When escorted travel becomes solo travel and opens your eyes to something you haven’t experienced before.
“Don’t tell me how educated you are, tell me how much you travelled”Mohamed
Vietnam was on my bucket list for a long time. I knew eventually I would get there but the moment never arose and I always had other plans for places to visit NOW.
Working in the travel industry opened a lot of doors to various companies and opportunities that go hand in hand with being a travel consultant. What became my ‘Vietnamese Adventure’ was one such opportunity.
As a travel consultant, you’re expected to have a fair amount of knowledge about the products that you sell and personal experiences are second to none when it comes to creating an image for someone of their perfect trip. To this end, we were expected to travel as much as we could and as perks of the job, were occasionally offered what are known in the industry as ‘fam’ trips. These are ‘familiarisation’ trips to whatever destination is available to immerse you in locations and activities that you can then recommend to your clients.
Although at the time (2018) I was specialising in tailor made holidays to Canada, it didn’t mean that opportunities didn’t arise to see more than just that part of the world.
As a company, we would occasionally receive emails from operators offering a place on their trips at discounted rates for travel agents – one of these companies was Wendy Wu.
As soon as the little “New Email” bubble appeared at the bottom of my computer screen and mentioned “Vietnam”, well I couldn’t not click on it, could I?
They were offering an Agent Fam – 6 night/7 day private tour of Hanoi, Sapa & Halong Bay called “Sapa to the Sea”.
Due to the discounted rate (which was substantial), it was up to the traveller to source their own flights. There was (as is normal) a supplement for solo travellers plus an additional supplement if, travelling alone, you wanted your own room throughout.
The mention of Halong Bay was enough to get me searching for the best (and cheapest) flights to get an indication of what dates I would likely be travelling.
Naturally, I texted Jamie to see if he fancied going away with me and explained that it was discounted (for additional travellers too but not to the same extend as the agent) and when the best dates would be in terms of flight cost. We had already booked 2 weeks hiking in Bavaria in October of that year and, working in hospitality he was hard pushed to be able to take any time off during the summer season, plus the dates I was looking at coincided with some of Glasgow’s summer festivals which make the city even busier.
He told me that although he couldn’t go with me, though he would have loved to, he didn’t mind if I still wanted to go on my own. I decided to see if my brother was free and maybe wanted to tag along but his girlfriend had just moved over from Australia and they had started renting a house together so money couldn’t be spared.
Permission to go alone granted, I quickly checked the work rota for June and submitted my holiday form. When it comes to travelling, I don’t hang about – I feel that’s how opportunities are missed and as the saying goes “you only regret the chances you didn’t take”. So, holiday form approved, I replied back to the email with my departure dates, advising I would be a solo traveller wanting my own room (full board was included).
Our Flights Department held my preferred flights until I had heard back from the team at Wendy Wu. A response came through within an hour or so telling me that yes, I could travel on those dates and to please confirm and to call to pay in full, providing details of my flights, passport information etc. Within the space of a further hour (amidst juggling actual work) my flights were confirmed, as was my trip and everything was paid for. All I needed to do was make sure I didn’t miss my flight!
Wendy Wu are an excellent escorted tour company, specialising in the Far East. I’ve done a couple of escorted tours with mum in the past through various operators and knew this was a form of travel that I enjoy (which apparently seems to be unusual for someone of my age but I’ve always gone against the grain a bit). Many escorted tours only take you to see the ‘highlights’ but others include, as standard, areas that are slightly more off-the-beaten-track or at least have optional excursions if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous but with Wendy Wu, it’s all included.
My itinerary was to fly from Glasgow to Hanoi via London Heathrow, spend 1 night in Hanoi, take the sleeper train to Lao Cai before being driven up to Sapa where there was 1 night included, then back on the sleeper to Hanoi. The arrival back would be very early morning so a day room would be provided to give an extra few hours rest before getting the bus to Halong Bay. On arrival there would be 1 night spent on board the overnight cruise before being driven back to Hanoi for the final night. All transfers and guides were also included along with a selection of activities or experiences in each area.
