Moving to a foreign country is no easy feat.
I’m moving to Vietnam for at least one year. Luckily for me though, this is not the first time i’ve been abroad for a long period so I feel a little more prepared for the journey. The first time I traveled abroad was to China. I studied abroad in Beijing for a semester and traveled for a month after my semester ended. The second time, I traveled to South Korea, China, Vietnam, Mongolia, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, and India for a total of nine months. I learned a lot about what to bring and what not to bring during my stints abroad and thought I’d share some of my wisdom for anyone looking for travel advice.
When I was in China, I luckily was in one place for the majority of my time there so I didn’t have to worry so much about lugging all my belongings with me everywhere I went. Yet, the things that I brought with me could’ve been more useful. Below are some lessons learned from my trip in China.
- Bring clothes you like. I was so worried about ruining my clothes in China that I ended up bringing clothes I didn’t really care about. I felt drab my entire time there. I also didn’t bring any “nice” clothes so whenever we went out, I felt unprepared to go out for a night on the town. It’s crazy how the things you wear on your body have such a big effect on your mood.
- Bring good basics that are easy to mix, match, and layer. Beijing has very distinct seasons. When I arrived, it was snowing. When I left, it was sweltering hot. While you can buy clothes just about anywhere, they might not necessarily be in styles and sizes that fit you. If you’re like me, you are a really picky person that won’t wear something you’re not comfortable in. In my 5 months in China, I probably only bought two garments of clothing that I actually wore. I was also super poor so the clothes I did like were insanely expensive.
- Shoes. It’s important to bring shoes that have multi-purpose. They should be comfortable but also look good with different outfits. I brought sneakers, boots, flats I didn’t really like, sandals that I didn’t really like, and flip flops with me. I ended up buying several pairs of shoes while in China including a pair of bootleg converse and several flats. Beijing is actually a pretty trendy city so you don’t want to dress in sneakers all the time. My boots were great but once it got warm, i couldn’t wear them. The flats and sandals I brought weren’t the most comfortable and in Beijing you walk A LOT.
- Don’t bring things you can buy there. Things like deodorant, tampons, and razors, can be hard to come by in China. Everything else though, you can find. Unless you’re super particular about your face wash, tooth paste, shampoo, or conditioner, you can just buy that stuff there. The only things that I make sure I buy in the U.S. are deodorant, floss, bug spray, and sun screen. Keep in mind that in places like China, people like having white skin so be weary of certain products because they might have bleach in them.
My 9-month trip abroad was a bit trickier to pack for. Since I would constantly be on the move for 9 months I had be sure that I could carry everything that I brought with me. Weight limits for a lot of airlines abroad are also only 20 kg (44 lbs) so you really need to limit what you bring, otherwise you’ll pay exorbitant fees for every kilo that is overweight.
- Backpacking through Asia is not an excuse to look like a bum. Even though you can only bring so many clothes with you, you’re still traveling through civilized countries and should dress like a civilized person. People in Asia dress pretty modestly and you should follow suit or risk sticking out more like a sore thumb or being looked down upon. It’s not like people wear camping pants everywhere they go so you shouldn’t either. I like REI just as much as the next person, but if you’re not camping, you shouldn’t dress like you’re camping. Quick dry stuff is great and I’m not saying you shouldn’t bring a few of those garments along but you should try and follow local customs and dress similarly like the people around you.
- Some things you can’t live without. Constantly being on the move and sleeping in every living situation imaginable, there are certain things that I could not have lived without.
- Quick-dry towel. Not every hostel, hotel, or homestay will have towels so it’s best to have your own. Quick-dry towels are compact, light weight, and most importantly, quick dry. When you’re bouncing from one place to the next, you really don’t want to stuff a damp towel amongst your things.
- Sleeping bag liner. Some places are questionably clean. Sleeping in my sleeping bag liner put my mind at ease when staying in certain places. In India, they don’t always provide a blanket in your room, so a sleeping bag liner is a must.
- Alarm clock. I got a watch that also had an alarm clock. I would normally rely on my phone in the states for such things, but you can’t really do that abroad if your phone doesn’t work abroad.
- Headlamp/flashlight. More useful than you would think. When you’re staying in a group hostel, everyone does not have the same sleep schedule so having your own personal light is important to be able to rummage through your things or have a reading light if you’re not ready to go to bed.
- Bandanas. I brought a few bandanas and they are great. You can use them to wipe sweat off your face, blow your nose if you don’t have tissues on hand, use it to clean things. Have a rip in your pants? Cut a piece off of your bandana and patch up your pants. With that being said, it’s not a bad idea to bring a…
- Sewing kit. Just a small one for small repairs.
