Taking the Leap: My First Solo Backpacking Trip

Traffic on busy Hanoi street with shops on either side and electrical lines seen above

I have loved travel for as long as I can remember. My first trips to Florida and Germany happened before I turned two, making them ones I don’t even remember. I was born into a family of travellers and growing up, I remember hearing stories about trips to places I had never heard of. I have early memories of my dad teaching me how to swim in Palm Beach, and experiencing the magic of Disneyworld in Orlando. 

The first trip that really changed my world was the last family trip we took before my parents got divorced. We went to Honduras for two weeks and explored the jungles of Pico Bonito, the ancient Mayan ruins at Copan and the island paradise of Roatan. This was the first time I can remember feeling captivated by the experience of a culture very different to my own, in a country with a different language and animals and scenery I had never seen before. I went into a shop with my dad to buy something and purchased my very first travel journal, beside myself with excitement to write down everything I was experiencing.

My next defining travel moment came when I was 12 years old, on my dad’s dream trip. My dad is one of my adventure idols and for his 40th birthday, he took us on a family trip to Peru for three weeks. I remember not being able to sleep on the night flight from New York City to Lima, electrified with anticipation for what was to come. On our first day in Cusco I went out with my dad while my sister, stepmom and stepsister got some rest at the hotel. I was so eager to explore the ancient city and still remember the sights and smells that surrounded us as we walked through the cobblestone streets and stood in the centre of the main square. This trip was the point of no return in my love affair with travel, and almost ten years later Peru still tops my list of favourite countries.

I think those first two trips to Latin America both led me to the educational path I would choose to take. In CEGEP (two years between high school and university in Quebec to figure your life out and get a degree in the process) I chose a program called North-South Studies, which I describe as a baby International Development major – and yes, you guessed it, that is now my university major as well. The North-South Studies program is centred around a month-long service learning trip to Nicaragua. I took part in this trip in December 2017, spending the majority of my time in the Chinandega and Puerto Cabezas regions. My experience living in Nicaragua is still difficult for me to put into words, and taught me so much. I greatly improved my Spanish, got an intimate look at Nicaraguan society and life in this Central American country, and learned to thrive outside of my comfort zone. North-South Studies is also where I met some of my best friends, two of whom would become my travel partners in a few years time.

Fast forward to 2018, the year I started university. I chose to study in my hometown of Montreal, which also meant living at home and saving more money to travel while doing so. I didn’t have any set plans for the next summer, other than knowing that travelling needed to be included. On a long weekend in October I took a trip to go hiking in Keene Valley, New York with one of my North-South friends, Meaghan. We got to talking about our plans and dreams for the next summer and somehow landed on a backpacking trip together, to Southeast Asia. We had both been planning a backpacking trip in the backs of our minds for quite some time but hadn’t been ready to commit to it before that moment. On the rainy drive back to Montreal we called up our friend Sarah to invite her to join us, and just like that we had laid the foundations for our adventure.

Meaghan and I got together to plan the trip and pored over travel blogs, discussing where we wanted to go and how much time we would have. Meg had a summer job lined up and a family trip booked in June, so we began to plan our trip for just over a month, starting in May 2019. Sarah’s schedule was similar, although she was planning to travel a few weeks into June. I had no summer plans at home and enough savings to spend the summer in Southeast Asia. I had also been wanting to take a solo trip for a long time, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity. I planned a loose itinerary with my friends for the time we would be together, however unlike them I bought a one-way ticket and had an ongoing list of possible destinations that I could end up in before I would have to make my way home for the fall semester.

Meaghan and I decided we wanted to start in Vietnam and booked our flight to Hanoi for May 3, 2019. Sarah had an exam that day and booked to join us May 5. Our loose itinerary would take us through Vietnam and Cambodia, ending up in Thailand for them to both make their way home. I planned to go to Laos after Thailand, and kept myself awake at night trying to decide if my (probably) final country should be Myanmar, Indonesia or the Philippines. I’m a chronic overthinker, however the best decision I made was to not pre-book anything and to leave the door open for whatever adventure came my way while on the road! 

In the months, weeks and then days leading up to our departure, I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I only had a few days to pack because my exam schedule had me stuck in the library until a few days before our departure but it was more than enough. I had lots of questions bouncing around my head, but did not really feel the nerves until we got on the flight to Hanoi. Landing in this northern Vietnamese city was unforgettable – loud, chaotic, and both everything and nothing I had expected all at once.

I had spent years reading travel blogs and following other people’s adventures backpacking around the world, and it was finally time to see what it was like for myself. I had so many worries – what if hostels were scary? What if we couldn’t find our way around? What if we didn’t make friends? What if I hated solo travelling and wanted to go home as soon as my friends had left? What if we got sick? The funny thing is, some variation of all of these things probably did happen at one point or another. But that’s what I love about travelling. It’s an extreme activity, full of ups and downs and never knowing what’s going to happen next. I got hooked on the adrenaline in the blink of an eye and haven’t looked back since.

To anyone thinking about taking the leap and heading out on the road I have one thing to say – DO IT!!! You will not be disappointed. Or maybe you will (I don’t have a crystal ball). What I can assure you is that you will learn something. You will probably learn a whole lot of things. Travelling has so much to offer and I know that the best decision I have ever made was to step out into the unknown and figure it out for myself. In case you haven’t realized yet, I am head over heels for travelling. My backpack sits in the corner of my room waiting for the next time I’ll pick it back up again, and I can’t wait for a future filled with adventures, misadventures, delicious food, out of this world landscapes, and experiences so incredible and surreal, I couldn’t have even dreamt them up.

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