When I was 29, I Learned How to Cross the Street

I’d been in Asia for a little over two months when I arrived in Ho Chi Minh City, still known as Saigon among the locals. I’d heard tales of Vietnam’s glory from other backpackers – incredible food, breathtaking landscapes, and some of the friendliest and smiliest locals you can find. At the unbeatable budget of less than $25 per day, Vietnam certainly seemed like a great place to be. I’ll admit that I was skeptical. Southeast Asia has been a backpacker favorite for decades – how much can one country really stand out so much among its regional neighbors?

I’d also heard rumors of how intimidating it can be to cross the street in Vietnam. Motorbikes rule this country (they even drive on the freakin’ sidewalk!!!), and watching them on the main roads was like watching class 5 rapids on a river. I’d even heard stories that you could pay locals to hold your hand and help you cross. Since there aren’t many street lights for pedestrian use, parting the sea of bikes seemed like an impossible task. Everyone insisted the trick was to just go for it, and the bikes would simply weave their way around you. Seriously, this was everyone’s solution, but I figured it couldn’t possibly be true. So I wasn’t thrilled to arrive in Saigon by myself without anyone by my side to learn the seemingly-insurmountable task of crossing the street. I’d learned how to do it once before (around the age of 5), yet somehow I felt more intimidated by this than I had about a lot of other things I’d done – like fly to Asia alone for 4 months. Travel is weird like that.

My first meal in Vietnam was breakfast the morning after I arrived – the most delicious noodle soup I’ve ever eaten. In fact, this exact bowl of noodly goodness was the reason I chose this particular hostel. Choosing one can be a tedious task as most of them offer a lot of the same things. But as I perused the options for my first impression of Vietnam, I found a review of Vitamin Smiles Hostel raving about the breakfast soup made by a sweet Vietnamese grandmother who spoke no English, and with whom you had to communicate by pointing to a sign indicating your two soup options – vegetarian or pork. Grandma Saigon did not disappoint. I sat and talked with a German guy of Vietnamese heritage who gave me a crash course in Vietnamese – hello, thank you, and how to count to 10 – and then I set out to discover a bit of the city, determined not to let a few two-wheeled machines get the best of me.

Not long after I started my mission to visit the Vietnam War Remnants Museum, I came straight back to my hostel. The rumors were true. I would need to cross 3 lanes of oncoming traffic, reach a median, and then cross 3 more lanes with bikes coming from the other direction. I took one look at that road and immediately turned around. New cities can be quite intimidating, and this particular one had been extra hyped up. So, as sometimes happens when you’re getting accustomed to a new place, I silently gave Saigon one point and completed my walk around the block back to my hostel. I mean, I’d already eaten the soup. That certainly counted as enough cultural experience for the day, right??

I was starting to wonder if I should just get on a bus to my next destination (the much smaller city of Da Lat, and in my opinion, the much more approachable way to re-learn the basics of how to be a pedestrian) when I experienced a bit of travel magic. In strolled Ben from Colorado who’d just spent months riding his own motorbike from north to south, and who offered to sell it to me since he was leaving that night for Taiwan. I rolled my eyes as I recounted the details of my morning, and he laughed in that “you’re clearly new here” way. He assured me it wasn’t so bad as long as you just go for it, and invited me to join him for his favorite vegetarian banh mi – Vietnam’s famous sandwich that costs about $0.45. His humor and expertise on local crosswalk culture was exactly what my weary soul needed.

The sandwich shop was only a few small side streets away from the hostel, but at least I was getting a little more practice out on the road. He told me tales of his ride through the country and shared his favorite spots that were absolute must-sees on my 3 week journey north. He also gave me a crash course on vegetarian eating in Vietnam. Before parting ways, he assured me that I would be totally fine crossing the street, and that all I had to do was find a mini break in the sea of bikes and start walking. He was convincing enough, and I left feeling ready to conquer my ridiculous fear. Our friendship only lasted for a meal, but it was one of the most reassuring meals in my entire Asian adventure.

There I was, back at the edge of the crosswalk as a million motorbikes whizzed past. I watched a few people make their way from the other side, and learned that everyone was in fact right. I just had to start walking and the bikes magically made their way around the humans. I stood there for what felt like an eternity, talking myself into the treacherous crossing, when two elderly women suddenly appeared by my side. They didn’t speak to me (they didn’t even look at me), but I knew this was my chance. They started walking and I fell right in step with them, their bodies shielding me from the oncoming traffic to my left. We were in the middle of the mayhem and we weren’t getting hit. It was amazing. It was almost beautiful. And then we came to the median and I was suddenly the first of 3 in line with the bikes coming from the other direction. I almost panicked, but they kept walking so I did too. We magically reached the place I’d so badly wanted to be – the other side of the street. I almost cheered and jumped for joy, but then I realized that the women had already continued on their way, never even batting an eyelash at the remarkable feat we’d just accomplished together. We’d crossed the street, that was all.

