It’s been just a few days since my wife, Allison, and I returned from a 35-day journey through SE Asia.
We visited a wide variety of countries and cultures, from the riches of Hong Kong and Singapore to the crowded noisy streets of Hanoi and Bangkok.
Here are just some of the “stats” of our amazing trip:
25,000 miles traveled
5 countries visited
2 ships sailed
9 flights flown
Dozens of cabs & Ubers taken
100+ miles walked
1000s of motorbikes dodged
1 Dengue Fever survived
1 iPhone ruined
1 bug infestation overcome
Dozens of interesting people met
Hundreds of amazing food dishes eaten
1000s of photos taken & memories made
Life Changing Trip
I knew this trip would be life-changing. Allison and I had been on many trips around the world before, but this one was different. We’d never traveled longer than 3 weeks (this would be 5 full weeks), and we’d never been to this part of the world (other than a family trip Allison made to Hong Kong 20 years ago).
For me, being a tall white American who only speaks English (and a little Spanish), I knew I would be completely out of my element (which I wanted). As it turned out, it was even more amazing than I would have expected.
What’s an epiphany? One definition is “a moment of sudden revelation or insight.”
That helps describe what I was experiencing as our trip unfolded. In fact, it was one epiphany after another.
Some were more profound than others, but all of these epiphanies opened my mind and blew me away. I’ve broken them down into five categories: Food, People, Environment, Politics, and Life. And then, for good measure, I've included five bonus travel tips.
1. Food can be really inexpensive
Our first morning in Bangkok, we went to a popular food court called MBK Food Court. We ended up getting enough food for both of us for breakfast, lunch and coffee for a total of $8 US.
This trend continued throughout our time in Thailand and Vietnam. Even when we went to a more expensive restaurant, our bill would typically be less than $15 US for both of us. After crazy Bay Area prices ($8 avocado toast, anyone?), Asia was downright cheap!
2. Food is everywhere
As you walk around the cities in SE Asia, you’ll be blown away by just how many food options are available. You’ll see everything from street food, to small brick and mortar restaurants (seating 10-20 people), to American chain restaurants (KFC and Dunkin Donuts were just a couple of the chains we all know and love (to hate)).
You will never go hungry in SE Asia, that’s for sure!
3. Food is delicious, healthy, diverse with so many colors and flavors
One of the reasons people in SE Asia are thin and healthy is that they eat such a healthy diet. Our meals almost always included a huge portion of vegetable greens with a smaller protein on the side, and we always had access to a fresh juice or smoothie of any tropical fruit you could imagine.
While they may not have the same food safety and handling regulations that we’re used to, the quality of the ingredients is top notch.
4. Food is very important to the culture & identity of the region
We did a food tour on motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh City. (BTW, highly recommend it: Back of the Bike Tours).
Our drivers explained to us the different types of cuisine styles throughout Vietnam. In the north, the cuisine is saltier, in the central region it’s spicier, and in the south it’s sweeter. There were reasons for these differences too, from historical to geographical.
The cuisine helped cultivate the identity of each region. Leading to this epiphany as well…
5. People take a lot of pride in their local cuisine
On the Back of the Bike Tour, our guides talked us through every single dish in great detail. Even though they’ve done these tours countless times, you could see how passionate they were about explaining the various flavors, herbs, spices, and techniques for preparing and eating each dish.
If only we took such pride in our food here in the US, people might learn to appreciate their food more and purchase good-quality healthier food options.
6. It was really crowded & people were constantly on the go
I’ve lived in some big cities in my life (New York & San Francisco), and I’ve visited many others. But I’ve never seen this level of pedestrian, motorbike, and car traffic in one place. It was like being swarmed by bees everywhere you went.
Both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City have over 8 million people and 6 million motorbikes. That means just about everyone with a driver’s license owns at least one motorbike.
When we first got to Hanoi, we couldn’t figure out how to cross the streets. There are no stop signs, traffic lights, or rules. We finally realized you just have to walk slowly and steadily, and the motorbikers will (hopefully) flow around you.
7. There are very few fat or obese people
Between the healthy cuisine and the fact that everyone is constantly walking, climbing stairs, and moving around, you rarely see any overweight people. In fact, Allison and I both actually ended up losing weight on the trip, despite eating as much food as we could at every meal.
When we finally returned to the US and started seeing overweight people again, it was a bit shocking. To paraphrase that popular saying, everything is bigger in the USA.
