Đặng Lê Nam, 25, carefully checks his sleeping bags, first aid kit, and backpack one more time. He’s readying for a weekend journey with his group of backpackers, heading for the northern province of Cao Bằng this time.
Nam has already had his motorbike serviced. It’s carried him on dozens of previous trips. He takes his tools with him, just in case.
An increasing number of young people now embrace the backpacker travelling ethos (phượt)—minimising costs as much as possible and enjoying creative freedom beyond the delimited nature of travel agency tours.
No tour, no guide, no hotel, and no car, they say. For young travelers it’s worth sparing time independently instead of sacrificing other material comforts.
Nam explains the reason for his rejection of the guided tour. It’s the passivity that grates with him, paying once and letting travel just happen to you rather than experiencing it firsthand. Phượt is far more meaningful.
Phương Lan is a young high-income earner, but she has enjoyed her backpacking to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and India.
“To be honest, I love the feeling of free travel. Without a guide, I can plan my own trip to get to know about local culture and people. Many travelers have money but still mimic the backpacking method,” she says.
Young travelers say they are imbued with the spirit of “self-reliance” and “wilderness”.
Their destinations are often landscapes discovered via the internet or recommended by word of mouth.
Motorbikes, the most common means of transport, allow them to stop and explore further wherever they like.
In addition, the economic virtue of phượt makes it possible for them to travel for months in the countryside.
Hoàng Mi, a young employee at a foreign invested company, spends much of her free time on backpacking.
“Phượt is an escape from the pressure of modern life. And in every independent traveler’s eyes the rural landscape appears so breathtakingly fresh and beautiful that makes them feel cool, calm and collected.”
At the Trái Tim Việt Nam (Vietnamese Hearts) online forum backpacking is described as a way to liberate oneself from a rigid schedule.
Once, Vũ Phong says, he was on a month-long motorbike trip through many central provinces with his professional camera as a constant companion.
“I had travelled by bus with travel agencies a few times, but the feeling was completely different. A motorbike ride makes you feel the warm touch of the summer sun and fresh breezes on your face, and sometimes hear the gentle sound of waves lapping the sand of the beach.”
Phong admits motorbike backpackers are vulnerable to the whims of adverse weather-dangerous landslide, heavy rain, and cold.