Moral of the story: when in doubt, find a little old lady. They have been perfecting the art of street-crossing for decades and they quickly make you feel like a pro even if there’s no way for you to communicate. They also make a mean soup.

Despite my rocky start, Vietnam stands out as one of the top 3 places I’ve ever been, mostly due to the outstanding beauty of the country and the awesome people I shared my time with there. Stay tuned for more stories from 3 of my most favorite weeks on the road.

So What’s in my Backpack?

When I was in Colombia a very sweet woman leading a hike in Monguí asked me: “what’s the one thing that all backpackers have in common – something that I can see just by looking at them?” I immediately had the image in my mind. Someone who’s wearing two backpacks – one on their back about the size of their torso and a smaller one in front. And in these two small receptacles is everything they find valuable and necessary for the duration of their wandering.


January 7, 2018 – Ready to go! (Not pictured: 20 liter Osprey daypack)


March 25, 2017 – very nervous, unsure of what the heck I was doing, but at least I was packed!

I’ll be the first to say that packing for 3 months in two small bags can be very daunting at first. Everything you need? In a backpack?!? But once you accept the fact that humans do not need as many things as we are lead to believe, and that it is okay to wear the same clothes multiple days in a row (come on, everybody’s doing it!), you come to realize that you really don’t need that much stuff to survive.

So what’s in my little green backpack anyway? The contents varied slightly between my two trips, based a little bit on culture but mostly on climate. In South America I started on the hot and humid Caribbean coast of Colombia where I basically spent two weeks in a bathing suit and a pair of shorts. By the end of the trip I was south of the equator, in the high altitude dessert and mountains, during the winter. Which means I was wearing multiple layers and still had to buy Alpaca wool gloves, hats, and scarves. Packing for Southeast Asia proved a bit easier because I’m only going to be experiencing one climate – hot and humid, although there will be cooler nights in the more mountainous regions in northern Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. As I write this, however, it’s currently 93 degrees with 68% humidity in Bangkok.

So here is a list of everything that I currently have in my favorite green backpack for 3 months in Southeast Asia. May it inspire you to downsize your wardrobe and pack your own backpack for an unforgettable adventure!


Packing for Southeast Asia, January-April 2018


Packing for South America, March-June 2017

Backpacks, etc.

Bottom right: 48 liter Osprey Kestrel backpack – my main squeeze

Top right: 20 liter Osprey Tempest daypack – perfect for short overnight trips

Bottom middle: 8 liter Patagonia Atom Slim Bag – I affectionately refer to this bag as the magic backpack because everytime I think it’s full I somehow manage to squeeze something else in there. It’s perfect for city life and can easily fit anything I need for an afternoon out (including a 1 liter Nalgene water bottle)

Bottom left: “Pack-It Compression Bag” by Eagle Creek – this is a vacuum sealed bag that helps store heavier clothes and takes up less space (fits the two small piles shown in the top left corner)

REI Expandable Packing Cubes: these are absolutely essential for backpack organization. I also recommend small pouches to keep your electronics (chargers, headphones) and extras organized.


  • 1 maxi skirt
  • 1 maxi dress
  • 1 pair of leggings (for chilly overnight bus rides and the crisp mountain air)
  • 1 pair of yoga capris
  • 2 pairs of athletic shorts
  • 1 lightweight long sleeve
  • 1 SmartWool long sleeve pullover
  • 1 Patagonia sweatshirt
  • 2 short sleeve shirts
  • 4 tank tops
  • 1 Buff (www.buffwear.com)
  • 1 Bathing suit
  • 1 Rain coat
  • 4 pairs of socks (2 hiking socks and 2 regular)
  • Underwear/bras: quantity depends on personal preference and how often you want to pay for laundry

*It’s important to consider cultural factors for the regions of the world you’ll be visiting. Many Asian countries tend to require more modest dress, especially when entering temples and sacred sites. For females this means covering your knees, ankles, and shoulders out of respect for the culture. This definitely influenced what made the cut for my wardrobe on this trip (hence the maxi skirt and dress). In South America, I substituted these items for a pair of jeans and a pair of jean shorts, which occupied the same amount of space in my bag.


