The First Backpacking Trip: What I Should Have Done

A Few Tips and Pointers for That First Low-Budget Venture into the Unknown

In May this year I embarked on my first ever backpacking adventure. In fact it was my first time leaving Europe at all. The destination was Vietnam, a journey beginning in the south with the sprawling city of Ho Chi Minh and ended in the north with the dazzling capital of Hanoi. So on one warm evening in May, my travel buddy and I began the two day ordeal of reaching South East Asia (it definitely paid off in the end). Here are some basic things I learnt along the way that may help you if like me, you're a first time traveller and are feeling a bit overwhelmed.

You need a lot less than you think you do.

A big stressor regarding the preparations for my trip was what I actually needed to take with me. It's safe to say that I ended up with a very heavy pack loaded with endless toiletries and clothes. In regards to beauty, I found that due to the heat and humidity of the climate in Vietnam, I could only really wear very minimal make-up and ended up not using half of the cosmetics that I brought with me. I even brought hair straighteners that I think I used once on the first day before swiftly forgetting I'd even packed them. That being said, skin and hair care are both important factors to consider when travelling. The two products I clung to the most during my trip were my face wash and hair oil, as the heat was not working miracles on my pores and the sun and salt in the water was causing breakage in my hair. You know your hair and skin better than anyone, so my best advice is to research the climate you're travelling to and select the products you wouldn't be able to live without in it. When it comes to apparel, you obviously want to make sure you don't want to be making laundry trips every couple of days however it's also worth leaving plenty of room for shopping and items collected along the way. The lantern I picked up in Hoi An got a bit too cosy in my backpack and is now permanently stuck in a rather unfortunate state.

Obtain any travel documents you may need well ahead of time.

This is probably something you've heard before. However even though this was a tip I heard hundreds of times during the planning of my trip, I still managed to leave sorting out my visa until the week before departure. Although of course it is doable to manage the paperwork closer to the commencement of your travels, in the case of someone who is more inexperienced with travelling the journey alone is daunting enough, my advice would be to get the dreary legal stuff out of the way as soon as possible. Additionally during your trip, make certain to keep all of your legal documents (visa, travel insurance, passport, etc.) together and in the most secure place possible. I can't even begin to count the amount of times my heart skipped a beat when I'd forgotten where I'd placed my visa or passport.

Additionally it is worth researching the different visa services and requirements when first planning your trip, as this proved to be a great well of stress on my part. In the end, we opted to go for a pre-arranged visa directly from the Vietnamese embassy. The Visa On Arrival service is cheaper and can be arranged on shorter notice, however can mean waiting in massive queues at the airport. Of course this also depends on your nationality and the visa requirements suited to you. Check out the embassy website for your chosen destination and go from there.

You don't have to do it alone.

For the Vietnam trip my friend and I opted to travel in a group led by a local tour guide. Given our inexperience and busy schedules prior to the trip, we just didn't have the time and confidence to plan the trip ourselves form scratch. Thankfully there are plenty of tour options to choose from across a vast range of gap year or travel sites. For the venture to South East Asia we went for an amazing tour that we booked through RealGap. Through our tour we met and travelled with a fantastic bunch of people and all had a pretty unforgettable experience. BUNAC are also a company I've heard many positive things about from peers and friends who have volunteered or worked for them on their travels. BUNAC is a great option for gaining work experience whilst exploring the world.

If you do travel alone though, that's pretty awesome.

A fair few people I bumped into along the journey across Vietnam were solo backpackers. I remember being amazed at their confidence and independence in being able to explore foreign countries on their own. However what I began to understand during my trip was that travelling solo was far from the lonely adventure I'd thought it to be. Through staying in a couple of backpacker resorts across Vietnam and meeting some of these people, I learnt that they picked up many friends along their journeys, and through necessity, weren't shy to mingle in new crowds. If you're thinking of embarking on a solo adventure I can definitely recommend giving TheBrokeBackpacker's blog a read. He provides coverage and advice regarding a wide range of travel destinations and even tips on how to support yourself financially whilst on the road. Travel Independent and Lonely Planet are also amazing resources for backpacking tips and travel suggestions.

Travelling the world is achievable on a small budget with enough determination and will, but is nonetheless a great privilege to experience. One of the greatest elements of my trip was the culture shock that came with venturing into a completely different continent. The most important thing I learnt was to absorb as much of the culture, the people and the places as you can, because I know that I definitely wish I'd done it more. Backpacking to somewhere entirely unknown to me was a taste of what it's like to live outside of my comfort zone, and it was well worth the months of planning and stress that it took to get me there.

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