What Actually Happened in 'Nam?
If you followed my trip on Facebook and Twitter, you'll know that I've just been backpacking around Vietnam with Intrepid Travel. The question is, what actually happened? What was it like being on an Intrepid tour? And most importantly, how many dishes did I eat in my Vietnamese food challenge?
One of the things that I loved about returning to Vietnam was the fact that it hadn't changed a bit in the three years since I was last there. I was really worried that it would be built up and commercialised, that the locals would have become accustomed to backpackers and therefore less accommodating, much like in Thailand, but that wasn't the case at all.
When I first went to Vietnam in 2009, it was the people that I fell in love with, and that was the same this time around.
When I'm backpacking on my own, I'm all about getting my hands dirty and pushing the boundaries to really see how much I can get to know a country. When you're on your own it's easy - after all, you've only got yourself to look after. However, being on a tour it's much harder to do that. Or is it?
In my eyes, being able to immerse yourself in the local culture is what backpacking's all about - the fact that you can do that while on a tour is rare, but that's exactly what Intrepid Travel does - it allows you to take a snapshot of someone's life, a cross-section of their daily routine, and it gives you an overview of what local living must be like. After all, that's what a gap year should be about, right? It should be about learning other people's cultures and societies.
Vietnam is a country that offers you real life experiences - everyone always talks about getting off the beaten track on their gap year and in Vietnam you can do that. Even though there's only one route to travel (that's Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi or Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City), each place that you visit along the way has a number of hidden gems. Even in Ho Chi Minch City, a sprawling city of nearly eight million people, there are places to discover that you wouldn't usually consider seeing.
One of the things that I really enjoyed about the Intrepid tour was the fact that it went to local places with local people. In My Tho, it wasn't enough just seeing how they produced coconut candies in the village - we saw the whole island and really got a feel for local life.
That was the same in Nha Trang. Forget the nice restaurants on the esplanade - we went to a local Vietnamese BBQ restaurant (where no, they didn't serve dog, I asked), and to a local family's house for a seafood feast. There's no hope in hell that I would be able to find places like that if I was backpacking on my own.
Our tour leader, Tho Nguyen, was a magician. There was nothing he couldn't do and he made us all feel comfortable being on tour. He also managed to get us to see a side of Vietnam through his own eyes, and again, that's exactly what an Intrepid tour is all about.
What's it like being on tour?
Nha Trang is the perfect example of what being on tour is all about - cultural experiences in the day, hedonism by night.
One evening we found ourselves in 'Why Not?' bar (after all, why not?). To kick things off we had a fish tank that consisted of one bottle of vodka, two bottles of rum, half a bottle of gin, triple sec, pineapple juice, a little bit of lemon and Sprite. Why am I telling you about something as beautifully evil as the fish tank? Because it's a metaphor for the tour - it's a surprise package and it packs a punch.
I have to admit, I really enjoyed being on a tour with like-minded individuals. Much like gapyear.com, we all had two things in common - the thirst to travel and the hunger for the unknown.
I think a tour appeals to two types of individuals. If you're just about to go backpacking or travelling for the first time, then they're absolutely perfect. Or, alternatively, if your gap year is long behind you but you still want to be a bit of an intrepid traveller, then they give you the chance to get to know a country in a short period of time.
Would I go on a tour again? Definitely. Why? Because it's the people that you travel with just as much as the places that you go to that makes it so special. Finishing on a quote, Christopher McCandless once said: "Happiness only real when shared..."
Oh, and in answer to the question at the beginning, I ended up having 56 different dishes in my Vietnamese food challenge, but that's a story for another day...
Intrepid Travel is an adventure travel company that offers close to 1,000 trips and tours around the world. Their tagline is "real-life travel experiences" and that's exactly what they're all about. Also, they're a carbon-neutral company meaning you can sleep safe and sound at night knowing you're doing your bit.
If you're thinking of going on an Intrepid Travel tour on your gap year then check out a range of their tours.
Or if you're stuck for ideas then let us inspire you with our article on 'Gap Year Ideas' - who know where it'll take you!
About the Author: Macca Sherifi
Macca is gapyear.com's travel editor and writes on a myriad of topics, giving the best travel advice in an easy-to-read style that he would describe as 'cutesy'. His two passions are travelling and writing, which is lucky, because he's a travel writer. Macca travelled for 20 months non-stop, never settling in one place for more than a week or two, living to travel and travelling to live. In his spare time, he reads about travelling, thinks about travelling, and then travels. If that fails he still harbours hopes of being a professional rugby player...