  • Hiking sneakers: I highly recommend trail runners. They’re lightweight and very durable, and also don’t look super hiker-y when walking through a city. The one downside to my Saucony Trail Runners is that they’re not waterproof (though they do dry unexpectedly quickly).
  • Chacos: although not the most attractive shoe, they’re very practical for cities, mountains, and beaches as they dry quickly and offer lots of support for long days of walking.
  • Flip flops: for showering and beachwear
  • Sanuk flip flops (not pictured): a last minute purchase before leaving the US, and a very comfortable/cute option for nighttime and city life

Toiletries: Keep in mind that you can purchase whatever you need in the places you visit. From clothing to shampoo, soap, and toothpaste, anything and everything you can imagine is also available wherever you may find yourself, so bring just enough to get you through the first few days. In Asia, for example, you can find a 7-Eleven on just about every street corner. With that being said, if you absolutely, without question, must havea particular brand of something, you may want to bring a sufficient amount (for me, my one necessity is my face wash and moisturizer).

  • Soap
  • Shampoo and conditioner
  • Face wash and moisturizer
  • Contact solution (and 3 months of contacts)
  • Deodorant
  • Sunscreen
  • Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss
  • Chapstick (with SPF!)
  • Glasses
  • Hairbrush

Med Kit: It’s definitely important to have some essentials with you just in case, but as similarly stated above, everything you could imagine ever needing is available to you during your travels.

  • Vaccination list: if you ever need to visit a doctor abroad, they’ll probably ask you for this in order to illuminate certain causes for potential illness
  • Ibuprofen
  • Bandaids
  • Hydrocortisone (for mosquito bites) and mosquito repellant
  • Anti-histamine: if you’re like me, you never know when allergies may strike
  • Traveler’s diarrhea meds: it’s a real and common thing, be prepared!
  • Antibacterial gel
  • Tissues/ toilet paper: you won’t find it everywhere


  • iPhone
  • iPad
  • Portable charger
  • Chargers (and adapters depending on where you’re going)
  • Headphones and headphone splitters (great for making friends on long bus rides)

Important Documents

  • Passport and photocopies
  • Extra passport photos (sometimes needed for visas issued on arrival to certain countries)
  • Printed address of your first accommodation (to show immigration and to easily ask for help finding it)
  • Proof of Traveler’s Health Insurance: I prefer to use the GeoBlue Voyager Essential plan whenever I travel – it’s comprehensive and affordable
  • Local currency for your first destination (equivalent to approximately $100USD). I highly recommend trying to purchase some from your bank before you leave home as exchange rates at the airport and other currency exchange points can be very high. Keep in mind it sometimes takes a week or so for your bank to order foreign currency.


  • Yoga mat: mine is the Manduka Eko Superlite – very lightweight and travel friendly
  • Towel: I love my Turkish towel, it drys very fast and is quite compact
  • 1 liter Nalgene
  • TSA Approved locks (for hostel lockers, and they’re also very useful for your small bag on overnight buses)
  • Sunglasses
  • Hat
  • Sea to Summit Waterproof Bag for electronics
  • Headlamp
  • Spork (I’ve rarely used it but when camping or on an overnight bus it comes in handy)
  • RFID Wallet: prevents your cards and identification form being scanned
  • Neck pillow: an absolute must for overnight buses and long plane rides
  • Ear plugs: a backpacker’s best friend in a 10 person hostel dorm
  • Ziplock bags (large and small): their uses are numerous and their value is priceless
  • Playing cards: it’s amazing how much fun international card games over beers can be!
  • Notebook and pens: call me old fashioned, but sometimes you just need to write things down

Keeping things organized in your backpack is my #1 piece of advice. Believe me – if it’s the middle of the night or early in the morning and you need something from your bag, the last thing you want to do is be moving all your crap around trying to find your toothbrush while your dorm mates are sleeping. I’ve been the person looking and the person awoken by someone else and trust me, neither is fun. This is why I love packing cubes and smaller compartments so much.

It’s also important not to pack your bag to the brim. Keep in mind you have to carry this everywhere, so extra ounces add up quick. It’s also nice to have a little space for things you pick up along the way, and to be able to bring home some souvenirs.

Back to Backpacking: How to Plan for a Long-Term Adventure Abroad

I arrived in Bangkok last week for another 3 months of backpacking – this time around Southeast Asia. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I’m out to complete my goal of visiting 30 countries before I’m 30. Thailand is number 26 and my hope is to visit Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Malaysia before heading home to celebrate my 30th at home this spring.

Many friends and family have asked me what goes into planning something like this, so I thought I’d share some of the top things to consider before hitting the road.

