Why you should start all long trips in Hanoi, and bring almost nothing, and other long-term travel tips 


(I’m not an Amazon Affiliate, so none of these links make me any money.  They’re just to illustrate what I have.  Apologies if they pop up in the .uk site and not your local Amazon shop.)

My wonderful friend Mike is going to travel around the world starting in February 2018, and he asked for some suggestions.  I gave him two:

  1. Bring almost nothing but the clothes on your back, necessary toiletries and medications, and the necessary gadgets (unlocked phone, camera, iPod, Kindle, USB cables, etc.).
  2. START IN HANOI.  

I estimate that, if we’d taken these two steps at the start of our trip, we would have saved $500.  We would have gotten off the plane, grabbed the bus into town, checked into a hotel, and started shopping on the streets.  I would have gotten a new North Face 110 liter rucksack with detachable backpack for about $35, and a 10 liter waterproof sack for $5 (useful for waterfall trips, kayaking, etc.).  I would have picked up a pair of shorts and a few fast-dry shirts, and some canvas loafers for about $20 total, and some thin cotton boxers for $2.  A bag of detergent and a universal sink plug (maybe $3 total) would have completed the shopping.  Then, I would have started sightseeing, picking up what I found I needed along the way, a la Tim Ferriss or the Minimalists.  That way, my bag would have had plenty of space for souvenirs, and I wouldn’t have felt guilty tossing things, because right now, I have an entire compartment in my bag filled with everything I DON’T use: cotton t-shirts (SE Asia is absurdly hot, and these soak through quickly with sweat, so I haven’t worn a cotton t-shirt in three months); two pairs of “emergency” boxers (my Ex Officio boxers dry overnight); a down vest (purchased in Hanoi; SE Asia is SO HOT) and a Patagonia shell (used twice); gym socks (again, almost never used, as one pair is enough); a rain jacket (it turns out water dries out of fast-dry clothes pretty quickly); a Zippo; and a few other odds and ends that I just don’t have the heart to give up on just yet.

What do I absolutely recommend taking on a six month (or longer, or shorter) trip?  

A travel washboard.  A few days ago, two women in a restaurant were talking about how much laundry they ended up doing on the road.  Alice said, “I don’t know what they’re talking about – I just give all my laundry to my husband.”  It’s true – doing laundry has been one of the surprising joys of travel.  It turns out washing clothes in the sink, once a day, with local hand-wash detergent,  is cheap, easy, and FUN.  It also helps keep weight down in your pack.  Without a doubt, this is the top thing I think people should pack.

Binder clips.  The black butterfly kind you hold papers together with. They also keep bags of coffee or granola closed, keep clothes on a clothesline in a strong wind, and for the small ones, they can be used to pop the SIM card slot out of an iPhone (only some of them, though; others are too big).

Vietnamese coffee filter.  I originally brought an Aeropress and a Gorilla travel grinder on the trip, because one of my favorite people in the world, John Johnson, made me love really great coffee.  I anticipated getting fresh-roasted beans everywhere and making cups of coffee.  Then I remembered that:

  1. One of my favorite things is getting coffee made for me while traveling.  I never order coffee when I’m at home, so it feels like a true luxury to have someone do it for me.
  2. SE Asia produces a HUGE amount of exceptionally good coffee.  (John said that Burma is the next Panama, and while I don’t understand what that means, he said it like it’s a good thing.)

Then, in Vietnam, I met a lovely man named Duc, who gave me a small Long Cam LC1 filter and a bag of Trung Nguyen Sang Tao 1 coffee.  I haven’t picked up my Aeropress since, except to pack it deeper into my bag.  Most hotels have electric kettles and mugs, so this is the perfect way to make incredible coffee wherever you are.  (I also brought a Riess 1/2 liter enamelware  mug, which is now only useful for protecting the LC1 during travel).

Kindle.  Together, we’ve read 51 books so far on this trip, which would be bulky to carry around.  It’s great to be able to buy a book and have it delivered immediately, or to check one out from the library and have it for three weeks (if you’re a cheapskate like me).

