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The Highs and Lows of 3.5 Weeks in Southeast Asia

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I’ll preface this by saying I’m not going to talk about the “C” word in this post since as we all know it’s the gargantuan elephant in the room that we can’t escape due to the proliferation of 21st century technology. But I’m going to try to temporarily forget it and rather, talk about the almost month I spent in Southeast Asia in February and March of this year, mere weeks before the world imploded. And so I wanted to write about all the highs and lows of 3.5 weeks in Southeast Asia.

I had dreamed about returning to Asia ever since I studied abroad one summer in South Korea back in college (so, 16 years ago). I never made it back before then because the thought of enduring that horrendously long flight to the other side of the world, paired with memories of how bad the jet lag was when I was a “young and vibrant” 19 year old college student made me say no to trying to visit, especially if only having a week at my disposal due to meager vacation days. But at the end of last year, my professional path took a new turn and suddenly it became possible to actually spend weeks on the Asian continent.

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Hanoi’s famous train street.

Many young people gravitate towards Southeast Asia because it has the reputation of being cheap, and as a result, teeming with young people (so i.e. a young person’s “party hard” culture). I chose there because I’ve long been obsessed with the former French Indochina (or Indochine as it’s known in French). And in my 20s I discovered and instantly grew to love Vietnamese food; seriously, it’s one of my top five favorite cuisines. And Vietnam is known as a gourmand’s paradise.

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The beautiful outdoor food markets in Vietnam

So my itinerary was this- I started off my trip in Singapore because one, it logistically made sense (I caught a direct flight from San Francisco), and two, I had never been and it was a city I had long wanted to visit. From there, I flew to Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. While in Hanoi, I had an overnight excursion to the famed Ha Long Bay. After leaving the “North” I then caught a flight (worst flight ever, I’ll just say the Vietnamese could take lessons from the Singaporeans in terms of queuing and flight seat etiquette…and the aircraft itself seemed like it was from the early 1990s) to Saigon. That’s where I joined up with a river cruise tour. So I spent a couple of days in the former capital of South Vietnam and from there embarked on a weeklong cruise on the Mekong River. It traversed through Vietnam and then into Cambodia. The final portion of my Asian trek was spent on land in Siem Reap which of course is home to the famed Angkor Wat temples (among countless others).

Visiting-Arab-Street

My hotel in Singapore was less than a 10 minute walk to the Arab Street quarter.

I’ll be writing numerous posts about specific experiences, especially what a Mekong River cruise is like since there’s very little about that in the blogospere but for now here are some of my highs and lows from my 3.5 weeks spent in Southeast Asia.

The Highs

 Successfully pulling off 3.5 weeks of solo travel      

Sure, in an era of smartphones, no one can really call herself a “travel badass” anymore, not like the Henry Stanleys and Gertrude Bells of the world once were. But it still takes balls to travel on your own, especially to the other side of the world since let’s face it, there are countless individuals who wouldn’t even see a movie alone. I had most recently done solo travel to Europe last fall with my time spent in France, Holland, and Germany but travel in the developed world is decidedly different than in the developing world (save for Singapore which really was an exotic London in my opinion). Spending nearly a month on my own, constantly on the go in Asia, I’ll always be uber proud of myself.

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Laura Crofting it at Ta Prohm Temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia

Finally making it to Vietnam

Almost a decade ago in my very early blogging days I wrote this post entitled “What’s on Your Travel Bucket List?” and listed the five destinations I wanted to visit the most. Vietnam was my number one pick. Until I came up rather spur the moment last August to plan my epic Asia trip, I honestly never thought I’d make it there anytime soon. It was so far and so much more exotic (in my head) than countries like China or Japan, so much more the place of wonderful wanderlust dreams. Being able to spend 12 days there comes out to a genuine travel dream realized.

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Perfect view of Saigon’s District 1 from atop the famed Rex Hotel.

