The Backpacker’s Guide to Winging It- Vietnam

Even if you’ve never been to Vietnam, you probably recognize it from endless reels of psychotic guerilla soldiers charging out of the jungle at good-old American boys still hazy from last night’s acid drop.

Woman-Rice-Me-Kong-VietnamActually, Vietnam is nothing like the movies. The thing you gotta remember here is that they won, and thus, bad blood only really exists in outdated films.

What you will find is a beautiful country with warm, welcoming people. Sure, the relics of the Vietnam War are still there, including their quasi-communist government, but even most of the American vets who have returned to Vietnam for travel report nothing but good vibes.

The Good

  • Welcoming, warm people who are genuinely happy to accommodate you in their country.
  • Delicious Asian-French fusion cuisine.
  • Gorgeous landscapes with think jungle and beautiful beaches.
  • Rich and fascinating history, both ancient and around more recent events, such as French colonialism and the American War (as they would call it). The latter is especially interesting as we are rarely afforded that different viewpoint, which I found to be fairly balanced, unlike China for example, which can be a little heavier on the propaganda.

The Bad

  • This could either be a good, or a bad, depending on what you’re after, but you’re not going to have access to the same comforts as home such as western banks, fast food and products, as you would in Thailand, for example. Boat-trip-Hanoi-Halong-Bay-Vietnam
  • Medical care is also a step down from some of the “free-market” countries like Thailand and Malaysia, so be extra careful, especially on that motorbike!

The Ugly

  • The big cities, specifically Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and Hanoi, can be pretty crazy. There aren’t a lot of traffic lights in Vietnam, and thus, the traffic takes on a life of its own. It can be daunting at first seeing the streets that packed with motor-scooters. There’s really never a break in the traffic either. To cross the street, you have to just bravely step out and trust that the traffic is going to part around you like a school of fish. Trust me, it works. It is terrifying, however.

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The Backpacker’s Guide to Winging It- India

People ask me all the time what my favourite country to travel to was. That’s an easy choice for me–India.

The Good

Taj-Mahal-India

  • I often explain that travelling to India is like going to Mars, and I mean that as a total compliment. Nowhere else I’ve ever been is so unique, so magical, and just so utterly different from what I was used to.
  • The amount of diversity is insane. You can experience big cities, rural life, mountains, dessert, jungle, gorgeous beaches, cultural landmarks and everything in between
  • The food is amazing and the people are interesting, funny, kind and helpful.

The Bad

  • India can sometimes feel like a slap in the face. There is just so much going on that it’s tough to take in. This is especially true in the big cities and tourist hotspots, which can get overwhelming, quick. Plan to venture out of these areas.
  • The touts are just as bad here as anywhere. There’s no shortage of people trying to get those backpacker dollars from you, especially in the aforementioned big cities and tourist spots.

The Ugly
Mountain-Town-Manali-India

  • Poverty. India has some of the worst you’ll ever see. It’s a huge country with a wide range of people across the socio-economic spectrum. But it can be very hard to see people in dire poverty on a daily basis. Please look into ways you can help while there.
  • Pollution/litter. There are so many people that some parts of India can feel very “dirty”. There’s no way to avoid this. You have to just learn to accept it and be okay with this. It’s a part of the territory and once you get over India’s shortcomings and learn to embrace them, the true beauty of the country will open itself up to you.

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Backpacker’s Guide to Winging It- Thailand

I’m not going to get into deep and extensive travel guides. I can’t possibly compete with the Lonely Planets and Rough Guides of the world. As with everything, I’m just going to offer my personal opinions based on the experiences I’ve had.

So let’s get into it…

Thailand

Thailand is as good an option as any to start yourself off on your winging-it backpacking adventure. The reason I say that is that Thailand is really the Mecca for backpacking culture in Asia. That’s both a good thing and a bad.
Phuket-Thailand-Beachview
The Good

  • Well laid out backpacker’s “trail” means that you’ll always have an idea of where to go, what to do and how to get there.
  • No shortage of services offering ways to get around and hostels/guest houses to stay in, usually with people that speak decent English
  • Plenty of other backpacker’s and travelers for you to meet and get to know
  • Endless options for fun whether you like cultural exploration, extreme sports and of course… partying

The Bad

  • Thailand can often feel too planned out. You can easily find yourself in the “tourist trap” or as my friend calls it- “the Banana Pancake Trail”. His philosophy is that basically anywhere you go that has banana pancake food stands, you’re in a tourist trap because that’s not exactly a “local dish” but it is often passed off as one to hungry backpackers. That doesn’t mean banana pancakes aren’t delicious, because they are, just know that you aren’t exactly getting the authentic experience.
  • Not only can you get stuck in the tourist trap, you risk a good chance of getting stuck in the party trap as well. Picture this: you’re incredibly nervous but you finally make the jump. You go to Thailand, likely Bangkok or one of the islands. You meet some fellow backpackers and immediately form a connection based on your shared experience. You go out to a club, maybe a Full-Moon Party on the beach. The next thing you know, weeks have gone by and you haven’t really gone anywhere nor done anything else. You have become too comfortable with what you immediately found and now you’re nervous all over again to get back out on your own. Resist this temptation.