Flash forward to June, I was up at some ungodly hour to get to the airport for my 0750 flight to London, eventually landing in Hanoi at 0450 local time. Now, because normal people don’t book flights that have them landing at ridiculous-o’clock in the morning after a long haul flight, I wasn’t surprised to find that I was the only one meeting the guide and driver at the arrivals terminal. What I was surprised to find (and admittedly slightly uneasy) was that as it turned out, there wouldn’t be anyone else joining me AT ALL, at least not until Halong Bay where there would obviously be other people on the cruise. Wendy Wu departures are guaranteed so as long as at least 1 person is booked, it’ll go ahead.
This wasn’t what I’d expected and all the way to the hotel I felt a little nauseous at the idea that it would just be me, alone in Vietnam for the best part of 7 day as at that point I’d never travelled solo. Arriving at the hotel before 6am understandably guaranteed that I was far too early for check-in which wasn’t until 11am. 5 hours to kill on my own in Hanoi!
“Nothing to worry about, it’ll be fine” was what I kept telling myself over and over as I arranged to leave my suitcase and head out for the morning. The receptionist was lovely and must have sensed that I was a bit uneasy. She gave me a more detailed map of how to get back to the hotel along with a business card in case I needed to get a taxi or did get lost.
So, armed with my map and backpack containing my camera, passport and travel documents (all three things which never leave my side when I travel) and arranging with the guide to be ready at the hotel for 2pm to be taken for lunch, off I went to explore the big city.
Hanoi is incredibly beautiful and I was amazed by just how active it was at such an early hour. Walking along the street from the hotel, every doorway was filled with fruit & veg stalls, people cooking and businesses showcasing their products on the pavement (so much so that you’re best to just walk on the road). I made it to the main square overlooking Hoàn Kiếm Lake, meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” with Tháp Rùa (Turtle Tower) standing in the water. The lake is a focal point of the city and is one of its’ scenic hot spots.
As I walked along the pathways trailing the shores of the lake, I kept noticing that people were staring at me and whispering amongst themselves. It wasn’t until I got to Sapa that I was told the reason for this – it’s not out of nastiness or anything like that, but solely for the fact that I’m both tall and naturally very pale. I stand at 5′ 11″ and found that I was towering over a lot of the Vietnamese that I passed.
Being pale in the UK is not considered a good thing which is why we have such a popular fake-tan industry. In Asia however, paleness is actually a sign of beauty, so much so that many women bleach their skin or at the very least carry an umbrella to avoid getting a tan. Wandering about Hanoi at 6.30am though, I didn’t know this and so smiling back and trying to ignore the fact that I was clearly the centre of attention in some way, I sat down on a bench and called mum to let her know I’d arrived and informed her of the unexpected twist to my trip. I’ve always been independent and she told me I’d be fine (which honestly, I did know too) and to have fun.
By this point, there were a couple of restaurants beginning to open so I grabbed a chair on a terrace overlooking the lake. After ordering a delicious looking fruit platter and tea, I sat back an enjoyed the view. Though I went for my usual green tea, I did try the coffee during my trip – Vietnamese coffee seems to be an acquired taste but it’s one that I quickly got used to, enough that I actually ordered some when I got back home.
All around me there were things going on – elderly Vietnamese doing tai chi on the grass, children walking to school and street vendors setting up for the day.
On the other side of the square, the markets were being set up so after breakfast I decided to take a look… but not before I found something resembling a pharmacy. I knew that it was going to be hot but hadn’t factored in the humidity when I decided to wear sandals to travel in rather than flips flops. Leather sandals plus high humidity and a lot of walking quickly leads to blisters! I usually have some in my backpack but had either put them in my suitcase instead or had forgotten to pack them altogether. After a bit of charades-like interaction with the owner of a scarf stand, I eventually got to where I needed to be.
In a marketplace pharmacy there was no such thing as ‘blister plasters’ so I walked out with normal plasters which did the job but had to be replaced every few hours due to them coming unstuck.
After a few hours wandering through the stalls and then a couple of wrong turns, I made it back to the hotel, checked in and waited in the reception area for the guide. Lunchtime!
The driver took us through the Old Quarter to a small restaurant tucked away in a side alley. Inside were enough tables to seat around 30 people and a menu had already been arranged for my visit.
