©istockphoto/Joel CarilletSo you’ve been dream­ing of back­pack­ing through South­east Asia. When the Banana Pan­cake Trail beck­ons, how do you make your vision a reality?

Get­ting There
Flight is prob­a­bly your best bet, espe­cial­ly if you’re a solo adventurer—although there are options for trav­el by ship, these can be either cost­ly or unre­li­able. Look­ing up the best (largest) air­ports and the best (safest) air­lines in South­east Asia is a good place to begin your research.

Plug your cho­sen des­ti­na­tions into the Google Flights tool. This tool is the best! You can include near­by air­ports and look at prices for any date in the cal­en­dar drop­down. Look for rewards pro­grams offered through rep­utable sites like Expe­dia to snag the best deal possible.

Now that you’ve booked your flight, the dream just got real, and you need to tack­le the least glam­orous aspects of your trip. It’s logis­tics, but it’s imper­a­tive that you fig­ure these con­cerns out soon­er rather than later.

Visas
Visa poli­cies dif­fer by coun­try. Viet­nam requires a visa in hand before you can enter the coun­try, unless you are arriv­ing by air, in which case you can pre­arrange for a visa. Indone­sia offers 30-day visas on arrival for rough­ly $25.

Cam­bo­dia offers 30-day visas that you can pick up at a bor­der or an air­port, while Thai­land also offers a 30-day visa for those arriv­ing by air and a 15-day visa for those arriv­ing by land…but guess what…they’re free! Malaysia also offers free 90-day visas on arrival.

For longer visas and visas for oth­er South­east Asian coun­tries, this arti­cle cov­ers the var­i­ous oth­er require­ments. It also rec­om­mends pay­ing for any fee-based visas in West­ern cur­ren­cy to get a deal.

Vac­ci­na­tions
You should con­sid­er a vari­ety of vac­ci­na­tions when vis­it­ing South­east Asia. Some fall into the “you should just have these vac­ci­na­tions in your reg­u­lar life” cat­e­go­ry and some fall into the “you should have them for your trip” category.

Accord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, you should already have your measles-mumps-rubel­la (MMR) vac­cine, diph­the­ria-tetanus-per­tus­sis vac­cine, vari­cel­la (chick­en­pox) vac­cine, polio vac­cine, and your year­ly flu shot. If you haven’t had these, get them.

For your trip, you might con­sid­er Hepati­tis A and Typhoid. If you’ll be vis­it­ing mul­ti­ple coun­tries, Hepati­tis B, Japan­ese Encephali­tis, Malar­ia, Rabies, and Yel­low Fever also fall under the list of pos­si­ble vac­ci­na­tions. Dis­cuss options with your doctor.

Learn the Language
The main artery of the Banana Pan­cake Trail is the Khao San Road, which winds through Bangkok. Know your basic Thai phras­es. As you ven­ture from Thai­land, most vis­i­tors can prob­a­bly get by with Viet­namese, Khmer (spo­ken in Cam­bo­dia) and Burmese. If you make it to China’s Yun­nan Province, brush up on your South­west­ern Mandarin.

Learn to say hel­lo, good-bye, par­don me, sor­ry, where is and how much. Short phras­es and ques­tions (spo­ken in your fal­ter­ing, clear­ly non-native accent) should make it obvi­ous that you want to con­nect on a mean­ing­ful level.

Guides, restau­rant own­ers, and shop­keep­ers who cater to tourists are a great resource for expand­ing your vocab­u­lary fur­ther. They fre­quent­ly speak some English.

photo-1455812678798-21f57285a6dc

Nav­i­ga­tion and Transportation
Keep a map handy. If you man­gle the name of the city you wish to vis­it, just point to it on the page.

Trains routes are eas­i­er to make sense of than bus­es. Check all timeta­bles short­ly before you depart. You’ll real­ly get to know your fel­low thrill-seek­ers on these jour­neys, mak­ing them an ide­al time to com­pare trav­el notes and adjust your route.

If you just want to go from point A to point B, these inter­na­tion­al­ly rec­og­nized taxi ser­vices can be accessed from your phone.

For those moments when trans­porta­tion is more a mat­ter of expe­ri­enc­ing the sights and sounds of the region than about arriv­ing at a spe­cif­ic loca­tion at a giv­en time, your options will vary accord­ing to coun­try: slide on the back of a xe om motor­bike taxi in Viet­nam or catch a tuk tuk in Cambodia.

