One of the strangest things about long-term travel is spending special occasions like birthdays and holidays away from home. I admittedly had an excellent time over my solo Christmas during my RTW trip – I took a weaving class in Laos and treated myself to a nicer than usual dinner at a fusion tapas place in Luang Prabang. My favored work cafe in the city went out of their way to be welcoming to expats by playing Christmas carols. (This was a particularly humbling experience as it’s not common in my own country to do the reverse.) And yet, this first year after my grand adventure, I find my mind just as drawn to how I spent December the year before. My boyfriend and I spent Christmas at Colonial Williamsburg, a few hours away from our hometown. Most familiar to me as an elementary school field trip, I didn’t quite understand the appeal of seeing the erstwhile capital of Virginia as an adult. Really, though, Colonial Williamsburg is a vibrant living history museum and there is no better time to visit than December, when the preserved town is decked out in seasonal decor.
Angkor Wat is perhaps the most famous, popular destination in Southeast Asia. Before my RTW trip, it was one of the only sites in Southeast Asia I had already heard of! While there’s certainly something to be said for going into a place with few expectations, as I did in Vietnam, and discovering gems you didn’t know to look for, like Halong Bay, I think we’d all be lying if we pretended bucket list sights like Angkor Wat weren’t a major reason we travel. I’m a big believer in managing your expectations well when it comes to bucket list sights. It’s unrealistic to expect to have popular destinations all to yourself, but with a little insider knowledge (perhaps in the form of a guide), savvy planning, and willingness to roll with the punches, you can avoid the crowds at Angkor Wat and enjoy the moments of solitude and wonder you imagined in this sacred ancient city.
I sometimes find myself arguing with people that yes, they are, in fact, creative. So many people assume only those in the traditional arts like music or painting have claim to that particular trait. I’m a firm believer that creativity at its heart is about turning tradition on its ear. Independent travelers – you’re the new creative class. (Just check out the collaborative travel dance and film project Alaine Handa is working on, or the badass dystopian costume design Faith Roswell makes for Wasteland Warriors all over the world.) When you charge forward into the world without guidebooks and travel agents dictating your every move, you’re creating something. In this latest addition of my itinerary series – designed to unleash your creative planning power, rather than give you a copy-and-paste blueprint for your trip – we’ll explore one of the most popular backpacking destinations in the world: Southeast Asia. Its bottom dollar price tag makes it one of the best starter destinations for budget backpacking in the world, but there’s so much more to it than that. If this corner of the world wasn’t filled with sublime natural beauty, rich cultural traditions, and some of the most banging food across the globe, no amount of budgeting would be worthwhile. Read on for must-have information on some of the highlights you might choose to include in your own Southeast Asia itinerary.
Vietnam is lauded as one of the cheapest countries in the world to travel. Between street food, hostels, the acceptability of haggling, and the absolute least expensive beer in the world, the Backpacker Index claims you could conceivably get around even the country’s largest cities on less than $20 a day. Honestly, this was part of the draw for me to spend three weeks in Vietnam at the halfway point of my solo RTW trip. I knew my Vietnam budget would be minimal, and I could easily travel overland through Southeast Asia without worrying about the money. I didn’t know a ton about the country before visiting, so without those draws of ‘bucket list’ attractions, I needed to know I wouldn’t be going out of my way to travel in Vietnam. So was the Backpacker Index right? Read on for my detailed, penny-by-penny budget for Vietnam.
Anyone who has ever accompanied me on a trip knows just how slow I travel. It’s actually one of the reasons I travel solo – more freedom to move at my ridiculous snail’s pace. But I’m well aware that where I spent five days holing up in cafes and reading every single museum plaque, others could very well get their travel fix in a single day. Case in point: Ho Chi Minh City, more commonly known (by travelers and locals alike) as Saigon. HCMC is the largest city in Vietnam, forming a kind of southern bookend to the country with capital Hanoi in the north. Many visitors use it as a base for exploring the Cu Chi tunnels or the Mekong Delta, but there are plenty of attractions within the city itself. Follow this itinerary to make the most of one day in Ho Chi Minh City.
