Splendid Isolation?

Ho Chi Minh City Travel Blog

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Rice paper drying next to the Mekong.

"Don't you get lonely travelling on your own?" asks Plain Jane from the other side of the restaurant table. She's one of three German girls on our Mekong Delta tour whose names I haven't bothered to ask; I'll only forget. Anyway, they'll be out of my life forever by tomorrow so I just label them in my head instead - makes life easier for all concerned. 

Plain Jane is perched on a low plastic stool between Aeroplane Fitty and Helga. As the name suggests, good ol' Jane is no stunner but she can always fall back on that old chestnut, a good personality. Also, when she smiles, it transforms her whole face and she suddenly looks a whole lot sweeter.  Hope she marries a comedian.

Boat props raised as a lady steers her way through. Mekong Delta.

To Jane's left, Aeroplane Fitty is, well, fit - a diminutive aeroplane blonde with a little snub nose and fine, tanned features too often hidden behind an enormous pair of plastic shades. Finally, on the far right of the trio, if Mr Strong ever requires a wife, Helga would fit the bill nicely. She's a solid square of a woman with shottputter's shoulders and a poodle mop of curly brown hair. Unsurprisingly, she's set for a career as a Physical Education teacher; in fact all three girls are trainee teachers in their early to mid 20s.   

In answering Jane's question, I give her an abbreviated version of the truth.

The Mekong Delta is the Rice basket (or sack in this case) of Vietnam.
I've been asked similar things quite a lot recently by locals and fellow travellers who aren't going it alone, and I've developed a stock answer: "Yes, sometimes I do, but you get used to it."

In reality it's a little more complex than that. I'm now eight months into the journey and have been travelling alone for six of those months. That doesn't mean I don't make an effort to meet and talk to other travellers; of course I do - whenever I can. Sometimes I'll spend a few weeks travelling with someone else. However, I've also had to learn to be comfortable with my own company for long periods, to spend days without having a conversation more meaningful than those that end with: "Can I have the bill please?" 

At home, social convention dictates that, unless you are a food critic, you don't go out to a restaurant alone of an evening.

A Mekong dweller on her boat with typical conical hat and face scarf.
 Out here, I do it all the time; otherwise I'd be constantly hungry. I take a seat on the smallest table I can find, order food, nurse a beer, read a book and people watch. I'm comfortable with this now; I've learned to be. It has become routine, it feels ok.

Wherever you are, being alone is little problem during the daylight hours. You can walk through a city or town taking in the sights, lounge on the beach, hire a bike. All these are fine activities to do on your own. The real problem is the nights; what do you do when you are in a hotel that has no social area and you have your own room (dorm rooms aren't prevalent in SE Asia)? Wandering the streets as a lone tourist is, in many places, not an incredibly sensible thing to be doing after dark.

An egg yolk sun sets over Saigon.

Most locals speak very little English and I know only a few words in each local language; learning a whole new vocabulary every month isn't viable. Prowling the tourist bars on my own looking for company would make me feel just a little desperate - a bit (cue Mickey Mouse voice): "Please talk to me, I'm all alone." I'm a bit (stupidly? stubbornly?) proud for that, although I think a lot of travellers are more open to the idea. Maybe, like dining solo, this is something I'll have to learn to do gradually, breaking down the social conventions in my mind. 

But for now, in those periods when I'm between travelling companions and I've not met anyone during the day, my nights are spent reading, watching a bit of cable telly if there is one in my room, listening to music, using the internet etc. etc. etc. Exciting stuff I think you'll agree.  

To weight the scales properly, I'll make it clear that going solo has clear benefits: Locals and other travellers are less intimidated and more likely to talk to you, all the decisions are your own - no compromises are necessary, the sheer sense of freedom you get sometimes is heady. You also arrive at a fierce kind of independence, a proud feeling that you are doing this on your own and hacking it where many others could not, even though it's not always easy. But I won't deny that loneliness is an inherent part of travelling alone. Anyone who says they don't get lonely occasionally is either lying to show how tough they are, or doesn't really like people much.

I say goodbye to the German girls after swapping them a 10 dollar note for their excess Vietnamese Dong. They jump on the bus to continue their through trip to Cambodia and I wander off to take a look around the amazingly diverse wares on offer at the sprawling Vinh Long market. I'm alone of course, because just at the moment, that's the way it seems to work.            

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Rice paper drying next to the Meko…
Rice paper drying next to the Mek…
Boat props raised as a lady steers…
Boat props raised as a lady steer…
The Mekong Delta is the Rice baske…
The Mekong Delta is the Rice bask…
A Mekong dweller on her boat with …
A Mekong dweller on her boat with…
An egg yolk sun sets over Saigon.
An egg yolk sun sets over Saigon.