Saying Goodbye to the Backpacking Lifestyle: A Week in Hanoi and Halong Bay

I have a confession. Despite its iffy reputation, I love backpacking.

And what do I mean by “backpacking”? Backpacking, by my loose and unofficial definition, is independent international travel on the cheap, typically done by young people from all over the world.

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Backpacking has a lot of negative connotations- namely drunk teenagers partying on beaches. But I don’t think that reputation is always deserved- there are lots of young broke travelers who love to learn about local culture, languages and food.

And I’ve had some of the best memories of my life in hostels: cooking cheap meals in the communal kitchen, sitting down for a street noodles, cracking beers on the rooftop with travelers from all over the world.

Which is why remembering my time in Northern Vietnam, where I spent the last week of my four-month backpacking trip, makes me sad. Because I don’t know if I’ll ever go backpacking again- and even if I do, I don’t know if it will be the same.

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After traveling solo in Malaysia, I flew to Hanoi to meet up with Dylan, my English travel buddy. We spent a few days in Hanoi eating scrumptious street food like miến lươn, vermicelli noodles with eel, and bún bò nam bộ, spicy beef with rice noodles and peanuts.

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After a few days of eating street food and feigning interest in local monuments (Hanoi doesn’t have the best tourist sites, in my opinion), we headed for Halong Bay. There we embarked on the infamous Halong Bay booze cruise– a two-night, three-day boat trip around the bay.

I had pictured Halong Bay as a small bay you could circumnavigate in an hour. I soon discovered that Halong Bay is enormous– a beautiful bay with 2,000 islets and countless limestone karsts jutting out of the water.

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Normally I’m not a huge partier but as this was my final week in Asia, I embraced the backpacker scene. I played Kings Cup across multiple tables, swam with phosphorescent plankton in the bay, danced barefoot to Calvin Harris and Sam Smith, laughed along to lascivious drinking games “What Are the Odds” and “Most Likely To.”

I also destroyed my shoulder while tubing and probably needed a sling. But given the lack of medical facilities on a remote beach in Halong Bay, I drank a few extra 333’s to keep the pain down.

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When we returned to Hanoi, my shoulder still throbbing, I eased my pain with a group of new friends I had met on the boat.

We spent the next three days in typical backpacker fashion: drinking 10-cent beer in the streets, dancing in seedy nightclubs, waking up hungover to Vietnamese street food. It was lazy and indulgent and ridiculously fun.

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Looking back on that week, I know it’s clouded in nostalgia. While now all I remember is freedom and non-stop fun, then I longed for security and long-term friendship.

But the further I get into a settled life, the more I miss backpacking. I miss doing whatever I want every single day. I miss meeting people from all over the world, and listening to all different kinds of accents and languages. I miss meals costing $2 and tasting like heaven.

I found a quote recently that really resonated with me, particularly in regards to travel. “We take photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.” Travel most poignantly reminds us that we can never recreate a moment- we will never be in the exact same place with the same people at the same point in our lives.

And if we try to return we’ll just be chasing ghosts- try as I might, I’ll never be a broke 23-year old wandering around Hanoi with a group of hilarious English and Australian travelers.

I wish I could think of something more uplifting as an end-note. But the longer I go without backpacking, the more I miss it.

What about you? Have you ever done a long-term backpacking trip? What do you think of the backpacker scene?

Where I stayed in Hanoi: I stayed at both Hanoi Backpackers: Downtown and Original. I much, much preferred Downtown as it more open and airy and close to lots of amazing street food.

What to eat in Hanoi: While I enjoyed the food in Southern Vietnam more than the north, I still relished every opportunity to enjoy my beloved Vietnamese food as much as possible. Hanoi street food is really good and normally costs $1.50 for a meal. The bánh cuốn, native to Northern Vietnam, was the best dish I tried.