There are few images more romantic than lanterns floating down the river in Hoi An. The Full Moon Festival each month draws hundreds of tourists to the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old town for what seems to be a quintessential experience in Vietnam. In fact, it’s so popular that the “festival” is no longer limited to the date of the full moon. You can find vendors selling lanterns to float on the river every single night in Hoi An. As I was preparing for my RTW trip, a blog post on Getting Stamped seeded my mind with questions. Is the Full Moon Festival an authentic cultural experience, or just a gimmick for tourists? More importantly, what happens to the hundreds of candles and paper lanterns that float down the river daily?
When I arrived in Vietnam, halfway through my RTW trip, I had very little knowledge of the country and few plans. I knew which cities I’d be stopping in for the next few weeks and that was about it. There are perks to traveling this way. The fewer expectations you have, the less likely you are to be disappointed. There’s a greater sense of discovery to not knowing exactly what you’ll find. But on the other hand, you risk missing out on some big stuff by not knowing enough about your options. Case in point: I didn’t know about Halong Bay until I was already on my way to Hanoi. As one of two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Vietnam, this natural attraction seemed like a must-do while in the country, but most itineraries recommended setting aside at least two or three days for an overnight junk boat cruise. Is it even possible to see Halong Bay in one day? While I definitely see why so many recommend a longer stay, the answer is yes – you can fit this bucket list attraction into a single day trip.
The more I travel, the slower I go. On my RTW trip, I went from bouncing between cities sometimes with only a few days in each, to spending weeks and even full months in some places. There are tons of posts on the internet professing the benefits of slow travel. Pacing yourself doesn’t wear down your immune system, making slow travel better for your health. It keeps you from getting distracted and becoming more vulnerable to scams. Plus, by affording yourself time to fully experience your surroundings, slow travel is simply more enjoyable. But not everyone has a full year to explore freely at their own pace. Below are three practical ways to incorporate slow travel into a trip of any length – even a week-long vacation.
Hanoi was one of my favorite cities I visited on my RTW trip. I admittedly hadn’t entered Vietnam with high expectations – I was simply traveling overland through Southeast Asia and it made sense to go while I was in the area. Not knowing much about what I would find, I wound up completely entranced by Hanoi. It was one of the first places I felt I was experiencing a place totally unique and different to anywhere I had been before. Below are some of the things to do in Hanoi that made me fall head over heels for the city.
Take a walk
One of the most interesting things I found in Hanoi, and throughout Vietnam in general, is the street culture. Everything takes place right out on the sidewalks from shopping to dining to pedicures. While it can feel strange and overwhelming at first, I loved this openness – the sense that what you see is what you get. Simply taking a brief walk anywhere in Hanoi will show you so much of what daily life is like. Every corner you turn will reveal something new, whether it’s a shop packed to the gills with ornaments or a railway squeezed into an alley. And that doesn’t even begin to touch on crossing the street. Traffic, mainly composed of motorbikes, doesn’t stop for pedestrians. You have to take it inch by inch, letting the vehicles weave around you. It’s part threading a needle, part high stakes Frogger. There’s something of an art to walking around Hanoi, and it’s definitely a thrill. I think I now understand why people enjoy roller coasters.
Eat street food
The cornerstone of Vietnam street culture is the food. Every path you take is sure to be sprinkled with stalls dishing out pho, banh mi, or any number of tasty treats. This gentleman serves up fried bananas and sweet potatoes near the corner of Hang Ga and Bat Dan. If you’re worried about health and safety, you don’t need to be. Street food is actually great in that it affords you the opportunity to see the cooking spaces. When in doubt, look for locals. If you come across a busy stall, that means it’s safe and good quality. Dao Duy Tu has a particularly good concentration of popular street food stops. If you’re not keen to go it alone, you can join a street food tour and have a local show you the best places to eat in the Old Quarter.
