Aparna Somaiah is a traveler and baker and great at both! When she isn’t dreaming about her next vacation or that perfect slice of pie, she’s backpacking and wandering the world. She talks to us about a beautiful journey she took on her own recently.
For years I have dreamed of travelling solo. I would muster up the courage to take off and then would invariably chicken out. So on a rather tedious day at work, I found myself wondering why not try solo travel. I had nothing planned for the year, so why not take the plunge?
So step 1 -> Google female friendly countries. Step 2 -> Pick one. Step 3 -> Tell mom that I have booked tickets (even though I have not.) Step 4 -> After getting just a grim face and no music, run to laptop, pick a date, look for tickets and book them.
Two months later, I was on a flight to Vietnam! Vietnam has three main regions i.e. the north, the center and the south so I chose to visit one city in each region- Hanoi, Hoi-an and Ho Chi Minh City(HCMC) respectively.
In Hanoi, where I started, I visited The Old Quarter, West Area Lake, The Hanoi Hilton, The French Quarter with its art galleries and tree-lined Boulevards, Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum and much more. I spent a day on a junk boat at the gorgeous Halong bay which is a bay filled with over 1000 limestone rock formations. I saw hidden grottos and visited a fishing village which is essentially a collection of houses on rafts. They even had a school and a bank on rafts! If I was heading to Halong Bay, I’d spend 2-3 days here. I knew I would go nuts sitting on a boat by myself for more than a day, so I opted for a one-day cruise instead.
Next stop: Hoi-an. Hoi-an looks like a scene from a postcard with tiny yellow buildings lining its streets and a river running through. It is also the tailoring capital of the world and you can get anything from a suit to boots stitched in less than 24 hours! I wanted to do something different here and as Vietnam is famous for motorbikes, an adventure on a two-wheeler seemed fitting. So I hopped onto a bike and took off on a day trip to My Son Sanctuary- a collection of ruins from the Cham Dynasty. Explore Vietnam on your own with a bike rather than with a tour guide. It costs 1/4 the rate, bike and fuel included and it is incredible fun!
The Top Gear team had travelled from HCMC to Halong on bikes and had covered Hoi-an to Hue through the mountains via Hai-Van pass as part of their route. This is a popular tour for transferring between Hue and Hoi-an and being a Top Gear fan, it was on my agenda. However, after having to cancel my tour repeatedly, I decided to brave the mountains alone. I passed by villages, paddy fields, a gorgeous stretch of highway along Danang beach and the view of the mountains coming down to meet Danang bay when I finally ascended the mountain was stunning. Jeremy Clarkson had remarked about this view, that it doesn’t get any better than this and he was right.
Stage 3: The descent into madness – Ho Chi Minh City. HCMC is hot, humid and chaotic. It is like a smack in the face after the calm of Hanoi and Hoi-an but it is also a city I will never forget because it was here that I had to confront an all-consuming fear of having nothing to do and no one to talk to. My dorm was empty, I had covered all the sights that I had wanted to see in two days and I was desperate to get out. I (fondly) refer to this as my antsy episode.
I eventually fought the feeling and stayed put and over the next two days I visited a beautiful Cao Dai temple and then headed to Cu Chi tunnels – a massive underground network used by the Vietnamese to fight the Americans during the Vietnam War, where I fired a carbine rifle. I discovered a fantastic café which the locals haunted, sat in a park and people-watched and by the end of day 3, my dorm was full! Antsy episode = BIG LESSON LEARNT!
While in HCMC, you should visit the Ben Thanh night market. You can stroll through leisurely, look for a good bargain and grab some amazing street food.
Being a huge foodie, no trip of mine is complete without sampling the local fare. Fresh ingredients are essential to Vietnamese cooking and you don’t get tired of eating their food. My favorite dish was Bun Cha – cold rice noodles, meatballs, herbs and a tangy sauce. I also tried Pho (noodle soup), Banh xeo (fried pan-cake stuffed with shrimp and pork), Banh cuon (steamed pan-cakes with shrimp and fried shallots), Banh Mi (Vietnamese baguette), Xoi (sweet or savory rice served with various toppings. I had one which was salty-sweet, coloured bright orange and topped with coconut milk) and lots more. Beer and coffee are also must haves. The Vietnamese brew a beer called Bia Hoi and you can find joints all over serving fresh Bia Hoi. Coffee is available in black or white varieties which you can drink neat or with condensed milk or even a beaten egg and is perfect after a hot day in the sun.
Getting around Vietnam is easy. Motorcyclists lounging around on their motorbikes can be found all over and they will give you a lift for a fee while sharing anecdotes about Vietnamese life. A cheap ride and conversation is a good bargain in my opinion. Also be aware of the great con. “Viet-Con” as a friend put it after I narrated a particularly bad experience. Bargain wherever you can as rates for tourists increase at least three fold. Haggling with the taxi drivers in Goa is easier in comparison!
Vietnam ranks consistently among the top destinations for solo travelers. So if ever the urge to try solo travel strikes you, it is an excellent place to start. It has something for everyone – the adrenaline junkie, the beach bum, the spa enthusiast. Though Vietnam wasn’t on my wish list, I am really glad I visited as I had an amazing time and as a solo woman traveler I have never felt safer.
I was told that I would learn a lot about myself during this trip and I did. I found that while I love my space I also enjoy meeting new people and sharing experiences. I discovered the sweetness of doing nothing. I even learnt to eat rice with chopsticks and nearly mastered the art of self-photography!
Trying solo travel for the first time can be both exciting and daunting. There was a quote that I kept reciting whenever I got nervous about what I was about to do – Buy the ticket. Take the ride.
I bought my ticket. I took the ride and I loved every moment of it.