Vietnam and how I started travelling around the world

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Vietnam Halong Bay

13 years ago I decided to go on my first backpack adventure while travelling to Vietnam. Together with a friend, we booked our trip (a return flight Luxembourg – Hanoi / Ho Chi Minh City – Luxembourg) but didn’t plan a special itinerary. We had just scribbled down a few destinations on a piece of paper, a sort of wish list of things and places we wanted to see.ย  With our packs on our backs and the travel guide under the arm, we embarked on this first time adventure with a mixture of curious anxiety. Were we able to last a whole month in a faraway country without even speaking the language? I definitely felt ready for the trip of a lifetime!

The beautiful Halong Bay
A floating village at Halong Bay

Mum & dad, don’t worry, I’ll be fine!

Of course, my parents were a bit worried. I was only 22 and it was my first trip out in an exotic country. Especially my mum didn’t understand why we wouldn’t book our hotels beforehand. She gave me some advice such as Don’t stay in standing water, Don’t eat raw vegetables, cause you don’t know what water they use to wash it, Stay away from poultry and don’t eat chicken (2003 was the year of the avian flu epidemic in Southeast Asia). Of course I took her advice to heart, but then again… jet lag is a bastard. It really can make you do stupid things!

And that’s how, after our first hesitant steps in busy Hanoi and a few unsuccessful attempts to cross the streets without getting squashed by the zillion motorbikes, we installed ourselves for lunch in a tiny, somehow dubious restaurant and ordered a fresh salad. Just as the dishes arrived and I dug in my massive plate of mixed greens (all fresh and raw veggies), I almost fell from my chair as a rooster loudly “cock-a-doodle-doo’d” a few steps away from me. Sorry, Mum!

Hoan Kiem Lake Hanoi

A lot of discoveries and first times

Our Vietnam itinerary was an ever-evolving improvisation involving countless room negotiations, depending on the weather and advice from locals and other travellers we met on our journey. It was the first time in my life, I hadn’t planned everything ahead and left my “control-freakishness” at home. It was a month of constant action, lack of sleep, uncomfortable buses and sometimes doubts; but it was a hell of an adventure!

View from the top of Cat Ba Island during our hike
  • On this trip, I discovered, that I could live with only 3 T-shirts, 2 shorts, 1 pair of trousers and a piece of laundry bar soap during one entire month.
  • I also discovered hiking, which quickly became a wholehearted passion. I went on my first hike in the rainforest of Cat Ba Island (with its massive spiders) and climbed 3 peaks in one day in Dalat, although I was terrified of heights.
  • I learned the hard way, that Lariam (malaria preventive medicine) made my life miserable. I lost my eyesight during 10 terrifying and distressingly minutes one night at the restaurant before fainting.
  • I temporarily put my fear of the big blue away and discovered the colourful underwater world while scuba diving in Nha Trang.
  • I also noticed quite quickly that visiting the meat market of Hue in the blistering heat of the afternoon was definitely not the most glorious idea I ever had!
  • I also found out that a long distance travel on a Vietnamese bus was always a small adventure interrupted by hour-long breakdowns of the engine.
  • I tasted authentic Vietnamese street food… simply delicious!

This journey was a constant roller coaster of emotions and new experiences. We had some downs and a lot of ups. I met a lot of travelers, some very interested in other cultures, but always with critical minds and then others, who were plainly uneducated, especially that one girl who asked me, if we had TV in Europe… Duh!

But most importantly, I met nice, welcoming and smiling locals, who let us in on their lives, their culture and their dreams.

I know that a lot of travelers have mixed feelings about their Vietnam experience. They often felt suffocated, harassed or ripped off by local scammers. But my experience was the total opposite. I loved talking to the Vietnamese people. Sure, they laughed at us sometimes, but in the end when you really showed some interest in them and their culture, they were extremely helpful and welcoming!

Me next to Hue Citadel

Blurry pics, but flashy memories

In 2003, my camera, the glorious new Nikon Coolpix, had 3 Mega pixels and as a result my pics were definitely no poster material. I also have to admit that I lost half of them anyway. But, although, the majority of my photos are blurry or of bad quality… the memories I kept from this trip are still very vivid.

