Hitchhiking Vietnam — Letters From the Trail

An odd PBS entry intros an attractive young woman, Karen Muller, who apparently hitchhikes with her backpack in foreign lands and writes home to an appreciative mother about her experiences. The haphazard camerawork --- mostly by Muller and by bystanders who pretty much keep the lens on her --- isn't breathtaking, and the vistas of Vietnam are hardly dazzling. For those not conversant with Vietnam --- it'll give pause to some war vets --- place names are difficult and sometimes meaningless. Muller, traveling alone, hops trucks, trains, a bike and boats as she covers the countryside, sloshes through mud, moves from Saigon and Hanoi, and dines on native foods of varying degrees of appeal.

With:
Muller.

Muller does say, “This is the story of what it’s like to travel for seven months in Vietnam!,” but of course it isn’t. It’s the story of what it’s like for seemingly fearless Muller to venture there.

She speaks Vietnamese with some facility, but it’s not told why, and there’s no explanation of why she’s there other than love of travel. She places herself in several dangerous situations that could create an incident, but she smiles happily just to be on the go.

The country she visits is uninviting, as others have found out. It’s the people to whom she seems attracted, and they to her. They welcome her, prepare feasts (not always appetizing) and rent her shelter. When she falls ill, they suggest fermented rice whisky for warmth. She carries 100-pound wood bundles on her back with the village women, and constantly enjoys herself. She delights, it seems, in describing one celebrative dinner at the small village of carp and badly stuffed intestines rinsed in latrine water. A boiled-snakes-and-silverfish stew complemented by raw, white fat makes up another meal.

There’s a seg about the colorful funeral of a 69-year-old man who died of a rotting stomach.

Muller, narrating flatly despite a radiant smile, fails to draw the viewer into her enthusiasms. One reason the docu fails is because Muller shares so little of herself. She’s been writing home to her mother, but when she writes and how she mails the letters isn’t clear. She does like the people of Vietnam, but just seems to have a becoming fondness for people in general.

There’s much more to be said, much more to be covered about this unknown, solitary American poking around Vietnam with a camera. She remains a cipher. And maps and explanations of places, people and things she encounters would tie up a disjointed hour that will appear on the rest of the PBS net Tuesday, Aug. 5.

Hitchhiking Vietnam --- Letters From the Trail

Mon. (30), 10-11 p.m., KCET

Production: Videotaped with a Hi-8 camera in Vietnam by Karen Muller. Executive producer, David Fanning; co-producer, Harlan Reiniger

Crew: camera, Muller; additional camera, Jay Robinson, Lawrence Lessard; editor, Reiniger; additional editors, Nicholas Boillot, Muller; sound, Richard Bock; music, Mason Daring, Janine Cowen.

Cast: Muller.

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