I used to travel with friends or family – never by myself. Whenever I see solo travellers on these trips, I would always admire their courage to travel all alone.
Growing up in an Asian family meant that my parents always feared for my safety and discouraged me from travelling by myself. But one day I did it.
I made my first solo trip to Malta in May 2016. It was a four-night trip which I thought was not too short nor too long, but just enough to “test the waters”. I found that I liked travelling alone and I got the opportunity to do it again in Vietnam when I went to visit my friend in Hanoi.
My solo journey in Vietnam started after I left Hanoi for a place called Ninh Binh. What I would recommend to first-time solo travellers is to join a day tour organised by local operators as things may get a bit overwhelming for some people.
When I did my research on Ninh Binh, I saw pictures of the place taken from a high vantage point, possibly a hill. Unfortunately, most day tours to Ninh Binh do not include this attraction as you would need to climb 450 steep stairs to get to it.
Determined to make the most out of my stay there, I rented a bicycle after the tour ended and cycled all the way to the hill. I then raced up the steps just so I could get to the top before sunset.
Some locals actually told me that it would take about an hour to get to the area, but Google Maps showed that it was only 5km. It only took me 15 minutes to cycle there!
If you are travelling solo (or even with a group of friends), always do your research first and make sure you have data connectivity so that you can check your routes using Google Maps or any other reliable map apps.
One fun fact about Ninh Binh that I did not know when I was there: It was where parts of the movie Kong: Skull Island was filmed. I only found out about this after I returned home!
As part of my day tour, travellers got to cycle around some scenic paddy fields in Ninh Binh. While cycling on a narrow path, my baggy pants got stuck in the bicycle’s gear, and I had to stop. The others in the group were not aware what had happened and I was left behind. I started to panic as I couldn’t see which way they went – there were many small paths in the area and if you got onto the wrong one, you could get lost.
Fortunately, a French traveller finally noticed that I was no longer with the group and turned back to look for me. He then helped me fix my bicycle; I was so grateful for his help and patience.
Google Maps came to my rescue again while I was on my way to the railway station. I was taking the night train to Da Nang. Ninh Binh is a small town without taxi services so I hired a “motorcycle driver” or as the locals call it, xe om, to take me to the station. It was 7pm and getting dark; I hopped on the back seat nervously with my backpack acting as buffer between me and the driver.
As we got closer to the station, my Google Maps showed that we had missed a right turn. At first I thought that he had taken a shortcut but as we were about to enter a small dark alley, I told him to stop and showed him the map on my phone. Luckily, he turned back and stopped at a nearby petrol station to ask for directions.
As soon as we reached the station I hopped off and ran to the gate without realising that I still had my helmet on! The entire ride took only 15 or 20 minutes but it certainly felt like the longest ride in my life.
Onboard the train, I shared a sleeping cabin with a Vietnamese lady and her son. Despite the language barrier, she kept offering her food to share with me. It was a simple gesture of generosity but it made my trip even more memorable.
Solo travel made me come out of my comfort zone. I have found that it is easier to meet new people and make new friends on a solo trip. Humans are social beings and sometimes loneliness pushes us to strike up conversations with fellow travellers whom we have never met. Everybody has to go on their path alone at some point in their life and travel is just another dimension of it. Solo travel is really a form of self-discovery, for me at least.