The guide and driver sat separately so I could enjoy at my own pace. I’d never had Vietnamese food before but I’ve always been willing to try new things. The menu was in Vietnamese with a brief translation in English of my 3 different dishes and cutlery was set out along with chopsticks. The food was incredible and ignited a love of Vietnamese cuisine there and then. Throughout my whole trip, every meal was delicious.
Lunch over, it was onto the first attraction included in the tour – a stop off at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, the resting place of the Vietnamese Revolutionary leader & President. The Mausoleum is located in Ba Dinh Square where the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established and where Ho worked as the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Vietnam for 18 years. The design was inspired by Lenin’s Mausoleum in Moscow but features traditional Vietnamese architecture.
Visitors are asked to dress with respect and so shorts, sleeveless shirts and short skirts are not permitted. Though we didn’t go in, it was interesting to see just how busy the Square was with people visiting ‘Uncle Ho’.
Our next stop was the Museum of Ethnology, about 5 miles or so outside the city. The museum focuses on the 54 officially recognised ethnic groups found across Vietnam in an effort to try to preserve their cultural heritage.
The museum features over 15,000 artefacts relating to the traditional Vietnamese way of life with both indoor and outdoor displays.
The next morning after breakfast at the hotel, I was once again collected by the guide. This time I was taken to the One Pillar Pagoda, one of Vietnam’s most iconic temples. It’s said to represent a lotus flower growing out of the water as it stands on a single pillar in the centre of a lotus pond.
The temple itself is only 3m square but inside is a shrine to a Vietnamese Buddhist deity and is surrounded by beautiful tranquil gardens.
After lunch was the Temple of Literature, dedicated to Confucius and is one of many temples in the country dedicated to sages and scholars. Vietnam’s first national university, the Imperial Academy is also found here. Originally, the university only accepted members of Vietnam’s elite society, royalty and aristocrats before taking on bright ‘commoners’.
The building itself is beautifully preserved and showcases more traditional Vietnamese architecture along with its immaculately landscaped gardens, courtyards and ponds.
Again, as part of the itinerary, I had a ticket to a water-puppet show at the Ngoc Son temple, just off the main square in Hanoi – this was unique to say the least but is very traditional of Vietnamese culture. It’s considered an art form and takes a great deal of work and practice to do well.
A late check out from the hotel was included as I was taking the sleeper train to Lao Cai tonight after the performance.
On arriving at the train station, the guide collected my tickets, took me to the platform and made sure that I got on the train.
This whole journey was like nothing I’d ever experienced. As per the itinerary, you’re allocated a bed in a tiered 4-bed cabin. The train was jam packed and I was the last to arrive in my cabin. The other passengers must have got on several stops earlier as they were already unpacked and consisted of an older lady, teenager girl and 3 young children, all crammed into a bunk bed and the lower bunk of mine! The beds, though narrow are spacious enough and have their own reading light and plug sockets with some storage space at the foot for a bag. The walkway between the bunks was narrow too and already filled with bags and cases but I managed to squeeze mine in as well.
The family were really lovely and although none of them spoke any English, they tried to interact with me as best they could and the younger children even shared their sweets. I have to say it wasn’t the best nights sleep I’ve ever had but it was a very cool experience.
Arriving in Lao Cai, my guide and driver for this part of the trip met me at the station and drove me the 22 miles to Sapa and my next hotel. Sapa is located in the northwest of Vietnam as is a popular base for trekking, overlooking the terraced rice fields on the Muong Hoa Valley.
Once my case was dropped off at the hotel, we took a light trek through the rice terraces to the Lao Chai village. Lao Chai is a rural village with hill tribes making up most of the population. It’s very much set in tradition and must only get a few visitors when the tour groups come in. Again, nobody spoke English but some were keen to try to interact if they could. One lady, in traditional dress followed us for about a mile, walking on the opposite side of the road. She would scurry across to ask a question in broken English, frantically nod and smile when I answered and then run back over the road to think of her next one.
Back in Sapa itself, the guide and I took a walk so that I could see a bit more of the town and he showed me how to get back to the hotel should I want to go out for a walk on my own later on. We had a lovely dinner overlooking the Valley in a traditional wood-clad restaurant.
I did go out again later on to have a look through some of the local shops and to take some more photos. I got back to the hotel just as the heavens opened for the night. Vietnam experiences some incredible thunder and lightening storms and this was certainly one of them – I actually pulled the sofa in my room up to the window so that I could watch.