- Travel adapter. I feel like this goes without saying but I’ll mention it anyways. Most electronics will be able to convert voltage on it’s own unless your laptop is ancient you won’t need a converter, just a plug adapter.
- Headphones. Good headphones are a godsend on noisy bus and train rides.
- Good neck pillow. A must for long flights, bus rides, and train rides.
- Duct tape. You don’t have to bring a whole roll. Just wrap a few layers around your Nalgene and you’ll be all set. Duct tape was great for mending things. My bag would get rips in it and duct tape would patch it right up.
- Swiss army knife. Do I really need to explain why this would be useful?
- Bring a day pack. I had a backpack for several-day trips and a handbag for everyday use. Some people on my trip only brought backpacks with them and wished that they had brought a handbag. Because again. Do you wear a backpack everywhere you go back home? Probably not, so why would you wear one everyday elsewhere?
- Shooooes. I’m bringing up shoes again because when traveling, you will walk A LOT. Bringing good shoes is a must. I had sneakers, converse, comfortable sandals, and comfortable flats that could also be a little dressy. Southeast Asia is pretty hot, humid, and sometimes rainy. I actually ended up throwing out a pair of sneakers and Vans because they got moldy. Shoes will inevitably get ruined so don’t bring shoes that can’t be replaced.
- Travel light. While 44 lbs is your limit, you really shouldn’t pack 44 lbs worth of stuff with you. There’s nothing like pushing your way through a crowded train station while struggling with your luggage. If you’re staying in one place, you can get away with bringing a little more but you’ll still have to carry it to and from wherever you’re going. When I packed for my 9 month trip. I brought WAY TOO MANY clothes and ended up shipping some stuff back home. You only need 1-2 pairs of jeans. 1 light sweater and 1 heavier sweater. I brought a light hoodie and a fleece with me. The things I really needed were shirts that I could dress up or dress down. It’s hot in southeast Asia but you also need to dress modest so lightweight clothes and long skirts were a must for me.
While packing is a big part of travel, there’s a lot to think about before you even get to stuffing clothes into your bag. There are passports, visas, immunizations, and ATM cards to worry about. Remember to be patient, flexible, and have more money on hand then you planned.
For my upcoming trip, I only had two blank pages left in my passport. Before I could even apply for my Vietnamese passport, I needed to add more pages in my passport. The cost to add more pages was $82 and it will take several weeks if you don’t do it in person. Since I had time and didn’t want to pay the $60 expedited fee, I decided to just send my passport in. I got it back 2-3 weeks later.
Immunizations. Be prepared to pay a lot and give yourself plenty of time. Some immunizations are series and you will need time to get all the series in. Luckily I had traveled to Southeast Asia before so I had gotten most of the immunizations I needed. The only things I needed this time around were Typhoid, Japanese Encephalitis booster, and Tetanus booster. Immunizations are expensive and it’s most likely your insurance won’t cover travel immunizations. Japanese Encephalitis immunizations are $300/each and you’ll need two of them. Rabies shots are $200/each and you’ll need three of them. The last time I was abroad I had to be on malaria meds which can be expensive if you’re gone for a long time. I had to be on them for about 6 months which adds up quickly.
ATM card. In my experience, the easiest way to get money abroad is with an ATM card. My bank thankfully doesn’t charge that much to use non-member machines and the international fee isn’t too bad either. Still though, if you have to withdraw money, withdraw a good amount to so you don’t have to keep going back and paying the fees. This time around, I decided to get a Fidelity debit card which apparently reimburses you for ATM fees. I haven’t used it yet so hopefully it’ll work fine. Before you go, be sure to tell your bank that you will be abroad otherwise you’ll risk them suspending your card.
Visas. Since I already had an approval letter from the Vietnamese government, getting a one-year multiple entry visa was surprisingly easy. My visa was $180 and since I was living in DC at the time I just dropped off my passport and visa application at the Vietnamese embassy and picked it up 2 days later. This is not always the case. When I had to get a visa to get into China, things were a bit more complicated and expensive. Also, the lines were loooong. I was getting my visa in Hong Kong and had to get my visa within a couple of days in order to make my flight into China. Anyways, I got it, but it was a little more stressful and time-consuming than this time around. Just be sure to do your research. In Cambodia for example, you can do visa upon arrival which is so much easier than applying for one.
Anyways, this is all I got for now. This one’s for you Simone, since you kept urging me to blog travel tips and advice. More to come I’m sure.