Disputing the Merits of Indie Travel: Unplugged and Unplanned in Vietnam

Disputing the Merits of Indie Travel: Unplugged and Unplanned in Vietnam

Who wants to be encumbered when travelling?

We’ve all dreamed about it: leaving the phone and camera behind to see a destination in all its glory. To heck with interrupting your immediate perceptions with a screen. Wouldn’t it be great to just leave it all at the hotel and try to really connect with a place?

unplugged travel
And its tanks?

Well, folks, I’ve now had the rare opportunity experience this mode of wander. I’ve braved the swamp of phonelessness and come out only unscathed (besides financially).

That, my dear readers, is because my lack of technology was not a choice that I made. Only a few hours had passed in Vietnam before some guy on a motorbike stole my phone, heralding me into the big bad world of in-your-face experience.

I never considered Vietnam benign. As an American, all my perceptions of the country pre-visit were muddled with the specter of war, and a history we’re all privy to.

unplugged travel

There’s a lot of travel advice floating around social media that makes the place seem like any other SE Asian country. Good food, nice people, colonial architecture, motorbike quarks. My perceptions began to fold slowly toward the forgiving.

I did what travelers should never do and let my guard down.

First Impressions of Vietnam

The airport in Ho Chi Minh City is a harbinger of what’s to come. It’s messy. You might be told you need your printed approval letter for visa on arrival. Maybe you won’t. Perhaps they’ll shake you down $5 for a visa photo and never take it (as happened to my friend Phil) but still give you the visa. Or maybe it’ll be as smooth as butter like it was for me.

Vietnam Traffic

Phil and I have been to many a funky locale. We’ve indulged in the physically demanding, the impoverished, the dangerous. It’s easy to think you’re savvy after ticking so many boxes.

We’d gotten our visas and gone into the city. After the cabby had dropped us off in district one, then, we weren’t suspicious. Just puzzled. Why in the hell were cabs exorbitantly expensive here? I mean, $15 for a short ride into town?

Ho Chi Minh City - or Saigon
Reduced to using stock photos – thanks be to the scooter bandits

Here’s the rub: they’re not. Expensive. You multiply the meter fare by 10,000 Dong. Our boy here multiplied the fare by roughly 100,000 dong and our naive smiling asses paid right on up. And what did that scheming SOB do next? He rounded up the fare, and said the extra was ‘a tip’.

Nobody in Saigon tips the cabbies.

Our wallets thoroughly emancipated, we wandered. There’d been no planning prior to this trip. We didn’t have a hotel or even a tentative itinerary.

Why It’s Cool to Plan Your Trip

I’ve been haughty in the past. I’ve thumbed my nose, chortled at, and felt superior to many a ‘casual tourist’. This attitude derived from:

A: General egotism


B: My laissez-faire attitude to travel.

I’ve landed in no fewer than 6 countries with zero plan. At most there’s been a rough sketch verbally hashed between me and whoever else went. Usually things worked out, people were met, adventures were had. So I thought ‘hey, I’ve got the cojones to do this and that makes me cool’.

My plan-less Burma trip had, admittedly, been cool

Cue Vietnam: Our lack of research caused a whole myriad of security issues that resulted in lost time, lost money, and frustration. We didn’t see or do enough and could barely imagine what it was we ought to be seeing/doing anyway.

The haze of Ho Chi Minh traffic and heat had befuddled our minds and we kept getting lost (we gave up on cabs and walked everywhere. Crossing the road in Saigon is rough. Also, we kept losing the map).

So I’ve come to a conclusion. Planning will improve your trip. Who would have thought? I must apologize for sneering and admit defeat.

Research will improve your chances of keeping your stuff/money.

Booking a hotel will save you time.

And having an itinerary will keep you from wandering so aimlessly that you ignore your surroundings in favor of your phone.

Traveling Unplugged: A Worthy Experience?

I’ve written a guide about how not to get robbed in SE Asia already. It’s wonderfully ironic, then, that I ignored my own advice and let it happen to me again.

We were walking on the street because the sidewalk was under construction. I had my phone in one hand, poking at Google Maps (we didn’t plan, remember?).

Next thing I knew my device was gone. I bent double for retrieval, thinking I’d dropped it. Then it hit me that there hadn’t been a noise because it hadn’t hit the ground.

Egg coffee in Saigon
Luckily Phil was there to take sub-par pics of egg coffee

This confused my perception greatly but I knew that the moped which had just driven by was mounted by thieves.

I grated my lungs hurling obscenities and sprinted for as long as my anaerobic threshold allowed, to no avail; the perps even looked back and smiled before lazily turning to disappear in the urban night.

Sure, I almost let it ruin my trip. I liked that damn phone. But I was fully unencumbered by the responsibility of navigation/picture taking. I was allowed to see Vietnam up close, in all it’s scamming glory (I wouldn’t forgive the place that quickly, mind you).

But Phil Still managed to snap roughly 3 disappointing shots

Was it revelatory? Had the shackles of phone-dom been obfuscating my deeper self, my ability to connect with all aspects of a place by interacting with it fully, all attention scrupulously paid to my surroundings?


In fact, being without a phone while traveling a city sucks. When you’re without one you realize quickly how often everyone else is on one. Sure, I could opine about the social decadence spurred on by screen time but it’s never going to change. The phone-staring, that is.

Whenever we came across some colonial architecture (often, in Saigon) I’d stare forlornly for about 20 seconds before turning away. This made me realize how little I actually cared to spend time scrutinizing buildings. Without the snapshots to prove I was there, the perusing felt rather dull.

Would have been cooler with birds

People-watching in cafes was fun for the first day, but soon became an exercise in futility when we tried to interact with the locals (male and female alike). There was some degree of friendliness sometimes, but our social advances were met coldly for the most part.

Thus I was consigned to staring at the walls, or ceilings, or sidewalks, for long periods of time (I had a book but Nabokov isn’t exactly the sort of relaxing literature one wishes to partake of on vacation).

Contrary to the dogma of immediacy, then, I realized just how much time traveling time is spent among the interim. There’s the interim of meals, of bus-rides, of general relaxation.

Only so much meditative reflection or interaction can you wring out of a place before wishing desperately that helmeted bandits hadn’t nicked your belongings.

Plus, now I only have pictures from Phil’s less than extraordinary phone camera.

Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City food
To make up for everything, this was the best meal I’ve had in years

On the bright side, I was a prime candidate for street-side haranguing. Hawkers found it easier to catch my eye and press their knock-off Ray-Bans. Peddlers of illicit substances (mostly ‘marijuana, marijuana’ and cocaine) espied my desperation to be entertained and happily offered up their supply. And prostitutes from all walks of destitution and elegance mistook my bored, sidelong glances for passive interest.

Ho Chi Minh City

With all this in mind I’d like to cast off the platitudinous riff-raff which espouses ‘ditching your phone/camera to truly enjoy your vacation’. Like all hard-line ideas, it lacks the moderation needed to find a middle ground between traffic-stopping instagramers and wandering ascetics.

It was, however, a moderately enriching experience. Well, not materially, because I got poorer. But you know what I mean.

One Reply to “Disputing the Merits of Indie Travel: Unplugged and Unplanned in Vietnam”

  1. Great example of how travel teaches you lessons. Plan as best you can, then enjoy any curveballs that come your way. Impossible to anticipate Vietnam’s hurdles anyway!

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