Getting to know Vietnam Writer: In a seven-month trek, Karin Muller vindicated her faith in the goodness of the people of this Southeast Asia nation.

June 15, 1998|By Anne Miller | Anne Miller,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Huddling on a narrow sleeping berth on a train barreling through the Vietnamese night, trying to keep camera equipment from smashing, several endangered leopard kittens from starving and a disagreeable conductor at bay was not the sort of predicament Karin Muller expected to find herself in when she chose to spend seven months exploring Vietnam alone at age 28.

The Swiss-born Muller, who grew up in New Jersey, Puerto Rico and Australia and holds both Swiss and American passports, went to discover a new land. Seeking to reacquaint herself with the peace of mind she found in the Philippines as a Peace Corps worker five years before, Muller left behind a corporate job in Boston as a Fortune 500 management consultant that paid well but that she found stifling.

She picked Vietnam because a mechanic, an ex-Marine, told her in an expletive-filled rant how she would be raped, robbed, contract malaria and disappear among the "snakes and commies" in the bush, never to be heard of again. She thought he was wrong and wanted to prove it.

"If I was right -- and I traveled successfully across Vietnam as a woman alone -- that says something about that country," Muller said.

She also had vague aspirations of writing a book.

Now, nearly four years after her return, "Hitchhiking Vietnam" (The Globe Pequot Press, $14.95), the book she wrote about her experiences, has been published to positive reviews from the national press. The PBS documentary she made of her trip impressed television critics the week it aired last July; it will air again on Aug. 11. Together, the two projects spawned a Web page that nets more than 500,000 "hits" a week. Next week, Muller will visit the Baltimore area for several bookstore appearances.

The story of her rescue of the kittens, plus a newborn gibbon monkey and an eagle, from the underground animal market in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is just one of many adventures in her book about searching for the soul of Vietnam by wandering the countryside and asking villagers if she could stay with them for a few days or a few weeks.

Muller's simple faith in human decency, she says, was repeatedly vindicated. It was not unusual for her to hike down an isolated mountain path with nothing more than a camera, a change of clothes, a bedroll, a lot of optimism -- and no food. Yet Muller always managed to find curious villagers eager to help. Some nights found her sharing meals of almost-hatched chicken embryos ("It crunched between my teeth") and sleeping next to a smoky fireplace with a brick for a pillow.

"Not knowing where your next meal was coming from -- psychologically that was devastating. But what could go wrong? So someone doesn't take you in. It's a tropical country. Take your bedroll and sleep in a cane field. The stakes just aren't that high. And I rarely had to sleep in a cane field."

People "tell me I'm a fruitcake for hitchhiking across Vietnam," said Muller, now 33, laughing, "but they say it in the nicest way."

She does allow that she had her own doubts about the venture. After her plane touched down in Ho Chi Minh City, she realized that she carried an illegal video camera around her neck and a "U-haul of preconceived ideas that were constantly proven wrong."

For example, she met and for several weeks traveled with a man she identified only as Jay, a tall, blond 41-year-old Alaskan who was often asked by Vietnamese men if he had fought in the war. At first, the question made both of them nervous. But when Jay said no, the Vietnamese veterans were disappointed.

"They just wanted to trade war stories," Muller said. "For them, there have been five wars since the 'American War.' There's also the 'Cambodian War,' the 'French War.'

"The Vietnamese realize the American soldiers were forced to be there, and that's an eminently understandable paradigm for them because they have to live with the same" -- a government they don't like forcing them to do things they don't want to do.

If she has a philosophy of travel, it's an unfailingly cheerful approach to the experience. More specifically: "I think the best of people, and they rise to my expectations." Or maybe: "What will be will be, and it will all work out."

Muller "took to heart" four traveling rules while she was in Vietnam that she said will guide her through future travels. Her trips must be long -- measured in months, not days. Only she, and possibly one companion, would go. Muller, or her companion, must speak the language. And, most important: Immerse yourself in the daily lives of ordinary folks.

"You have to go for the people," she said.

Asked about the strain of spending 200 days in mud huts in the Vietnamese or Andean hinterlands, Muller is philosophical. "It's a lot of work, but I've got happy problems.

"I miss having a steady income," she concedes. "A part of me wishes I could get a check in the mail every week."

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