Hitchhiking Vietnam
travel tips
Drousy afternoons...

People are always asking me in a vaguely skeptical tone of voice how it is that I meet so many interesting people when I travel. When they went to Mexico city they didn't run across a single local that was worth writing home about. Invariably I find out that they didn't speak a word of the local language and spent most of their time in an air-conditioned car. You want to meet interesting people? Put yourself in their path. Stick out your hand and flag down a ride.

Virtually everyone in Vietnam hitchhikes. With a yearly per capita income of around three hundred dollars, they don't have a choice. If you go out to the roadside at the right time of day you are almost certain to get a ride. Just remember, in Vietnam hitchhiking is not free - you will be expected to pay, although the amounts are trivial.

You can go anywhere provided you have unlimited time and an unusually resilient backside.

It's cheap. Dirt cheap. Cheaper even than taking the bus.

If you want to meet, eat, chat, sleep, carouse, laugh, argue, bathe, and barter with locals, this is the way to go.

As a foreigner you will get rides very quickly, both because you are a curiosity and because they'll think you have money.

Hitchhiking will help you to develop a Zen-like attitude towards endless waiting and thick clouds of dust.

Its only marginally faster than a frozen glacier.

I spent an inordinate amount of time hanging around grubby street corners waiting for a ride...

People will look at you as though you were some recently arrived alien from Pluto.

Rejection hurts - even when it's from a thirty-year-old army truck that should have been junked two decades ago.

Don't you have anything better to do on your vacation than hang around a street corner for four hours just to save 12 cents off your bus fare?

Where: Ask the locals which feeder road out of town is the most likely bet for trucks. Look for a corner soup shop that caters to truck drivers and ask for a ride. As a bonus you can eat breakfast while you wait.

When: Start early! Most trucks are leaving (or passing through) larger towns at around 4:30 a.m..

What kind of truck: I haven't been able to figure this one out yet. I've watched a crowd of local hitchhikers ignore seven trucks and then leap up when the eighth, (identical to all the others) comes barreling around the corner. I've learned to ask for help from on-street barbers, soup stalls, or shoe shine boys, or to simply leap to my feet along with everyone else and pretend I know exactly what I'm doing.

Where to stake your claim: There is no better view than from the cage on top of the driver's cabin. You'll have to talk fast to get up there - the Vietnamese drivers generally think that foreigners will topple right off the truck if not tied down. It can get cold on top. No matter how much the truck sways on those mountain switchbacks, its not going to fall over. Really.

Why: Beats me.

If you head from Hanoi to Saigon (rather than vice -versa) you will be going against the prevailing tourist flow - and will have a much better chance of running across an empty car w/driver returning south. You can make a private deal with him to take you along. It will be more expensive than conventional hitching but much cheaper than hiring a car yourself.

"My journey took me in a great loop to the border of China and across northwestern Vietnam, always in search of a village where I could settle for a while. I passed the battle grounds of Dien Bien Phu with nary a glance but spent hours walking in the moonlight amidst the growing paddy fields of Lai Chau, watching the fireflies dance over the dense green shoots. I spent a day making roofing out of sharp-bladed grass and a night tossing and turning from the thousand red-raised cuts along my arms. I sat with an old woman who seemed to laugh without end while making toothpicks, her enameled teeth flashing coal-black in the afternoon sun. I followed footprints as flat as a duck's webbed feet and discovered a village whirring with hand-pedaled cotton gins and perfectly spun thread. I never knew quite where I was, and didn't really care. The road would take me onwards. In the meantime, there was always hope that I might find a place to put down my pack, where there was rice to weed and harvest, fish to catch and meals to share."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

The proper gesture to indicate that you need a ride is not to stick the thumb out - it is to gesture to the ground, palm down, as though you were telling a car to slow down.

If you can, learn what the stars on the soldiers' lapels mean and the accompanying form of address in local dialect. It makes a fabulous impression.

Some of the guidebooks will give you elaborate instructions about what color license plates to look for and which numbers designate the vehicle's home town. While this is very useful to have at your fingertips, by the time you've looked up color and code the truck will probably be nothing more than a cloud of dust. You can check out the stationary trucks when you are at a soup shop but then you have to match driver to truck... or you can just ask the nearest diner and they'll point out the right fellow.

P.S. The Lonely Planet says to avoid army trucks. I couldn't disagree more...

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