Sunday, 4 March 2012

Flight VN850: a tale of a hijacking

"Sorry for the lack of communication folks, but we have a hijacker on board"

I stop my gaze out the window at Saigon's spiderweb of lights beneath me and turn my head abruptly to the right.

"What did he say?" I whisper to my then boyfriend.
"I think he said hijacker" he replies staring intently ahead picking with one hand at a puckering of thread on the seat in front. He clasps my hand with the other.

We sit in silence, absorbed with our own thoughts and fear and wait for the next announcement.

Sometime later the intercom splutters to life again mirrored shortly after by the captain clearing his throat

"We are going to open the door of the plane. Please fasten your seatbelts tightly and please do not panic"

Hahahaha. Surely god.. someone.. please tell me this is a joke. Hijacker? Open the door of the plane? We'll die. We'll get sucked out. The plane will crash. Oh god I am actually going to die. Why am I feeling so calm? Blimey I hope I don't lose my front teeth when we crash land. Bizarre thoughts and airplane disaster films race through my mind and I turn towards Dan and grin "erm, now what do couples usually do at this point". He gives me a wry smile "Jill for goodness sa.." Fvutttphp!" WTF? and then another "Fvuttphp" and another and we watch in astonishment as our fellow passengers jerk in their seats and grow large yellow torsos. Aah lifejackets. What are you doing? Stop inflating them you idiots!  You inflate your life jacket when you're outside the plane about to go onto the slippery dip into the sea. Hold on.. we're circling over the land not the sea! Oh god I'm an extra in "Airplane"!

They must know something we don't: we lean forward and reach under the seat. Nothing. I laugh again.
You see Lonely Planet had advised all those years ago "whatever you do, do NOT fly with Vietnam air, even the people who service the Tupolevs refuse to fly on them. They've lost half their fleet etc" but the flight was cheap and Vietnam had just opened its doors again to independent travellers and I.. well.. I was on a budget.

The hijacker appears with the head steward tied on a rope and my stomach sinks with the plane as the door is opened..

He stands there at the door and I watch mesmorised as the green curtain separating first from second class twists and swirls, slaps and whips. The plane lurches forward, back, sideways and more life jackets are inflated. The green cape dances and lifts again. He's gone! Where is he? An elderly Vietnamese man gets out of his seat and bumbles towards the door, an air hostess grabs him by the waist and he sits there perched on her knee like a child on the naughty stair.

What is going on?

Time passes. I don't know how long. We hit the ground. Smooth.


 "Get off the plane". The calm voice of our captain is no longer "Get off the plane as quickly as possible". A bomb? Two giant Russians with two large metal suitcases apiece block my way. "Please. GET OFF the plane. Now!" I turn to the air hostess shaking behind me. "Open the back door" I say. She's in shock. Gently then.. "Come on let's go and open the back door". Gently, gently does it... "NOW FOR CHRIST'S SAKE!" and finally there is a spark of acknowledgement and weeping she does. I don't know how I left the plane. I find Dan on the runway, in shock, at the tail. Staring up at the plane. I grab him and we jump on an airport bus that throws us off our feet as it accelerates towards the terminal.

Before I was placed under house arrest for being a suspect in the hijacking and after I had been given my sandal back which I had lost when climbing over the shoulders of the 2 giants with the metal suitcases I spoke to the captain. The hijacker was an overseas Vietnamese who had fought against the Viet Cong with the Americans. He had earlier in the day attempted to take a Thai military plane. As that failed he booked on to our flight and walked through Thai customs with a parachute on his back. He had taken a hostess hostage in first class with, I believe, a cheese wire to the throat. His mission: to distribute anti-communist propaganda leaflets over the city of Saigon. 

I learnt we survived our ordeal due to being on a borrowed Airbus 310 and not the ill- fated Tuploev. He had ended up being sucked out of the cockpit window (before which he'd informed the crew that there were 3 other hijackers onboard - hence my subsequent arrest for being a fellow non-communist..thanks mate! - and a bomb) which is where he'd disappeared to when I lost sight of him at the door. He survived, landed in a swamp, got beaten up by fishermen who thought he was stealing their nets, the military rescued him and then realised who he was so also beat him up. Got sentenced to 20 years. Released on an amnesty then went on to hijack a flight in Cuba. I believe he's now doing public speaking in the US and has his own Facebook page. I have since read reports that we were about to be shot out of the sky by the Vietnamese airforce but we all survived and lived happily ever after.

My house arrest along with 8 other westerners was okay as house arrests go. In the days before mobile phones, twitter, emails there is not much you can do apart from demand your passport back every hour and try and annoy the armed guard at your door as much as possible.

Some 18 hours later my passport was handed to me with an Indochinese smile "Welcome to Vietnam and have a nice trip". As I snatched it from the hand all I could think about was that I had to fly out of Vietnam from Hanoi to Vientiane using Vietnam Air and the notorious Tupolev some 6 weeks later as no overland travel was allowed to Laos in those days. I did it and, despite my fear that there was a fire onboard due to the pea soup airconditioning that reduced visibility in the cabin to two foot, we landed unharmed in a paddy field.

So it is with great delight that in 3 days time I will have finished my cycle ride through China and will be arriving in Laos on an unhijackable bicycle.