The Ugly

  • Unfortunately, with many tourists come many scams. I’m not saying you should always be looking over your shoulder, just be vigilant. If you’re not comfortable with doing something… don’t do it. Always be polite though to avoid escalating a situation. Here’s a trick- adopt the “Thai smile”. Thais will smile a lot which has given them a friendly moniker to outsiders, but that smile can also be a mask during conflicts in which they’re angry or agitated. If you force a smile, even when things are getting heated, you’re playing on their field and you are more likely to find an agreeable resolution than if you default to getting visibly upset.
  • Reclining-Buddha-Bangkok-Thailand

  • It’s easy to get to Thailand and be blown away by how much fun it is, even for a backpacker on a meagre budget like yourself. Certainly, the rules are much looser than in many Western countries and sometimes it seems like “anything goes”. But you shouldn’t let your guard down. Remember that the rules might seem more lax, but the penalties certainly aren’t. A drug conviction in Thailand can get you several years in a terrible prison or even a death sentence depending on the amount. There are also higher rates of STDs and the risk falling into dangerous scams or situations. Almost all of these risks are heavily amplified when alcohol is involved and when you are out to the wee hours of the morning. This isn’t a warning to stay away from having a good time, just a reminder to be smart about it.

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Ready to Land… Wing That Too

So you’ve done the bare minimum to get ready. You’ve saved a rough budget. You have a general idea how long you are going to travel. You’ve got your shots, bought your new bag and packed it lightly. Where do you go from here?

Depending on where you are coming from, there are plenty of places to start. Your cheapest option to get to Asia will likely take you to one of the major international hubs… Tokyo, Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

Just remember, you are looking for an access point to which from there, your options are endless. Once you’re in Asia, travel will be considerably cheaper.

Hotels in Asia

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to plan your trip around advanced bookings in hotels. It’s a good idea to book a place for the first night you arrive in any country by plane, especially your initial access point. Even if you want to splurge on a nicer room to start you off and get you feeling comfortable, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Beyond this, you want to keep yourself totally open. Most of the places you’ll be traveling too will have an abundant supply of hotels, hostels and guest houses. Never once was I ever totally turned away. Sure, there were plenty of times I’d get to a new town or city off a bus or train and have to try a few places before I found vacancy. But it’s almost impossible that you kind find yourself sleeping on the street. Remember, most of the places you go are totally set up for tourism and they want to do anything they can to get your business, even your meagre backpacker’s dollar.

Prices will vary from country and city. There are places in Asia where you can get a decent room for around $10 per night. There are places where $40 will get you a bunk bed in a dorm full of snoring, smelly fellow backpackers. Some of that you can’t control, but you’ll likely start to gravitate to the more affordable places as you go. You’ll also begin to notice just how truly cheap you’re capable of being. When I’m backpacking, I’ll walk to the other end of town in 35 degree heat with a heavy pack on my back just to save a dollar. Back home, I might think twice about bending over to pick one up off the street.

You’re going to figure this all out on the way. As you move to new hostels and guest houses, you’ll meet people willing to give you ample advice on where to go next. This is a great way to get to know others and help other people line up your trip for you. However, if you ever are feeling a bit anxious, there’s nothing wrong with phoning or emailing a place in advance of travelling there to get a room. I just wouldn’t recommend you book beyond the next place you are going unless there is somewhere you know you absolutely have to make it to and your prior research (if you’ve done any) has suggested availability can be a challenge at times, especially during “high season” (roughly October-March).

Getting Around as a Backpacker

Good news, it’s very easy to get around Asia. If you are sticking to the big cities and the areas more used to tourism, you’ll have no shortage of options to get from point A to point B. Traveling is fairly safe, and again, I didn’t have any problems myself. However, you want to exercise normal precautions and keep your stuff close to you at all times on buses or trains.

