Tips for solo travel in Vietnam

solo travel in Vietnam

Solo travel can be a fantastic way to experience a new place. When you’re on your own, you’ve often got no choice but to get stuck in and embrace the local culture – which usually makes for the best memories and stories when you get home.

We worked with Suzanne Moore, UK-based columnist and travel writer, on a recent trip to Vietnam. She wrote about her experience in The Telegraph – and also penned some top tips for solo travel for us to share with you. Here are her thoughts.  

I am sitting in a roof bar above Hanoi, watching the full moon rise over the lake. The DJ is remixing the Pet Shop Boys. The waiter brings me a gin and tonic. The young couple next to me ask if I will take some photos of them and immediately start posing. She is in a tiny puffy skirt with thigh-high boots, he is in a shiny suit and has produced an enormous bouquet of flowers. Is it a proposal? 

We take loads of selfies, which is what everyone here appears to do all the time. I now seem to be part of the proceedings.

It’s pretty much perfect, though not at all how I imagined Vietnam. Challenging your own preconceptions: isn’t that what travel is for?

Tip 1: be brave, be open

Staying curious is the best anti-aging strategy in the book, and travel is the best way to keep that curiosity muscle exercised. Vietnam had been calling me for some time, for many different reasons, so I jumped at the chance to go – even though I knew I was hitting the tail-end of rainy season and this would be a solo trip.

I love travelling with my family, whom I have dragged all over the world, and I love being with my friends. But wanderlust never really leaves a person, and there is something about taking off on one’s own that is the ultimate freedom. There’s no waiting for the others in the group, no traipsing around the compulsory sights, no settling for restaurants or bars that you haven’t chosen. You are free to do exactly as you please. 

What a luxury!  No wonder more and more of us middle-aged women are striking out on our own. We have paid our family dues. It’s our time now. 

I started to acclimatise on my Vietnam Airlines flight by watching Tran Anh Hung’s The Scent of Green Papaya, a slow, arty and beautiful film. Then I drifted off reading The Quiet American, Graham Greene’s prescient account of his time in Vietnam, a country he clearly loved.

Tip 2: go with the flow

Not everything will go to plan, but the world doesn’t end when that happens. 

Orientating myself around the lake, I quickly realised that there are so many versions of Vietnam that I couldn’t possibly do them all. Revisit the Communist era? Tour the war museums? Visit temples or the new consumerist shrines of shopping malls? So many choices, so little time.

The city of Hanoi is overwhelming and unbelievably exciting. You think you will be run over by the shoals of mopeds, but you just have to stride out confidently and, guess what? You will make it through the crazy traffic; they will stop. 

This is as good a metaphor for solo travel as anything.  

Tip 3: look like you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. You will be amazed at what you can do.

Lone women are better off in smaller places, having long lunches or chatting to the staff or other guests. Bigger hotels are nice to regroup in, grab that burger and fries and watch a movie.

But if there is anywhere where you maybe feel a bit lonely, it can be in the larger resorts, despite the fact that they may be full of couples sitting silently at dinner.If you want to venture out, resorts are more cut off.

But, that said, there was nowhere I felt unsafe in Vietnam.

Tip 4: food is the winning way into a culture

The one must in Vietnam is the street food. Perch on a plastic stool slurping a bún chả, and grab an incredibly cheap beer or the famous egg coffee and people-watch.

Some of the best food I had was at a cooking lesson with Chef Ai. I met at her neighbourhood market where I was agog at the unfamiliar produce: tons of tripe and other offal and entrails; the buckets of fat maggoty things, which Ai said were sea worms that were “creamy” inside; tofu being pressed; every kind of fruit. 

I hoped we wouldn’t be cooking anything scary, but I needn’t have worried. Ai is an utter pro and it was a pleasure to go to her house and meet her charming husband and daughter while she showed me how to prepare the most amazing food. Ai explained the yin and yang of flavours and the philosophy that underpins Vietnamese cuisine. We made 12 different dipping sauces from a fish sauce base!

