First overseas trip ever: what I learned

I loved, loved, loved my first trip to Vietnam. It was hard (in places!) and tiring, but amazing at the same time. Would I do it again? Absolutely! Would I do it differently? Some things, possibly, but that’s only because hindsight is 20/20. So here goes. This is what I learned.

1. What didn’t work so well:

Don’t take two separate suitcases. I thought I was being practical by splitting my luggage (and didn’t the brochure say that I might have to carry my own?). In retrospect, it is much easier to handle one large suitcase than two smaller ones. And having one suitcase would have circumvented the issues which turned into my own personal mini-drama at Saigon airport.

Invest in better suit-case locks. I had some el-cheapo combination locks, and they ended up being useless. My luggage was essentially unsecured when I flew back.

Ensure you have the currency of the country on hand – at least a few hundred dollars. I didn’t and it meant I couldn’t participate fully in dinner/drinks the first night (the first drink was free, then that was it). I didn’t know that the hotel would exchange my Aussie dollars, or that there was an ATM across the road (and no one told me, even though it was obvious that I needed cash!)

Check the times of any domestic travel you have to undertake on tour. For one of our domestic flights we had to be awake by 4am. It nearly killed me, because I didn’t sleep at all well (knowing I had to get up early) and I was just exhausted. I would rather have had an overnight trip in a train (which was an option for a similar trip).

Three nights somewhere is better than two nights, which is better than one night. It’s difficult to enjoy a place if you have to keep moving. I know that’s the nature of tours, but check the itinerary carefully. There was only a couple of places where we had one night in a hotel, but it’s hard to enjoy the place knowing you have to move on the next day.

Don’t jump into the tour straight away. What I should have done is had a night or two in the hotel BEFORE the tour started just to acclimatise.

Take direct flights whenever you can. Getting there wasn’t so bad (Adelaide-Melbourne-Saigon) but getting home was a pain (Hanoi-Saigon-Melbourne-Adelaide). Even a one night stopover somewhere just to catch a direct flight home would have worked better. Also I nearly had issues with excess luggage on the Melbourne-Adelaide route.

Being the single person on tour can be tough. I really only noticed that I was a Nelly No-Friends at breakfast, on free days and when people were taking photos at landmarks. Apart from that, most people were happy for me to tag along with them. I did expect the tour guide to be a bit more “just tag along with me this free arvo if you aren’t sure what to do or where to go” but this didn’t happen.

Take a shoulder bag with lots of compartments and zips. I took a leather shoulder bag with a metal clasp and ditched it early for a locally made one because it was much more practical.

Get a backpack. I thought I could get away without one. Boy, was I wrong and I ended up buying one on day 2 of the trip.

Test your room safe a couple of times before you put your valuables in it. Obvious, and I didn’t have any issues because I did. But other people did.

Don’t rely on the tour guide entirely to look out for you. I made it known early on that I had never travelled O/S before, and I did expect that I would have been looked out for possibly more than I had been.

Bad Asian food is as bad as bad Western food. If you find somewhere that serves great food, go back! Experiment at your peril! And just because a restaurant or eatery has a write-up in The Lonely Planet does not mean it is good!

Don’t assume you can access social media. I didn’t realise until I was there that Facebook was (mostly) banned. I was planning on using it to keep in touch with my daughter, and had to go to Plan B (email).

Passport and eticket copies. In retrospect, I should have taken a USB with these on them. I did upload them into my DropBox, but a stick would have been more practical. I could have also used the stick for photo storage.

Don’t go back to work straight away. I flew in on Sunday arvo (after spending the last 24 hours travelling or in transit) and was back at work on Monday. I need at least a day off to catch up on some sleep.

2. What worked well:

I took a powerboard and power plug adaptor. Had no issues with appliances and charging, although my iPhone plug croaked about half way through the trip.

Taking my daughter’s netbook. I didn’t realise how much of a life-saver this was until my iPhone plug wouldn’t work and I had to charge my phone via the netbook. I also used it download photos from my iPhone and free up some space. It was small and took up minimal space.

Taking my iPhone. I organised global roaming which meant I could call and text home (wasn’t too expensive – around $1 a minute for a call and 85c for a text). But that’s not all! I used to to take photos, access Twitter and Facebook (when it wasn’t banned) and upload text and photos to my blog, all via free (and freely available!) WiFi. I also had my itinerary and flight details loaded on an app and available.

Cash Passport. My bank said all I would need would be my Visa card, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. So I got myself a Cash Passport and loaded it with Aussie dollars. I took my Visa card as well, but only used this for big purchases (i.e. shopping in Hoi An).

Taking washing liquid. Every time we stopped for more than two days some where, I would catch up on my washing. I took plastic coathangers, which worked well, but will keep a lookout for a portable clothesline.
Taking extra (empty) hand luggage bag. This was perfect for my shopping!
Take all weather gear. Waterproof ponchos, umbrellas, fans, sunscreen, insect repellent, hats. You will need them all!

Vaccinations. I took an oral vaccination for cholera, which apparently stops 85% of tummy bugs. I didn’t get sick (apart from one minor fish-related tummy thing) and neither did the other passengers who took it.
Antiseptic handwash and traveller’s tissues. Not a lot of soap or toilet paper at some of the places we visited!

Declaring at customs! I declared food I’d brought in from Vietnam (banana and croissants) plus my incense, and I whizzed straight through.
The tour company. Overall, I can’t speak highly enough of Travel Indochina and the way the trip was organised and conducted. I would definitely travel again with this company.

All-in-all, my trip to Vietnam was an amazing experience, and if truth be told, I really wouldn’t change a thing. Laos, Cambodia and Thailand next?

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