By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
I love hanging out with myself. I love eating at restaurants alone, going to movies alone, and taking long walks alone. I also enjoy traveling alone.
Let me take a moment to extol the virtues of solo travel. When you travel by yourself, you can go at your own pace, do what you want, eat what you want, and stay where you want. There is none of the back-and-forth negotiation that comes when you have to take another person’s (or many other people’s) preferences into account.
Traveling alone can also feel empowering if you are a woman. I grew up with traditional Asian parents that kind of taught me that there’s a dangerous man lurking behind every dark corner who wants to assault me — and when I was younger, that fear prevented me from doing cool things and made me think that I needed manly protection at all times.
Obviously, that belief is wrong. Traveling solo has taught me that not only can I keep myself safe, but that I can also spend entire days and weeks in relative solitude — without feeling insecure or anxious that everyone I come across thinks I’m a loser because I am alone.
10 TIPS FOR SOLO TRAVEL
1. Believe that most people have good intentions.
I tend to be pessimistic and think everyone wants to kill me, take my money, and absorb my soul. (Thanks, Dad.)
One time in Morocco, I handed over like, $50 USD to a man who billed himself a tour agent but who was working out of his home. That was already weird because I am American, and I wanted to be like, “Dude, where is your office? This is so unprofessional.”
He took the money from me, told me when the tour van was going to be the next morning, and then that was it. I was like, “Uh, do I get a receipt? How do I know there will be a van tomorrow?”
And he seriously schooled me. He looked straight into my face — into my core — and he said, “Hey, you need to learn to trust people.”
And I was like, oh damn. And I felt ashamed.
A van totally showed up the next day.
2. Don’t go out and buy a fake wedding ring to ensure that all the gentlemen stay off your business.
I read this bogus piece of advice when researching what it’s like for women to travel in Mexico. That piece of advice was kind of racist, and I have found that when men shout at me from afar, they are not checking out my left hand to see if it’s cool or not to do that.
The best way to deal with this — for me — is to either straight up ignore and continue walking — or to stare them straight in the face for a beat, unamused, before continuing to walk.
I do have a friend who catcalls back, though. She is loud and obnoxious and five-foot-ten. Her sassy and joyful yelling gives me anxiety when I travel with her because I’m afraid she’s gonna start a fight — but it always ends up being an effective method of lightening an interaction that can feel intimidating for women.
3. Unless you are in Asia, understand that people will assume you are Chinese or Japanese.
This legit pisses me off because I grew up with a white kid or three taunting me in elementary school by calling me Chinese. And I was like, what the hell! — I am not Chinese!
In Morocco, young men liked to shout “konnichiwa” at Asians. That initially really pissed me off because my complexion is dark and obviously Southeast Asian — but then I realized that Japanese tourists are probably the kind of Asians these people are exposed to the most.
In Mexico, I actually had an entire conversation with a man once. After he helped me read my map, he asked me if I was Chinese. And I stopped myself from punching him in the face — JK, he was really nice — and I explained to him that I’m not Chinese. I’m actually Vietnamese.
He had no idea Vietnam was even a country that exists. I tried to explain where it is to him. I had to wearily say, “It’s right next to China.” Dammit.
4. Oh my God, learn a little bit of the language.
I am terrible at picking up languages because my brain is language-stupid. While you can get away with miming a lot of the time, sometimes you need something really specific — like a medication from a pharmacy — and not being able to even say simple things like, “Urine; burns,” or, “Poop; water,” is a problem.
In Japan, I got on the wrong train and couldn’t figure out how to get back into the station. I couldn’t communicate with the man who was trying to help me at all, and it made me feel terrible.
Google Translate is a godsend in these difficult moments. I suggest downloading an entire language pack before going international so that you still have access to the dictionary in case you get caught somewhere without phone service.
5. Dress culturally appropriately.
I’ve talked to American women who get a little self-righteous when they are asked to cover up skin when traveling in a different country. I recently read comedian Whitney Cummings’ memoir, which has a chapter that detailed how oppressed she felt when she was asked to cover her head with a hijab upon entering a holy area.
I rolled my eyes so hard at that section of the book.
Dude. Don’t be an asshole. Respect other people’s cultures and adjust your wardrobe accordingly. Your feminism should be a little intersectional.
6. It’s okay to walk on well-lit streets — at night.
I love to walk when traveling. I like peeking into people’s apartments and houses like a total creep, and people are typically at home and spending time with their families in the evening. After my dinner, I like to take a route that I have already scoped out during the daytime, and I like to stick to it 100 percent. As long as streets are busy and well-lit, there’s not really much of an issue walking around at night.
7. Sometimes you have to be rude. Just do it.
I’m kind of anti-social when traveling or hanging out by myself. I am by myself specifically because I don’t want to make small talk with other people.
Sometimes I get caught in a situation where someone is following me and trying to chat me up. Sometimes I am sort of shopping (I hate shopping, so I really mean I walk by a stall and look at stuff) and getting a really hard sell that I didn’t sign up for and am uncomfortable.
In these moments, it can be intimidatingly hard to firmly say, “No, I don’t want that,” or, “I am not interested in company. I want to be alone.” I don’t want to offend people or worse, make them angry enough to murder me (thanks, Dad).
But I muster up the fortitude to speak up. You gotta.
8. Your phone should be your BFF, if it isn’t already.
I traveled before wifi became ubiquitous, so there were hours of the day when I was just incommunicado, and sometimes it was hard because I get lost easily.
So these days, it feels comparatively easy to get from place to place because of internet connectivity. I can look at maps, get navigation to places, post pictures in real time, and also talk to people at home so they know I am still alive.
When I got into a motorbike accident in Vietnam, people at home knew pretty much right away because it was posted on Instagram and Facebook. Okay, that was a bad example because it just ended up worrying people, and I was totally okay. But I mean, if I was truly in dire straits, people at home would also know just as fast.
I carry one or two power banks at all times so that I can charge my phone on the go. Also, I have auto-sync on my phone, to backup all of my photos on the go, because I know that my phone can get stolen at any moment.
9. If you miss humans, sign up for a tour.
A tour means hours in a car or a van with a bunch of strangers that likely speak English. I like tours because I just like seeing stuff. But I realize that tours are also an easy way to be forced into group activities with fellow travelers. If you are feeling lonely, I think they’re a good way to get a dose of human interaction.
10. You don’t have to go far to travel solo.
We often think that true solo travel involves a backpack, a hostel, and a country that requires a visa in order to travel to.
But most of my solo adventures actually come about because I am cheap as hell, as I visit cities in the States that my friends or relatives — or friends of friends of friends because I am shameless — live in.
I pretend like I’m considerate and cool when I tell them not to take any days off of work when I visit because I don’t want to put them out. I will just sleep in their guestroom or on the floor of their living room — they won’t even notice I am there.
I do it for this free room and board. Sometimes I see my friend in the evening after she or he is done with work. Sometimes I spend the entire day by myself just roaming around, filling time between meals. It is great as a baby step toward a leap into a big solo travel trip.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at email@example.com.