8. People are very entrepreneurial and hard-working
A great example of this is when we took a 2-day excursion to Halong Bay, located about 4 hours from Hanoi. It’s one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, an amazingly beautiful bay with thousands of limestone island formations.
All around the bay, you’ll find hundreds of passenger boats, each accommodating about 40 people. And then you’ll see these little rowboats scattered about. These were typically local women who would row up to the big boats with various items to sell: wine, beer, snacks, toiletries, etc.
While we were kayaking around the bay, I noticed these women lived on slightly larger boats with their families. There were little kids playing outside the small living compartments with clothes drying on a line.
These families would likely be considered to be living in extreme poverty in the US. Yet here they were out here in the middle of nowhere hustling for their family. Something any entrepreneur could seriously aspire to!
9. You don’t need a car to transport big items
I’ve seen pictures of multiple people on motorbikes hauling big boxes and bags, but you won’t believe it until you see it in person all around you.
I saw people hauling mattresses, goats, chickens, huge boxes, and up to 5 people on one bike. A couple of locals told us they’ve seen up to 7 people on one motorbike!
10. Courtesies and manners we’re familiar with are virtually non-existent
Everywhere you go, throngs of people are pushing, cutting in, and jockeying for space. On the streets and sidewalks, and in the stores and airports, it’s a free-for-all. All the courtesies and rights of way we’re used to are nowhere to be found.
A few times we’d be walking on the sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City when motorbikes would hop off the street and drive right down the middle of the sidewalk. And of course, they expected the pedestrians to get out of their way!
I confess to wanting to clothesline several of them, but figured it would be bad for US-Vietnam relations.
11. Many of the white people in Chiang Mai, Thailand were not what quite what we expected
The backpacker & Digital Nomad culture can be more “tech bro” than happy-go-lucky hippie. I felt like we were in a crossover episode of Silicon Valley meets The Hangover 2.
At almost every restaurant we ate in Chiang Mai, there would be a random white person talking way louder than appropriate. One night we were walking around the city, and a jogger came running up to Allison from the opposite direction. When she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk to give him room to run around her, he gave her an aggressive open-armed posture like “why aren’t you getting the F out of my way, little Asian woman!”
Unfortunately I was at the peak of pre-hospital Dengue Fever conditions (more on that later), so I couldn’t do much to defend her at the time.
12. Air quality is awful
I now realize why so many people in this part of the world wear face masks. You know that feeling when you pull up behind a bus or truck spewing out exhaust and you cough as your lungs fill with crud? It’s like that, but all the time.
At one point, we were riding around in a pedicab, and I started feeling nauseous. I realized we were traveling behind lots of motorbikes, and their tail pipes were basically at the level of our faces. I felt like that cartoon character that starts turning green when they get sick.
13. You have to always have bottled water at hand
I knew this going in, but I didn’t expect to always have to have bottled water to drink. Between the extreme heat, lack of credible public water, and general pollution levels, it was a must to have fresh clean water available at all times. We are very privileged in the USA to have (mostly) potable water flow out of our faucets at the turn of a tap.
14. Noise pollution is bad
I’ve never heard so much honking in my life, and I’ve lived in Manhattan. There are just so many thousands of motorbikes everywhere jockeying for position and dodging pedestrians, cars, and other motorbikes.
We actually requested to move our hotel room in Hanoi from a large room in the front to a much smaller but quieter room in the back. Unfortunately, we could still hear the honking.
15. Bugs are an issue - from mosquitoes to water bugs to roaches
Our life in the US is relatively sterile and bug-free. However, Asia not so much. From the ants in my hospital room in Chiang Mai to the bug infestation at our hotel in Hanoi (all three rooms), bugs abound in Asia. And then, there’s the pesky mosquito...
I caught Dengue Fever on our first day in Bangkok. Our hostel had left the window open before we got there, and a mosquito got in that chowed down on me.
Let me tell you, you do NOT want to get Dengue Fever. It’s called the “Bone Break Disease” for a reason. Not only does it trigger high fever, but it also causes massive fatigue and muscle aches. Really bad when you’re walking for miles around a city in 95-degree heat.
16. It is F’ing HOT!
My guide on Back of the Bike told me there are two seasons in Ho Chi Minh City: Hot and F**king Hot! And our friend in Singapore said that she gauges the day based on how many showers she has to take before going to bed.
