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MALCOLM W. BROWNE:
Saigon AP Bureau Handbook


Page 9 of 22 Back  Main  Next


VII. TRANSPORTATION

A. Saigon and vicinity

There are four ways: Hired cars, taxis, cyclos (scoop-shaped three-wheeled bicycle cabs) and mopeds (the same as cyclos but with motors instead of petal power).

Taxis are recommended. The minimum ride costs six piastres. All cabs have meters, but be sure the driver has turned yours on when you start, otherwise you may have an argument when you arrive. If the argument gets too bad, call a cop (who may speak French, occasionally a little English).

After 10 p.m., pay 50% more than the amount shown on the meter. After midnight, pay double what's on the meter. Tips should not exceed one or two piastres.

Cyclos and mopeds cost about half the fare for taxis. Settle the price with the driver in advance. They are slow and not recommended except for fun once in a while.

Hired cars are not recommended for Saigon and vicinity. They are too expensive.

Transportation to the Saigon airport (Tan Son Nhut) is difficult. The VIP lounge (where most airport press conferences are held) is on the civilian side of the airport next to the passenger terminal.

As you approach the airport, the road (Ngo Dinh Khoi) forks. Straight ahead leads to the civilian side. Bearing to the left leads to the military side. Be sure to specify to the taxi driver which way. (If you have a big nose, he will normally assume you want to go to the military side.)

Your taxi must stop at a check point entering the civilian side, and the vehicle will be searched by police for grenades. Without a special, difficult-to-get-, one-time pass, you cannot get past this check point earlier than 6 a.m. or later than 9 p.m.

At the military side, there is a Military Police gate post. The cab can go no farther than this point and ordinarily, you also will have to stop here. Make arrangements in advance with whatever officer you want to see to meet you at the gate at a certain time and escort you in. Inside the military side, if you get stuck, there are blue buses and scooter cabs (pay the driver two piastres) but don't try them until you know what you're doing and are thoroughly familiar with the layout of the military side.

BEFORE GOING ANYWHERE IN SAIGON, know how to get there before you step into a cab. Just showing the driver an address is rarely enough to get you there. Check the map in the AP office, find the street you want AND THE APPROXIMATE HOUSE NUMBER. Street numbers work with odd numbers on one side and even on the other, but the odd and even sequences rarely match up. "137" may be miles from "138." After you've doped out the scheme and taken into account one-way streets, direct the driver with exact commands "Dee Tang" (straight ahead), "Kwa tie mot" (to the right), and "Kwa tie try" (turn left). Spellings are phonetic.

Saigon actually is two contiguous cities. Saigon, in the east, is predominantly Vietnamese. Chelon, in the west, is primarily Chinese.

Certain streets in downtown Saigon near the palace (including Rue Pasteur in front of the AP office) are closed at night, but pedestrians normally can use most of them.

Taxi drivers at night generally offer to take male passengers to female companionship. For a wide variety of reasons, it is dangerous to take them up on their offers.


B. Outside Saigon

If you go with a military operation, your transportation normally gets you there and back, somehow or other (this may mean marching for miles over rice fields). If you get stuck at some provincial capital, you may have to get back to Saigon on your own (most often, by hired car).

To most of the key towns in Viet Nam you can get transportation on the MACV "mule train" -- mostly C47s and C123s. These flights must be arranged in advance with the MACV information office, which will cut travel orders for you.

The flights are free but slow and undependable. It is often quicker and easier to fly commercially.

There is one railroad line in South Viet Nam, with several small spurs. The line leads east from Saigon to the South China Sea, and then all the way up the coast to the Ben Hai River (the demarcation line between North and South Viet Nam). Note: You need special Vietnamese government clearance in advance to proceed north of Quang Tri to the border.

Rail travel is considered extremely dangerous, uncertain and slow. It is most safe (but not very safe) between Saigon and Dalat and between Saigon and Nha Trang. But trains draw sniper fire or are ambushed or derailed nearly every day, and bridges are blown up regularly.

Apart from that, there are three classes on through passenger trains, and first class is cheap and comfortable. Pullman-type births are available, and trains have dining cars with good food.

Rail travel is not recommended except in cases where the trip itself is the story.

Buses travel throughout South Viet Nam. They are regularly stopped by the Viet Cong, and the credentials of passengers are checked. Americans and most other foreign nationals are likely to be kidnapped.

Travel by road in private or rented cars is risky but not impossible. Be sure the car is in good working order and that the tires are in good shape before starting out. Pick as inconspicuous a car as possible (the little French Citroën "Deux Chevaux" is best; it is a sturdy little car normally driven only by Vietnamese or French.)

The highway to Bien Hoa about 15 miles north of Saigon is well paved, has three or four lanes, and is always safe to use during daylight hours. The road to My Tho about 4 5 miles south of Saigon is the key highway to the south, and also is fairly safe during the day. On all other roads you travel at your peril, day or night.

A Saigon taxi can be rented for either Bien Hoa or My Tho. A price should be fixed in advance. Rented cars are sometimes preferable for this.

Avoid the use of jeeps if they are traveling without escort, or civilian cars with green and white (military) registration plates.

If you must drive in extremely dangerous areas, provincial officials will sometimes loan you a platoon or two of troops as escort for part of the way.

The worst areas for driving are: Due north from Saigon through the plantation country toward Loc Ninh (Route 13), anywhere south or west of My Tho (including the delta and southern provinces, although the main road to Can Tho is somewhat safer), all the roads in or near D zone (north and northeast of Saigon), most of Route 14 northwest of Saigon, most of coastal Route 1 (particularly between Bien Ha and Phan Rang, and from Tuy Hoa to Qui Nhon and from Quang Ngai north).

Air travel is by Air Vietnam, which has a good safety record and operates many flights to most parts of the country. Some of these are on single-engine Cessnas, which can land on short strips.

Fares are cheap, planes keep to schedules (except at times of national crisis). Cessnas can be chartered at the rate of about 3,000 piastres an hour.

Recently, the U.S. Air Force has shown cooperation in letting correspondents use its L28 (single-engine reconnaissance) planes for coverage of some operations.

The guiding principal in travel in Viet Nam is to remember that the entire country is a war zone. If you want to get close to the war, stay on the ground. IF you just want to get quickly from one point to another, go by air.


Courtesy Malcolm W. Browne.

Photo: Horst Faas, Mal Browne and Peter Arnett in the Saigon AP office. Photo credit: Peter Arnett collection Reporter's Notebook
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