The next morning was free for me to do what I wanted so after eating breakfast on the terrace overlooking the town, I headed up the road to the Cable Car station which would take me to Fansipan Peak, the highest mountain in Indochina standing at 3,147m. The 15 minute cable car journey takes you over the tree-covered slopes and rice terraces and up into the clouds.
A garden complex is the first area you reach when you get off the cable car but this is not the summit. The gardens feature stone pathways, pagodas, ancient trees and a variety of bronze statues including a 20m Buddha statue.
To get to the summit, you can either take the funicular or the stairs. Once at the top, a 360 degree platform gives unprecedented views. The weather at the top wasn’t great so I couldn’t see much and it was the coldest I’d been since arriving in Vietnam. Cloud cover was low which gave it a very drizzly feel so many people had bought ponchos at the shops in the station. Being from Scotland though, I’m used to it being a bit cold and wet!
By the time I got back to ground level it was time to meet the guide for lunch at another rustic restaurant in town before driving to another of Sapa’s hill tribe villages for another short trek.
Time to head back to Lao Cai for my train back to Hanoi. At one of the restaurants outside the station, I ordered Orange & Ginger chicken and I swear, I can still taste it. It was one of my favourite dishes since arriving in Vietnam.
My cabin wasn’t quite as cramped on the way back to Hanoi – a father and daughter travelling together and an older gentleman.
The train arrived back into Hanoi first thing the following morning so I was able to get a shower and repack my case thanks to the day-room at the hotel before being collected by my original driver who would take me (and other travellers!) to Halong Bay.
We stopped at another 7 or so hotels across Hanoi to pick up others also travelling to Halong Bay and who I found would be on the same cruise. After being on my own for the past few days, it was actually nice to be around other people and have a chat about our experiences so far. It was quite a diverse group – a mother & daughter travelling before the daughter started uni, a New Zealand guy travelling solo and a few older couples.
The Kiwi guy and I hit it off quite well since we were both travelling alone and were keen to know about our completely opposite parts of the world. He was from New Zealand originally but was now living in Australia working on a farm.
The food and staff on board the cruise were excellent and the cabins were spacious with private bathroom and large windows. We got lunch on board as soon as we arrived before heading out into the Bay. I’ve always wanted to see Halong Bay and it absolutely did not disappoint! The limestone rocks towering up out of the green-blue water – wow! It really was a bucket list highlight.
After a couple of hours of sailing, we stopped and were given the option to disembark and walk up to the Sung Sot (Surprise) Cave on Bo Hon Island. This is the biggest cave in Halong at 10,000m square and is a highlight of most itineraries.
To reach the caves, you need to climb 50 stairs to reach the entrance to the grotto. The cave itself is divided into 2 chambers and is beautifully lit with spotlights drawing your attention to certain stalagmites and stalactites or areas of the cave with structural beauty.
Next up was a stop at a floating pearl farm from which we would be able to kayak if we wanted to. Wanting to take every opportunity that came up, naturally, I went along. I visited a pearl farm in China which was interesting so I didn’t mind seeing another one but I really went for the kayaking. We only had about 20 minutes or so which meant that we couldn’t go too far but to be able to kayak right up to the limestone outcrops and see the caves running along the underside of some and the plants and foliage growing between the stone is something that you can’t see as well from on board a boat.
A couple of drinks on the main deck after dinner, along with another spectacular thunder & lightning storm finished off the evening.
The next morning after breakfast, we were told that today’s activity would be a stop at Ti Top Island with the opportunity to walk up the to pagoda at the top. From here we’d get a panoramic view of the Bay and afterwards, we could go swimming from the beach.
If you want to visit Halong Bay, please don’t be under any illusion that you’ll be the only ones there because guaranteed you won’t be. We were told by our captain that at any one time, there are up to 500 ships on the Bay. Many of these are tourist cruises and so naturally everyone ends up visiting the same attractions.
There were a good few other ships already at the dock when we arrived so ours was anchored just off the beach and we were ferried over by boat. There’s roughly 450 steps to reach the top at a height of 360ft (110m) and some of it’s quite hard going. The steps themselves are narrow which don’t give much space to pass another people on their way down plus other parts are quite steep so half of our party only made it half way. Myself, along with a few others did go all the way to the top and the view was incredible – blue skies and beautiful blue-green water. Being so high up, you can see the Bay in all directions and get a real idea of the number of ships and boats that occupy it at any given time.
