If I’m being honest with you, I was intimidated about planning my very first trip to Southeast Asia.
I knew I wanted to go see beaches in Thailand and temples in Cambodia, and to don some baggy elephant-print pants (I mean, it’s pretty much required, right?). But even though Southeast Asia has been firmly on the backpacker trail for decades, it was worlds away from the places I was comfortable traveling in – and that made it a little bit daunting.
Making it even more daunting was the fact that Vietnam was the country in Southeast Asia that I wanted to visit the most. As a woman, I’m often questioned about my decision to travel alone. But as an American woman, I felt I’d be questioned even more than usual by friends and family once I told them that I wanted to travel to Vietnam.
So I did what I often do when a destination seems intimidating: rather than go 100% solo, I booked a tour to Vietnam instead. The 10-day Vietnam Express Southbound tour I chose would cover all the sights and cities I wanted to see in Vietnam, but with a local guide to handle all of the logistics and some built-in travel buddies to hang out with. Afterwards, I would do another tour in Cambodia, and then be confident enough to travel through Thailand on my own.
After the trip, though, I realized that I had nothing to fear about traveling in Vietnam either as a solo traveler OR as an American. My experience there was nothing but positive, and it’s a country that I continually dream of returning to.
Here’s why I think you should visit Vietnam (whether completely solo or solo on a small group tour), and what it’s really like to travel there:
There is an established “tourist trail”
Even though Vietnam at first seemed way outside my comfort zone, the truth is that there’s already an established tourist trail that hits all the main sites in Vietnam. If you decide to travel solo, there’s no need to stress about where to go.
The main sites on Vietnam’s tourist trail include places like Hanoi, Ha Long Bay, Hoi An, Ho Chi Minh City, and the Mekong Delta. Other stops worth making include Hue, beach towns like Nha Trang and Mui Ne, and the highlands of the Sapa region. If you want to get slightly off the beaten path, check out places like Bai Tu Long (an alternative to the popular Ha Long Bay), Phu Quoc Island, or Ha Giang.
There are plenty of touristy activities and experiences in Vietnam, too. Some of my favorite things to do along the tourist trail in Vietnam included kayaking in Ha Long Bay, visiting the Imperial Citadel in Hue, getting custom clothing made in Hoi An, taking a boat ride through the Mekong Delta, and going on a couple of bike tours into the more rural parts of the country.
And, because there’s an established tourist trail, it means that you’ll have the chance to meet other travelers in Vietnam – and because Vietnam is still an emerging destination for travelers, the types of people you meet there will always be intrepid and interesting. In my tour group, we had people of all ages and nationalities, with the commonality being that we were all pretty much up for anything, whether it was dressing up in traditional costumes for a “Royal Banquet Dinner” in Hue, or settling onto plastic stools for steaming bowls of roadside pho in Hanoi.
The tourism infrastructure is good
Vietnam is not quite as developed (or, in some cases over-developed) as nearby Thailand, but it still has all the basic infrastructure you need as a tourist. If you’re traveling solo, you can travel between most cities by train or bus (though note that neither of these will be particularly luxurious), and you can get around cities like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City by ride share (or, more correctly, motorbike-share).
Restaurants in major cities will usually offer English translations of their menus, and staples like free wifi and comfortable hotels abound right alongside street food stands.
It was nice to have a local guide to help get from Point A to Point B in Vietnam (especially since I was visiting during Tet, when many local businesses were closed for the New Year celebrations), but an experienced traveler could also manage on their own since the main sights on Vietnam’s developing tourist trail are fairly well-connected.
It’s also worth noting that tourism is a fast-growing industry in Vietnam. In 2017, the government pledged the equivalent of $1.3 billion to put towards tourism development between now and 2020, so I predict the ease of travel in Vietnam to only improve in the next couple of years.
The people are welcoming
One of my biggest fears about visiting Vietnam related to me being an American. All through high school, I learned about the Vietnam War and the United States’ fight against communism in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, though, that same war is referred to as the “American War,” or even the “War of American Aggression.” Even though I wasn’t alive for this war, I worried that Vietnamese locals who remembered it might not take kindly to me.
These fears were completely unfounded, though. I found Vietnamese people to be warm and welcoming, even when they found out which country I called home.
Some of my favorite memories from Vietnam revolve around the people: having lunch in a local home, where all the neighborhood kids stopped by to give us high-fives; making jokes with the local chef who gave us a cooking lesson in Hoi An; randomly stopping to play a game of soccer with kids during a rural bike ride; and of course getting to know my tour guide, Hai, who was not only a wealth of knowledge about Vietnam, but also had an infectious love for his home country. He was always so excited about every place we were visiting that it was impossible not to catch his enthusiasm.
Like most of Southeast Asia, Vietnam is safe
It’s of course always a gross over-generalization to say that an entire country is either safe or unsafe, but Vietnam – along with the rest of Southeast Asia – is overall a relatively safe place to travel, even when you’re traveling solo. The biggest things to look out for are common scams that try to rip off tourists and petty theft like pickpocketing, but violent crime is quite rare.
It’s always a good idea to be aware of your surroundings and to keep your valuables hidden and safe (I always travel with a slash-proof handbag or backpack with lockable zippers), but I never felt unsafe walking around in Vietnam on my own.
My solo adventures in Vietnam included wandering around local markets in Hue, going out at night to meet friends who weren’t on my tour in Hoi An, and organizing my own “tour” to the Reunification Palace and some other sites in Ho Chi Minh City.
My tour through Vietnam had us visiting the most popular parts of the country, and while having a guide to warn us about places where we might want to keep a closer eye on our belongings was helpful, I certainly wouldn’t classify anywhere in Vietnam as “dangerous” for tourists.
There’s interesting history AND great food
Lastly, Vietnam’s history goes far beyond the Vietnam War. Yes, you can partake in war tourism in various places across the country, but you can also learn a lot about Vietnam’s earlier history, too.
For example, you can learn about Vietnam’s dynastic history in Hue, where the Imperial Citadel at one point was like the Forbidden City in China, and where you can still see royal tombs. In Hoi An, you can visit what was at one time the most important trading ports in all of Southeast Asia, dealing in exotic spices and intricate ceramics. And in Ho Chi Minh City you can visit places like City Hall and the Central Post Office to see remnants of Vietnam’s French colonial past.
And of course Vietnam’s history has influenced its food, as well – Vietnamese food is one of my absolute favorites! Enjoy roadside pho, fresh spring rolls, banh mi, and of course Vietnamese coffee, which is served and enjoyed in abundance all across the country (coffee lovers, rejoice!).
While I enjoyed exploring Vietnam on a small group tour (and definitely feel like it was the right choice for me at the time), I definitely believe that Vietnam is a solo-friendly destination and look forward to returning there again soon!
(Image credits from top to bottom: Intrepid Travel, Amanda Williams, Intrepid Travel x4, Amanda Williams x2.)