“Where from?” the lady asks, trotting along to keep up with me. I can only see her eyes. She’s wearing trainers, trousers, a hoodie with the hood up and the sleeves stretched down over her hands, a floral face mask like a surgical mask, and a large conical straw hat on top of her hood. Vietnamese women don’t go in for sunscreen – instead they cover up.
“England,” I said, not breaking my stride, knowing that this was the prelude to a sales pitch.
“Oh! Lovely jubbly!” she said triumphantly.
“Yes.” I wished, not for the first time, that I could have a quick word with whoever introduced that cloying phrase to the collective English vocabulary of Vietnam.
“You here alone?”
I have a variation of this conversation almost every day, but I don’t feel brave. If anything I’d say I feel selfish. Disappearing for two and a half months to travel wherever I want, spending each day exactly as I please. I can let ordinary mealtimes slide into my natural preference for a mid-morning brunch and a mid-afternoon tea. I can spend an entire day in a café, or, in the case of Luang Prabang, an entire week café-hopping. I can arbitrarily skip whole cities (Vientiane, Saigon) in favour of a slower pace of travel. It’s an amazing sense of freedom.
I miss my boyfriend and my Mum and all my lovely people, and I’m glad I have my phone here so I’m usually just a couple of taps away from contacting someone. Whenever I’ve needed help or advice it’s been there. I’ve had plenty of moments when I’ve been somewhere and thought “oh, So-And-So would love this,” and wished that person was there so I could share it with them. But short of bringing an entire entourage with me everywhere I go, I will always miss someone when I’m away.
I miss my people, but I haven’t particularly felt lonely. Admittedly, I am a complete introvert- I was 100% thus on a Myers-Briggs test (INFJ). I’m perfectly happy on my own, reading or writing or just watching the world go by. I do love people, but you don’t half tire me out if I’m around you all the time, especially in large groups.
Also, as someone who attempts to write, I need frequent bouts of solitude so that I can stare gormlessly into the middle distance, mouth hanging half open if I’m not careful, waiting for words to arrange themselves in my head so I can write them down. One of the things I’ve most loved about this trip is having long uninterrupted hours to write.
Even though I’m happy on my own, I think I would feel lonely if solitude was my only choice. It certainly isn’t. If you want to surround yourself with people, travel alone. It’s so ridiculously easy to get chatting to other travellers it makes me wonder why it can be so hard at home. All you need to do is to walk into the communal area of a hostel, or a friendly café or bar, and a conversation will find you. I’ve never had trouble finding company when I’ve sought it out.
The only significant downside to solo travel has been not having anyone to watch my stuff when I’m in transit and I want to go to the bathroom or pop into a shop. This can be a real pain in the arse. I’m glad I’ve packed light.
On the positive side, more than just the dizzying freedom to indulge your idiosyncrasies, the best thing about solo travel is how deeply you become immersed in the country you’re in. When you travel with someone, no matter how hard you might try you always carry around a little bubble of your own culture with you and view everything from within it. I’ve found I get into far more conversations with locals if I’m alone- people make more of an effort to come and chat to you, to check you’re all right. I also get “looked after” a lot: people press bottles of water and bits of food on me. Yesterday a lady brought me a fried egg, having decided that I wasn’t having a big enough breakfast. They also open up more. I don’t think I’ve gone a single day without having at least one interesting, surprising conversation with someone- today it was a man worrying about bringing up his six children.
Society attached a stigma to the whole concept of being alone. It goes against the idea that humans are social animals. This is true, and loneliness and isolation are horrible problems in modern life, especially among older people. But while humans are social creatures, we are not herd animals, no matter how hard a lot of modern culture and politics seems to want us to be.
Solitude is seen as something to be avoided at all costs, and seeking it out is therefore suspect. This goes right back to mankind’s earliest societies, precarious hunter-gatherer bands of thirty souls where internal conflict could spell disaster, and everyone really did need to stick together. Rules and taboos emerged as a force to protect these fragile structures, and have embedded themselves in societies ever since.
Though human societies have become a lot bigger and more complex, you can still see echoes of these unconscious forces at work. But instincts which helped protect ancient micro-societies can act as a destructive force in our own world. A force which tell people that those outside their perceived group are “others”, threats which must be repelled even if they are terrified children in Calais camps. A force telling people to build a wall and make “others” pay. These kneejerk forces privilege conformity, and people who are driven by them read any small difference as a threat. It’s a short step from a threat to a taboo, and though we like to think we’ve evolved, modern life is still full of these unconscious, meaningless taboos.
All this is a longwinded way of saying that people who think it’s weird if another person is harmlessly eating alone in a restaurant or travelling by themselves are unevolved creatures who aren’t worth worrying about. If you want to travel solo, set aside all such received opinion and go for it. Find out who you are when no one you know is watching. You’ll have a brilliant time.
(There’s an absolute wealth of advice for solo travellers on this website.)