Solo travel in Vietnam: why new people enhance new experiences
Northern Vietnam is magical. From the sprawling, pulsing streets of Hanoi’s Old Quarter to the verdant, terraced mountain ranges that look like they were hand-chiselled by God, it’s a region that’s unlike any other in the world. I had the pleasure of six weeks of solo travel in Vietnam, traversing through rice paddies and zooming round hairpin bends on a moped, flanked by scenery as dramatic as anything in the Alps. I did all of this solo, but not necessarily alone. And this made my experience extraordinary in many ways…
For all of Northern Vietnam’s delights, in my mind there’s one province in the region that reigns supreme above the rest in my personal mythology: Ha Giang. I heard about the area through multiple backpackers while travelling, and was often told in reverential tones that the four-day Ha Giang Motorbike Loop was the best road trip in all of Southeast Asia. A visit north was quickly added to my rough itinerary.
When I got there in 2019, Ha Giang had only been open to tourism for roughly a decade. Like neighbouring Lao Cai, there are huge numbers of ethnic minorities in Ha Giang too, adding to the sense it was different to the rest of Vietnam. I knew very little of this cultural history at the time, instead rolling into the main city of the province (also named Ha Giang) while night was obscuring the region’s natural delights, my journey fuelled only by a desire to see just what made this particular part of the world so great for a road trip.
A potential folly of solo travel is there’s nobody to double-check your work, and I experienced this issue at my hostel at 4am, when it transpired I’d booked for the next evening and there was no bed for me. (There are reasons people keen to try solo travel in Vietnam opt for group trips, instead of bumbling around like me looking for places to stay).
Thankfully, the owner was kind enough to let me sleep on what ended up being an incredibly comfortable couch in preparation for the next morning. After a delicious breakfast (hostels throughout Vietnam tend to offer incredible free breakfasts) our group of roughly twenty-five wannabe bikers received a quick run-down of the route. We were then given the option of renting our own semi-automatic bike, or using the ‘easy rider’ service, which meant perching on the back of a hostel worker’s bike while they drove. In the weeks leading up to my excursion I’d had plenty of practice on regular automatic scooters (unsuitable for the elevation changes on the loop), so I was confident enough to ride alone, even on the slightly unfamiliar machine. I picked a Honda Wave with some pre-existing battle scars, hoping I’d be able to take on some of the vehicle’s hardiness. After a few minutes of getting to grips with the semi-automatic mechanism, we were all brought back to the hostel and advised to split into smaller groups of four or five as the distance between stops could be quite long, and being in a massive crowd wasn’t always feasible.
The expedition leaving from our hostel had a huge Dutch contingent, many of whom knew each other and therefore buddied up straight away. I’d spent two months mastering solo travel in Vietnam, so had no qualms in approaching two women who’d been sitting opposite me during the briefing, before being joined by another man to complete our quartet. Our nationalities meant forming the group was like the beginning of a bad joke: an Englishman, German, Irish Woman and American step onto their motorbikes – what happens next? As it transpires, four unforgettable days of zooming through mountain passes, jumping off waterfalls, and drinking enough rice wine with locals to tranquilise a small elephant.
Although we were effectively strangers, the walls came down quickly – they simply had to. Of course, it’s easier to be more open with people when you’re in a travelling mindset, but with the additional burden of having to watch out for each other on winding mountain roads with occasionally questionable conditions, we bonded pretty quickly. (Nothing glues you together like potential trauma, after all). Although we spent a fair amount of time with all the others, making sure our sightseeing lined up with theirs, much of the next few days was spent with just us four. The hostel we’d rented our bikes with had designated homestays for the route too, so every evening we’d all come back together and enjoy a foray into traditional northern Vietnamese food, accompanied by beer and, after dinner, much stronger stuff.
By the fourth and final day our group of four had well-worn in-jokes and the sort of shared affection that can only come from this kind of experience. Aside from a few falls (mostly me) and one near-death experience (not me) the journey had been an endless slew of fun, affording us sweeping views of the terraced mountain landscapes, the unforgettable colours of a reflected Vietnamese sunset shimmering in rice paddies, and a shared kinship that was as warm as the baking sun we rode under (mostly – the rain can get pretty intense up in the mountains). After our return and a much-needed night at the hostel (with a bed this time) we boarded a coach back to Hanoi. When we all met up for a drink later that evening in the bustling capital, it was like seeing old friends after years apart.
The fact that solo travel affords an enormous amount of freedom for those bold enough to take the plunge is not exactly a big secret, yet tons of travellers remain fearful of doing so. Issues with safety and loneliness are often the biggest concerns, and really it does come down to how comfortable you are. As a tall brown man, I’m simply less likely to get hassled in destinations in the global south than most, whereas a small white woman is going to draw a lot more attention. With that said, there are plenty of people who fit the latter description, travel alone, and have the time of their lives – like the two women in my Ha Giang quartet. In fact, I’d argue the main benefit of solo travel is the sheer diversity of people you meet – including those you wouldn’t expect to be thriving while solo. You need to be more open, which leads you to unexpected yet delightful places, as well as leaving you with indelible memories that no Instagram post can adequately capture. Frankly, if I hadn’t been travelling alone, I may have never run into the people who expounded the virtues of Vietnam to me, and I’d have never had this experience.
While I would never suggest the only way to enjoy trips like these is through solo travel, there’s no doubt my experience was enhanced by being alone. My nerves about trying something new with complete strangers remained for a lot of the first day, but like everything in the travelling lifestyle, wholeheartedly throwing myself into my situation was key to my enjoyment. Sure, wanting to share incredible experiences with people you know and love is part of being human, but so is making connections with kindred spirits. And, when it comes down to it, friendships will last longer in the memory than any scenic view ever will, so it’s just as important to search for those connections as it is to go looking for astounding natural highlights – even if they’re as unforgettable as you get in Ha Giang.