When it all gets a bit much, I’ve been known to jet off on a solo quest. I do it because being out of my comfort zone for a week or two, puts it all into perspective for me. Pursuing activities “just for me” helps me find a better version of myself. It tests my courage, and rebuilds my resilience. I am forced to trust my instincts and be creative in solving problems.
In March of this year, I booked a return flight (I couldn’t really afford) to Hanoi on a whim. I didn’t organise anything else, because… you know… the thrills. I do know a few people close to me who also enjoy travelling alone, but the majority of you still look at me like I have a booger hanging out my nose when I say I’m off on an adventure. Alone. With no real plan. It’s not for everyone, I agree.
I packed my backpack, super light, because I felt silly checking in luggage for such a short trip. Armed with my Lonely Planet and probably too much enthusiasm, I set off on what was going to be 8hrs flight time + 8hrs stopover at Kuala Lumpur airport (cheapest ticket, by far). During the culling of useless paraphernalia to lighten my load, I discarded my sleeping bag which was not suited weight-wise to fit my purpose. Big mistake! Having it, during that insane transit would’ve saved me. As it was, I wrapped myself in my hoodie, used my bag as a pillow & took off my shoes to sleep under a row of chairs. Hellish.
By the time I got to Hanoi after 8am, I was a wreck. Determined though I was, not to sleep, but to get my adventure underway immediately. Just before leaving Australia, I had organised my first night’s hotel in Hanoi. You see, I wasn’t sure what to expect having never been there before. It was in the Old Quarter, and whilst going through customs another Aussie, also travelling solo & staying nearby, suggested we split a taxi. What a spot of luck! Like most Asian countries, getting a taxi from the airport can be daunting. From this point on, the universe conspired to take me on an unforgettable journey, which was everything I needed and more.
HANOI – That afternoon, I walked around the Hoan Kiem Lake in search of caphe trung da, a Vietnamese coffee topped with beaten egg. Lonely Planet directed me to this quaint spot (Café Pho Co), hidden behind a silk shop. I climbed my way to a stunning vista overlooking the lake (and dodgy construction sites). The waiter kindly brought me a few rounds of yummy coffee, up and down 3 levels of a tiny, steep spiral staircase.
CAT BA – In Hanoi, I met a girl who helped me work out how to get to Cat Ba like a local. I took a taxi – bus – bus – boat – boat – bus before finally reaching there 6+ hours later. Upon arriving, I managed to organise a room for AUD4 and rented a scooter to explore the island. I had a nervy experience that night checking out a floating restaurant (suggested by Lonely Planet), which was deserted except for a few non-English speaking employees and appeared to be under renovation. It turned out OK, obviously. The fresh seafood was delicious & despite my heart beating too quickly at times, mostly due to over-imagining my potential kidnapping / death, I wouldn’t change a thing.
An adventure tour guide told me where & how I could organise myself a basket boat to take me around the islands, again without joining a group. For VND350,000 a sweet young Vietnamese boy took me anywhere I wanted to go. Following my map of Lan Ha Bay & beyond, we explored for hours and stopped at a private beach for lunch. Here we collected his friend for a ride back with us (at my offering). We picked up some clams for the villagers and the boys showed me a karst the locals like to jump off. Yes, I did it. Would’ve regretted it if I hadn’t. All this adventure, and I was still back in time for the long trip home to Hanoi.
OH so, the street food. Vietnamese street food is next level. Hanoi is filled with hundreds of restaurants all serving to little plastic kiddie tables & chairs scattered on the footpath. Local cuisine for all tastes, cheap and super fresh. Hanoi is absolutely buzzing and definitely safe for a solo woman traveller. I did get lost more than a few times, but the main thing is that in the end I was found!
BA BE LAKE – Extremely early the next day I had arranged a driver and an unofficial tour guide (a Vietnamese girl named Mai, who spoke English perfectly) to take me to Ba Be Lake. For approx. USD90 they accompanied me for 2 days in a remote location where I did not see a single other tourist. My money covered all our food & accommodation, as well as activities. We slept the night at a homestay, which I truly wish I remembered the name of because the family was beautiful. I slept on a HARD futon on the floor, with a mosquito net and experienced some of the best hospitality I have ever come across. The lady of the house cooked us dinner and breakfast, which was the same as what the family ate themselves. After dinner, her husband brought out his rice wine he kept for special occasions, served from a recycled water bottle & we drank, laughed & bumbled our way through roughly translated conversation, late into the night. We spent the first day exploring a cave in pitch-black darkness (the power was out) and a 20 km bicycle ride on bumpy, unpaved roads. We waded through ice cold streams, and played volleyball with some local children. The next day we went bamboo rafting followed by a FREEZING 3-hour boat ride through breathtaking scenery of towering limestone mountains, plunging valleys, dense evergreen forests, waterfalls, caves and of course the lake we were travelling on. I highly recommend visiting Ba Be, if you’re in the North.
Maybe there are a lot of details I have omitted here, but this is the story of 780+km of Northern Vietnam covered in <5 days, travelling alone, with no idea what I was doing. It was wild, fun & free. The Vietnamese are a beautiful people. Sure, the modes of transport HURT my spine but other than that the world surrounding me was shiny. One bit of advice, is to take a few copies of your passport to give to hotels. They will want the original, but if you have copies they will let this slide. Also, have plenty of Vietnamese Dong handy if you intend to go off the beaten track, as they have no way to accept your plastic. Please note, I didn’t do any war museums or the like. I read a bit about Vietnam’s turbulent history, whilst I travelled, which described a people who are no strangers to domination / occupation by foreigners but during my short visit everybody was kind & helpful & the culture is incredibly rich.