• Alexandra Sieh / Courtesy

    The Northern Vietnam village of Ha Giang has stunning mountains and lush valleys.

  • Alexandra Sieh/ Courtesy

    Alexandra Sieh took a trip to the Northern Vietnam village of Ha Giang.

  • Alexandra Sieh/ Courtesy

    Follow Alexandra Sieh's adventures overseas:

  • Alexandra Sieh/ Courtesy

    Sieh is living and teaching in Beijing. Follow her adventures: at



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.

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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