Words and photos by Mai Thao
Mai Thao is the chief operating officer of the Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival, an event that brings together the rich traditions of the Asian and Pacific-Islander American communities in West Michigan. Along with owning and operating Waan Waan Sweets, a confectionery that serves Thai rolled ice cream at Bangkok Taste Cuisine (15 Jefferson Ave SE), Thao is an avid traveler. We invited her to share her latest experience solo-trekking through Asia and shed light on what makes each destination a world to behold.
Solo travel gave me the ultimate freedom to explore East Asia and Southeast Asia at my own discretion. I’ve always had a travel bug in me. I wanted a long vacation and an escape from the Michigan winter. Two years of saving and I was ready to leave.
For four weeks in November 2018, with a 35-literbookbag, I traveled to Hong Kong, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines. Each destination left an everlasting impression. The experiences enriched my understanding of the history, the people, the culture and the food from each of the countries I visited.
Hong Kong is densely populated with no shortage of skyscrapers providing a beautiful skyline. Public transportation is cheap and reliable. All signs are in English, making it easy to navigate around. Credit cards are widely accepted. Free Wi-Fi is readily available. At $134 per night for a twin bed, accommodation was the most expensive. I stayed in the city for three days and two nights.
The Lion Rock hike located on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong was the highlight of my visit. The view of the city on top of that mountain was beautiful and super rewarding.
Singapore is culturally diverse with four official languages including English. Signs and announcements on public transit are in English as well. Spending two or three days here is sufficient. A must see is the free Gardens by the Bay light show. There’s no shortage of street food here. If you’re a fan of seafood, try the Singaporean chili crab or laksa, chicken and shrimp spicy coconut rice noodle soup. I started my mornings off with a strong brew of Kopi/coffee with condensed milk and sugar.
Vietnam – Hanoi
Hanoi — the city of over 5-million motorbikes and no sidewalks! Sidewalks become motorbike parking during the day while motorists and pedestrians share the streets. Jaywalking is a norm. I found navigating the streets of Hanoi to be exhausting. Horns are constantly used as a warning to pedestrians. I stayed in the French old quarter where most tourists visit. During the day the locals work, and by the late afternoon, street are filled up with food stalls. For as little as 25,000 VND ($1.07 USD), you can get a delicious bowl of chicken pho. Accommodation is also very cheap— for $21 USD a day, I got a studio apartment.
If you plan to do any travels to Southeast Asia, Vietnam should be on your list.
Philippines – El Nido, Palawan
The beaches in El Nido are some of the most beautiful I’ve seen. Island tour packages with lunch buffet are cheaper than Thailand and the crowds are smaller too. I stayed in El Nido for three nights and that was plenty of time. You’ll need cash for everything so bring plenty. The town is rapidly developing and a few ATMs are scattered around, yet Wi-Fi is spotty. Plan to relax and disconnect from city life. The people are very nice and friendly. Besides the costly plane ticket to El Nido, accommodation, food and tour packages for a single person is all at a reasonable price. I had the best lechon/roasted pig there.
Safety is the main concern for any solo traveler. Accessibility to the Internet is easier than ever. With a local SIM card, I was connected with my family and friends and had access to online resources at my fingertips. Ride hailing apps bypassed the need to speak the local language. I could set the destination without having to speak to the driver and share live tracking.
I hope this article inspired you to take your own adventure! Don’t let your fears stop you from visiting places you want to see.
You can talk to Thao about her travels and try her delicious Thai rolled ice cream this month at the Grand Rapids Asian Pacific Festival.
What: Grand Rapids Asian-Pacific Festival
When: June 14, 11 a.m. — 11 p.m.; June 15, 11 a.m.—11 p.m.; June 16, 11 a.m.—5 p.m.
Where: Rosa Parks Circle, 135 Monroe Center St NW