Long term travel is not all white sandy beaches, exotic food and beautiful temples. And while yes, all of that does exist, what you don’t see are all of the challenges of long-term solo traveler: the hot & humid days, long and uncomfortable bus rides, the illness, the loneliness. I’m here to break down some of the challenges I’ve faced so you can get the whole story, not just the one you see on social media.
- The language barrier: Probably the toughest challenge there is here in Vietnam. To whoever told me everyone speaks English here, I’m sorry but I respectfully disagree. In my experience, very few people speak good English. Most Vietnamese people know “hello” and “thank you” but that’s pretty much it. Ordering something in a restaurant is always a shot in the dark. Asking for directions when lost has not yet proven successful. Google translate has been a god-send.
- The weather: Holy hell, I have never experienced weather like this. Growing up in NY, I’m used to hot summers but SE Asia is nothing like it is back home. It’s hot and humid and we’ve been averaging 95 degrees and 100% humidity nearly everyday. Thankfully some of the nicer hostels have AC but none of the shops or restaurants have air conditioning. There was a moment in Hoi An where I thought I was melting – the sweat just pours out of you and soaks your clothes. You can take as many showers as you want but once you walk outside, you’re back to where you started – soaking in your own sweat. The sun is strong and will burn you quickly so don’t forget to apply sunscreen every two hours or so. I leaned that lesson the hard way and was unable to sleep on my back for 3 nights due to my lobster-colored skin.
- Public transportation: The most economical way for backpackers to travel throughout Vietnam is either by motorbike or bus. Because I don’t trust myself (and others) to ride a motorbike, I choose to buy an open bus pass which brings you from one end of the country to the other. The bus rides are long, there are no bathrooms, the beds are uncomfortable and just as you think you’ve fallen into a semi-decent sleep, you’re awoken by the sound of the driver laying on his horn or the kid behind you vomiting his insides out which leads me to the next challenge…
- Illness (by street food): I think every traveler is faced with this at one point or another. Although I haven’t been full-blown sick yet (knock on wood) I had my first scare right before getting on a 4 hour bus ride (remember, no bathrooms). In general, getting sick sucks, but getting sick while sharing a hostel bathroom with 5 other people or while on a sleeping bus is no bueno. Healthcare here is 1) not as good as the USA and 2) not nearly as accessible so instead of driving to the doctor to get some antibiotics, you might be forced to let it pass. Ugh.
- Loneliness: I’ve met a ton of other backpackers along the way but at the end of the day, you’re doing this alone. And it can be really hard. You meet awesome people one day and then they leave the next. It’s emotionally exhausting having to have the same conversations day in and day out. Don’t get me wrong – it’s fun meeting people from all over the world but it takes time to get past the small talk and REALLY get to know someone. It can be hard to accomplish that when you only have a day or two together.
- Living out of a backpack: For some reason, I didn’t know how difficult this would be. More than just unpacking and repacking every few days, it’s hard to feel like you’re never really settled. Sure, you have a bed, and maybe a hot shower (if you’re lucky), but hostels just don’t feel like “home.”
I’ve gained a certain strength in the two weeks since I first left Seattle. I’ve learned that I’m capable of tackling anything that’s thrown my way (but moreso because I don’t have any other choice haha). This whole travel thing is certainly not easy but damn, is it rewarding.
To all my fellow solo travelers (or for those contemplating long-term travel): stay strong, stay grounded..you can do this!