Our northern destinations (Hanoi and Chiang Mai) weren’t as bad, but the spots closer to the equator were almost intolerable. And this was the coolest time of year.
17. I didn’t see any recycling or composting
Living in the Bay Area, I’m used to recycling all my paper and plastic. And we also compost all our food-related items.
So it was unfortunate for me to see virtually zero recycling or conservation efforts anywhere. Especially when everyone is buying bottled water. The thought of all that plastic getting thrown into landfills is really disconcerting.
18. Vietnam is technically Communist
Vietnam is one of the world's four remaining one-party socialist states officially espousing communism (along with China, Cuba, and Laos). This means voters can only vote for one party. Some of the young locals told us they don’t bother voting because of this.
Despite the fact it’s communist, you’ll see a lot of capitalism throughout Vietnam. You’ll find KFC, Starbucks, McDonald’s and just about every major western fast food chain restaurant.
19. China has no Facebook or Google access
I knew Facebook hadn’t officially entered China yet, but for some reason, I still thought I’d be able to pull it up on my iPhone. Nope. Same goes for Google and Gmail. Tried checking email, and no luck with that either.
It’s just kind of amazing that the two sites we use the most in the US are nonexistent in China, unless you utilize a VPN (one local told us they actually give away VPN accounts when you open up a new bank account; VPN, it’s the new toaster of the banking world!)
20. I rarely saw any homeless people
Unfortunately, I’m used to seeing a lot of homeless people in Oakland and San Francisco. So I was surprised to see very few homeless people in Asia.
Sure, we did see a lot of poverty, especially outside the cities. But we hardly saw any people living on the streets, which was refreshing. Perhaps it has to do with the family-oriented society in Asia.
21. Police: we saw very few police officers during our travels
In the US, we’re used to seeing police vehicles, security officers, and highway patrol almost everywhere we go. While it does provide some feeling of security, it does seem a bit extreme at times.
In SE Asia, I rarely saw the police. I didn’t see any police officers walking around the cities, and I only saw a couple of police vehicles driving around. Yet somehow, it seemed that serious crime wasn’t an issue at all.
22. The Vietnam War was more devastating than I thought
I remember learning a little bit about the Vietnam War in US History class in high school, but we didn't go into great detail.
While we were in Ho Chi Minh City, Allison and I spent about half a day in the Vietnam War Museum. The pictures, news footage, statistics, and quotes were absolutely heartbreaking.
I learned more than I wanted about the My Lai Massacre, the use of napalm and Agent Orange, and the mentality of political leaders and war generals at the time. The amount of death and destruction on both sides was really disturbing.
23. Having a great life / travel partner is huge
We encountered several solo travelers on our trip, which I found to be very commendable. Traveling alone in a foreign country is definitely courageous and adventurous.
That said, it’s really priceless to have a great travel partner. It could be a spouse, a close friend, or a family member. Your travel partner will help keep you engaged, focused, comfortable, and safe.
24. Cost of living is so much lower
I already mentioned how inexpensive the food was. Almost everything else was equally as cheap: hotels, airfare, museums, taxis / Ubers, trains & buses, etc.
Other than hotels and airfare, we spent about $20 - $25 per day for both of us. That included all meals, taxis, museums, and other incidentals.
25. You really start to miss the little things: friends / family, familiar food, comforts, etc
Towards the end of the trip, I had a few moments when I couldn’t wait to get home. While I loved the food, I started craving things like pizza, pasta, and burgers.
And getting glimpses of things from home made me miss it more: updates from friends on Facebook, sports scores of my favorite teams, and local news from the Bay Area. The only thing I definitely didn’t miss was all the political turmoil of the post-election.
26. You need a break from Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the 24-hour news cycle
Despite missing a lot of the little things from home, it was really nice to take a break from social media and the 24-hour news cycle. We would check in when we could, but it was mainly to give updates and upload pictures from our trip.
In the grand scheme of things, sometimes all the focus on social media, news, and TV are really not as important we make them out to be.
27. Our “Retire Early” experiment is totally doable
Allison and I made the decision to retire from working for other people at the beginning of 2015. We started Experiencify at that time and have also added a site called RetireBy45.com. The goal of RetireBy45 is to help people accomplish the same early retirement dream we realized.
One thing I got out of this epic trip was a feeling of greater confidence that we made the right decision to retire. Living in one of the most expensive areas of the world, we get a little overwhelmed sometimes by the costs of living here.
