Please excuse me if I may sound like a broken record, but after my fall break this past week, I still believe “a lack of formal plans or expectations makes for the best adventures.” Little did I know, a lack of a valid Vietnamese Visa does too. And so the adventure begins…
One week before fall break, the scramble began. I entered my program’s student activity room to find my like-minded friends crowded around computers.
Pictures of random places were pulled up on the screens and the air was filled with frantic questions. “Where are you going?” “That looks cool” “Well, maybe we can go there too.” Simultaneously, tabs with destination information all the way from Korea to Singapore with every country in between were pulled up on my computer screen. For the next nine days, Southeast Asia was my oyster, and I had no idea where I was going.
Eventually, after much debate with myself, I decided I would not try to squeeze in the wonder of Angkor Wat or Bali’s beaches, but rather experience as much of one country as I could. Vietnam seemed to have it all, from cascading mountains and quiet beaches to busy city streets.
My only travel transaction was a round trip ticket from Bangkok to Hanoi for most of the week until the rest of the plans eventually fell into place. Before break began, my friend Billy and I inquired about a Vietnam visa from several different sources, including the Thai embassy. We were told that it was possible to get a tourist Visa upon arrival in Hanoi. Little did we know…
We took the overnight bus to Bangkok with several of our friends and arrived at the Don Muang Airport before 4 am—plenty of time to spare before our 7:15 flight. I found out in the check-in line, however, that a pre-entry form was required to enter Vietnam, and that we would not be making our flight. We applied for the rush visa application service that claimed processing took “3 hours at the most.” That Saturday, however, was a holiday. Rather than pay the $200 to get the other available last-minute entry form, we returned to the drawing board. Within four hours, we were on a flight to a southern Thai island, Krabi, and would not return to Bangkok until Monday evening. On Tuesday afternoon, we flew to Hanoi and spent the night there. The next morning, we traveled to Ha Long Bay in Northeastern Vietnam and I eventually met up with four friends to adventure to Sapa in Northwestern Vietnam. Throughout my traveling within Thailand and beyond its borders, I have learned some things and I thought that I would share them with you.
- Do your research- I am all about the random adventures, but once you decide on an adventure, it is a great idea to acquire some additional information. For example, sometimes while traveling no matter how much I attempt to “speak the Thai way,” my American accent reveals itself, and so do the “farang prices.” Before you get charged extra, look up some additional information on the Internet of where you are headed to or what you are doing. From personal experience, simply searching how much a taxi ride should be to a destination could cut your costs in half.
- Take the Local Transport- Compared to the U.S., transportation in Asia is pretty inexpensive. Although these rides can take up a little more time, it can be time well spent talking with the locals and enjoying the beautiful views out your window. Also, for extended rides, consider taking an overnight train or bus so you don’t miss out on exploring during the day and you can avoid the price of additional sleeping accommodations.
- Learn the language, or at least the magic words– When traveling to a different country, always try your best to learn the magic words- ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’…and ‘bathroom’ is probably good to know, too. Kind words go a long way no matter what country you are in. Attempting to learn a foreign language shows those you interact with, even if they can speak English, that you recognize you are the one coming into their country and you appreciate their language and culture.
- Start Climbing- No matter the distance or the number of steps, always climb to the tippy top of wherever you are. Not only can this venture provide an incredible view of the area, but it often elicits this certain spectacular emotion of feeling so small in a such a big world. Pull up a chair (or a rock), sit there, take a deep breath, and take it all in.
- Look into booking a backpacker’s hostel– Hostels are definitely an establishment that I have come to love while studying abroad and will miss when I return to the states. Not only do most of these backpacker hostels offer the same amenities as hotels for a cheaper price, but they also allow you to meet interesting people from around the world. I have discovered that Southeast Asia is a huge European vacation spot and it has been wonderful talking with these travelers. Some of the best food I have eaten, cultural sites I have seen, and shopping I have done has been because of these backpacker’s personal experience and advice they have received from their friends and families who have visited the places before.
- Take the road less traveled by (even if it is up a steep mountain)– When on vacation, it is easy to fall into the common traveler’s trap. It’s great to experience all the touristy things a place has to offer, but also venture down the alleyways and find the cutest coffee shops. For example, when you are offered two options- to do an easy trek with more tourists or a 16 mile hike up a mountain with no one around but the Sa Pa tribal groups-take the longer route. Even if you’re legs scream at you now, your soul will thank you for it later.
- Learn from the Locals– My favorite part of my trip was talking with the individuals who lived in the area, especially in Sa Pa, Vietnam. Our trekking guide, Pen, let us not only see into the history and culture of the area, but also into her daily life and routine. You can learn so much through personal exchanges, which can make you fall in love with the place even more.
- Obtain a VISA before entering a foreign country– Yes, this seems quite obvious. But if for some reason things don’t work out as you initially planned, don’t sweat it. Take a deep breath, get creative, and see this hiccup as an opportunity for a new adventure. Oh, and eventually add it to your anthology of amusing stories.