I was 16 years old when I boarded the S.S. Vietnam on which I was to share an eight berth cabin in steerage class, right up front near the anchor lockers, for the 31 day journey from my home in Hong Kong to Marseilles. From there I would travel by rail to Manchester, England, to start my engineering apprenticeship.
A bit of research tells me the S.S. Vietnam was one of three sister ships built in 1952 and she was destroyed by fire in the mid 1970’s. There was accommodation for 117 in first class, 110 in tourist class and 120 in steerage class. She could cruise at 21 knots.
I managed on several occasions to sneak into the tourist section to watch films in their cinema and wander through the first class accommodations, despite the formidable defences designed to keep the unwashed hippies of steerage class from doing so. The ship was luxuriously appointed in first class and tourist class; I remember gorgeous pale wood panelling and colourful tapestries, elaborate chandeliers. Not so in steerage. We had painted steel walls and floors and the mess hall was fitted with bolted down benches and tables.
My companions were a mixed gang: a group of Japanese ‘transistor girls’ heading to Europe, various back-packers from Britain, France, Canada and Australia, a professional surfer from Hawaii on his way to a competition accompanied by his photographer friend. Excellent company.
The ship, operated by Messageries Maritimes, had set off from Yokohama, picked me up in Hong Kong, and continued to Saigon, Singapore, Colombo, Bombay, Djibouti, Port Said and, finally, Marseilles.
The Vietnam War was in full swing so my three days in Saigon were particularly interesting – a night time curfew, firing squad in the market place, lunch at an American Forces canteen and people having their pictures taken alongside the wreckage of the floating restaurant bombed by Viet Cong guerrillas.
Gazing out over the lush tropical terrain as the ship crept through the muddy Mekong River it appeared at first to be an empty, impenetrable and hostile place but on closer inspection I could see people living and moving around in the mangroves: Little pirogues and sampans darting here and there, emerging into the main river from one channel only to disappear down another a few moments later.
A group of five of us left the ship at Port Suez and took a taxi (yes, a taxi!) to Cairo to see the museum and then on to Giza to see the Pyramids and the Sphinx before catching up with the ship again at Port Said, perilously close to its sailing time. It cost us £3 each – a journey of 200 miles during which the Canadian had to take over the driving because the taxi driver had become inebriated over lunch! Looking back, it was a highly hazardous journey but it seemed like fun at the time.
And then on to our final port, Marseille, from where I went by train to Manchester to start the rest of my life.