After my Vietnam trip, I went on other journeys and travelled to locations throughout the world. The travel bug got me, and my itchy feet kept me going.

Today I sometimes dig up my backpack, or I go on road trips with a better-furnished suitcase. When people ask me, what trip of all I liked most, I can’t really answer, but I can definitely say that travelling to Vietnam was the trip of my lifetime. It made me discover my love for travel, appreciate and connect with people from various backgrounds and cultures and enjoy my trips as if every day was a new adventure.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember every one of restaurant or hotel, so here are the major stops of our itinerary:

Hanoi
Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island
Hue
Hoi An
Nha Trang
Dalat
Tay Ninh
Mekong Delta
Ho Chi Minh City

Where did you go on your first trip and what was your experience?

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41 COMMENTS

  1. Great post, I’m heading to Vietnam next week. I went 2 years ago and loved it and bringing my nephew and a friend back with me. I’ve packed a lot more than you did, I’m already worried about how heavy my backpack is, lol. I have a carry on full of goodies for family so will probably put a lot of stuff in there and use that.

    There were a couple of instances where people tried to fleece us, a cab driver tried to charge us an arm and a leg for a 2 mile drive, we refused and the restaurant manager got in on the action so we paid less than he wanted and more than we should have. Always negotiate ahead of time or use the meters. We also had a couple of street vendors try and short change us. Just be aware of what they are giving back. People get confused with the money and others try and take advantage. All that being said, I loved the people, they were extremely friendly and the food is amazing!

    My first big trip was to The Netherlands. I stayed with friends for a month, it was amazing!

    • Hi Leiha, thanks a lot for your great comment! Yeah okay, there was 1 time where they tried to make us pay more, but as you say: always fix prices ahead or negociate beforehand. You are so lucky that you can go back!!! I hope you have a great time and that you come back with even more amazing memories of that fantastic country. Cheers ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚ Yes, it’s especially the “stepping outside your comfort zone” that counts. If you don’t do that, you might never experience such amazing moments.

  2. I love this story and it is so clear that this started you on your traveller journey! It’s good you saw a great side of Vietnam, and I too love the look of Halong Bay, I could stare at the picture all day long! Everyday is a new adventure when you are travelling!

  3. Great photos ๐Ÿ™‚ Never been to Vietnam but visited some countries in South East Asia – while the nature is absolutely stunning, I couldn’t get used to be tricked by con artists at every corner. Maybe because before I was traveling through the Balkans – region which is quite unknown, but like paradise with friendly locals and it’s so cheap. How was the situation with con artists in Vietnam?

    • It really was not that bad. A few people tried some scams, but it was definitely exceptionnal. But I guess it’s difficult to get used to this when you have never travelled to Asia before with its mass tourism.

  4. There’s something so special about that first trip! My dad cried for about a month the first time I left home… my mum Sea is it was like he was in mourning. Admittedly this was pre Facebook. Love doesn’t the post, And Vietnam looks amazing.

    • It was pre Facebook, and pre wifi, it was different and more difficult at that time to keep in touch and reassure your parents then today!

  5. I enjoyed reading your story much! I could easily put myself into your shoes. I am glad you had an interesting first backpack adventure. Probably thanks to it you became a world traveller. Many happy travels!

  6. I went to Vietnam 4 years ago and instantly loved it despite the attempts of some vendors trying to scam us! It’s great that this wonderful country was your introduction to traveling. I would be curious to know how it has changed since the time you went as it’s developing at lightning speed!

  7. what an adventure, I loved this post and I really love ”On this trip, I discovered, that I could live with only 3 T-shirts, 2 shorts, 1 pair of trousers and a piece of laundry bar soap during one entire month” this had me laughing much as it is so true. this is me all over.

    thank you for sharing this great story.

    • Ah great I could make you laugh Kevin ๐Ÿ™‚ Yeah, that was a bit of a revelation to me. Though, I was happy to get all my other clothes back when I got home!

  8. That was an adventure. Truly, experience teaches you a lot of lessons. My first overseas travel was in Egypt and it was a not so good experience, however I somehow manage to enjoy despite the setbacks I’ve encountered along the way. The best part of it is that I’ve learned a lot from it.

