I’m currently in a tiny resort town called Quy Nhon (pronounced Gwee-Nyong), on the south central coast of Vietnam. It’s the sort of place where middle class Vietnamese families go to vacation or retire, so there’s not a ton going on – decent food, great beach, minimal nightlife. That would be perfect, except for the weather – my options the past few days have been thunder storm, or threatening thunder storm.
The most exciting thing that’s happened here is me stubbornly sitting on the beach in the rain. The second most exciting is a disappointing beard trim (way too short, a combination I think of Google translate not working great for Vietnamese and the barber never having touched a proper beard in his life). So, for this post I figured I’d write about what it’s like to travel for an extended period.
But first, photos from Quy Nhon.
Where do you stay?
I pretty much always stay in hostels. A hostel is to a hotel what a college dorm is to an apartment. It’s usually a few rooms full of bunk beds and lockers, a shared bathroom, kitchen and common room, and often a bar.
Hostels have a reputation for being a bit seedy, but there’s a wide range out there. Some are nonstop parties, some are quiet little mom and pop places, and some are giant institutions with hundreds of identical beds. If you do your research you can easily find ones that are comfortable, clean, friendly and secure. I do my booking through hostelworld.com, which hasn’t steered me wrong yet.
So why would you stay in the dorms? First, it’s cheap. Hostels in Vietnam start around $4-5 per night, with private rooms starting at $12. In Japan and Korea they were closer to $25-30. A good rule of thumb is, a bunk in a hostel will cost about a quarter as much as a budget hotel room.
Second, hostels are a great way to meet fellow travelers. They tend to attract a certain kind of client: adventurous, outgoing, traveling alone or in a small group, looking for a good time on the cheap. Most are European, American or Australian, and English is the language of the common room (lucky me). There’s always a few people hanging out, and you’ll always be welcome to join the conversation, motorbike tour or bar crawl. Every once in a while you’ll meet someone again, traveling on parallel paths, which is a delightful reunion though you’re likely to have forgotten their name.
How do you get around?
Depends on where you are. In Japan it was trains, in Korea it was subways and city busses, and in Vietnam its been a grab bag.
Between cities, your best bet is the train if you can take it. The Reunification Express runs along the cost from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi and back, and there are a few smaller lines as well. If the town you’re headed to doesn’t have a train station, then it’s the bus for you. Vietnam has a solid network of coach busses run by private companies that will get you just about anywhere.
These busses are a bit of a wild ride. Some are “limousine” vans, escorting people in relative luxury. Some are overnight sleeper busses, with flat beds to lay in instead of seats. These are not the most comfortable, given that I’m 17 centimeters taller than the average Vietnamese person, but they get you there.
And then there’s the drivers. Everyone (including locals) agrees that Vietnamese bus drivers are completely insane. They seem to have a mandate to pass as many other vehicles as possible. Sometimes it feels like they spend longer on the wrong side of the road than on the right side. Combined with the twisty mountain roads the ride can be a little sickening, especially in the back rows. The horn is an essential tool of the job, even in the dead of night. It’s best to just pop a travel sickness pill, put on an audiobook, close your eyes and imagine yourself elsewhere.
Inter-city transportation typically costs $10-15, and can be booked online or through your hostel. I’ve become a fan of a website called geckoroutes.com, which has detailed point-to-point travel information for much of Southeast Asia. For example, here is my next leg from Quy Nhon to Hoi An.
Once you’re in town, the best way to get around is an app called Grab. It’s basically Vietnamese Uber, with support for motorbikes and cash payments. Ripping off hapless tourists is something of an art along taxi drivers here, so having a reliable fare calculated in advance is clutch. Grab also has a reputation for safety, unlike some of its competition. A 20 minute ride on the back of a motorbike will probably cost about a dollar.
How far in advance do you plan?
The short answer is, “it depends”. Japan I booked almost entirely in advance, because I had a specific thing I wanted to do. I had my hostels in Seoul and HCMC booked before I left Seattle, but let myself improvise on activities.
Since then I’ve been keeping a 2-3 day buffer. I’ll show up in a city with a vague idea of where I want up go next, meet people in the hostel who are headed the opposite direction and see what they recommend, figure out how long I want to stay where I am, and then book my next leg. One thing I have learned is to book transportation before the hostel, because they’re more likely to sell out or run at odd times.
What gear do you carry?
As I mentioned in my packing post, everything I have fits in a 40L pack. This is key because it’s not uncommon to find myself trekking a kilometer or two from, say, the bus depot to my hostel, and it’s nice not to have to maneuver a roller bag across broken sidewallks full of curbside cafes and parked motorbikes.
Inside my bag is… another bag! This cute purple one is my day pack, so that I don’t have to lug everything I own on little excursions. It’s quite comfortable, and is plenty big enough for a water bottle, a rain jacket, my e-reader and a snack.
A last minute addition to my gear list, and one that I’m particularly fond of, is my water treatment system. This consists of a battery powered UV purifier and a Lifestraw filter. The UV kills everything, and the filter keeps out particulates (it filters bacteria but not viruses, and their website recommends the using both when traveling). Together these mean I can fill up a bottle at the sink instead of wasting a bunch of plastic.
Other than that it’s about what you’d expect. Sturdy walking shoes and sandals. Toiletries, including antimalarials and antibiotics. A few changes of clothes, mostly fancy wicking synthetics but with a couple pairs of cotton underwear for sleeping. I do laundry about once a week, as convenient.
Probably the best thing you can bring on a trip like this is an open mind and a good sense of humor. Cultural differences can feel weird and uncomfortable. Mistranslations can result in dumb mistakes. You’ll get lost, get ripped off, get tired and hangry, get sick of the people you met at this hostel. The key is to remember that it’s all part of the experience, that you’re here to learn and push yourself as much as to have a good time, and that whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger.
Hopefully that was interesting. Secretly I’m hoping that providing a window into the day-to-day will encourage those of you who haven’t traveled much or in this way to give it a shot. Maybe meet me in Thailand in December?
Also, these were all made up questions! If you have real ones you want answered, let me know!