A 12-step ‘girl’s guide’ to surviving solo travel in Vietnam

It takes a strong heart, mind and body to travel solo in Vietnam, but you will be taking a journey that can be as  fascinating and fun as it is demanding and out of any comfort zone. In this delightful piece from one of my favourite health and travel writers, Jessica le Roux, gives what she calls her ‘girl’s guide’ to surviving a long and winding solo bus ride with the locals in Central Vietnam. It turns out to be a 12-step programme to finding magic moments within all the distinctly uncomfortable, and at times somewhat scary, ones on the road. – Marika Sboros


By Jessica le Roux* 

Happy Buddha
Budai laughing statue in Vietnam. Picture: Milei.vencel, Hungary. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Budai.jpg#/media/File:Budai.jpg

Any backpacker worth her salt knows that getting from point A to point B is a vital part of any traveller’s experience. Most will also warn you that an “experience” will be hairy at best and a warty swamp ogre at worst – but that’s half the fun.

Here are a few things I learnt after my experience travelling solo on a local bus through Central Vietnam. With luck, you too can find those magic moments we all dream about on the road.

Step 1 – Stake your territory

Take full advantage of the fact that you are boarding a virtually empty bus. Claim the entire back row, next to a working window and with a handy red plastic footstool to rest your feet on. Feel smug, comfortable, and enjoy 19 minutes of enchanting local scenery and enchanting local music on the radio.

Step 2 – Embody the curious traveller

Look on with curiosity and interest as the bus slowly starts to fill with enchanting local people. Generously open your heart to share your back seat with another passenger. Be the bigger person when she takes up more than half the seat by stretching out fully prone next to you. Also, kindly overlook her dirty shoes inching closer toward your backpack (which, you remind yourself, is dirty anyway).

Step 3 – Surrender to the experience

Serenely surrender your red plastic stool, which was not, after all, thoughtfully placed for your convenience, but is in fact an extra seat belonging to the bus driver’s wingman. (In Vietnam, apparently, bus drivers have wingmen). Settle down to enjoy the remaining 7 hours 52 minutes of your trip.

Step 4 – Don’t count your chickens

Packing in the provisions en route in Vietnam

But not so fast. Reconcile yourself to the universal traveller’s law of one step forward two steps backwards. Your fellow back seat passenger is removed by Wingman (forward step). However, Wingman now nimbly demonstrates how half of your back seat can be folded forwards.

This maneuver makes room for seven boxes of unknown content and three 20-kilogram sacks of enchanting local fruit. Oh, and, for some unknown reason, an enchanting local rusted hubcap.

Step 5 – Roll with the punches

Congratulate yourself on your ability to roll with the punches and create a comfy nook in the remaining quarter of your back seat. Remain philosophical about the loss of an opening window in this new position.

Improvise ingeniously (you reckon) by creating a comfortable footrest on one of the fruit sacks. Settle down to enjoy the remaining 7 hours 45 minutes of your journey.

Step 6 – Use your provisions

But not so fast … kill three small black ants, two big red ants – and one small incidental spider – which have emerged from the fruit sack, and are now making their way up your right leg.

Step 6 – Have tenacity

Repeat insect squashing exercise twice. Notice that enchanting local music is sort of getting on your nerves. Then, just before losing your cool, have a brainwave and get out your very handily packed bottle of insect repellent and cover your legs with a generous layer.

Repeat squashing exercise twice more. Slightly loose your cool at this point and curse all enchanting music of any origin. Thankfully have a second brainwave and rub repellent all over the boxes and fruit sacks themselves, as well as in a bold stripe along the width of your seat for good measure.

Step 7 – Celebrate small victories

Celebrate joyously (but in a physically contained way – you should really be keeping your legs to your side of the insect boundary line). Enjoy the delightful local scenery for 13 minutes, priding yourself on your acute problem solving skills and ability to both make and defend a territory.

Step 8 – Surrender to the experience (again.)

Relinquish total control of your recently staked territory. The whole back seat is now to be utilized entirely for cargo. Accept your new seat, in a full row of people and next to a young mother with her small child in arms. Fortify yourself as they begin to fall asleep half on your shoulder and half on your lap. It doesn’t look like you will be using it, so you might as well offer them your travel pillow as well.

Step 9 – Savour the magic moments

The ‘regrettable selfie’

Enjoy a small, precious, fleetingly beautiful moment peeking into the intimacy that is a mother and child peacefully asleep in each other’s arms. (And technically, your arms too).

Step 10 – Take a regrettable selfie

Attempt a surreptitious one-handed selfie so as to remember the magic moment you are experiencing. Accidentally awaken both subjects and unintentionally capture the spoiling of a perfectly beautiful moment in time. Mentally give yourself a sharp kick in the butt.

Step 11 – Laugh at yourself

See the funny side. Smile awkwardly at the mother. Silently communicate with your eyes that you are not a violent and mentally disturbed voyeur, that you wish her and her infant only good things, and that after all, let’s not forget you did share your travel pillow with her. Permit a few of these finer points to be lost in translation.

Step 12 – Let Go

Sigh. Smile. Settle down. Enjoy the enchanting local scenery (and music) for the remaining 6 hours 7 minutes of your trip.

*Jessica le Roux is studying towards an MSc in Nutritional Science, practises meditation, yoga and tai chi, cares for the planet and writes and blogs about wellbeing every chance she gets gets. Visit her New Edition Health website.

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