I have to confess that it was only AFTER I booked and paid my plane ticket, that I informed my mother about my plans to backpack through Vietnam…..solo. Mommy dearest didn’t like it all that much but to be fair, I didn’t have much of a choice! With less than two (very busy winter camp) weeks to plan a trip , a plane ticket costing a bit more than I bargained for and a “peak season” monster threatening to munch up the remainder of my meager salary, backpacking seemed like the best alternative.
Secretly I was jumping with joy!!! Ever since reading “Fried Egg with Chopsticks” by …. I’ve dreamt about backpacking through Asia. Idealized dreams, I should add, of trekking through jungles and sailing through sees with nothing but a backpack and the wind in my hair. I didn’t realize that backpacking also meant cold showers (if you were lucky to have a shower at all), filthy sheets, street food and primitive public transport systems. But having done the whole 3 star hotel, air-conditioned bus, organized tour adventure, I wanted to get “down and dirty”. And dirty I most definitely did!
Except for an online reservation at “hostelworld.com” that my darling friend Jill (who is quite the expert and budget travel) helped me with and a few scribbles in my secondhand “Lonely Planet”, I honestly didn’t do much planning for this trip. I have to warn you though; please don’t try this at home! If I’ve learned one thing from this Vietnam excursion, it is that a little bit of planning – even if it’s just a tiny bit (like checking the weather forecast) – is advisable. But through experience comes wisdom, they say. And since we are busy confessing, I might as well add that “planning” has never been my forte. I much prefer to jump on fate’s back and hold on for dear life. Much more exciting that way, I dare say. It is when fate turns around and bites you in the backside that things get a bit messy though. But still peacefully unaware of the “bites” that awaited me, I packed my small backpack with the bare necessities – 4 dresses because it is ALWAYS summer in Vietnam, 2 pairs of shoes, a swimsuit, towel and sunglasses, wallet, camera and one of those small travel toiletry kits that you take on the plane. For a heavy packer like me this was quite an achievement and I was rather proud of myself (I am definitely the first in my family that could achieve this). Later I would realize that I still over-packed - I never even touched the swimsuit ….or the 4 dresses …or my sunglasses and sandals.
Wild with excitement, I was still huddled in my thick winter coat and jeans when I got into a taxi at Hanoi airport. Because it was freezing cold winter in Korea and I would spend a night in Hong Kong on my way back from Vietnam, I thought it wise to take a coat along. Very wise indeed, because “bite” number one was about to happen….and not just any “bite”, but something close to frostbite. As a firm believer of “first impressions last” I was contemplating the logic of choosing the ugliest part of the city as the airport spot when I noticed the thick gray cloud of “pollution” hanging over Hanoi. I just felt the first tinges of buyers/travelers regret when I noticed that the taxi driver was wearing a thick coat …and so were the thousands of motorcyclists crisscrossing the highway in front of us. It took a few moments before it dawned on me that the grey clouds were not the result of pollution, but in fact winter. It couldn’t be!!!! Frantically I searched for my Lonely Planet – it was in the Lonely Planet that I read that this “always summer in Vietnam” – before I realized that I left it on my bedside table the previous night. With only the warm clothes on my back and zero guidelines for travelling in Vietnam, the “tinges” of regret turned into full swing remorse and terror. Did I really choose wintry Vietnam over the sunshine and beaches in Thailand? This couldn’t be!!! Disbelieving and filled with despair, I huddled myself even tighter in my thick coat – for the next few days this coat and I would most certainly challenge each other’s boundaries. When I said I wanted to get “down and dirty”, I had no idea…..