Putting It All Together
If the nec­es­sary plan­ning and poten­tial for cul­tur­al mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tion seems over­whelm­ing, just remem­ber: we’ll nev­er under­stand each oth­er as glob­al cit­i­zens until we take the jour­ney. So get out there and explore!

©istockphoto/DeltaOFF

©istockphoto/DeltaOFFAmong Amer­i­cans, Viet­nam is chiefly known as the focal point of a cer­tain war that most peo­ple would rather for­get. Luck­i­ly, the locals have put a lot of effort into mak­ing their coun­try known for some­thing far bet­ter: its pris­tine beaches.

The coun­try is home to some of the best beach­es on Earth, and if you’re plan­ning a trip to get away from the win­ter blues, these are some of the best options to help lift your mood.

Nha Trang
For some seri­ous sun, head down to the Khanh Hoa province and make a pit stop at one of Vietnam’s most pop­u­lar beach­es, Nha Trang. Not only is it known for its beau­ti­ful sands and near-per­fect weath­er, but it’s also becom­ing one of the best div­ing spots in South­east Asia. The beach­es are lined with coral reefs, caves, and even some fan­tas­tic wake­board­ing and kite surf­ing for those who pre­fer to stay above the water.

Doc Let
Just down the road is equal­ly allur­ing Doc Let. While it’s close by, don’t expect the same atmos­phere as you’ll find at Nha Trang; this place is about as relax­ing as it gets. The par­ty crowd and fam­i­ly groups tend to stay at the main attrac­tion down the road, while Doc Let is left to those look­ing to get away from the noise. The sands are just as pret­ty, but here you’ll find more locals and few­er Westerners.

Phu Quoc Island
Phu Quoc Island was once a sleepy lit­tle island town hid­den away from the tourist track, but over the last few years, some­one must’ve let the secret slip on how strik­ing this place tru­ly is. Tourists have begun to flood the island and ameni­ties seem to be grow­ing by the day, but there’s still just enough of that local feel to give it the per­fect bal­ance of a beach­side oasis.

Ho Coc Beach
Ho Coc Beach is a lit­tle more than 100 kilo­me­ters out­side of Ho Chi Minh City, mak­ing it the per­fect place to escape the bustling town when you find your­self in need of a lit­tle peace and qui­et. Not near­ly as built up as some of the more pop­u­lar beach­es in the area, here you’ll find stretch­es of beau­ti­ful gold­en sands set between rolling dunes and crys­talline waters as far as the eye can see.

Quy Nhon
You’re unlike­ly to spot anoth­er for­eign­er walk­ing along the shores of the small sea­port town of Quy Nhon, which is pre­cise­ly why it’s one of the best the coun­try has to offer. This is tru­ly the place to get away from it all and immerse your­self in the Viet­namese cul­ture. It might not be the most beau­ti­ful, but once you spend time with the locals and expe­ri­ence the way they live, you might nev­er want to leave.

Danang
Danang is a ritzy resort town known for its great surf­ing and div­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. It also has some of the classi­est and most pop­u­lar resorts in the coun­try and is a pop­u­lar choice among retir­ing expats. With all of the palm trees, white sands, and coconuts lin­ing the shore, you might eas­i­ly mis­take it for a beach in Hawaii, just with­out all of the congestion.

The cor­ners of my mouth twitched slight­ly and I gripped the bike hel­met to my side as if cling­ing to the edge of a cliff for dear life. Stand­ing on a con­crete island smack dab in the mid­dle of a main high­way in Hanoi, Viet­nam dur­ing rush hour, I thought, “What the hell have I got­ten myself into?”

Cars, motor­bikes, pedes­tri­ans, cart push­ers, and ani­mals melt­ed into one swirling hot mess of whirring col­ors, shapes, and sounds. There are no traf­fic lights, police or traf­fic pat­terns to be seen. It was like watch­ing an anthill under attack. Vehi­cles spilled out from an inter­sec­tion one after anoth­er with­out a sin­gle glance or pause, as oncom­ing traf­fic swerved around them. And here I was with my friend Joram, about to hop on our new­ly pur­chased bikes to learn how to nav­i­gate this insan­i­ty before set­ting off on a month long adven­ture bik­ing from the North of Viet­nam, end­ing in the South­ern cap­i­tal, Ho Chi Minh City.

