'I went on a solo trip for adventure - but it's people who make the holiday'

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'I went on a solo trip for adventure - but it's people who make the holiday'

I held my breath as I watched five locals on one scooter, zipping in and out of traffic and missing the bus I was in by a hair's width. The bus driver however didn't bat an eyelid, despite the constant beeping and mopeds darting through the traffic.

I’d just arrived in Hanoi - the first stop on my solo venture around Vietnam for my 30th birthday - and felt completely out of my comfort zone, exhausted from the 12-hour flight and completely alone in this manic city.

After wandering around in the evening heat of 32 degrees in Hanoi’s eccentric Old Quarter with two huge rucksacks strapped to my chest and back, I stumbled upon a crystal jewellery shop.

I was relieved when the woman who worked behind the counter sparked conversation, allowing me to soak up the cool air conditioning. Her name was Thuận, she was my age and was a walking-talking encyclopedia on crystals. I loved her immediately.

'I went on a solo trip for adventure - but it's people who make the holiday' erideuiqtqiqdrinv (Supplied)

We chatted for 45 minutes and I later found out that she kept the shop open an extra half an hour just so we could continue geeking out over Vietnamese jade. “Do you want to come and join me and a friend for a beer?” she asked, nodding to her scooter parked outside the shop.

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After my bus ride I was wary of joining the scooters on the road - and I also reminded myself that this woman was essentially a perfect stranger. I politely declined, but we agreed to meet for coffee the next day.

One thing you must know about the Vietnamese, which took me most of the trip to get my head around: they do nice things for nothing in return. Thuận picked me up from my Airbnb, which was around the corner from the old town, refused to take money for fuel and instead of coffee (which is superb in Vietnam and the caffeine is like rocket fuel), she took me to one of her favourite spots for lunch - which she paid for while I was in the toilet.

'I went on a solo trip for adventure - but it's people who make the holiday'The traffic situation is not to be taken lightly (Supplied)

As we slurped our Bun Cha (grilled pork floating in a salty fish sauce soup to which you add rice noodles and fresh herbs), Thuận told me stories of her upbringing on her parents' farm. Her English was excellent and I learned more about the Vietnamese culture with her over lunch than I did on any tour I went on later in the trip.

Meanwhile at my rustic homestay nestled in the green mountains of Sapa, I made friends with Chi, whose English name was Sandy. We spent every day together, treating ourselves to a spa day where an hour of reflexology cost us £16 (494,631.36 Vietnamese dong) and hiked through the hills - swapping stories as we marveled at the scenery.

Sandy was just as eager as Thuận to tell me everything about Vietnam and we visited a pagoda in Sapa city centre.

She invited me to pray in front of a spectacular golden shrine to Buddha and we played a traditional Vietnamese game with a group of Buddhist children and a monk. As I watched the fully-roped monk kick a feathered hacky sack up in the air, I thought to myself, "I couldn't think of a better way to spend the last day of my twenties".

'I went on a solo trip for adventure - but it's people who make the holiday'Hana made a bunch of new friends on her solo trip (Supplied)

When I was in Hoi An, one of the most beautiful cities in Vietnam, I struck up a conversation with one of the many local tailors after buying far too many pieces of clothing to fit in my rucksack. After telling her that I was off to watch a performance at Hoi An Memories Show (which is a must-see) she offered to drop me there on her scooter.

Refusing to take my assurances of “honestly it’s fine, I’ll get a Grab (Asia’s answer to Uber)” she drove me and again, refused to take any money - so much so that I felt a little embarrassed for offering.

These snippets of kindness were peppered throughout my holiday: the hostel owner who let me stay in a disused dorm room for free after I arrived earlier than expected, the Vietnamese family who offered me a bottle of water in a hot train station, and the seamstress from the H’Mong ethnic group in Sapa who gave me a free handmade bracelet after I’d bought a purse that she had made.

Over my two-week trip I explored the likes of Hanoi, Sapa, Bay Tu Long (a far less touristy cove off Halong Bay), Phong Nha and Hoi An. There was never a moment where I felt unsafe, which in this day and age as a lone female was hard to get used to.

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While my expectations of Vietnam’s cuisine and cultural attractions were met in abundance, what I was moved by the most was the Vietnamese people’s generosity, genuine kindness, and outstanding hospitality. I went to Vietnam on a solo trip, but there was nothing lonely about it.

Top 5 tips if you're heading to Vietnam

  • When giving or receiving money, offer it with both hands as a sign of respect. In some cases, the other person will gently touch the inside of their forearm with one hand as they give you your change in the other.
  • Most of the USB ports are the type A size - which is the older iPhone size port. The slimmer USB on your charging cable won’t fit, which is good to know if you’re travelling on night trains and buses which typically don't have plug sockets.
  • Bring earplugs and an eyemask for overnight transport. As overtaking isn’t seen as rude or impatient in Vietnam, it’s just how the Vietnamese navigate the roads, beeping to each other as they pass - you will want to drown that sound out if you plan on sleeping.
  • Buy your own chopsticks - ideally metal or plastic so you can easily clean them. I saw waiters wipe used chopsticks over with a cloth and then pop them back on the table for the next customer.
  • Be brave when crossing the road: cars and bikes won't stop for you. You have to take a deep breath and just walk - they will weave around you. Do NOT stop in the middle of the road - even if motorists are heading toward you.

Hana Carter

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