As for the day to day getting around, I’m not going to lie; you will get hassled badly in some places. Remember that places that are more popular for tourists are going to have a lot of people competing hard for your dollar. It can be jarring when someone is shouting at you from five feet away to get in their tuk-tuk or cab. Try to remember, in most cases, there is nothing nefarious or malicious about this. It’s just the way things go. Rather than ignoring the driver, simple smile and shake your head. Then go on your way. Don’t ever approach a driver unless you are prepare to employ their services. That’s not to say you can’t change your mind, but save yourself the headache from “I just want to check this out” or “I want to be polite and humour them”. This is a good rule of thumb anytime you are spending your backpacker’s dollars, especially at markets or shops.

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Before You Wing It… Pack

 

Packing

I’m going to keep this real simple… think of everything you need to pack for your trip and then cut it in half. Then cut it in half again. Aaaaand one more time. Good, now take out a few more items and you should be good to go.

I’m serious- you want to pack as light as possible. For however long you’re travelling, your entire life will be in the bag on your back and that can start to feel pretty heavy, pretty quick (that reminds me, make sure you add a good, solid backpack to your budget, something with an aluminum frame backing and a waste buckle).

Whatever you think you absolutely can’t do without… trust me, you can. If you’re sticking to the “hot zone”, which is pretty much everywhere except China, Korea and Japan from October to April, you’ll only need one pair of long pants, one long sleeve shirt and maybe one sweater. The rest can be shorts and light T-shirts. Pack one nice shirt or dress for nights out, but keep in mind that you’re going to be picking up plenty of clothes on the way for cheap, so anything you pack, you should be willing to part with on the fly. Same goes for jewelry, books, blankets, pillows, bathing suits, towels and toiletries.

I’m not going to list everything you should and shouldn’t bring. There’s plenty of other blogs and websites you can check out for extensive lists. I’m trying to say don’t listen to them. Go for minimalism. 99% of anything you forget can be easily found in most places you’re travelling to. Except sunscreen. And bug spray. For God’s sake, back both those things and in plentiful supply.

Also:

  • Invest in a good, comfortable pair of hiking boots that you will run into the ground
  • Headlamps! Pack at least two, they’re cheap
  • A solid rain coat (bonus if you buy a backpack with a pull-out rain cover included)
  • A travel sewing kit
  • Band-Aids and other first-aid supplies (don’t go nuts)
  • Electrolyte powder

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The Backpacker’s Health Care Plan

Don’t die!

Just kidding.

A lot of people panic about the potential from getting some life-threatening disease in Asia. Like being the victim of a crime, it could happen, but it’s highly unlikely.

You may have heard a horror story or two from someone who had to cut their trip short. Again, I’ve travelled extensively, and never caught anything serious, nor did anyone I knew. Did I and everybody else I ever met travelling get at least one case of terrible diarrhea? Yes of course. Sorry, I don’t mean to be gross, but I have to be honest. You will get sick at least once, and then likely, you will be okay for the rest of your trip.

Medication and Shots

Definitely pack an extra supply of any necessary medication you take, at least a few month’s worth. Make sure to bring a record of your prescription.

As far as over-the-counter stuff goes, you could pack a million different pills from home to mitigate any potential problems– colds, stomach aches, headaches, etc.- but unless you commonly take something you absolutely can’t go without, I’d suggest you don’t worry about it. If you pack a bunch of non-essential pills and syrups, it will just be excess weight in your backpack and will go unused. Seeing a doctors and buying medication is usually very cheap and quick in most Asian countries. For common stuff like a bout with the stomach bug, you can find adequate and speedy care.

As for shots, definitely go to your doctor and get all the common shots and boosters they recommend. Now on to the big question:

Do I take Malaria medication?

This is a tough decision and I don’t want to tell you what to do. I will say that I never contracted Malaria, and in all my years travelling in Asia, I only knew one person who did and it was in a totally unexpected place. I have, however, known several people who have taken the medication and “freaked out”. I’ve even known of a couple who had to cut their trip short, though I’ve heard some newer anti-malaria drugs have less side effects.

In the end, you’re going to know what’s best for you. Personally, I think a better strategy is to pack some really good bug spray from home and make sure you are generously applying that throughout the day. The risk of side-affects from the Malaria medication was never worth it to me. But again, I’m not a doctor and I’m not responsible for your health. So I recommend you do have a good discussion with your doctor before you go and do your own research.

Travel Insurance

Definitely make sure you get travel insurance before you go. Make sure to check into your credit card company as you might have some travel insurance that you didn’t even know about (seriously). Banks offer plans, as do local insurance companies, and there are several online travel insurance companies that are designed specifically for this.

