Indulge me as I deviate slightly from the usual theme of my blog.
I am happy to report that I survived nine days living outside of my comfort zone. Yes, it is an adventure. Yes, it is thrilling. Yes, you should try it. But no, it is not as glamorous as it sounds. Before I burst your bubble, let me give you a rundown of what transpired during my epic nine-day solo trip:
Day 1 – My flight touched down Vietnam in the wee hours, but I forced myself to wake up early to check out Vietnamese coffee. I passed through narrow alleys and steep stairs to find Giang Café – the birthplace of Egg Coffee. I grabbed a Bahn Mi on my way back to the hotel for breakfast. Come noon, my tour guide brought me to the very same Bun Cha place where Anthony Bourdain brought Barack Obama. We visited museums and temples. It was cool. No biggie. Before dinner, I watched one of Erwan Heussaff’s Hanoi features, and since he is Anne Curtis’ boyfriend (a.k.a. Life Peg), I figured I wanted to visit his favorite Pho place. I checked it in Google Maps and convinced myself the 1.5 km walk was not that bad. I braved the streets of Hanoi in search of the perfect Pho – dodging every scooter that came my way (seriously is there Top Gear Vietnam?! I want to report EVERYONE!). When I got there, the language barrier was soooo high, they flat out rejected serving me. I will just give them the benefit of the doubt and say they ran out of chicken. With a heavy heart and shirt (drenched in sweat), I went back to my hotel. I googled “best Pho in Old Quarter” and Trip Advisor pointed me to Pho Gia Truyen (4.5 stars, much wow!), which was less than 200m away from my hotel. Lesson learned: Sometimes, what you are looking for is just right under your nose.
Day 2 – Day started early as we drove to the northern Vietnamese countryside of Duong Lam to visit one of the ancient villages. We were welcomed by the 12th generation owner of one of the oldest houses in Vietnam. I love the countryside because everything is so laid back. You plan everything by the minute whereas in the city, particularly Manila, you must plan everything by the hour. I tried to get a taste of the Vietnamese nightlife. I mustered enough courage and walked to Bia Cona (Beer Corner lololol!) within the streets of Old Quarter, but I was just overwhelmed by the sheer number of people. That night I retreated to a fruit shake stall in front of my hotel. I tried to fit my frame on a tiny wooden stool while I enjoyed my mango shake. I told myself that I should walk back to the Bia Cona and meet people. After walking for a bit, I figured HBO was a better idea (Interstellar was showing. Very good idea, indeed!)
Day 3 – Day started early once again as we visited the southern Hanoian province to see Tam Coc (three caves) or Halong Inland. We cruised a river that runs through rice fields surrounded by humongous limestone mountains. I really left like King Kong was going to pop out from one of the mountains. The chill river ride was the perfect preview of what was to come the next day.
Day 4 – THIS HAS GOT TO BE THE HIGHLIGHT OF MY ENTIRE TRIP. Halong Bay was juuuuust amazing. We had a short cruise passing through limestone mountain-islands dotted along the bay. We then jumped into a smaller boat and kayaked around the mountains. That is an experience I will not forget. Being the lone wolf, I was seated with the oldies. Like retirees kind of oldies. Initially, I thought it sucked, but they were hella funny! It is amusing to witness old people humor.
Day 5 – We cruised a little bit more in Halong Bay before we drove back to Hanoi. By then, I was trying to cram everything I want to do in Vietnam, including a proper night out. I went to Hanoi Social Club because that is where all the expats go (LOL feeling). It was music night and I got the chance to watch an intimate gig set on a small rooftop good only for 20 people. It was the most hipster experience ever, I was close to bursting out in laughter during the first song; after that, all their songs spoke to me deeply. I think I’m becoming a hipster. Going to gigs alone and socializing was not really natural to me, and doing that felt good as I stretched my comfort zone a bit.
Day 6 – By then, I was reeeally cramming everything I wanted to do in Vietnam. Tried a new coffee shop (Café Pho Co), ate Bahn Cuon, and got some Pho so I can post a proper goodbye to Vietnam (i.e. Walang Phoever). It rained that morning so I was not able to get a shave from those street barbers. I was starting to the get the groove in Hanoi, and not knowing when I will be back or if ever I am coming back, made leaving itsy bitsy hard for me. Just when the tiny roots are planting themselves, I had to uproot. But hey, another adventure awaits. Siem Reap is going to be lit!
Day 7 – Now, I do not know if I am some sort of a masochist but I decided to start the second leg of my #SorryMomNotSorry tour by hiking Phnom Kbal Spen to see ancient Hindu carvings along the walls of a waterfall. It rained that day which totally sucked because it made the trail slightly slippery, but just like any other trips, you just go with the flow and immerse yourself – or this time, more like drenched in rain. I visited Banteay Srei which was a small temple with intricate carvings. The rain added a cloud of mystery over the temple, which I totally dig. President Duterte hates drugs so I hate them, too. Instead of doing pot, which is perfectly legal in Cambodia, I tried pottery. If you think Siem Reap is just about the temples, you have to try this out.
