A growing number of  young Vietnamese are embracing a more independent, nomadic style of travel. By Ruben Luong. Photo by Fred Wissink.

Halfway through my conversation with 22-year-old Nguyen Tien Hung, he’s referencing a Vietnamese idiom for me to reflect on. “Di mot ngay dang, hoc mot sang khon,” he tells me. Travel for one day and you’ll learn a wealth of wisdom.

We’ve been talking about his adoration of vintage Vespas from Italy, motorbike offroading in Vietnam and his latest adventures on his beloved Russian Minsk motorbike (adorned in “We Love Vietnam” stickers). The weekend before we meet, he took a spontaneous three-day trip along Ba Ria-Vung Tau to Binh Chau commune, following the coastal road to La Gi in Binh Thuan province.

“I want to explore new roads and go to places I’ve never been because if I go more, than I can know more,” he says in Vietnamese.

More and more young Vietnamese like Hung are inspiring each other to explore and travel before establishing long-term goals in Vietnam. While the gap year and backpacking have long been familiar to Americans, Europeans, and Australians, Vietnamese are beginning to catch on, trying out a more nomadic lifestyle and forsaking the country’s traditional route of marriage or living with family after finishing university.

Perhaps the burgeoning sense of adventure and independence comes from pent-up years of being glued to textbooks and curriculums here. As Vietnam becomes more connected with the world, even social media seems to play an important role in encouraging travel.

“We are travelling more because of Facebook,” Tran Van Dat, also known as Cu Den, who’s currently living abroad in England, says in a Skype interview. “We show pictures and stories on Facebook and it makes people want to travel more. We study hard and work hard, but we need to travel and relax and like to share stories together.”

Both Hung and Cu Den fill their Facebook pages with photos of motorbikes in remote areas of Vietnam and sightseeing photos from travelling. It’s easy to see why young Vietnamese treat Facebook as a glamorous travelogue — it’s real-time evidence that their peers are capable of experiencing and adapting to other cultures. This makes some bolder and braver to make the move away from home and build an impressive roster of places travelled.

Cu Den, for instance, obtained a one-year visa to the United Kingdom and a three-month European visa last year on a whim. He moved to England in January, one week before the Tet holiday, and works as a social media intern. Since then, he’s travelled to Scotland, Germany, the Czech Republic, France and Italy.

The stories he shares of nosebleeds from cold snowstorms in Scotland, or train delays due to flooding in East Germany, sound miserable and not glamorous at all. But he made the most of it, motivated by a strong desire to practise English and establish connections with foreigners, two skills young Vietnamese are expected to master nowadays to be successful in Ho Chi Minh City.

But the cost of such opportunities and experiences is always a concern, especially for university students or unemployed recent graduates in Vietnam who are already struggling to make ends meet.

Money is certainly a contentious issue, but especially ambitious young Vietnamese aren’t afraid to make it work. Hung, for example, moved by himself to Ho Chi Minh City from Buon Ma Thuot in 2007, bought himself his first Vespa and got a part-time job shortly after. He used the money from his job to repair his bike so it could tolerate farther distances for travelling.

“I don’t need that much money to go, but no one believes me because they have never gone,” he says. “People are scared when they don’t have enough money to travel for a month, but I go frequently. I feel like it’s not a thing I have to worry or think about. I just fill my motorbike with gas and go.”

Cu Den went to England with around VND 30 million. And like most other backpackers around the world, he scours listings on Couchsurfing.org for free hosts or homestays to save money during his travels. For his trip to France, all of the hotels were out of his budget, but after tedious searching and begging, a generous host eventually took him in.

While money matters, the support of family can be even more crucial. For Hanoi-born and Saigon-based Mimi Nguyen, her dad was the first person to encourage her to travel by enrolling her in a 7th-grade exchange program in Japan.

“I had never been out of the country and been away from family for more than three days, and that was a three-week trip,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave or go on that at all. But obviously after I went, I realised the whole world is out there. I think that’s why I got bit by the travelling bug.”

Not all young Vietnamese are fortunate enough to have the support of their parents to travel abroad. But Nguyen, now a buyer at Swedish furniture giant Ikea’s Vietnam branch, studied in the United States for seven years and has travelled to 29 countries to date.

By no means do Hung, Cu Den and Nguyen represent the majority of young Vietnamese, but there’s a level of maturity and independence in each of them that does indicate a shift in how the younger generation here is thinking. They aren’t afraid to do things a little differently in Vietnam and set themselves apart from the crowd.

The archery class meets twice a week for two-hour sessions. Each archery course is three weeks and costs VND 300,000. The entertainment arena in District 5, which features 28-metre ranges and simulated hunting, charges VND 50,000 for 30 minutes.

Saigon Fun Club
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