When I was in my early 20s, I jealously watched as many of my friends jetted off to spend summers backpacking in Asia, coming home with golden tans and a powerful sense of smugness about how cultured they had become.

I never had the money to go or anyone to go with, and before I knew it I was settled in a nice job and felt like I couldn’t leave. But the urge to go on an adventure never left me, so I decided on a compromise – I would plead with my editor for three weeks off work, and do a mini backpacking trip around South East Asia.

An Bang beach

Any experienced traveller will tell you not to cram too much into your itinerary or you’ll end up too tired and grumpy to appreciate the experience. So I settled on a few spots in north and central Vietnam – Sapa, Hanoi, Halong Bay, Ninh Binh and Hoi An – as well as two cities in Cambodia – Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. I also spent one night in Bangkok to get a tiny taste of Thailand before flying home; the airport is very well-connected so many travellers begin and/or end their travels here.

My budget was fairly tight but I didn’t fancy spending too much of my limited time in Asia on cramped buses or struggling to sleep in loud shared dorms, so I went for a mix of hostels and guesthouses, public transport and flights.


Trekking in Sapa

Although I visited a friend in Hanoi and we travelled together for a while, I spent the second half of my holiday alone. Frankly, I was terrified – and I’ll admit there were one or two “Dear God, what have I done?!” moments. But in the end I’m glad I did it as it forced me out of my comfort zone and I made so many new pals.

The highlights

From frenetic cities to pristine beaches, idyllic countryside to ancient temples, SE Asia has so much to offer. Some of the highlights on my trip included staying with a tribal family and trekking around the stunning paddy fields in Sa Pa, riding a motorbike through the most chaotic streets I’ve ever seen in Hanoi (don’t tell my mam!) and seeing the sunrise at the temple of Angkor Wat.

The transport

Transport in SE Asia can be a little unreliable – instructions on bus company websites are often vague and employees don’t speak much English. Giant Ibis is definitely your best bet for any long bus journeys. They took me from Siem Reap to Bangkok (about eight hours including the border crossing) for €28, including hotel pickup, breakfast and lunch. Sleeper buses can be uncomfortable – think lots of shouting in the wee hours of the morning and someone’s smelly feet in your face – but save you wasting a day and spending money on accommodation. If you’re OK with spending a little more, Vietnam Airlines do cheap domestic and international flights.

The food

Amok curry

 

You can bag yourself a delicious meal for as little as €1 or €2 – street kitchens, which can be anything from a stall to an open-fronted restaurant, are usually great value. Make sure to try the pho (a type of noodle soup) and the banh mi (crispy sandwiches stuffed with meat and veg) in Vietnam, as well as the fish amok (a creamy coconut curry) in Cambodia. Don’t forget to taste all the special types of coffee on offer in Vietnam – yoghurt coffee might sound disgusting, but I’m still dreaming about it…

The accommodation

It’s easy to find high quality accommodation for a low price in both Vietnam and Cambodia. As I was on my own for some of my trip I found hostels were a great way to meet other people – especially other solo female travellers. Some gems I encountered included Onederz hostel in Siem Reap (€6.25 a night) and Tribee Kinh in Hoi An (€6.49 a night). Asia is also the perfect place to treat yourself to a fancy hotel on the cheap – the stylish Tea House in Phnom Pehn cost me €40 a night and boasted a gorgeous pool, spa and fusion dining.

The verdict

Cruising in Halong Bay

 

I only really scratched the surface of two countries in SE Asia but it was enough for me to fall in love. It’s such a vibrant, exciting continent and your money goes so far that you could easily spend months exploring. I can’t wait to go back.

Sunways

If you don’t fancy going it alone there are some great tours on offer through Sunways, which can take a lot of the hassle out of planning. Their discover Vietnam 10 day, 9 night tour from Hanoi to Saigon starts at €1899pp (based on a September departure for two adults sharing) and includes return flights, taxes, bags and full tour with transfers, guides, and hotels.

They also have a cheaper Vietnam on a Shoestring 12 day, 11 night tour which starts at €1329pp, including return flights, taxes, bags, guides, and moderate hotels.

 

From chaotic Ho Chi Minh City to charming Hoi An, the imperial capital of Hue, vibrant Hanoi, and the stunning natural beauty of Halong Bay, this trip has something for everyone.

Journey up the coast in this jam-packed introduction to the country’s highlights and nightlife with other travellers your own age – so you can be sure to get down with new friends that’ll keep up. Their Chief Experience Officers (CEOs) will take you through the highlights on a shoestring, including a street food crawl in Hoi An, a boat trip around Halong bay (with lunch), orientation walks in Ho Chi Minh City, Hoi An, and Hanoi. Then they’ll let you loose so you can do a bit of exploring on your own. All transport between destinations and to/from activities are included.

Contact (01) 231 1856 for details or check out www.sunway.ie .



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