The first week into any trip is the honeymoon period. Everything is bright and colourful, the noises are delightful, the people “exotic” and the shopping so interesting and varied. Or at least that’s the story your pictures are Instagramming and Facebooking to your envious friends back home.

They can’t know you’re still fumbling over phrases and currency conversions, struggling to asses the cost and rhythm of things, paying too much and insulting too many. After a week things change. Your hair starts to settle nicely into its sweat/dust mask, your skin takes on the local street tan and your Western city clothes start making fewer appearances at laundry day, having been traded in for local materials that know how to breath in this oppressive heat. At least you now look the part, and hey, more bargaining power to you. But your metamorphosis is not yet complete. You are but a pupa in the greater scheme of things and know there is much you have to do to transition from vacationer to traveller, the difference of course being time and budget, meaning you are either a freeloading hippie or a self-loathing trust fund kid. Or a green washed hybrid.


Stage 2 is what is commonly known in the commercial realm as “downsizing”. Again it starts superficially, with your external baggage. The medical bag is first to be audited. Do I really need so many rehydrates and Imodiums? My stomach seems to handle the ice and street food quite well. Out. Toenail clippers? Really? How fast do toenails really grow? And I can probably toss the bandage kit my mom snuck in when I wasn’t looking because there is no chance of me getting on a motorbike and even if I do, there is no chance a small piece of gauze and an Savlon is going to put me back together again. Out. And so it goes until you are left with enough space to fill with more local crap later on.

Every day brings a new audit. Do I really need that towel? Should I have two hats? Are three notebooks really necessary? (I’ll just keep the one that was gifted to me)

But all of these little downsizes are really just skirting the bigger, more painful issue – money. As any downsized company knows, you gotta slash your operating expenses and if you are a single traveller still operating from a double-room mentality then you know its going to be a painful downsize. As a solo traveller, your biggest expense is always accommodation. Single rooms are scarce and depressing which means you end up paying the full price for light and a double bed. Value for money is how you justify it. At least for the first week, when your credit card swipes and ATM withdrawals haven’t caught up with you yet. But by the 12th day, I knew that the day or reckoning was here and that there would be much weeping and gnashing of teeth, Old Testament style. The internal battle is fierce. Your comfort zone knows how to dig in its heels and justify every Dollar with a convincing narrative whenever that sounds something like this:

Look at the size of that room? I mean the bed actually touches the walls. Where will you do yoga? (you’ve done one actual class in your room so far). No balcony? Yours has a whole patio (used once on arrival and now locked out with the heat). No bath? (used never) the water pressure looks pathetic (so is yours). Your room is more than just a bedroom it’s your office, you need more space (true but then I could work from the many wifi cafes) and decent aircon (better blogs come from worse situations. creating doesn’t thrive in comfort)

This is when the left brain weighs in, crunching the numbers like Russell Crowe in Beautiful Mind:

Your current room is $18 including breakfast. The ones that are realistically appropriate for someone of my age group (I don’t do dorms in my thirties) are $10 with a fan or $12 with aircon (also an imperative for someone of my age group. Also a window please) and exclude breakfast. When you add in $2 for breakfast you really only looking at a $4 difference here. Is it really worth it for all the reasons your right brain gave?

 But $4 dollars (80 000 dong) in South East Asia means the difference between eating only street food and upgrading a meal to one of those restaurants that stronger currencies visit. It means adding a few more street snacks, more delicious Vietnamese coffees and a few more coconut juices (you need those electrolytes now that you threw out your Rehydrates). It also means you don’t have to panic at those extras that comes every few days (laundry, weekly bicycle rental, shampoo).

In the end you work out that its not “the right time” to move. You will be moving on in two days, so what’s the point of adding packing to your schedule when you could be enjoying more street life. It’s a cop out. It’s just too hard to fall from grace so quickly.  So you compromise on the date (at your next stop you will only look at rooms under $15) but give in to fate.

And you prepare yourself by reciting a new mantra: “Creativity doesn’t thrive in comfort”.

muse on…

pic: japanese bridge, hoi an

Categories: TravelVietnam

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