Why I Love Traveling Solo In Vietnam
Vietnam feels nothing like home. The first few hours after you land is a dizzying, confusing experience. Scooters careen towards you, as if they were on a mission to destroy you. There’s no one to hold your hand and help you cross the overflowing street. You have to run for it! Cauldrons and pots bubble and hiss, as street vendors in nón lá, or leaf hats, prepare food for businessmen, blue collar workers, and families, who eat their meals on simple, plastic tables. Night falls and the swaying lanterns cast soft red and yellow light in the trees. It feels nothing like home and that’s why I love it.
In 2012, I traveled on my own to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and Hoi An. It was my first solo trip ever and I was very nervous. I’d heard tales of swindlers taking tourists for all they had, and as a woman, I worried about being alone at night. I wondered if the locals would be nice to me or hate me for being American. After getting traveler’s stomach in Cambodia while traveling with friends, I was even wary of the local street food. Yet, Vietnam showed me that my worries were quite unfounded.
It feels nothing like home and that’s why I love it.
One of the main reasons I love traveling solo in Vietnam is that it presents a challenge. Navigating your way through the cities or out into the countryside isn’t a cake walk. I spent a lot of time researching and talking to locals in an effort to figure out what the hell I was doing or where I was going.
There is a large number of expats and tourists in Vietnam, but the country doesn’t always cater to us. You have to be independent enough to find your way and brave enough to ask for help. Many times, I got on the back of a stranger’s scooter and hoped they would bring me to the right place without overcharging me. I had to trust my instincts and was rewarded with some memorable interactions with lovely, Vietnamese locals.
One of my favorite moments in Vietnam was in 2015, when I returned to my hostel in the evening after wandering the charming town of Hoi An. I figured I’d read my book and go to bed, as I didn’t have anyone to grab a drink with and I didn’t want to sit alone in a bar, reading.
Some Vietnamese men, who worked at the hostel, sat at a small table outside the hostel and beckoned me over. They offered me their beer and chips and we ended up laughing and talking in broken English for the rest of the night. One of them shared his love for American romantic movies and bemoaned his lack of a girlfriend. The others mercilessly mocked him and told me to stay away from him. They taught me words in Vietnamese and I tried to teach them ridiculous English slang. It was a far better night than drinking expensive cocktails with other backpackers.
Yet, there was also the old, stooped Vietnamese woman I saw selling bananas in the rain. I felt sorry for her and decided to buy two. When I sorted through my money, she grabbed the equivalent of five dollars and ran away. In shock, and because she was an old woman, I did nothing, but felt cheated and disappointed.
Vietnam is not always perfect. Some people will be kind to you and some may take advantage of you, but in a country that was torn apart by war and American machines, I try my best to accept this. I feel privileged to be able to travel through a place where my own country has committed atrocities. If someone rips me off, it’s best not to get angry, but instead to try to understand their situation. But this is easier said than done.
If someone rips me off, it’s best not to get angry, but instead to try to understand their situation.
While traveling solo in Vietnam, I have had the time to reflect on the life swirling around me, and as a writer, I love going by myself to the many street cafes and enjoying the sticky-sweet, Vietnamese coffee. It comes with a complimentary light green tea and I could spend all day people-watching, caffeinating, and scribbling in my journal. The Vietnamese spend all day there as well, and so, no one bothers me, but just gives a knowing nod in my direction.
I’ve now traveled through Vietnam, on my own on two separate occasions and I can’t wait to return someday. I look forward to finding the perfect chicken bánh mì, riding a scooter to a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and drinking Saigon beer with new friends, and relaxing with a coffee in a plastic chair on the street. I know, like traveling anywhere else in the world, I have to trust the people around me and give into the madness that is Vietnam. It will always give back.
Why I Love Traveling Solo In Vietnam photo credit: Loi Nguyen Duc