Experiencing the warmth of the Cambodian and Vietnamese people

Don’t get me wrong, I encountered many kind people in Singapore but Singapore is a massive, very Western feeling style city so it was a bit more “business” feeling, like you would experience in London or New York. In Vietnam and Cambodia the people were just lovely and even though there were often language barriers (my Vietnamese and Khmer are non-existent), a smile goes a long way as the expression goes.

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The super sweet Cambodian schoolgirl who practiced her English with me.

The Lows

Falling off a bicycle and getting BADLY bruised and cut up

On the first day of my Ha Long Bay overnight cruise we stopped on Cát Bà Island and had the option to either ride bikes or be ferried about in a truck. I chose the former because I’ve always loved casual biking when I travel like in places such as Castaway Cay and Belgium. Well, after biking for more than an hour and heading back to the dock, I fell off my bike and even semi-rolled down a little ravine too. It could have been SO much worse had I fallen on pavement…hit my head, etc. But I still got horribly banged up- both of my legs were covered in massive, nasty looking bruises that obviously hurt like hell along with a hematoma and cuts. It also didn’t help that being in tropical temperatures, I wore skirts and dresses almost every day so my battered legs were always on display.

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One of my many nasty bruises. Thankfully not a permanent souvenir.

The jet lag majorly messed with my appetite

I knew the jet lag would be a factor since Singapore is 13 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time and Vietnam and Cambodia, 12. And it was. For almost 10 days, I would wake up at 3AM wide awake, with no amount of reading or watching TV able to get me back to sleep. Thankfully I was able to function pretty well during the day (I didn’t need any late morning or an early afternoon nap). But also for my first 10 days in Asia, my appetite was all messed up. I ate but the food tasted off and I didn’t stuff myself either. This was really disappointing when I was in Hanoi since I know I didn’t love my food tour and cooking class like I would have had I been feeling 100% myself. It was the same in Singapore but made worse there with the extreme heat and humidity. I was looking so forward to experiencing Vietnamese food “in country” and it ended up being a semi-bust unfortunately.

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It killed me that I couldn’t enjoy my Hanoi food tour, especially this bánh cuốn.

It was a long time to be alone when in group settings

Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a solitary/independent creature and am definitely more of an introvert than an extrovert. I’m fine being alone and Facetimed a lot with people back home which was great. I just wasn’t always loving it when I was in situations where I was the third or fifth wheel as in everyone was there with someone else. That was a main reason why I didn’t love my overnight Ha Long Bay cruise or the river cruise itself. I definitely do better when I’m not constantly having to engage in small talk.

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Just a girl and her sling at Singapore’s famed Raffles Hotel.

My favorite experiences in each country I visited

Singapore

On a joking level, the extreme cleanliness, efficiency, and organization of every facet of being in this city-state. But joking aside, my favorite thing was seeing all of the colonial era architecture. Here’s this massive global financial hub and then there are these beautifully colored buildings from another time, straight out of a W. Somerset Maugham novel.

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Vietnam

Of the three countries I visited I spent the most time in Vietnam so I definitely had multiple favorite experiences there. Sailing through the mythical landscape that’s Ha Long Bay…and enjoying my Vietnamese coffee and the delectable French pastry outside at La Terrasse bar at the famed Metropole Hotel in Hanoi’s French Quarter. And just walking the streets of Saigon’s District One with the enormous realization of how much modern day history there was there, just like in Berlin.

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Cambodia

Of course, making it to Angkor Wat was an experience comparable to being at Machu Picchu. It’s a destination you’ve seen in countless movies and books and to think, oh my god, I’m really here is truly surreal. As much as I loved that, I also loved the visit my river cruise made to a rural school in Cambodia where we got to take part in an English class lesson. The elementary age children were so sweet and so happy to practice their English with native speakers. That was priceless.

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It was so incredible being back in that part of the world and for now I will continue to relive my great trip through my wonderful memories and photos.

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Yes, it lives up to all the hype.

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