From the Road: Solo Adventures in Hoi An, Vietnam
A few years ago while I was in college, I was fortunate enough to go on a documentary trip to Vietnam. As an American, Vietnam was an interesting choice and would be my first trip to Asia and only third time out of the country. I was eager, excited and nervous. I was one of ten students and a professor going with a goal of capturing the essence of life in Vietnam and exposing the realities of life in a country we knew little about.
We arrived in Ho Chi Minh city with eager eyes and trigger happy fingers grasping our cameras. Ho Chi Minh City is a great place. It is modern, chaotic and beautiful in its own way. Learning to cross the street here is the largest hurdle for travelers as crosswalks don’t exist. There are tall skyscrapers contrasted with hole in the wall restaurants. People are everywhere. From beggars to businessmen, people are the heartbeat of this city.
After spending some time based in Ho Chi Minh City, and getting used to life in such a hectic city, I was ready to explore more on my own. Halfway through the trip, the group was going to meet in Hoi An which is on the South China Sea in the South Central of Vietnam. As the student producer of the project, I wanted to get there early and find accommodations for the group and took the opportunity as my first solo adventure abroad. Translated, Hoi An means “peaceful meeting place” which was perfect for our group to meet halfway through our Vietnam adventure. I booked my flight on JetStar, packed my bags and headed out of my Saigon hotel looking for a cab.
I jumped in the cab and told him I was airport bound. This is where I made my first mistake. The driver saw a foreigner with all her luggages asking to go the airport so of course he thought I was flying home and took me to the international departure terminal. Since this was my first solo adventure I was at the airport several hours early and used those hours walking all over the airport trying to find the domestic terminal. Finally I found it and could feel some relief. Aboard the empty plane, I found myself sitting next to an older Vietnamese women while the rest of the plane was virtually empty. I’ll never forget the women’s smile as she offered me a box of chocolate milk. We couldn’t speak the same language, yet she was so warm and friendly and kept trying to make conversation. This is the beauty of Vietnam. The people appreciate life and everyone for who they are. It didn’t matter that we were from opposite sides of the world or our countries conflicted histories, all that mattered was that we were both on the same flight drinking chocolate milk together.
Once I landed at the Hoi An airport and walked out of the terminal, there were dozens of cab drivers all yelling and trying to get me in their cab. If you’ve traveled at all around Asia, this is just a reality, however for someone who hasn’t experienced this before it’s a bit intimidating to say the least. I felt unsure and wanted to judge the situation before jumping into a cab. I had done some research before the adventure begun and chose a hotel for one night so that I would have an address written down to hand the cab driver. I had also previously called the hotel and asked how far from the airport and how much a cab should be so that I didn’t get taken advantage of, but in this moment with cab drivers grabbing my bags and yelling for me to choose them, all my confidence went out the window. Next think I know a man grabbed my bag and took off to put it in his cab leaving me no choice but to follow in his direction. I passively got in the cab and handed him the little paper with my hotel address feeling a little disappointed with myself for my lack of assertiveness.
What felt like an eternity later we finally arrived at the hotel. I was delighted to find that the hotel I stumbled upon online turned out to be a great choice. It was clean, modern and a much needed improvement from the cheap room I had in Ho Chi Minh City.
The next morning was dedicated to exploring the ancient town of Hoi An. First impression: beautiful, ancient, and full of tourists. I can imagine that 10 or 15 years ago Hoi An would have been a gem. The streets were made of cobble stone and the city was built around the river. Now days the town has succumbed to its rich history and been over saturated with tourists. On the brighter side, the city had great restaurants and beautiful people. Despite the tourists roaming the city like ants, the quant town had lots to offer. There was great shopping and I found myself buying all my souvenirs for my family here and even had clothes made to bring back home. If you want any custom clothes made in Vietnam, Hoi An is the place to do it.
I spent a few hours walking around the city peeking into all the shops and restaurants. I turned a corner and to my surprise the street was flooded. At certain times of the year the river raises and floods part of the city. I was shocked and had never heard of anything like this. There were shop owners sweeping out water and leftover mud as if it was just another day, which I suppose it was. Looking down the flooded street, I could see a bridge that went over the river but the water was so high only the top of the light posts were above the water. A few days later when my friends started to arrive the water had already subsided and you could walk over the bridge.
I was eager to show my friends everything I had discovered about Hoi An. There were little bars/restaurants all over the town called, “Same Same, But Better” and even one called “Same Same, But Best” where we played pool and ate pizza. During our stay, the end of the lunar calendar meant Hoi An was hosting a lantern festival in celebration. Lantern festivals or full moon festivals are a huge part of Asian culture and a must if you visit. Hoi An’s festival proved to be photo worth, as young photographers, and a beautiful part of the culture. We spent hours walking around the city learning how to shoot in low light and find precious moments.
Overall I was proud of myself for taking on this adventure alone. Although my friends met me there it was a big deal for me to get on a plane in Vietnam by myself. Now days, when I find myself traveling and scared I think back to this memory and remember that I can do it. Traveling alone is something that everyone should experience. I personally believe that it is empowering for women to travel alone, even if its just a small trip like this one. It builds confidence and helps you discover who you are and what you want out of the world.
Safe travels, Marina
As a maturing women, Marina has dedicated her life to travel and new experiences. After working a 9-5 cubical lifestyle, Marina sold everything she owned, left her job and begun a new life with her boyfriend and travel companion, Jeff Johns. Together they relocated to Phuket, Thailand and founded Latitude 34 in which they seek to share their alternative lifestyle with the world.
Marina is a Visual Journalism graduate of Brooks Institute of Photography where she studied photography, videography and ultimately caught the travel bug. Through creating several international documentaries, Marina realized there was more to the world than work and wanted something more.