Guest post by Sarah Grant.
Planning for a spontaneous trip might seem like the ultimate contradiction, but allowing for spontaneity opens up myriad opportunities for unique, unscripted experiences.
When I lived in Asia I happened to be in a somewhat “off the beaten path” mountainous region with scant international tourists passing through relative to the coastal party-town beaches. If and when a group of tourists did show up around town they often had their Lonely Planet in hand, dog-eared and marked to the very restaurant they were eating in.
Nothing against travel guides but I can’t help but wonder how many tourists would have found the best wonton soup in the world (IMHO) or obscure regional variation on a classic noodle dish if they had ditched their plans and wandered the streets to pop into a crowded local joint. The same goes for tired, musky museums and kitschy (even if that’s your thing) parks.
Why not hire a local motorbike driver to show you around town for the afternoon?
People used to ask me what to do in Ho Chi Minh City. Aside from eat, drink, repeat? The most memorable day I’ve had in the big city was with the motorbike driver outside of my guesthouse. We took a couple of hours to navigate the city, meandering down alleyways for coffee and fruit, later ending at his favorite seafood stall for cold beer and lemongrass clams. I didn’t exactly “do much” but I certainly went to sleep with a better sense of the vast urban space that few tourists achieve.
In fact, one complaint I often hear from tourists about Ho Chi Minh City is that it’s “too Western” or “too loud, too urban.” Perhaps. But a spontaneous motorbike trip with a local driver may reveal why that perception exists and what daily lived experience is like for urban Vietnamese.
Even in a historical and tourism dense city like Vienna the best day I had was an accidental seven-hour walking tour that included a university coffeehouse, famous historical coffeehouses, botanical gardens, the Hundertwasser House, and an affordable, incredible meal in a smoke filled (definitely) local restaurant.
This is not to say don’t plan at all. On the contrary. Plan to be improvisational. Know where you’re going — history of place, cultural context, geographic scope. And then see where the road takes you without looking back on what you didn’t see in a particular place.
I am someone who plans out their days (sometimes to the hour) with diligence, but travel opens up the possibility for me to be spontaneous — to go with the flow and not feel like I’m breaking the rules or missing out on something. That said, I always book a place to sleep and any necessary plane or train tickets ahead of time. I’ve learned my lesson about improvisational sleeping arrangements the hard way.
Tips for improvisational travel:
- Read the guidebook but then cast it aside, especially when you leave your hotel/guesthouse/hostel.
- Ask around. “Say, front desk person, where is your favorite restaurant in all of X?”
- Never make a list. Or if you do, don’t use it. The structure of checking off a list leads to rushed, potentially shallow experiences.
- Don’t feel guilty. You didn’t get to see the entire city? The entire country? Did you have a fun, meaningful overall experience?
- Wear comfortable shoes and pack a poncho. Obviously this is contingent upon place but traveling in Asia means having rain gear on hand and comfortable shoes is a no brainer for that eight hour walk.