To put it simply, there’s A LOT to think about. It is not a 3 month vacation at an all-inclusive resort where your every concern is considered and taken care of. This is you and your backpack full of everything you’ll need (stay tuned for another post about what’s in my backpack). For starters, you obviously need a passport, and you need to make sure it’s valid for at least 6 months after your return date to your home country with enough blank pages for required visas and entry/exit stamps. Then there are said visas to plan for which can be very stressful. Each country has their own specific requirements which often differ depending on your nationality. There’s a lot of conflicting information on the internet about visa requirements and it can be tricky to navigate. Luckily for this trip, the visas I need to apply for can be done at the airport on arrival (with a few minor exceptions).

One of the most stressful topics of research and preparation in my opinion are vaccines. First of all, I have a pretty bare bones health insurance at home in the US, so preventative vaccines for diseases that aren’t a concern in the US are definitely not covered – and they can be VERY expensive. This also means that it is unlikely your PCP carries them, making it necessary to visit a travel clinic. There are vaccines that are absolutely necessary in some parts of the world (Yellow Fever, Typhoid, and Hepatitis A&B for example) and others that are strongly suggested (such as Rabies, anti-Malaria pills, and Japanese Encephalitis) by the Center for Disease Control and the World Health Organization. Information on vaccines varies widely when reading blogs and forums among the backpacker community. Some people are quite relaxed when it comes to the suggested ones and others like to have all their bases covered just in case. I tend to err on the side of “better safe than sorry” but that means that I was looking at paying $1,000 – that’s right…one THOUSAND! – for a Japanese Encephalitis vaccine in the US. This is a mosquito-borne disease with side effects that include permanent neurological damage or death, but the likelihood of contracting it is very low. So understandably I went back and forth about this in my head for weeks…until I found out that the same vaccine costs $15 in Thailand. Granted it does take a few weeks for the incubation period to pass, but with such a low risk of contracting the disease anyway, I was absolutely sold on the idea of getting the vaccine abroad. In fact, I highly recommend this option. I had a very pleasant experience at a wonderful travel clinic in Bangkok that looked exactly like the one I visited at home. Now I don’t need to panic about possible paralysis every time I get a mosquito bite, and that $985 can be spent on fully financing an entire month of my travels. I also picked up some malaria medication at the clinic for a fraction of the cost that I would’ve paid in the US.

Speaking of finances, it is important to set a realistic budget for a trip of this nature, and to be quite strict to sticking with it. Backpackers choose to travel in the developing world because you can comfortably survive on $25-35 USD per day. I always recommend finding a credit card that does not charge fees for foreign transactions, and that incorporates a great points structure that can be redeemed for travel purchases. My personal preference is the Capital One Venture card and Capital One 360 debit card. It’s important to notify your bank that you’ll be traveling internationally so they don’t block your card from seemingly fraudulent charges.

Despite the aforementioned planning, as well as 10 years of travel experience under my belt, I was quite surprised to observe how nervous I was before leaving for Thailand. I’ve been preparing for this trip for months, and since I’ve done something very similar in South America, I would have thought that jumping back in would be a breeze. I was genuinely surprised to find myself on the verge of tears as I sat with my dear friend Karen at a cafe a few hours before my flight, very nervous about what I was about to do. I suppose it’s because aside from a general idea of my route, I don’t have anything close to a day-to-day itinerary. And I’ve never been to Asia before so it’s hard to know what to expect. I honestly think it would have been much less daunting to fly from Peru to Thailand last June than it was to come here after 7 months of being home. At the time I was used to the constant moving, the limited clothes from my backpack, and the sharing of a room with strangers that this lifestyle requires. It’s easy to get used to the creature comforts of home like showering without flip flops or not paying for laundry and drinking water. Despite my jitters, I never doubted that this trip is something I was meant to do, and I was meant to do it on my own.

I had two options for getting from the airport in Bangkok to my hostel – a $20(ish) taxi ride or a $1.60 bus. The taxi option is obviously more convenient and drops you right at the door, however, I do not speak a word of Thai and I knew I was risking being charged way more than normal for the ride – something to be expected when you’re in a new culture and at a linguistic disadvantage. Despite serious jet lag and the humid, sticky air in Bangkok, I bravely opted for the bus that spit me out a 15 walk from my hostel, which I successfully navigated without internet access. (Pro tip: download the map of where you’re going beforehand and have the address printed in English and the local language to easily ask for help.) As I sat on the sweaty bus and watched the city roll by, I was so proud of myself for opting for the less convenient option. After all I think that’s the true definition of backpacking. In that moment, all the overwhelm of the last few weeks melted away when it hit me that I’m traveling again. And it’s the best kind of traveling – the kind that makes me feel free. For the next 3 months I have the ability to change my plans whenever I want and to take things day by day. It’s the practice of staying in the moment and absorbing every second of it, because “normal life” just doesn’t allow for this kind of presence. I’m excited to see what this adventure brings my way.