Central to the Old Quarter of Hanoi is Hoan Kiem Lake. It’s useful for getting your bearings around town, the setting for a few attractions like Ngoc Son Temple and the water puppet theatre mentioned below, and most of all, a popular local hangout. Day or night, you’ll see tons of people taking a walk or simply sitting by the lake, and you’d be remiss not to slow down for an afternoon or evening to join them. Grab a milk tea and people watch.
Watch Water Puppet Theatre
Right next to Hoan Kiem Lake is the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre. Water puppets are a really unique style of performing art in Vietnam, and you’ll see many similar shows throughout the country, but Thang Long is one of the best, having been in operation since 1969. Traditional Cheo music accompanies puppetry telling various folkloric tales of old Vietnam with the occasional firecracker spark. With the puppeteers firmly out of sight and the puppets gliding and splashing throughout the water, the result is pretty impressive. The show is just an hour long, and there are several performances every day. Still, it’s best to swing by the box office in the morning as performances do sell out.
Take a rickshaw to the Temple of Literature
Contrary to its name, the Temple of Literature is not actually a temple but rather a university, founded in the 11th century and dedicated to the teachings of Confucius. Surprised to see a Chinese scholar in Vietnam? You shouldn’t be. Vietnam has a long colonial history having spent 1000 years under China’s rule, and has also been controlled by Japan and France. The Temple of Literature is far enough from the Old Quarter that it’s worth hiring a rickshaw, which is a bit of an experience in and of itself. While I enjoyed walking around Hanoi too much to do it frequently, being in a rickshaw once was a new way to see the city and it was the first time I felt comfortable haggling a bit. Once I was inside, I realized the trip was 100% worth it. Walking into the Temple of Literature is like crossing the threshold of another world. Hanoi can be so busy and loud and despite being smack in the middle of the city, the Temple of Literature is completely silent and peaceful. Everyone seems to sense this presence worthy of reverence and in the East, that clearly still counts for something. I have been to so many attractions in the Western world where visitors are asked not to speak out of respect for a sacred location or artifact – the Sistine Chapel comes to mind in particular – and the air is still full of whispers and camera shutters snapping. Here, nobody had to ask. There were so signs posted. And yet, everyone there was compelled to let that hush fall and simply take everything in.
Day trip to Ha Long Bay
Hanoi is a great base for exploring other areas of north Vietnam. The rice paddy-lined hills of Sapa are a popular destination for trekking and homestays, and I hope to visit there on a future trip, but with time for just one major excursion, I opted to go to Ha Long Bay instead. I had actually never heard of Halong Bay prior to visiting Vietnam, but it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the country’s greatest natural attractions. Limestone karst islands tower over emerald green waters, grand caverns sprinkled throughout. The name Ha Long refers to a Vietnamese myth in which a dragon spat jewels onto the water to protect the country from invasion. There is no end to the tour operators in Hanoi who can arrange a junk boat cruise on the bay for you. Most people recommend taking an overnight trip, and if you have the time, I can see how that would be a fantastic choice. If you’re able to go independently to Cat Ba island, that’s also a great way to see the area. But if you have limited time and want to squeeze it into a single day trip, that is absolutely possible and I plan on outlining how to visit Ha Long Bay in one day in a future post.
Staying in the Old Quarter was the best way to fit in these main things to do in Hanoi, and I’m sure there’s a lot more to the city I haven’t seen. Have you been to Vietnam? What were your favorite things to do in Hanoi? Tell me in the comments!
One of the most common questions I’m asked about my RTW trip is which countries had the best food. Greece and Thailand are both pretty high on my list, and those answers usually get met with understanding nods and only occasionally the glazed eyes of someone who’s sorry they asked me about food. But most people are very surprised to hear me throw Vietnam into the conversation. Western concepts of Southeast Asian cuisine are pretty heavily dominated by Thai food, and I’ll be honest – there is some overlap. But Vietnam’s cuisine stood out to me because the food in each city I visited truly had its own character. Each city seems to have a signature dish, each better than the last. Below are a few of my favorite meals and recommendations for what to eat in Vietnam.