Timbuk2 messenger bag.  I’ve never dealt with monsoons before.  Things get wet, and you don’t want your stuff soaked.  This has been a devicesaver in rainstorms and in the middle of water festivals, where locals throw buckets of water at everyone they see. I got mine brand-new for $2 in a thrift store in Maine.

A Dry Sack.  I have a 10 liter dry sack, the kind made for kayaking.  It has been a devicesaver for sailing, swimming, fishing, kayaking, and the above mentioned New Years celebrations.  A cheap way to protect expensive things.

Speedo Goggles.  You’re going to find yourself on all sorts of beaches and pools, and nobody else will be able to see the teeming underwater life except for you, because almost nobody else will have remembered goggles.

A Safety Razor.  I got a plastic Gillette razor in Hoi An that uses the disposable two-sided blades, one of which will last me a week; replacements are about five cents each no matter where you go.  If you care about the environment, and you want to cut down on your consumption (and disposal) of plastic, pick up a safety razor.  You can get amazing old safety razors on ebay for a few dollars, or you can just wait to arrive and get the ones sold here.

Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Magic Soap, small bottle.  I’ve been using it as shaving soap – about five drops every pass – and the smallest bottle they sell should last me the entire trip.  It’s also useful for toothpaste, and the peppermint one helps relieve bug bites if you don’t have hydrocortisone.  (The other scents of soap don’t have this added benefit.)

An Oree keyboard.  I know – £150 for a wooden keyboard?  But it’s like a Vitamix – I would have never recommended it before I got one, and now I don’t think I could ever go back.  It’s gorgeous, useful, and a true pleasure to use.  The leather case helps protect it from damage when you’re traveling.  Alice got a keyboard herself for the trip, but now she uses mine whenever I’m not using it.

Spare contact lens case.  A couple of days ago, I came back to the room to find that the maid had thrown away my contact lens case.  I asked the management, and it turned out she had thought it was trash.  She had never seen a contact lens case, and didn’t know what they were.  Luckily I had a spare.  Be prepared to deal with different levels of knowledge and culture.

Handkerchiefs.  Before we left, I dyed them blue.  They are better for the environment than paper tissues and they look way cooler.  Very little maintenance.

Baby Wipes.  You’ll need them.

Cutco Shears.  These are the scissors that can cut through a penny; they have been way more useful than my pocket knife.

Walmart 30 SPF Sport Sunscreen.  This was one of the highest rated sunscreens by Consumer Reports; the sunscreens produced here vary in quality, and the ones that are produced in the West tend to be obscenely overpriced.  I wish I’d brought two bottles.

American wall plugs.  That’s the standard over here, along with European ones.  In India, I occasionally found sockets made for UK plugs, but even that was rare.  I have three plugs for charging devices (kindle, iPhone, iPod, etc.).

Gallon-sized Ziploc bags.  Useful for everything from holding laundry to transporting wet soap to waterproofing things when you don’t want to use a dry sack.

Hydrocortisone cream. Every day, we see people walking around with their legs covered in giant red bug bite welts that they have scratched to the point of bleeding. Friends, YOU DO NOT NEED TO SUFFER ANY LONGER! Dr. Bronner’s works sometimes, but a tiny dab of hydrocortisone works much better.

A cotton scarf. You can buy these in any market; I got three Kramas from Cambodia. They’re great for covering your shoulders and neck from the sun, wiping away sweat, carrying children, covering bags, etc.  (Here, people wear scarves and jackets to protect themselves from the sun; when it gets hot, they add clothing.  It has taken a bit of time to come around to their point of view, but now, I kind of get it.)

A 1993 Timex Ironman Triathlon watch.  Clock; chronometer (lap swimming, running); interval timer (room workouts); five alarms (waking up, going to sleep, warning of boarding times, pickup times, appointments, and everything in between).  Water resistant to 100m.

