What you need to know when travelling to South East Asia for the first time
South East Asia, the ultimate gap year destination and a rite of passage for any young person wishing to explore and see the World. It is a part of the globe that conjures up images of paradise, white sands and gorgeous food, a place rich in culture and in partying alike. Thousands of travellers plough into Thailand and Vietnam every year for the ultimate experience. So why then, was I so completely terrified of embarking on such a wonderful journey? I had lost count over the amount of people who had told me that travelling Asia with my best friend, an equally blonde and ditsy 19 year old, was a disastrous idea and we were absolutely going to get lost and murdered. Though the reality is, if you’re reasonably careful, a few mishaps here and there is about as dangerous as it’s going to get.
As tourists from the west you are seen as rich and will therefore be targeted by countless street sellers that try rip you off. Yet to grasp the crazy currency in Vietnam, I accidently handed over £5 for a coconut with a straw in it, which happened to cost more than our hostel, from a smiling and seemingly innocent Vietnamese man, do not be fooled. After also spending £12 on a pair of flip flops that I should have paid no more than £1 for, I could see why people at home were perhaps slightly worried by my tendency of being a bit of a ditz. On the plus side the overall cheapness of the country outweighs the occasional rip off, and the street food stalls that place themselves outside the most popular bars and clubs selling food for less than a pound is an utter god send after a bottle of Asian rum.
On reflection we probably should have refused the two Vietnamese men claiming that they were to take us to our night bus and motioning us to their motorbikes. Yet in our hungover states we found ourselves agreeing to follow these strange men. So off we went through the crazy traffic, with no helmets, our backpacks wedged between each of our motorbike driver’s legs, with no idea where we are going or whether they actually were taking us to said bus. We arrived safe and sound, despite the lack of safety and my brief thoughts of being kidnapped and sold as slaves. Vietnam is a crazy and largely informal place, it is best not to embrace it and hope for the best. Travelling Vietnamese roads cross country is not a smooth ride, and while night buses are a very cheap and easy way to get around, and I would still recommend them, the kamikaze bus drivers ploughing through uneven roads in a bus carrying 30 people in tiny bunk beds, with no seat belt is no less than terrifying. I woke up almost having been jostled out of my bed, convinced the bus was going to topple over more than once. Whilst feeling like death, we survived each journey (at one point after having broken down in the middle of nowhere and herded into a minibus I wasn’t so sure we would), and while it may seem like a life endangering mode of transport, for anyone travelling Vietnam on a budget, they are definitely worth the occasional stab of terror they create.
The roads are a death trap in themselves. It was necessary to re-learn how to cross the street and our new technique more or less consisted of us throwing ourselves from the pavement and weaving through the waves of motorbikes that stop for nothing and no one, and hoping we’d make it to the other side. As our taxi driver from the airport had to act as our own personal lollypop lady he warned us that there are only two rules on these roads, ‘Don’t hit anyone, and don’t get hit.’ While risking our lives seemed to become a daily activity, if you watch how the locals manage it, you become a pro at prancing over the road pretty quickly. The motorbikes are the biggest nightmares, both for their speed and the sheer number of them on the roads, but also the tendency for drivers to whizz past slashing the bags of travellers with machetes. We heard countless stories of people being robbed this way and while we had no incidents, we were careful not to take much cash out with us, with phones stashed away in our very fashionable matching bum bags.
Partying in South East Asia is a given and Vietnam particularly has a brilliant backpacker scene and the bars are conveniently located close to the most popular hostels. That being said alcohol is very cheap, and with the likelihood of getting drunk, we did not go out without a gang of travellers we had befriended. Yet after having been robbed in a bar in the beach town of Nha Trang and embarking on a 4am swim in the sea that resulted in a local sprinting down to the sand and stealing our clothes, I was pretty glad we weren’t alone as we headed through the dark streets back to the hostel with barely any clothes on. The nights take on a more sinister feel and if you’re drinking hideously cheap Asian spirits and taking midnight swims there is definitely safety in numbers.
Yet recent news coverage of the young man and women murdered in the south of Thailand illustrates it isn’t all fun and games. The key is to keep on your toes and to try and be smart. While a few incidents are likely and unavoidable, the terror I felt prior to our trip now seems mostly unnecessary. South East Asia is an easy, cheap and friendly place to travel, particularly for young women. Either alone or in small groups it is a great starting point for anyone who hasn’t travelled before.