Whatever you decide to do, make sure the coverage is extensive and covers a lot of crazy, stupid things like extreme water sports and monkey knife fights. You just never know.

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Before You Wing It… Save

Ok, I lied. You will need to do a little planning. But I must reiterate again– too much planning will sour your experience. That I can promise you. Though you are going to wing this trip, there are a few things you need to sort out first.

Funding Your Trip

This may or may not be the aspect of your dream that gives you the most anxiety. I’m not going to tell you that this will all be free. But it will be relatively affordable if you let it.

Asia can vary wildly, from the expensive (Japan) to the dirt cheap (Laos) and everything in between. It’s hard to say exactly how much you’ll need to make this all happen. Here are a few things to consider:

  • The most expensive part of your trip will be getting there and back. You’ll have to do your own research to find the best deal. Depending on your departure point, a round-trip to your entry point in Asia will likely run you anywhere from $1000-$2000. You can choose to buy a round trip with a set date of return. A better way is to budget the cost of your return and choose later when you feel the time is right. Be careful with this approach– you’ll have to be disciplined enough to set that return money aside, or be comfortable with hitting up mom and dad at a later point. The worst option is to get addicted to the experience, run out of money and turn to muling drugs to fund your trip home. I would definitely not recommend doing that (not that I know from experience!)
  • Asia has a broad range of accommodation options. You could easily spend hundreds or thousands of dollars per day on swanky hotel rooms, private drivers and high-end restaurants. Forget all that. You are a backpacker and thus, must plan to budget. The rule of thumb I’ve commonly heard of is to plan for $100 a day. That still sounds to me like King money. I’d say $50-$75 is a little more accurate unless you want to really slum it. That being said, if you plan to do a lot of drinking, you will blow a hole in your budget very quickly. It’s easy to get caught up in the fun, in some places more than others, but I really recommend you be disciplined. Have your fun and move on quickly. There’s so much more to do and see in Asia than a trashy bar strip in a tourist trap.
  • US dollars are widely accepted in Asia, and at the least, can be easily exchanged at airports, banks or less ideally, local money changers. The best way to go about it is to make sure you have a widely accepted credit card like a VISA or MasterCard and a reserve of US dollars in crisp, new bills obtained from your local bank.
  • Make sure to get as many small bills as you can as it can be difficult to find a tuk-tukdriver who can break a hundred. Keep your money in a secure waste belt that you keep on you at all times. Don’t leave it in your hotel. Crime is very low in Asia but you are probably more likely to be robbed out of your hotel or hostel than on the street. That being said, I never once had a problem. Remember… people don’t need to break the law when they can just convince you to hand over your money for cheap trinkets and lousy tours. I kid, I kid.

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Your Planning Stops Here

Tell me if this sounds like you:

“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to just fling myself into an epic, no-holds barred backpacking trip around Asia, but it’ll be too hard so I’ll probably never do it.”

Did you answer yes? Congratulations! You’re ready to go.

Asian Ruminations

If you’ve ever had that nagging yearn to spice up your life with a plunge into Asia, the other side of the world, where you won’t speak the local languages, you don’t really know where to go or how to get there, and you’re not even sure if you’ll like the food… good for you. That tiny grain of thought is all you really need to make it happen, despite all the ways you try to convince yourself otherwise.

I’ve backpacked around a dozen countries in Asia– China, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, Brunei and Myanmar— and not once did I do any planning before I went. I’m not a rich man either. These trips we’re all done on a cheapskate budget that still allowed me to do everything I wanted to do. Best of all, I don’t regret any of it one bit.

The Backpacker’s Brain

You could spend months, even years, pouring over maps, studying guide books and throwing out “feelers” to your friends and family on whether you should go for it. But none of that is ever going to get you closer to going to Asia and realizing your dream.

If this is something you really want to do, you have to tell yourself today that you are just going to go for it and everything else you’ll figure out on the way. That is the first and most important step you need to take. It’s time to start thinking like a backpacker.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should immediately stop showering and start washing your underwear in a sink (more on that later). I promise you that your mentality will inevitably transform as the backpacker’s brain takes over on your trip.

But your first step has to be accepting that you cannot and should not try to plan all the angles or obsess about all the potential pitfalls of backpacking around Asia. Does that mean this journey is always going to be a smooth sail? Hell no! But I promise you that if you allow yourself to embrace that uncertainty, you can not only make this happen, but you will be rewarded in ways you never thought possible.

In other words… just wing it.