The prawn and pomelo salad was gorgeous (though I can’t see myself flambéing seafood in rum in my own kitchen!). But I will make summer rolls again: delicious mouthfuls tied into beautiful parcels with delicate strings of steamed spring onion.

Tip 5: build social experiences into your itinerary to get a good balance

Whatever your thing is, go for it. Food, art, sports. This is how I ended up at a contemporary art gallery and a disused train factory full of upcoming young designers and artists.

The rush of Vietnamese cities is their mix of tradition and the bustling ultra-modern culture everywhere. The future and past intermingle: electric cars, luxury developments, a youthful surging energy exists alongside ancient tradition. Search it out.

If you want to hook up with other travellers, there are lots of apps you can use. Or get yourself a guide.  

Tip 6: a good guide will open the country up for you

You want someone who is both knowledgeable and flexible enough to tailor an itinerary to your interests.

When I went to Pu Luong, which is a good few hours outside of Hanoi, I relied a lot on my guide, Barmy (his name was actually Nam, but he wore a T-shirt that had Barmy printed on it). We were now deep in the most incredible countryside, in a valley surrounded by perpendicular limestone mountains, where the villagers still worked with scythes. These were ethnic White Thai people with their own language and dress. This place is heaven for trekkers. It was like being inside a painting. After Hanoi, this was deep, slow rural life. 

Barmy pointed out the guava, passion fruit and papaya growing by the stepped paddy fields. By a betel tree he told of the way the women used to paint their teeth black because they thought it beautiful and showed me the pictures on his phone. 

We stopped at tiny places on the side of the road, where we ate sticky rice cooked in bamboo and barbecued black pig. He spoke often of his family obligations. Family is everything in Vietnamese culture and every house has a shrine to the ancestors. The spirits of the dead are ever present and must be appeased. It is such different way of thinking about death and, therefore, life. Mind-blowing.

Another guide in the south called himself Jerry and was a real character, telling me ghost stories and tales of his grandmother who had got into so much trouble when she was sent to live in America that she was now back living with him! (She wouldn’t change her Vietnamese ways.)

Jerry showed me shrines and votive money, and spoke of the lunar calendar and all that must be done to appease the spirits. We met old people who did not know what year they were born but counted their age in rice harvests. 

Tip 7: vary the pace

Some city, some countryside, some beach. Vietnam is an amazingly varied country. The North and South are very different. The south is steamy and flat, and the food is spicier and the people less reserved than their northern counterparts.

I stayed in some pretty luxe resorts when I cruised the Mekong, which felt like a real holiday. At night I watched the junks move up and down the mighty river. In the day, fabulous food, pools, massages. 

The final part of my trip was to Con Son, an undeveloped island of pristine beaches and forest, monkeys and black squirrels. This paradise was formerly a prison used by the French and then the Americans, where prisoners were tortured in the infamous ‘tiger cages’. It sounds grim, but there was a strong sense of pilgrimage in the prisons and museums of Con Son. Visitors were respectful, understanding that war is not something to be gung-ho about.  

It was here that I stayed in what turned out to be my favourite hotel: the Poulo Condor, which has gorgeous staff who made me very welcome. When the time came to leave this island and the weather was stormy, I had my only moment of panic on the whole trip as I realised the flight out could be cancelled and I would be stuck there. But within hours, the wind had dropped and I was back in Saigon. 

Tip 8: respect the place and the people you meet

This may mean stepping back and letting those who want to tell their stories tell them. Don’t pry, just listen and you will learn.

Tip 9: when you get home, recognise what you achieved

Pat yourself on the back – you did it!

A trip full of unforgettable moments, some so intense you may wonder later if you really experienced them. I left Vietnam feeling I had but scraped the surface of this intoxicating place.

Tip 10: Start planning your next adventure.

Suzanne flew from London to Vietnam direct with Vietnam Airlines. We supported Suzanne’s trip to Vietnam and planned her itinerary – and we’d love to help you plan yours, too. If you’re ready to start crafting your next adventure, let’s talk.

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