Traveling Light

Notes On Living Out of a Backpack for 3 Months

Published: 2022-09-09

From June through August 2022, I travelled to various places throughout southern and central Vietnam such as Saigon, Buon Mah Thuot, and Can Tho, as well as to nearby countries Thailand and Indonesia, carrying with me a single backpack. I've always been one to travel light and to own as few things as possible, but I was also partially inspired by Rolf Pott's book Vagabonding. I think it's important to recognize that you don't need as much stuff as you think you do, especially while traveling. In my view, traveling out of a single backpack is really the more stress-free experience compared to bringing a bunch of shit with you. There are also a couple of other realizations I came to, not just about living out of a backpack, but regarding travel in general and the benefits having a place that's truly yours. These are some notes and retrospection from this past trip.

I think traveling to Vietnam is a great experience. If you travel outside of the major cities like Hanoi or Saigon, you will be stared out and people will look at you funny (exactly like this). Sometimes they will speak to you in the only English they know - mostly "Hello!" and "How are you?". At the time of writing this, Vietnam only allows for 30 day tourist visas, and I didn't qualify for any other type of visa. This meant I had to do a border run where I would leave and then reenter the country. Although it was a bit inconvenient, it allowed me to visit Phuket, Thailand and Bali, Indonesia.

Traveling with a single bag is so much more simpler. You don't have to worry about standing in line to check your bags or paying baggage fees. You're less likely to have airport security inspecting you luggage, the possibility of the airline losing your stuff, or worse, airline baggage staff stealing your belongings which has been known to happen and quite common. It's also much easier to keep track of things when you're on the move, and you're much less likely to lose something yourself. It's one less thing you have worry about, remember, or simply floating in the back of your head.

It's so much easier to travel and get around. The choice to walk somewhere is much easier to make when you don't have a suitcase on wheels that you need to drag around. Dragging around luggage regardless of where you go is an unpleasant and uncomfortable feeling. Carrying a backpack with too much stuff is also not very pleasant. As is true even when you're not traveling, the physical possessions you bring with you are a weight that keep you restricted to a geographic region. Bringing too much stuff restricts your freedom to move around, or at the very least, it makes moving around more difficult.

You Don't Need as Much as You Think You Do

Depending on the climate of your destination, I think it's easy to get away with bringing a single pair of shoes. Shoes take up a lot of space. Knowing that I was always going to be in a warm climate, I brought just a single pair of sandals which also meant I didn't need to pack socks either.

I brought enough clothes for about 5 days, including three pairs of shorts, five pairs of underwear, and 5 shirts. I did bring a pair of jeans for the sole purpose of visiting Nguyen's grandparents and wore them only that one time while I was in Vietnam. As far as I know, there isn't the same practice in the US (at least not in my family), but in Vietnam it's considered a sign of respect to wear pants when meeting older people. I also packed a scrubba washbag with me, so I was easily able to do laundry when I didn't have access to a washing machine - and if I stayed in a room with a window, my clothes would dry relatively quickly thanks to the abundance of sunshine.

Clothing made up the majority of the volume of what's stored in my backpack. The rest were gadgets and personal hygiene items. I brought my laptop, phone, e-reader, and earbuds - all take the same USB Type C charger (the cable itself doubling as a data cable when needed). Personal hygiene was limited to fingernail clippers, tooth brush, tooth paste, floss, deodorant, a razor, and shaving cream.

Oh How I Miss My Kitchen

Although there are essentially zero drawbacks to traveling light, there were times I had wish I brought something (really only a couple of things). Also, there are absolutely some real drawbacks to traveling in general which became apparent after the first few weeks.

This doesn't pertain to one-bag traveling, but hands down, the one thing I missed the most was my kitchen. Hotels typically do not include kitchen facilities - at most, you get a tiny fridge and a kettle, which forces you to eat out regularly. This might sound nice, but going to restaurants or ordering takeout, even in a relatively cheap country like Vietnam, gets really expensive really quick, and although I had some really good food there, I also had the unfortunate experience of eating really terrible food.

I enjoyed going to various coffee shops and paying the equivalent of $1 for coffee, but this too get's fairly expensive. Coffee in Vietnam is traditionally served with sweetened condensed milk and a couple teaspoons of sugar - far to sweet even compared to the sweetened coffee that's customary in the US. Requesting black coffee is what I can only describe as a bit stronger than an espresso shot with sugar. The coffee is small but STRONG. I'm someone who enjoys drinking simple black coffee out of a 24oz french press. Although the volume of "coffee liquid" was significantly less, my caffeine intake stayed more or less the same.

We were in a situation where we were moving locations nearly once a week to go to a different city, but in retrospect, it would have been better to stay in one location with kitchen facilities for a month. We did stay in her parents house for a couple weeks at a time, so it was nice to have some home cooked meals throughout those periods, though I still missed preparing food myself in my own kitchen with foods I was familiar with.

Communicating with Other Humans

I am not fluent in Vietnamese by any means, but since my partner is I figured all would be good. However, I came to realize that being in a country where English is not common can be quite an isolating experience. There were many times, especially in the smaller cities, where I was extremely reliant on Nguyen for almost any sort of interaction that required verbal communication, especially when we stayed with her parents.

To be fair, in Saigon there are a lot more Vietnamese people that are at least semi-fluent in English. Rather than me trying to practice my Vietnamese, they wanted to practice their English - which was totally fine by me as I'd usually get smiles, giggles, and laughs when I tried to speak Vietnamese. By the end of the trip, I did have the hang of ordering coffee in Vietnamese as well as a handful other phrases. The isolating feeling was a strong motivator to learn.

This isn't to say that I didn't connect with anyone, because I did especially with Nguyen's family who did everything to make me feel welcome and comfortable. If anything, not being able to communicate in the same language made me realize just how much communication takes place non-verbally such as facial expressions, body language, and even simple gestures of kindness.

Stuff That I Had & Stuff That Broke & Stuff I Wish I Had

There were some issues with the stuff I chose to bring. I experienced some hardware failure along the way, though unless I brought a backup of every single item, it's unavoidable and simple a reality of traveling.

In the time I was away, I did regret not bringing a few things that I wish I brought but it wasn't the end of the world:

There were also a couple things that I ultimately didn't need to bring, as well as something I should have thought better about:

Some stuff was lost/stolen

One thing that was more useful than I expected was the ability to use a VPN. Vietnam does block some websites like Medium, the BBC, and a couple of others, but there were also cases in which I was blocked by a US service because I was in Vietnam/outside of the country. For example, Nguyen was not able to initiate transfers from her bank unless she connected a VPN that made it appear that she was in the US.

Also, the app Currencies (available on F-Droid) was very useful for converting local currency to USD. Because Viet Nam Dong (and the Indonesian Rupiah) is so inflated, it was a bit difficult to mentally wrap my head around actual costs. It was the most useful travel app I had installed (second only to my map app OsmAnd), that I decided to send a donation to the developer.

My Packing List

Regarding what I actually packed, here's my full packing list:

PERSONAL ELECTRONICS HYGIENE CLOTHING IN BAG WEARING - Basically what I wore on the plane.

NOT PACKING - I think it's valuable to also make a list of what you should NOT back.