We didn’t know any­thing about bik­ing, or what to expect. All we knew was that we were will­ing to grit our teeth, buy the damn bikes, strap on our bulky back­packs and become com­plete­ly vul­ner­a­ble to this for­eign land.

And, we’re not the only ones. Bik­ing Viet­nam is quick­ly becom­ing a pop­u­lar pref­er­ence for back­pack­ers look­ing to get off the beat­en path, or out of the typ­i­cal tourist scene.

Buy­ing a Bike
The motor­bike reigns supreme as the ulti­mate mode of trans­porta­tion in Viet­nam, and buy­ing or rent­ing is a cheap, quick process. Trav­el­ers attempt­ing to tack­le the full length of Viet­nam start off buy­ing a new or used bike in Hanoi (North to South) or in Ho chi Minh City (South to North). Cov­er­ing the entire coun­try takes about a month, depend­ing on where you want to go and how long you stay in each destination.

Some pre­fer to bike just a sec­tion of the coun­try. The infa­mous Hai Van Pass in cen­tral Viet­nam is known for an exhil­a­rat­ing ride careen­ing around sharp moun­tain curves, with the South Chi­na Sea a vast sheet of sap­phire on one side and loom­ing lime­stone giants on the oth­er. For short trips such as this, rent­ing is the way to go.

Joram and I bought our babies from Hanoi Motor­bikes since we knew vir­tu­al­ly noth­ing about the process. Run by expats who have exten­sive expe­ri­ence and knowl­edge bik­ing Viet­nam, it was com­fort­ing to con­verse in eng­lish. They offer the whole enchi­la­da for around $350—a ready-to-go used bike, hel­met, bag racks, straps, dri­ving lessons, and a map with route recommendations.

Anoth­er option is to buy from a fel­low bik­er fin­ish­ing up their trip. For Sale ads are plas­tered across hos­tel and hotel walls. A used bike runs from around $200 USD and up, depend­ing on the condition.

When buy­ing the bike, of course take it for a spin. Ask what type of main­te­nance and repairs have been made, if oil has been changed, etc. If you are hap­py with the bike, make sure you are giv­en the “blue card.” This is the title and puts the bike under your ownership.

The Strug­gle is Real…
My Viet­namese sou­venirs do not con­sist of objects, but rather mem­o­ries of break downs, close calls, tears of frus­tra­tion, and a nice lime-sized exhaust burn scar on my right shin. Alas, they also con­sist of mem­o­ries of the set­ting sun blot­ted out by dozens of kites flown by smil­ing chil­dren on the side of the road, lin­ger­ing tastes of savory dish­es that I will nev­er know the name of, tak­ing rice whisky shots with Viet­namese truck dri­vers at the Nhà Nghỉ  in the mid­dle of nowhere, and stop­ping in the dead heat of mid­day to skin­ny dip in a pris­tine crys­tal moun­tain lake with no oth­er liv­ing, breath­ing soul in sight.

There were days when my bike was an angel, pow­er­ing up and down the steep­est cliffs, tack­ling long, exhaust­ing four to six hour rides. But, there were also days when an expect­ed easy dri­ve turned into a gru­el­ing sev­en hour ordeal due to break­downs or grav­el roads pock­marked with angry pot­holes and construction.

It’s tough, but with chal­lenge comes self growth and a one-of-a-kind learn­ing expe­ri­ence. I’ll nev­er for­get hit­ting a large jagged rock on a dirt road in the coun­try­side, and hav­ing to bail on my bike. Luck­i­ly, I wasn’t injured, but I was left try­ing to fig­ure out how to get my two-wheeled com­pan­ion out of the deep rice pad­dy next to the road. Next thing I know, an old­er Viet­namese cou­ple pulled up on their bike. With­out a word, they got right down to it, and after some huff­ing and puff­ing, my bike was free. No mon­ey or words were exchanged—just warm smiles as they rode off, the woman wav­ing from the back of their bike.

You and that tem­pera­men­tal steed will form a steel bond, weld­ed through sur­viv­ing the thick and thin togeth­er. Thank­ful­ly, there are “Xe May” signs every­where for bike mechan­ics, even in the most remote areas, so when your bike does give up—and I promise, it will—you can bet help isn’t too far. And gen­er­al­ly, repairs are cheap as dirt.