    I can relate the same thing with your mom. My mom is also like that, very protective and if she can only stop me or go with me in every trip, she would. Hahaha. I love reading your experience. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Hi Joy, thanks a lot. It’s a shame you didn’t have a perfect experience the first time you travelled overseas. But it’s true, even if the trip wasn’t perfect, either way we learn from it a lot

    • thans a lot Mihaela. I hope your son has the most perfect travel adventure… and that a lot others will follow soon. ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. I am heading to Vietnam in about two weeks and cannot wait!! So awesome that you got to take your first backpacking trip there, what a place to do it! Can’t believe you lost your eyesight for 10 minutes because of your malaria medicine!! That must have been so scary! I have heard some horror stories about the side effects of malaria pills, but this might be one of the worst! Glad you are okay!

    • Yeah, well I took the worst malaria medecine… go for malarone if you need to take some, there the side effects are almost non existent. I’m so jealous of you that you going to Vietnam. You’ll have a great time! And don’t forget to taste the street food in Hanoi! ๐Ÿ™‚

  10. I think we all have that same issue of not having the proper camera equipment to capture our travels for the future. Now I’m sure to travel with good equipment and capture quality shots. And my first trip was to Alaska, alone as a teenager…with a 35mm camera and huge telephoto I borrowed. Good times.

  11. That sounds like a great trip! Vietnam is high on my list of places to visit. That’s a crazy story about the malaria medication though! I’ve never heard of going blind from medication, so that’s something new I learned. Glad it didn’t last long.

  12. First trips are always a memory that you cherish and I am so glad to read yours. There was so much learning that you had and am sure you will always treasure this for the rest of your life. Am sure the others too will be motivated with this post.

  13. OMG!! This is just awesome!!! What was I doing when I was 22. Oh yeah, I had just begun to travel, but within my own state pretty much and discovered the bliss of solo travel as well!!! I had a laugh reading your post esp about surviving with hardly any clothes!!! Lolz…

  14. Ha Long Bay was just sensational, but I saw plenty of signs that the way that it was being touristed in a way that wasn’t sustainable at all. I’m hoping that it remains a tourist beacon (in a responsible way) for years to come.

  15. What an amazing experience! A trip like this is definitely going to be rich in unforgettable experiences! My first trip abroad without my parents was when i was 18, and I know my mom was super worried. She still worries now, and she’s had years to get used to it.

    I could never do the long trip on few clothes! I always bring more than I need, even after taking out about a third or more of what I’ve packed ๐Ÿ˜€ And your meat market in the middle of the day idea? That sounds exactly like something I’d do and then regret. But surely its a great memory to laugh about later.

    • Hi Alina, Yeah, the meat market was a not so fun moment at the time, but it definitely is a memory to laugh about now! And I also think parents will never stop worriyng ๐Ÿ˜‰

  16. Thank you for sharing this memory! And not to forget: in the early 2000s backpacking was a whole lot different than today (hello Internet ;-).
    My first backpacking trip (before, I would barely ever go on holiday and if so all-inclusive…) was an overlanding trip across Africa in my early 30s. For the first 5 months, I was sharing a truck with 10 random strangers. We wild camped, had lunch by the side of the road, and bought food to cook in the local markets. I remembered from my childhood that I hated camping. I hadn’t done any research before and just went with the flow.
    It took me less than two weeks to get hooked.
    Flash forward five years: I have been living a nomad lifestyle for the past 3 years, walked across Europe, traveled the other half of Africa on my own on public transport, and am on my way to explore the Asian continent.

    All it takes is the first step of simply trying. If you hate it you can always go back. But if you don’t try you’ll never find out that you might just love it ๐Ÿ™‚

    Happy continued travels!
    C

    • Yep that’s totally true, backpacking was different at that time… today with Internet everywhere there’s that little bit of uncertainty missing ๐Ÿ™‚ Wow I can see that you had also an amazing first trip and that now you’re about to conquer the world ๐Ÿ™‚ Am so happy for you… if ever you’re coming back to Europe, let me know. Would love to hear some of your travel stoies !

  17. Great post! The experiences that take us out of our comfort zone are the richest and more powerful. The images are vivid in your memory and you describe them beautiful in your post.

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