Peace and quiet can be hard to come by in Hanoi’s old quarter. The square kilometre of sooty streets and tangled telephone wires is a constant cacophony of rasping scooter engines, humming like the world’s worst kazoo orchestra. The pavements are perennially clogged with diners perched on tiny plastic stools as Vietnamese pop loudly emanates from every other building.
The one moment of respite, it seems, is 6 am on a Saturday morning. Barriers surrounding Hoan Kiem Lake banish the motorcyclists to elsewhere in the city and the majority of pedestrians are yet to wake. I made my way towards the water, hoping to watch the sunrise over Hoan Kiem and catch the morning light on my trusty Fuji. It was eerily quiet. The occasional street food vendor would be starting their day, heaving cauldron sized pans to the roadside or attending to steaming vats of beef broth, carefully stirring, then tasting their concoction as the fragrant steam rose and twisted above them.
I had left Becky – my elusive girlfriend, rarely mentioned on this blog but usually by my side – asleep in our hostel while I ventured out to explore. It is a quirk of mine, one that many find considerably irritating, that I often wake up unreasonably early. Rather than burden people with my impatient and testy self, passive-aggressively clattering around hotel rooms while I wait for them to stir, I have taken to leaving them to rest while I wander the streets at dawn.
The clouds had conspired to foil my sunrise hopes but even under the grey haze of morning, the lake was beautiful. The glassy, still surface reflected the moss-covered arches of Turtle Tower while swarms of black-faced buntings gradually emerged from the trees to swoop overhead, soundtracking the morning with a riotous chorus of chirps and whistles. I found myself standing before the Martyr’s monument, an imposing, ivory-white statue depicting a woman with a sword and two men holding guns, erected as a memorial to those who died fighting for Vietnam’s independence. I have seen dozens of depictions of the Vietnam war in films and books but always with an American slant. I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t really know all that much about the conflict but in the peace of the morning, I tried to soak in the meaning of the cenotaph.
“My husband died in the war.” Came a voice from behind.
An elderly Vietnamese lady, mid-70’s and swaddled in a salmon cardigan, layers of scarves circling her neck – stood somberly beside me, her hands clasped together at her chest and her eyes glued to the white figures with an air of sadness. It is moments like this that I find words hard to come by. All I could do was utter a fumbled “I’m sorry” which she brushed off with a wave of her hand. “Don’t be sorry.” She said, the grave look falling from her face to be replaced with half a toothy grin. “He was killed by an American bomb, but it was a long time ago now.” She turned to face me, the ridge of her nose crinkling as her smile widened. “Hi, I’m Anh,” She held her hand outstretched for me to grasp, “What’s your name?”
In the past, I have closed myself off to these kinds of encounters. There have been too many occasions where a feigned friendliness has just been a means to start a conversation – one that ultimately leads to a sales pitch. In Morocco, I learned that almost anyone that approaches to talk to you is eventually going to lead you to a souk and try to sell you a dusty old carpet. In Cuba, every time I was asked my name or home country, it was just the start of a long, drawn-out transaction. It has made me closed off to random encounters.
However, with her, something seemed different. The friendliness appeared genuine. Rather than scutter away with a half-hearted apology, I couldn’t help but engage.
We spent the next half an hour sitting cross-legged atop a sprawled out picnic blanket in the centre of Đinh Tiên Hoàng, chatting over scalding plastic beakers of camomile tea. Whenever I had reached the bottom of my beaker, Anh would carefully unfurl the lid of her flask, topping me up, all the while not breaking from her monologue. Occasionally she would stop the conversation to slowly peel back the lid of a Tupperware box with her age-worn fingers and offer me a biscuit. As quickly as she stopped, she would again continue her meandering life story. One by one, she would introduce me to her friends as they shuffled over, settling themselves on the bench beside us at a glacial pace and pouring their own cup of steaming tea. I felt honoured to be part of Anh’s dawn ritual, to be welcomed in and catch this glimpse of local life that, until then, I had yet to see.
It was possibly the best morning I spent in Vietnam.
You’re maybe wondering why I am telling this drawn-out story. You see, I can’t help but feel that, if I wasn’t alone, I would never have been invited to sit with Anh. So often when you travel as a couple, people leave you alone. They assume that you are caught up in your own little world, don’t want to break up a conversation and wouldn’t want to intrude.
Becky and I have always travelled together, like vagabond partners in crime. She was with me when I caught the travel bug, during a trip to Morocco. We explored Cuba together. We went on romantic European city breaks and beach holidays. She humoured me when I decided “Fuck this” and began planning an escape to South America, eventually supporting my ill-thought-out idea and jumping in wholeheartedly. Within 2 months we were boarding the plane.
For the best part of a year we had the time of our lives, traversing the continent together, travelling from country to country and living in each other’s pockets. We road-tripped through the desolate Salar de Uyuni, hiked for days through the Peruvian hills to watch the sun rise over Machu Picchu, and partied until dawn on Ipanema beach with new found friends for that week during Rio Carnival. We cycled the world’s most dangerous road, unravelled the mysteries of Easter Island, and wandered through the Amazon.