The Viet­namese know a bike inside-out from the time they are born. It’s not uncom­mon to see a fam­i­ly of four cruis­ing around on a sin­gle bike or young kids fix­ing them in a shop. A mechan­ic can pick out the prob­lem and get it tak­en care of in a pinch. Stick around and watch them at work; you will start to learn some mechan­ics your­self. And, before any work is done, nego­ti­ate on a price.

Then, there’s the Weath­er.
Our first week on the road, Joram and I jet­ted north from Hanoi to the serene moun­tain town of Sap­pa. We were expect­ing glo­ri­ous green land­scapes and breath­tak­ing views, but were dis­ap­point­ed to make the har­row­ing, moun­tain­ous ascent only to get punched in the face with freez­ing rain and walls of fog.

We both had noth­ing in terms of warm cloth­ing or rain pro­tec­tion. Luck­i­ly, shops sell out­door gear every­where in Hanoi and along the roads. Make sure to car­ry a pon­cho, thick jack­et, pants, socks, gloves, scarf and hat. Cov­ered shoes are also essential.

The hot cli­mate in the South means long days of dri­ving under an unre­lent­ing sun. Keep cov­ered in light cloth­ing and wear sun­block to pro­tect from sun­burn. Always keep a water bot­tle on hand to ward off dehy­dra­tion. Down­load a weath­er app and check it fre­quent­ly to help plan your days.

Dri­ve Like a Local
It’s all about adap­ta­tion. Back home in the good ol’ west­ern world, there are laws to abide by and cour­tesy when dri­ving. But in Viet­nam, it’s a whole oth­er ball game. Keep your eyes ahead of you at all times—obstacles will present them­selves and you must learn to expect the unex­pect­ed. You nev­er know when a water buf­fa­lo will jump into your path, or a minibus will be tak­ing the steep moun­tain curve as you are com­ing from the oth­er direc­tion. Don’t fret—your brain will rewire, sens­es will sharp­en and you will be dri­ving with the flow of traf­fic like a local in no time.

So yes, the strug­gle is quite real and tests patience. But if you are look­ing to get out of your com­fort zone, it can be pos­i­tive­ly life-chang­ing and you will learn a lot about the coun­try and your­self. Tack­ling this chal­lenge expos­es you to an incred­i­ble cul­ture that delves much fur­ther than the typ­i­cal tem­ple tour or bus ride packed with oth­er trav­el­ers going to the same touristy town, stay­ing at the same west­ern­ized hostels.

You get stuck in vil­lages that many trav­el­ers haven’t heard of and meet­ing oth­er for­eign­ers is far and few in between. Instead, you become part of every­day Viet­namese life. You do as the locals do, trav­el as they do and depend on your­self for sur­vival in get­ting from point A to point B.

When you do meet anoth­er fel­low bik­er on the road, the bond cre­at­ed is a spe­cial one. After a treach­er­ous week with­out see­ing anoth­er trav­el­er, we spied three back­pack­ers as they cruised past us on the side of moun­tain. The sun was begin­ning to set, and we were tak­ing a break. As they passed, they instant­ly made a U turn and bee lined it for us. We all end­ed up chat­ting for an hour, swap­ping sto­ries of our expe­ri­ences. It was refresh­ing to see oth­er eng­lish speak­ers after a week on our own. But, most of all, we were over­joyed to meet oth­er for­eign­ers that were going through the same exhil­a­rat­ing jour­ney as us.

Trav­el­ing on a Motor­bike isn’t for Every­one…
Maybe you’re on a time crunch, on a tight bud­get, or enjoy trav­el­ing with the ease of a bus or train. In the end, it all comes down to per­son­al pref­er­ence and what you are look­ing to get out of your trip.

But, if you have the time and inter­est, even if you are nervous—give it a go. You may be sur­prised to see just how much you can achieve and get through. Noth­ing com­pares to the feel­ing you get upon arrival at your final des­ti­na­tion, dis­mount­ing and pulling that dirt splat­tered hel­met off your sweaty head after a long day on the path of uncer­tain­ty. Your body is sore and all you want is an ice cold Saigon beer—but you feel con­fi­dent, accomplished—and that beer is well deserved. Everyone’s jour­ney is unique, and the des­ti­na­tion becomes a reward that is earned and appre­ci­at­ed, not just a mere check off the old trav­el itin­er­ary. And, after you get a taste, you’ll nev­er want to get back on a cushy, air con­di­tioned bus ever again.