For many years, people I know have been urging me to go and explore Vietnam. Finally I made it this year. Initially I thought that 3 weeks of travel time would give me adequate time to get to a good range of sites and regions – until I started to do my research! Vietnam, like many countries, has its set of ‘go to’ traveller picks. It is easy to fall for the easy option when planning journeys and stick to the places that always hit the top of the lists on generic itineraries. But this is always something that I seem keen to sidestep in some way. A little of that is travel snobbery – it’s true, can’t lie! – and a lot of it is that desire to see a more authentic side to a culture. However, if you are like me and don’t have endless months to sit and soak up a place at whim, there is always the restriction of time. Alongside that is the fact that, whilst I am brave enough to travel solo, I don’t like to go without good plans in place. So how did I choose where to go when I am plotting a future journey?
Most of the time the primary decision to go somewhere has been triggered by something I have seen or read or heard about. Endless subscriptions to travel mags give me inspiration. Documentaries and television programmes make me burn with a desire to be somewhere. Blogs and social media spark my curiosity. Like-minded souls go on journeys of their own and all of a sudden I want to follow in their footsteps. The wonderful resource of the worldwide web brings a new level to travel research that I never beneiftted from in my earlier decades of touring. In all these places lies the foundation of my travel-planning. However, it still needs to be tailored to my style.
Firstly, I only subscribe to journals that match my style of wandering. Those filled with high-end resorts and ocean cruises, with glossy spreads and package deals are not likely to cross my doorstep. I prefer a focus on art and culture; on backroads and nature; on photgraphy! The TV programs that inspire me are invariably hosted by folk with whom I would love to travel. If Joanna or Michael walked that road, chances are I will want to follow. Or perhaps it’ll be an admired chef with a passion for the local markets and the back-street cafes? If Anthony went there, it’ll be exciting. Then there’s the friendships. Great friends will inspire me with their travel adventures. If we are really close, it’s very likely that our ‘places I want to go’ list will have a sense of similarity. Alongside old friends, there are the new souls that we meet on the road. Via the torture of social media, they spark my travel envy as they post tales of “the next trip” or, worse still, of the other things they continued to do in that incredible destination that I just left so I could return to work!!
The value of maintaining connection to fellow wanderlusters should never be underestimated.
In the case of Vietnam, I also had the benefit of several friends who have a connection to travel in South East Asia on a professional level. I showed no shame in putting out the feelers for advice from them. People can only say ‘No’; you are never worse off for asking the question.
Alongside thier valued information and connections, this led also to suggestions of travel blogs by folks that they knew and looked up to in the industry. I was introduced to an even richer source of information. Blogging is an amazing resource. It gives you access to yet another bank of personal insights into places and experiences. As with the subscriptions I make to magazines, I am quite fussy in my searches. I seek blogs that indicate a similar taste or philosophy in travel. If their purpose seems to focus around product placement and inline advertising above a real fascination for the culture, then the chances are I will avoid them. I also head down the rabbit hole of a specific interest sometimes; following tortuous paths through food blogs to find the essence of a place. Age is also a crucial influencer in blog searches. A blogger who is a 22yr old student and out to party across the globe as quickly as possible may well have very different goals to those of a solo woman in her 50’s. Not always, but it is a good way to sort the wheat from the chaff.
So… how did Vietnam come together in the end? The embryo formed a couple of years ago when I read an article in Wanderlust magazine (closely followed by one I found in Lonely Planet). Both were focussed on exploring the country by way of the Reunification Express – the name given to the railway that runs from North all the way down the coast to the Mekong. My love of train travel (it started young!) meant that this sparked an inkling of a plan. In one of the articles, a particular description of Van Long Nature reserve near Ninh Binh highlighted somewhere I wished to visit. From that foundation, I spoke with mates who had been and asked their favourite sites and I started to seek out articles on locations that lay nearby. Often a list of potential stops can then be compared to commercial group tours that cover similar itineraries, giving a good sense of how the professionals ‘join the dots’.
Once I had formulated a better idea of where I wanted to go, I sought the advice of seasoned professional Vietnam-travelling chums about the practicalities. During my planning, I was in a hectic work schedule which I knew would leave me low in pre-trip energy. I assessed how I was feeling and whether I wanted to be caught up with the melee of busy tourist sites or spending quieter times in gentler places. From what I was hearing, Vietnam was an pleasant place as a confident, solo wanderer to just linger and observe. Plans shifted and I decided mid-planning to eschew a couple of the more popular destinations as I didn’t have the luxury to spend that type of quality time which would allow me to see beyond the tourism. Compromises were made, recommendations were taken, timetables were consulted and calendars plotted. After a while, it becomes kind of organic.
One thing leads to another and the itinerary starts to weave its own magic. Before I knew it my programme was full!
My resulting 3 weeks were filled with beautiful, interesting locales. I met fellow wayfarers who pointed me in the direction of incredible, unexpected experiences and I sat with locals and soaked up the culture. On arriving home, I find myself not just with memories of a stunning culture but also with a lovely new set of travel contacts and friendships which will only serve to spur me on to the next journey… travel bonus!
One always needs a plan, however distant.
I’m on it.