As we’re so close to South-East Asia, it’s almost a rite of passage for Aussies to spend a week or two in one of the countries there living it up after high school or taking a month or more to backpack before kicking off corporate careers. At the grand old age of 26 I’d finally made it last month to Vietnam and Cambodia for 2.5 weeks I’ll never forget.
Neither country was ever a high priority to for me to see, and from the measly 2.5 weeks of leave I got (after more than 1.5 YEARS of none!!) I chose the two on a whim. Close to Syd and one another, developing countries, hugely different culture, plenty of nature, some World Heritage sites – sweet! I went after researching basic things about each country, but wanted to know less than more so that I could experience everything with fresh eyes.
Backpacking hadn’t ever really appealed to me when I was younger (and I still don’t wholly love living out of a single, heavy backpack), but I hate the idea and my experience of travelling on a set tour where you’re hurriedly ushered from place to place with limited or no flexibility, with a bunch of other sometimes obnoxious first world tourists who are content to simply say they’ve “seen” a place and “ticked it off their list”. I’ve travelled alone around South Korea, Tokyo, and in New York, but I always had a home base and spoke the language. I desire to be immersed in a country and its culture, to take time to observe and respect, to become accustomed enough to almost live like a local, and apply new experiences and inspiration into present thought processes and future ideas.
In my very limited backpacking experience, here are some misconceptions I’d like to rebut for those of you who are sitting on the fence about trying it:
- “It’s not very safe.”
Most people I told were concerned about my being a single female traveller but in reality, (where I went, at least) the people are not out to get you. They are living their lives and largely minding their own business, just like you and I at home. I only had ONE close call where I almost had my DSLR snatched in Pub Street in Siem Reap, but luckily I was quicker than my mugger. I was distracted with a friend with a drink in hand and had it swinging on one arm instead of across my shoulders or neck. There may be higher levels of crime in developing nations but it’s not anything like what I’d imagined it to be, and we can be a victim of accidents/crime regardless of where we are – transiting to work in your home city or going sightseeing overseas. I think it’s worth the risk in S-E Asia. Be mindful of your surroundings and be safe as possible in your choices and behaviour.
- “Hostels aren’t nice.”
Cleanliness is kind of non-negotiable for me with accommodation, and I felt hesitant about staying in hostels.. But. They are fine! Some are not, but some are great! You get what you pay for. I used hostelworld.com and only chose the highest rated places and always made sure to trawl through each recent review from visitors. I also used airbnb.com for the most reasonably cheap places to stay. Every single hostel I stayed at had air-con, free Wifi, and clean beds/rooms/shared toilets. Most had free breakfasts, locked storage, personal power-points and lights at the bedside, and very good service from staff who can book things for your trip and organise transfers. The people you share rooms with can be the best or worst part of hostels: most are happy to share tips and recommend things to save your time and money, and I’m happy to say I’ve met a few beautiful souls I explored with and intend to keep in touch with. I love the backpacker philosophy of looking out for each other like family, almost “us against the world” as the rest of the town generally tries to rip you off. On the other hand they can be blind-drunk Welsh guys who spew all over the floor and bring in some equally drunk chick and proceed to make out and snore loudly until dawn (guess who this happened to). Always ask for accommodation recommendations from other backpackers, and read the online reviews for the best places. Book new hostels only 1 night at a time in case you don’t like it.
- “You don’t know where to go and how to do it efficiently.”
With the wealth of information online there isn’t any reason why you can’t make your own itinerary. It takes more effort than waking up and getting on the bus when told to on a group tour, but you’ll be doing what you want, when you want. I definitely recommend only having a vague idea of which major city/town you want to be by a certain date, and moving freely within that. Ideally, just get a one way ticket to the country and go from there! Unfortunately I had all my flights booked to get back to work on time so it wasn’t flexible. Jot down the places you MUST see, and talk to lots of people (from your hostel of course) to see how to best manage time, transit, etc. Some places are overhyped, whilst others are hidden gems. If you ask around and haggle you can get to more places for cheaper, although it may not be as comfortable or fast. If you’re not afraid to get lost (because you totally will at some point) and interact with locals (AKA trying to communicate exactly where you want to go when and haggling with them) JUST DO IT.
During the trip I took thousands of photographs and several hundred videos for memories’ sake, and I’m excited to share some unforgettable places with you! I started off by taking photos and videos of everything, but consciously tried to just live in the moment (even knowing I’d forget them) as the trip progressed.
I took a second from the many videos I took in Vietnam and made this video so that you can have a taste of the different places I saw and heard. I wish there was a way to record and share tastes and smells and feelings too!
My Vietnam Itinerary
- 07/03/16 – 08/03/16 :: Ha Noi
- 09/03/16 – 10/03/16 :: Sa Pa
- 11/03/16 – 12/03/16 :: Ha Long Bay
- 13/03/16 – 14/03/16 :: Da Nang
- 14/03/16 – 17/03/16 :: Hoi An