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. 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!
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!
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!
- 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!
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:
Ha Long Bay & Cat Ba Island
Ho Chi Minh City