I’m 34, single and a proud solo female traveller. I’ve travelled to 43 countries and lived in five, with no plans to slow down. We all have a thing: and travel is mine.
There comes a real confidence in travelling that I take pride in. Apart from the occasional slip-up (like almost missing your flight because you’re so engrossed in the Duty Free perfume section), I’m that person with the offline maps downloaded, well-researched accommodation booked, and the car app ready to go before I’ve even stepped off the plane.
So it may not be surprising that I’ve never been into group tours. But my aversion to group travel is actually because of an experience I had when I was 19 years old.
I was in London, on my first solo trip around Europe, when my ex-boyfriend – who I wasn’t really over – got in touch and asked if I wanted to join him on a tour from Berlin to Vienna. The hopeless romantic in me thought that if he’d invited me, he wanted to get back together, so I agreed.
He did not. And to add insult to injury, this trip was a pretty unpleasant experience. I felt trapped on a bus of 20-somethings, pressured into drinking endless shots in Aussie pubs (but we’re in Europe, I thought), and unable to spend time really exploring the cities or learning about their history and culture. I left feeling frustrated, hungover, and a bit lonely, despite having been surrounded by twenty noisy people for ten days.
It was then that I swore to myself that I would never, ever do a group tour again.
Jump to many years later. I’m in Sydney with friends, and I’m introduced to Daniella, who has just come back from a few months adventuring around South America with Intrepid. Here was a professional in her 30s, also an experienced solo traveller, raving about group tours!
So when I had some free time to play with on a recent Southeast Asia trip, I thought of Intrepid. Vietnam has been on my bucket list for years, so when I found the Vietnam Express Southbound tour, it got me excited. A ten-day adventure starting up north in Hanoi, travelling southwards by train, boat, bus and plane, stopping at Hue and Hoi An before arriving in the final destination of Ho Chi Minh City (also known as Saigon).
I had some doubts, mainly about travelling with a bunch of strangers for ten whole days. But I decided to take a chance and book it. I not only survived, but I loved it!
Here are six unexpected ways that this Intrepid small group tour proved me wrong about group travel.
1. Belief: You won’t make any friends.
Reality: Sitting in the hotel lobby on my first night in Hanoi, I noticed two women chatting on the sofa opposite me. I piped up and asked them if they were also on theVietnam Express Southbound tour with Intrepid, and going to the welcome meeting in ten minutes’ time.
Turns out that they were. Elaine from Scotland and Maddie from Melbourne ended up being my best friends on the trip. The kind of people who seem strangely familiar, and you’re instantly comfortable with. And we met before the tour had even started.
2. Belief: They’ll be a bunch of teenage party animals.
Reality: Ok, so this one was me being neurotic, as the Intrepid customer service team had already assured me that the age range on this tour was 30s to 60s. And they were right. People hailed from all over the world, with a handful in their 20s and 30s, a scattering in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and an adventurous couple in their 70s.
If I’m honest, some of the more mature members of the group actually partied harder than us. A small contingent started an unofficial subcommittee, with a mission along the lines of ‘To sample and rate every Vietnamese beer known to man’. By the time we’d hit Ho Chi Minh City, they could name over a dozen different labels (shout out to Eddie and Glenn for this solid effort!).
3. Belief: It will be a surface-level experience.
Reality: Our local guide Dai was, quite frankly, awesome. And from our first day on the road, he introduced us to Vietnam in an authentic and interesting way.
While we certainly clocked some miles exploring the most famous temples, pagodas, historic sites and scenic spots, Dai always did his best to reduce the stress of the crowds. Pulling us aside in a quieter corner to explain the history would often give us a moment’s respite amid the hustle and bustle. Picking visit times strategically, and choosing which areas of a site to visit first, also helped.
As well as ticking off our bucket list, Dai guided us on more local experiences, giving us a unique glimpse into Vietnamese life. An optional bike tour in Hoi An with a noodle-making workshop, a dinner in a local family’s house in Hue, visiting an incense-making workshop near Hoi An and a coconut harvesting facility on the Mekong all gave us fascinating insights into Vietnam, sans tourists.
In terms of dining, Dai organised a good mix of low-key local spots (for a simple yet delicious Pho or Banh Mi) and more mid-range restaurants that offered a tasty selection of classic dishes. Foodie highlights of the trip included the fresh seafood dinner aboard our boat in Ha Long Bay, a vegetarian feast at a tranquil nunnery near Hue, and a delicious meal at KOTO in Ho Chi Minh City, a not-for-profit restaurant that trains up disadvantaged youths in hospitality skills.
4. Belief: Your 34th birthday will be a flop.
Reality: This is a fair assumption, considering I would be spending it with 16 so complete strangers, right? So wrong.
My birthday fell on our free day in Hoi An, and I’d let the group know that I’d be having drinks that evening, for anyone who fancied joining. Not only did almost the whole group come, but they sprung a surprise cake, card, gift, and flowers on me, along with some heartfelt speeches. I managed to hold it together quite well, until they sang happy birthday (waterproof mascara, I love you).
This birthday was so the opposite to a flop; it’s up there with my most memorable.
5. Belief: It won’t be adventurous enough.
Reality: This was totally disproved within the first 48 hours of the trip. During this time we spent a night on board a traditional boat cruising Ha Long Bay, explored caves, did some early-morning kayaking, and hiked to a scenic viewpoint.
This was followed by a rather fun overnight train trip from Hanoi to Hue, which, while a tad cramped for the taller travellers, was well beyond standards of trains I’ve taken in Thailand and India.
In Hue, excitement reached peak levels with a half-day motorbike tour of the surrounding villages, countryside and historic sites. Anyone in the group who’d been nervous about riding for the first time was converted after about a minute on the road, as the drivers were so professional and safe, and open air and scenery so refreshing.
6. Belief: You’ll have no free time.
Reality: Not going to lie, this tour is relatively fast-paced, and you definitely get your money’s worth seeing and doing lots of things over the ten days. There’s also a good amount of time on the road, in a van. I personally found this travel time quite relaxing, and a great chance to catch up on podcasts, reading and taking in the passing scenery.
As well as the occasional free afternoon or evening (with optional activities offered for those who don’t fancy the downtime), we also had one full free day near the end of our tour. Some of the group used it to sleep in and chill out, others planned their own activities or spent it exploring Hoi An. Most importantly, the choice was ours, which was welcomed after a busy week of travelling.
It’s now safe to say that, thanks to this incredible experience with Intrepid, I’ve not only conquered my fear of group travel, but I think I’m hooked. Now, which tour to book next?
Inspired by Anne’s escapades? Explore our range of small group adventures in Vietnam now.
All images by Anne Verhoeven.