An REI Carabiner.  Not one of the cheap ones that you can get at a gas station for $.25; a heavy-duty one that can hold your own weight.  They’re useful for attaching bags, clotheslines, water bottles, towels, dry sacks, all sorts of things, quickly and easily.  We actually ran into two women on the train in India who had never seen them, and had 30-minutes of questions about them, so they’re good conversation starters, too.

A Re-Uz reusable shopping bag.  My cousin owns Re-Uz, and gave me mine for free.  It has proven incredibly useful for trips to the market and trips to the beach, especially in places where plastic bags litter the landscape and you don’t want to contribute further to the problem as a tourist.

Stuff I didn’t need?

A Zippo.  Seriously?  I don’t even smoke!  Why did I bring something that needs to be refilled with a substance that you can’t bring on planes?  Stupid.

A box of postcards.  I figured that I’d get a kick out of writing postcards to people with pictures that were not of the place I’m in, so I brought along a box of postcards of various famous authors, and some vintage linen postcards from Youngstown, Ohio.  It has been fun, but it just takes up space.  If you want a postcard, let me know.

An Aeropress and a travel grinder.  Again, these are just taking up space.  Buy coffee on the road, for $.25, from a mom-and-pop shop, and talk to the people.

Cotton t-shirts.  They are terrible, especially in Southeast Asian heat.  Just get a few sports shirts from Hanoi and wash them in the sink, or get one of the ubiquitous laundry services to do it (usually about $1/kilogram of clothes).

Extra contact lens solution.  I brought three giant Costco bottles, to be used up over six months; it will save me perhaps $8 on this trip, but at the cost of space.  I’m not about to get rid of the remainders, but contact lens solution is available here.

Speaking of.  I don’t like to think of myself as an untraveled bumpkin, but I’ve been constantly surprised both at what is available everywhere in a developing nation (baby wipes, Johnnie Walker, Nivea lotion) and what I don’t need to survive (basically, everything is readily replaceable for very little money).  Everything is made in China nowadays, anyway.

Assorted lessons from the first three months of traveling:
The first thing to buy in any country is a phone and data SIM card for your unlocked phone.  Except in India, where the system takes 24 hours to activate a new line, you will be up and running within minutes.

Things to look for in a hotel room: a big sink, reviews on TripAdvisor.com of comfortable beds, a closet with hangers, a desk area, a pool large enough to swim laps, an electric kettle for tea or coffee. If breakfast is included, see what people say; we’ve found that it’s often better to just find a good breakfast spot rather than pay extra for a hotel breakfast. The only exception to that: Emerald Waters in Hoi An, which had some of the best food we had anywhere.

We started the trip with a rule: stay at least three nights in every hotel.  This gives you enough time to get to know an area, do everything you want to do, and you can hopefully make a friend or two.  Then, in rural Cambodia and Laos, we changed it: if it’s a rural place, two nights is probably plenty, unless there’s something specific you want to do that takes longer.  In some places – Hanoi, Bangkok, Siem Reap – we have stayed a week, and loved it.  But as a general rule, three nights minimum.

Google Maps is incredible.  When you get to an area, search for gyms, public pools, and restaurants.
If you’re going to a city, search “NYTimes.com 36 hours in (city name).”  Many of them are a bit outdated, but they will give you at least a few worthwhile things to do.

If you are renting a scooter or motorcycle, and you stop for gas, it’s worth it to fill it up. Don’t save a few cents because you don’t want to break a large bill.
Forgive stupid tourists. There are a lot of them out there from all countries.


Set trip goals and week goals.  
Ask yourself what will make each month, week and day successful, so you know what you’re aiming to do.  Sometimes, it’s to see every Wat in a town; sometimes, it’s to spend 16 hours on a train without throwing yourself out of the window.  When you have a successful day, it’s a good excuse to have a local beer.

I’ll add more as I think of it.  Mike, and anyone else contemplating a long trip, just come out and buy what you need as you need it. You’re welcome, and I look forward to seeing you on the road!  🙂

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