Then there were the bad parts. Finding ourselves caught in a blizzard while trekking Torres del Paine, getting mugged in Mexico, and becoming stranded in one of Medellin’s roughest neighbourhoods. The 24-hour bus rides, narrowly caught planes and insect-infested hostels. Living in each other’s pockets.
Through all of this though, we had each other. I wouldn’t change it for the world.
While solo travel is often fetishised in the travel blogging world, travelling as a couple can be a wondrous thing. Together we have forged some incredible memories, moments that we’ll always share. Who wouldn’t want to experience the world and all its wonders with their best friend?
Then there are the practicalities. As a couple, you can share the burden of planning, booking transport, and finding hostels. When things ultimately go wrong, there is someone else to vent to, to share your frustration. A problem shared is a problem halved.
I suppose I have often relied quite heavily on Becky when we are on the road. Not for logistics, or organisation, but for the social side of travel. We have made lifelong friends entirely due to her outgoing nature.
I have the social skills of a brick wall. Call it mild social anxiety, or shyness, but I am not one to strike up a conversation and engage in small talk with strangers. Even with my closest friends, I can find it exhausting to chat for a prolonged period of time. There is always that niggling thought in the back of my head that what I am saying isn’t interesting. My mind is always racing, over-thinking every sentence before I say it. I am much more comfortable sitting by and listening in. Friends of mine even joke that I have a limited number of words per day. Once I have used my quota, I’ll sit in silence.
Back in July of this year, I took my first solo trip. I was apprehensive about it; not because I was worried about my safety or my ability to get by on my own – I have incompetently wandered into enough sticky situations to be used to it by now – Instead, it was more because I felt bad about not having Becky with me. After travelling together for so long, it didn’t feel like a real trip without her there to share it.
When I arrived in Hamburg it was strange not to have to consult another person on what we should do. It was all up to me, and me alone. When I don’t know what to do with myself, I walk. I walked to the fish market and along the harbour. I crisscrossed dozens of bridges between the modernist, glass cubes of Hafen city. I wandered the perimeter of Binnenalster amongst the joggers, dog walkers and raucous teens drinking on the banks. I walked 20.8 km that day.
It’s freeing to be selfish; I could go wherever and do whatever I wanted without having to compromise or consider the wishes of another person. I spent hours exploring the nooks and crannies of Speicherstadt and Schanzenstrasse, documenting them fastidiously on my camera. When you are alone, undistracted by friends or conversation, you really absorb a city. I voyeuristically ear-wigged on passing conversation, despite not understanding a word of German beyond GCSE level. I people watched from an achingly cool cafe, trying to piece together a picture of what Hamburg was about.
The nighttime is a different prospect altogether. When there is a whole city to explore, I didn’t want to find myself skulking back to my hostel to spend a lonely night in my bunk. I joined an evening walking tour of St. Pauli and wandered the neon flooded streets as we unravelled the secrets of the Reeperbahn. We drank and shared stories in a dive bar but, as soon as the tour was over, we all parted ways.
As the glowing signs of the sinful mile where beginning to illuminate and the stag dos bundled themselves into the nearest trashy nightspot, I realised that I was going to have to eat, and eat alone. I was the only solo diner in my chosen restaurant, seated at a 4-person table as if to accentuate my loneliness. I worried about the sympathetic glances from the other customers and that they might be wondering why I was on my own. In reality, no one paid me any attention. It was a relief. I sipped my beer as I flipped through a book, made some notes on my day, and chatted on Twitter. It was a great evening.
In Warsaw, I found my solo groove. I had no reason to worry anymore. I booked myself on a walking tour of the city’s communist past and its wartime horrors, I browsed the galleries and museums, and dined in alone in milk bars. I even felt comfortable drinking alone in pubs, not letting my singleness foil my chance at sampling the Polish brews.
One night I found myself sharing a beer with an incredibly drunk Mexican man as we joked and laughed with other solo travellers from as disparate places as New Zealand, Russia and Spain. Another evening a besuited man sidled up to me and talked for an hour about his turbulent life. He explained how he had left Syria for Egypt just before the Arab Spring. He had abandoned Egypt shortly after for Britain, but decided to head for Europe once Brexit had been confirmed. He now lived in Poland with his Ukrainian fiance and planned to move to Russia. He joked how turmoil seems to follow him and that he was leaving Poland before any kind of upheaval ensued.
It turns out that people are nice. If you’re worried that nobody will talk to you, don’t be. People – especially other travellers – are all looking for an opportunity to chat. Chances are, you won’t be the only solitary person in that cafe or bar. Once again I knew that if I wasn’t alone, exuding my new found confidence, these people wouldn’t have engaged with me.
I’ll continue to travel with Becky on most of my trips, but now, if the opportunity arises, I am happy to go solo. In a way I am just more confident in myself. I have always been independent – happy to spend time in my own company – only now I know that I can embrace this independent spirit even when I am in a different city, or country, altogether. It is just a case of packing your bag and getting on a plane. You don’t need a companion to do that.
Do you travel solo? Have you always wanted to do it, but never quite taken the leap? Let me know in the comments.
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