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

27 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to the Backpacking Lifestyle: A Week in Hanoi and Halong Bay”

  1. I’m about to embark on my first year long solo trip around the world. Your site has been full of great information for me. I hope I miss backpacking as much as you when my trip completes. :)

  2. Amazing!! I’ve never done a backpacking trip– I’ve volunteered and slept on floors, but it’s always been in just one location. Backpacking sounds super fun but I think I’ll need to be a bit more fit to carry all my stuff around ;)

  3. This post made me really sad, for you and me. Because I know exactly what you are talking about. I look back on experience and think what if I could go back that was so fun and I’ve tried recreating those times but they’re never the same. Wether its with travel, friendships, or just life in general. Everything’s ever changing. But the best part of it all is that you DID have those experiences and nothing can ever take them away from you. Your travel is now changing, but at least you are still traveling, just look at it that way.

  4. Dear Ashley,

    I caught a little sadness in your blog this time. I liked your quote”We take
    photos as a return ticket to a moment otherwise gone.” I liked yours even more:”Travel most poignantly reminds us that we can never recreate a moment. We will never be in the exact same place with the same people at the same point in our lives.” Yes, as you are experiencing a moment it is already passing into a memory…

    Love, Gamma

  5. I can definitely relate! I still take backpacking trips, but I haven’t been on an extended trip in a while. I always feel nostalgic about my first backpacking trip to Australia and miss the freedom, uncertainty, and spontaneity. As much as I’d love revisit Australia, I know certain cities and destinations would just be a painful reminder of those ghosts.

    • Some places are best left in the past because they would be painful to revisit. I feel that way about Chile and Argentina- I’d rather just leave those behind and think about the great memories.

  6. Your Halong Bay pictures look amazing! When I went we had horrible weather so you could barely see the rocks :( Sounds like you saw backpacking out with a bang, and never say never to doing it again! I meet so many older backpackers now who hit the road after long and successful careers and have just as much fun :)

    • Oh what a bummer the weather wasn’t good! And that’s true- I guess when I was traveling Europe when I was 23 and all the other hostel dwellers were 18 and 19 I felt a bit ancient, but maybe that’s something I’ll have to get over :)

  7. I totally relate to this post.. my month in Thailand was one of the best months of my life. I embraced the backpacker lifestyle… drinking everyday and beaching and eating street food. I miss it so much!

    • I know what you mean! As much as I adore homestays and languages and local culture, there’s also something so fun and indulgent about waking up at noon and eating street food whenever you please :)

  8. I’m planning almost exactly this trip! Hanoi for a few days, Ha Long Bay, and a night train to Hue before heading home to Japan. The biggest difference? I’m not staying at hostels. I used to love hostels. I loved the atmosphere of meeting people, the openness, and the exchange that happens. However, lately I’ve had some bad experiences with them. Last time I stayed at a hostel I had to wake up early before 5:00 to catch a flight to Okinawa and some idiot was on his laptop in the dorm room until 1:00am. In Indonesia, a couple backpackers hooked up rather loudly in the bathroom our dorm room shared. I love so many things about the backpacking world, but I’m not sure I have the patience to deal with the bad parts of it anymore. Perhaps I’m just getting old and crotchety.

    • That’s a bummer to hear. There are certainly hostels that have been worse in that way than others. I remember at a hostel in Saigon one of the guys got drunk and peed in a pint glass and left it by his bed. Gross!

  9. Oh man, this looks like a dream! Sometimes you just have to give up on being cultural and party for a little bit :) And $2 hangover food sounds too good to be true! Something like this is going on my bucket list, and thanks for sharing!

    Julia

    ExploresMore.com

    • Ha true story- as much as I love cultural traveler sometimes it’s fun to just be a shameless backpacker :). Definitely put it on your bucket list, it was such a great experience!

  10. Hi Ashley,

    Thanks for sharing your backpacking experience in Hanoi.
    I will do backpacking too, this coming December 17. I will travel Hanoi going to south, Ho chin Minh. i will travel solo. i wish it is safe to do it in Vietnam. :D

  11. obviously informative thread. However, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh are mainly for observing city lives. If you want to discover the beauty of natures and rural living rhythms, should walk through Sapa, Hue, Hoi An, Binh Thuan and Mekong Delta provinces.

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