Once back down at the beach, we had about 45 minutes to swim or just relax until we needed to board the ship and head back to the port. Knowing that swimming was on the agenda, I had made to sure wear my bikini under my shorts & t-shirt rather than have to find somewhere to change in full.
The water wasn’t quite as warm as I expected but definitely warmer than swimming in open water back home! I found a huge shell and a bit of coral when I dived down which I planned to take home as a souvenir though I must have dropped the shell at some point so only had the coral when it was time to leave. It now sits in a little dish on my mantlepiece as a reminder of my trip.
Heading for home
Lunch was served onboard as we started to sail back to port. Our cruise was only for 1 night so it was time to head back to Hanoi.
What we saw from the bus on our drive back to the city would easily back up the ideology that driving in Vietnam is different from driving anywhere else – scooters and motorbikes piled high with crates and fishing baskets and no indicating at all, just simply pulling out into the road or between lanes and expecting traffic to move. Quite an experience, especially when you aren’t the one driving.
On the way back to Hanoi, myself, Dave (the Kiwi) and a couple we met on the ship agreed to meet up and go for dinner and a few drinks to celebrate our last night in Hanoi. I was due to fly home the following evening, Matt & Georgia were flying out to Cambodia to continue travelling and Dave was leaving the next morning for Da Nang, further down the coast.
After getting settled back at the hotel, I suggested we meet in the Square as it wasn’t too far from each of our hotels and gave us plenty of choice for places to eat. A few hours later, we were back together enjoying a meal at the same restaurant by the lake that I had breakfast at when I first arrived.
On a Friday & Saturday evening, the Square is closed off to traffic, a stage and speakers are put up and a mini-weekend festival starts. The night markets were out in full, there was music and vendors working their way through the crowds selling whatever they had from street food to tacky tourist souvenirs.
When I explored Hanoi when I arrived, I’d seen the rooftop SkyBar overlooking the city and had decided that I wanted to have a few drinks there before I left Vietnam – I mentioned the bar and everyone was up for it. Going through the flashy hotel entrance below, we did feel a little underdressed in our shorts and t-shirt but the bar itself was more relaxed and we felt much more comfortable. We’d arrived during Happy Hour but were told that last orders would be coming up soon so we got a selection of extra cocktails between us. I now know that James Bond’s classic martini ‘shaken not stirred’ is absolutely NOT a favourite of mine!
We all had places to be the next day so we called it a night around midnight, wished each other well and made our way back to our hotels.
Dave and I kept in touch for a while. He had another week or so travelling down the coast visiting Da Nang, Hoi An and Ho Chi Minh City (which used to be Saigon) so he promised to keep me up to date with what it was like and sent me a few photos of some of the places he visited which all looked incredible.
We did keep in touch once he got back to Australia but both being busy again with work and being back to our own lives, the conversations became much less frequent and quickly stopped altogether.
I was left to enjoy my final afternoon in Hanoi before being taken back to the airport for my flight home later that evening. My return flights were via Ho Chi Minh City and London Heathrow and I managed to sleep through most of the long haul leg.
Overall, I had an incredible experience and was able to check a few items off my bucket list.
It didn’t quite start out as I had expected but by the end of the trip, I couldn’t have imagined it any other way. Finding that I was alone in a strange country made me more aware of my confidence and my independence and being on my own didn’t hold me back. I didn’t shy away from throwing myself into the culture and the experience just because there wasn’t anyone there with me, in fact, I probably did the opposite. I went to the night markets, I walked through busy streets without worry, I tried to interact with the locals and made sure that I packed in as much as I could whilst it was just me.
Travelling alone is eye-opening and freeing! There’s nobody to complain or judge you when you want to fill a whole day with sightseeing, when you sit at a café for 3 hours and have enough coffee to last a week or when you drink more cocktails and Tiger beer than you should over the space of 3 days.
Even if you only ever travel solo once, make sure you do because you’ll find that you learn a lot about yourself and have an amazing, incomparable experience at the same time.