. I’m certainly hoping for a positive experience overall, dare I say even overwhelmingly, but I know that statistically that can’t be true for a year and a half trip. There are going to be some bad times, but those times can’t be predicted, so I just have to do the old “expect the best, prepare for the worst.”
And hope to high heaven that it’s nothing like poor Muller’s months in Vietnam.
Image from here.