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Hitchhiking Vietnam
Karin's Story
Letters from home.
The last five kilometers through city traffic was an agony of anticipation. Would I make it before five PM., when the General Post Office shut its doors for the day, forcing me to wait fifteen more hours for my mail?

I had been underway for several weeks. Although there were few post offices in the remote towns along highway 14, I had continued to write home and send letters via obliging truck drivers I'd met along the road. I knew how much my mother cherished every word from me, and how much she worried when no mail came.

And she knew how much I needed to hear from her. She wrote often - long letters about brisk November evenings around the crackling fireplace, the silly antics of the family dogs and a thousand other details of the people and places I yearned to see. Those letters had been accumulating at the post office in Hanoi, awaiting my arrival. I had thought about them almost daily, and played over and over in my mind the moment when I might have them in my hands.

At last ... I hopped off the bike and dashed through the post office foyer, to the slot marked "M" at the foreign desk. My fingers flew through the thick stack, plucking out the letters with my name on them. I wandered out the door, pretending nonchalance, to find an empty park bench somewhere along the lake. I tugged at the corner of a random envelope, then tore it open and raced through the letter. I read it again, more slowly. And again, savoring every word. At last, I put it aside and put the remaining envelopes in order. I stopped for a moment to take in the scenery, retie my shoelaces, and buy a soda from a nearby stand. When I couldn't stand it any longer I tore open a corner of the second letter...

It took two blessed hours to open all my mail. And then, of course, I read it all again.


A strange thing happens when you travel long enough. You start to lose track of what life is like back home... that the bathroom mirrors don't have a rusty fringe around them... that traffic lights are more than just ornamental... that not everyone has leopards under their bed.

So when you write home you tell the truth - that you have scurvy or amebic dysentery, that your only flashlight died half a mile into an underground cave on the border of China, that you got caught smuggling endangered animals and kicked out of the country...

And then one day you're back home rereading your letters and thinking... what was going through my head when I wrote THIS? Was I having some sort of BRAIN SEIZURE?

So here are a few excerpts and a public apology to my poor mother.


Dear Mom,
I've extended my visa for three months, found a guide to take me along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and bought a bicycle and jungle hammock. Can it really be this easy?...

Dear Mom,
Okay, so my bicycle developed a few kinks, my guide can't go with me and my new visa's only good for thirty days. The hammock's still working just fine.

Dear Mom,
I can't get a single, solitary soul to go down to the marketplace and try the roasted bugs with me. If only you were here.

Dear Mom,
I've discovered the essential cure for traveler's diarrhea:

  • 2 Immodium
  • 2 Pepto Bismo
  • 2 Ciproflaxin
    The immodium acts like a cork to stop up the works. The Pepto Bismo is the protective padding and the Cipro the depth charge that blows the little suckers out of your system.

    Unless it happens to be a parasite.

    Dear Mom,
    Fang , my guide, is a discourteous, drunken, light-fingered, lazy warthog. I have nightmares about his chilling nails and dangling gold tooth.

    Dear Mom,
    My best friend appears to be a scrawny white chicken. I wonder if he has a hidden agenda too.

    Dear Mom,
    ...not only is everything I write true, but I'm saving paper by leaving out the worst parts.

    Dear Mom,
    Saigon, the second time around... My bike and I have ironed out our differences, I've put in for another visa extension, and I don't need a guide. And my faithful hammock still works just fine.

    Dear Mom,
    The Ho Chi Minh Trail is by turns mud, craters, deep sand, unfriendly police, and nonexistent. It rains every day, the mosquitoes are the size of grapefruit, and the only thing we can count on is at least one motorbike breakdown before lunch.

    Dear Mom,
    I've developed a great, lopsided bulge in my Vietnamese vocabulary. I can say just about anything having to do with motorcycle innards - "Excuse me, do you have a Honda clutch cable? No? How about a socket wrench?" What I haven't learned are words like "wine" or "steak" or "ice" or "fork".

    Dear Mom,
    They all want to know what my relationship to Jay is. I usually tell them he's my father. He is, of course, not amused.

    Dear Mom,
    Am I really blood type A? It's very important.

    Dear Mom,
    If you ever go hitchhiking through rural Asia you should make a point of learning what the stars on the soldiers' lapels mean and the accompanying form of address in local dialect. It makes a fabulous impression.

    Dear Mom,
    The Four Minute Rule; no matter how far off the beaten path you trek, no matter how well you hide behind rocks or inside bamboo thickets, the children will find you in four minutes or less. This means that when lunch time rolls around I have just enough time to either answer the call of nature (in relative privacy) or gobble down the bulk of my meal. One or the other. I just can't bring myself to do both at once.

    Dear Mom,
    The lovely, lightweight bags you made me have long since lost their original purpose - the mapholder (I've long since lost the need to know where I am) has become a wet laundry bag. The book satchel is great for keeping mud and maggots out of my food. It would be so wonderful if you could come...

    Dear Mom,
    Scurvy! I thought that went out with Captain Cook!"

    Dear Mom,
    ...so I found this tourist agency that said they could get me a visa extension for thirty days. An hour later they called back and said they could only do fifteen. Ten minutes after that they said five days. Apparently the anniversary of the South Vietnam is coming up and the government wants to rid the country of Americans and cockroaches.

    Later I was looking at my visa date and realized I could make the "3" into a "23" - which I did. I then took my passport to a little old man in the old city who does Chinese wood carvings.. I asked him if he could duplicate one of the rattier provincial extension stamps. "Two dollars," he said.

    Isn't life grand?

    Dear Mom,
    ...I traded some of my antihistamines for Tampax yesterday. What a relief.

    Dear Mom,
    There are four leopards under my bed. I'm rather afraid to put my bare feet on the ground...

    Dear Mom,
    The eagle's talons pierced my thick leather gloves like tissue paper. His wing feathers are completely tattered from scraping against the sides of his cage. If you had ever been in a hang glider you would understand why it was necessary to buy him.

    Dear Mom,
    A cave! With glittering stalactites and stalagmites... you can't imagine. I think we are the first ever to be inside...if only you were here with me.

    THE ACCIDENT

    Dear Mom,
    Halfway through the evening a one-legged man hobbled into our mud hut and pulled a bloody enormous ruby out of his pocket. It was, quite literally, large enough to use as a doorstop.

    Dear Mom,
    We just returned from our 324th bowl of soup, the highlight of our day, and are looking forward to the 325th bowl for dinner. My underwear has several charred holes in it from trying to dry it with my hair dryer, and nothing short of a depth charge will unstop my sinuses. My bowels, on the other hand...

    I shouldn't complain - the Hmong are all sleeping outside, wrapped in plastic with their bare feet sticking out one end. They use bricks for pillows and nestle together like spoons against the cold.

    Dear Mom,
    You have to tell me what gifts I can get for you... Vietnam has beautiful silk scarves, lovely musical instruments and stunning embroideries. If you simply ignore this letter then I will buy you a clouded leopard cub. Do you remember when I threatened to bring you a baby water buffalo from the Philippines? Well, I wasn't kidding then, either.

    Dear Mom,
    You may be getting a call from a friendswho is thinking of coming to visit me. Could you encourage him to bring the following things?

    1. A curved needle for suturing
    2. m&m's
    3. Tampax
    4. Breathable shoes so that he won't get jungle rot
    5. m&m's
    6. Leather gloves for handling wild animals
    7. A miniature baby's bottle (no, I'm not pregnant)
    8. m&m's

    Thank you!

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