I traveled alone for the first time this past September.
This was a huge deal for me. I may have journeyed to parts unknown in the past, but always in the company of people I knew. Family. Friends. People who would have my back whenever I couldn’t see what was behind me.
The beginning—a 21-hour voyage to Hanoi, Vietnam—was strangely dreamlike. I guess I figured the hundreds of people around me on the yawning aircraft were reassuring enough. As we zombie-walked through the customs area, I thought that surely there was comfort in numbers. I wasn’t alone. Dreamlike: it wasn’t until I rambled tiredly across the Noi Bai International Airport, trying for some universal sign for a toilet, that I realized: damn, I am alone.
Just two backpacks and me. I had mixed feelings.
Nighttime went as well as it could’ve gone. Probably better, even, considering the swarm of cab drivers I put myself into upon stepping out to the road. Thankfully I arranged a driver beforehand. One of the many precautions I thought to take as a solo-traveler.
After a sleeping pill-induced slumber I woke up, characteristically fast, to my first morning in Hanoi. I wish I could say the sun was shining through the windows; alas, the room was cavernous, and the lack of windows forced me to blindly feel around the room for a light switch. Click. Oof, that’s bright. Grwarrrrl. Oh, that’s my stomach.
The weirdest part about traveling alone, I think for many people, is the clash between simultaneous apprehension and exhilaration about doing things without anyone telling you what to do or where to look.
(And I mean literally about the “look” part. After minutes of standing, thinking about what I was going to do to remedy my hunger, I finally made the decision to emerge from my cave. Walking out onto the bustling sidewalk I almost ran straight into a zooming motorcyclist, not before having my ears drowned by the sound of his horn. Collecting enough moxie to try again was quite the lesson in improvisation.)
But when you are face to face with the unknown—with screaming horns blaring each way, with the magnificent sight of a woman gutting a fish on the gravel—you just have to jump with both feet.
So, as my senses slowly stretched their muscles, everything hit me: the simmering smells of street food, murmurs of morning smog; it was all incredibly overwhelming, more overwhelming than my impending concern of loneliness. My nose took over. And, boy, was I glad to have jumped with both feet.
A cabinet-in-the-wall of a place, only feet away from my hotel. What greeted me there was slightly sweet and slightly sour, a mingling of pungent fish sauce, garlic, red chili peppers. And most enticing of all, in both smell and sight, were the steaming bowls of aromatic, gluten-ous pho ga.
The ordering process was ingeniously simple. As a woman directed, or pushed, me into a plastic chair, I pointed to the bowl of noodles sitting next to me. One, please. I waited maybe less than five minutes for my own bowl of thick noodles in a salty broth, beautiful slivers of white chicken, and impossibly green vegetables.
Believe me, I tried as hard as I could to savor, to relish each and every bite. But my pho ga had vanished from the ceramic bowl as quickly as my fear of the unknown and the loneliness had.
You will encounter loneliness anywhere you go. But as I learned from that beautiful bowl of soup, loneliness is not all that terrifying. When you leave it to your senses—perhaps nose, most importantly—traveling alone can be the most inspiring experience.
An avid reader, curious global-trekker, and writer-in-training, Kaitlyn wants nothing more than to explore the world one country at a time, exposing the stories she finds along the way with a pen and paper. (Or computer, whatever’s easier.)