But I realize now that there are so many places to live and lifestyles to lead that can accommodate your financial needs. And it’s such a great feeling to have the freedom to travel while you're still young enough to enjoy it.
28. You can get through anything in life with perseverance, confidence, and critical thinking
It’s always hard when you’re going through a tough challenge. This trip was tough physically, mentally, and emotionally at times.
But whenever you put yourself in a situation like this, you come out of it so much stronger. This wasn’t quite a near death experience like my battle with pneumonia, but it definitely pushed us way outside our regular comfort zone. And that’s a good thing!
29. I couldn’t live in SE Asia
One of the reasons Allison and I traveled to Asia was to see if we might want to live there someday.
While we certainly didn’t see all of the region, we did get a good taste of different cities and countries. We really loved the cuisine, the lack of serious crime, and the friendly people (taxi drivers excluded).
But I just couldn’t get over the air pollution (I really don’t want to wear a mask all day), the noise pollution, the intense heat, and the throngs of people everywhere. I guess it’s time to explore a new region to potentially live in 🙂
30. Our lives in the US are so easy & privileged
I think the biggest epiphany for me was the realization of just how good we have it in the US. Yes, we have some corrupt politicians and a long way to go on things like civil rights for all, healthcare, and wealth inequality.
But, I have to say life here is so much easier, cleaner, safer, quieter, and more pleasant. When we returned to Oakland, I felt like I was walking through Mayberry. I could walk on the sidewalk without getting pushed and shoved, I didn’t have to worry about getting run over in the crosswalk, and I could breathe fresh air.
Bonus: 5 Travel Tips
1. Travel can be lonely: make sure to connect with other people
When you’ve been away for more than a few weeks, it can start feeling a bit lonely. Especially in a part of the world where you don’t know anyone, and you don’t know the language.
You start to really miss your family and friends back home. But any small personal connections help -- seeing notes from friends on Facebook, getting emails from people you know, or meeting new people.
2. Health is key: get vaccinated, watch what you eat / drink, avoid mosquitoes!
Traveling can be one of the most exhilarating experiences if you’re healthy. But if you’re sick or injured, it can make your trip miserable.
As I mentioned, I contracted Dengue Fever on this trip. It put me in the hospital for 3 days and seriously affected me for at least another 7 - 10 days. There were a few times I just wanted to be transported home, but I’m glad I stuck it out and finished strong.
While there is no vaccine for Dengue Fever, check with a medical professional before you head off on your next adventure. If you have a weak immune system, try eating at a food court rather than a street vendor. Make sure you pack plenty of insect repellent (and make sure to use it)!
3. Be wary of scammers: taxis, tour guides, pickpockets, etc
Our very first cab driver from the Bangkok airport to our hostel tried to overcharge us by about 75%. Then, a couple days later, we almost got scammed by a “tour guide.” He tried telling us the temple we were walking to was “closed due to a Buddhist holiday.”
Since we had read about this type of scam in a travel book, we continued walking and found that the temple was indeed open.
4. Uber can be a life saver
After running into several more taxi issues -- language barriers, sitting in traffic forever with the meter on, difficulty finding our destination -- we decided to try Uber for the first time.
Ironically we never use Uber back home (and they’re building their HQ in our city!). We either drive, walk, or take public transportation everywhere.
But in SE Asia, Uber was a life saver. It ended up costing the same (or less) than a taxi, we knew when the ride was coming, and we were confident about our destination. Grab, iCabSG, and Hopsee are other ride-sharing options in Asia.
5. Plans will change on a big trip: Just adjust and go with it
Our trip ended up looking very different from our original itinerary. On a long trip, things will inevitably go wrong. You just have to adjust and go with it.
Just some of the things we had to overcome: 1) engine failure on our cruise ship, which resulted in a completely different itinerary for the beginning of our trip, 2) problems with our AirAsia flight package, which changed the itinerary for the second half of our trip, and 3) health issues (getting Dengue Fever for me & bronchitis for Allison).
All of these issues required rethinking and rescheduling our plans. The good thing is that you can make last minute changes and still piece together an amazing trip! You just have to be flexible and open to change.
It's amazing how much you could learn about yourself and the world in 5 weeks (even at the age of 45).
If you haven’t done much traveling outside the US, do yourself a favor and get out there! Explore the world. It will open up your eyes to the good, the bad, and the ugly of your own life and the lives of others.
It will also help kill any stereotypes you might have of other races, cultures, and ethnicities. As Mark Twain wrote:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”