Follow Alexandra Sieh’s adventures overseas:
Follow Alexandra Sieh's adventures overseas: (Alexandra Sieh/ Courtesy)

As I rolled over in the semi-reclined sleeper bus seat, I came face to face with a pair of feet. Big, slightly pungent feet, just inches from my face.

With a sigh, I rolled onto my back. I stared up at the neon strip lighting , my long legs cocked to the side, and listened as 15 or so Vietnamese men snored.

It was going to be a long night.

A few days into vacation, my friend and I hopped onto the overnight bus to Ha Giang, a part of Northern Vietnam not very popular with tourists. Despite stunning mountains and lush valleys, most visitors opted for boat tours around the karsts in Halong Bay.

Looking for a challenge, and reprieve from the beaten path, we were sure: Ha Giang it was. So after a few days touring the pulsing streets of Hanoi – weaving through motorbikes and turning down cycle rickshaw drivers in the Old Quarter – we boarded the bus for an 8-hour trip north.

Hopping off just before sunrise — sore, stiff and far from well-rested — the station's parking lot was empty. We weren't sure where to go. Equipped only with a nearby village's name and the hope we'd stumble across the home stay advertised online, our whole trip had been built on an active choice to avoid planning.

I smiled. This was so ... not me.


I, the girl who diligently planned simple trips back to her parents' house, had just arrived at the outskirts of an unknown town without so much as a hostel reservation. The girl who'd pack an entire car with snacks and suitcases for a road trip to California was now traipsing across Northern Vietnam with little more than a backpack and a couple changes of clothes.

Before living abroad, I'd never stayed in a hostel nor navigated a foreign bus schedule. I planned ahead when I traveled, booking as nice of hotels as I could afford, toting more clothes than I'd need in my bright-pink, wheeled suitcase.

Now here I was, wandering through a quiet Vietnamese village, pointing at the word "home stay" in a phrase book to random passersby. Chickens clucked in front of stilt homes with thatched grass roofs. Early risers tended to the wide expanse of rice fields nearby.

This was a first for me.

In those few days, I'd take on other firsts: sleeping on the floor under a mosquito net in a strangers' home and touring mountains on the back of a motorcycle.

The Northern Vietnam village of Ha Giang has stunning mountains and lush valleys.
The Northern Vietnam village of Ha Giang has stunning mountains and lush valleys. (Alexandra Sieh / Courtesy)

More importantly, though, it was my first time traveling in a way that forced me to believe I was capable enough - brave enough - to handle something so unplanned. So foreign.

I watched the sun rise over the jagged mountains, exhausted and exhilarated. This was all so not "me," yet it was coming to me naturally.

Maybe I was cut out for this whole "living abroad in Asia" thing after all.

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