Day 8 – Aha! The meat of my Cambodia trip – Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom. It was a great sweat session. I am both amazed and appalled by these temples. Amazed because I can only imagine the effort and craftsmanship the ancient people put to create these pieces. On the other hand, I am appalled by the looting and vandalism in these temples. People sometimes have no sense of their action’s impact to history. After nearly five hours, I said to myself I was all templed out, but later that night, separation anxiety kicked in and I thought I must visit again to check out other temples.
Day 9 – I tried to cram again during my last day. I realized I am becoming a hipster – I’m wearing plaid shirt, wearing thick-framed glasses, got the facial hair going on, reading a book in an upscale vegan-friendly café (they still serve big ‘ol English breakfast because #BaconIsLyf) that plays music by The XX (got no beef with them, The XX are amazing. Amazing. Huhu I’m really a hipster now). I just needed a man bun to complete the hipster look. I also visited the Angkor National Museum. My appreciation for Hinduism and Buddhism grew tremendously.
Bloopers (flirting fails)
Day 1 – I randomly bought a lacquer painting because the seller said I was cute and do not look over 28. She even asked me about the last time I shaved my beard because I looked very young. When she told me to get another painting, I knew she was just playing me. Ugh, my heart!
Day 4 – While waiting for dinner on the Halong Bay cruise, it got pretty dragging. With enough courage in the tank (and one bottle of beer), I approached a couple of Danish girls. I asked if I could sit near them (one seat apart), one of the girls told me I could sit next to her but I said “nahh, I’m good here.”
That is a not-so-quick rundown of my itinerary in Vietnam and Cambodia. Big ups to Super Dream Travel for sorting everything (I felt like a baller in Cambodia with a Lexus servicing me every day. Tuktuk? What tuktuk?). Good looking out!
I had lots of fun during my solo trip, but it just ain’t my cup of tea. At some point during the trip, when I was comfortably tucked in bed watching HBO at 9PM, my friend told me that maybe solo trips are not my thing. I was expected to meet lots of people, get drunk every night, get my belly stuffed every day (okay, this one was a success). Instead, I woke up really early every morning to get authentic Vietnamese coffee… coffee so good you would forget the beans came from a weasel’s butt. I did not do wild things—drugs, sex, and rock and roll—what I had was coffee, HBO, and an indie hipster music set.
Staying true to this blog’s battle cry of always being on the lookout for our next first time, I did try a lot of things for the first time – kayaking, pottery, eating ants (NOT. MY. THING.), among others. I did things that I would have decided against if I were still living in my comfort zone in Manila. This trip was planned with nothing but an innocent intention of “just want to try traveling on my own.” None of that soul-searching, test-my-social-skills, unplug-from-society bull that you read on the internet. Nevertheless, the timing was just perfect. I felt I needed this break.
Remember the two Danish girls I bravely hit on but miserably failed? They just graduated from their respective master’s programs and are doing volunteer work in Myanmar. They act as liaisons to get more European volunteers in Asia. During the meals in my Halong Bay cruise, I was grouped with the old people. Dave, the one sitting next to me, said “I just retired! It is now my time to travel.” I smiled and slightly nodded, thinking… “Uhhh sooo it is not yet my time to travel? Should I pack my bags and swim back to shore?” Fast forward to Siem Reap, I was with my Cambodian tour guide named Channak (nope, I did not tell him what Tiyanak meant in Tagalog), who was about my age. He was really funny and jolly, but he has a serious, deep side, too. He accompanied me for only four days but I have learned a great load, both life and history lessons, through our conversations. He kept on telling, with a hint of melancholy in his voice, how privileged I am – that I am lucky to be single and free, whereas he is bound by the responsibility of raising his young family. I am fortunate enough to meet several people who have different struggles, different aspirations, and different motivations than mine. Meeting new people, especially those raised differently from you, widens your perspective and grounds you back to reality.
The people I have met during my #SorryMomNotSorry tour know me as the single guy from Manila, who is on his first solo trip. He works for an insurance company and plays American Football. Maybe I am not yet comfortable with my new acquaintances or not a good storyteller, but being defined in two sentences seems pretty shallow. Do I allow myself to be defined in two sentences? In a way, Thought Catalog and Elite Daily were correct – solo trips unplug us from society, as we are plucked out of our routine. However, in my humble opinion, it is not meant as a temporary reprieve, rather an opportunity to reassess the life you left. Do I play victim to my struggles? Do I attract the right things? Am I still aligned to the life I aspire? Am I making the most out of my current circumstances? How do I respond to my new environment? I have come to realize that wherever or whoever we are now in life is an interplay of destiny and our decisions – it cannot be a result of just one. Solo trips are not really meant to “find yourself” or “search your soul,” it is about defining yourself.
On our way to the airport for my departure, my homeboy Channak said he hopes that all my experiences stay with and become part of me (such emo, this Channak guy). The trip had been a generous teacher, and with the wealth of experiences I gained, I think it is quite impossible to just dump it and come back the same as before.
Few weeks after the trip, I met up with a friend who also did a solo trip in Siem Reap. She told me that she enjoyed her solo travel, but would prefer to tag her friends along next time. I wholeheartedly agreed with her. Yes, solo traveling is fun and quite an experience I wish everybody could do; but solo traveling just ain’t my cup of tea, it is more like a bold espresso shot that I need to jolt me back to my senses. I will forever be thankful I did this! And for my next solo trip, Mongolia! Kidding… or not.