Backpacking in Asia, or anywhere else in the world, is memorable for the unlikely friendships forged along the way. Sitting on the edge of your bunk-bed in a dorm and chatting to the stranger opposite, who could be from any corner of the planet, is what backpacking is all about. Plans set in stone are changed in an instant when you click with someone and start to hatch your own grand schemes for adventure.
When plans change, travellers can get swept up in the excitement and forget basic travel safety rules like telling loved ones back home you aren’t going to Hanoi on Tuesday, but in fact will be staying in Hoi An for a few more nights.
Backpacking in Asia is safe, but you need to follow a few basic rules.
How to avoid petty theft
The primary destinations in Asia for backpacking are Vietnam and Thailand. Both countries have so much to offer; glorious mountains, stunning beaches, tantalising cuisine, and activities aplenty. The fact still remains, these countries are considered developing nations and, in particular areas, poverty is a real problem. The obvious flow on effect is petty theft, and tourists can be easy targets.
So, how can you avoid having your valuables swiped in Asia?
Don’t leave phones or wallets unattended on a cafe table for solitary second.
Be wary of crowded areas. Pickpocket gangs are crafty. That phone you had firmly clenched in your hand could be snatched in the blink of an eye.
Wear shorts with zippers. Even the nimblest of fingers won’t be able to find a way in.
Be smart with your backpack. Keep all valuables inside the backpack and not in the outer pockets.
When possible, store passports in a safe or locked cupboard at the backpacker hostel.
If you hire a motorbike, be sure to lock the ignition to stop thieves popping open the seat/boot.
Book tours in Vietnam through reputable companies
We have all heard the horror stories of going tubing in Laos or paragliding in Thailand. Travel insurance just doesn’t cover the kinds of injuries associated with those activities. But if you have a thirst for adventure travel and want to explore areas of Vietnam like Mai Chau or Ha Long Bay, just make sure the company you book with has a proven track record when it comes to safety.
The best place to start is to comb through the Google and Trip Advisor Reviews. It’s very easy to distinguish between a disgruntled customer and someone who has raised legitimate concerns. If a company has a tonne of 1 star reviews and the complaints are safety related, avoid booking with the company at all costs.
Dodgy companies with poor track records when it comes to safety rarely last more than a few years. If a company has been running in Vietnam for 5+ years it’s a very good sign.
Will I get malaria travelling in Asia?
This is one of the most common questions we receive in our inbox every week. Have a chat to your GP before getting on a plane, but it is highly unlikely you will contract malaria in Vietnam. Your GP will be able to bring up a map of regions with the highest prevalence of malaria.
Taking anti-malarial medication is challenging. The vast majority of people who take medication experience nausea. Also, for the medication to work effectively it must be taken months in advance.
The best advice is to pack mosquito repellant with a high deet. In Australia the best option is Bushman’s. You can buy repellant with a deet as high as 40%.
Beware of friendly strangers
This point might strip the romance away from travel for many, but it’s a salient point. For many solo travellers, the days of silence can reach breaking point and you end up clinging to any person who offers so much as a smile. We have written a fairly comprehensive guide on safely travelling in Asia solo, but here are a few key points.
Never head out to a remote location with someone you have known five minutes, even if they seem like the nicest person on the planet.
Heading out in a mixed group is a great tactic to make friends, while staying safe.
Always let someone know if you are heading out with a new group of people. This could be a friend on Facebook or the staff at the hostel.
Keep an eye on your drinks at all times.
Your greatest danger in Asia is crossing the road
We created a comprehensive guide on renting a scooter in Vietnam that should apply to most countries in South-East Asia. The majority of accidents, injuries, and deaths in Asia are vehicle related. We can’t stress this enough - be on your toes at all times, even in quiet rural areas. The same road rules and levels of infrastructure we take for granted at home are not in place in most Asian countries.
Here are a few pieces of advice and information:
Look left, then right, then left again.
If you do start crossing the road, do not stop. Motorcyclists generally adjust their speed to your movement crossing the road. If you spot a gap and start to cross the road, raise your hand and continue at the same pace.
Zebra crossings are generally ignored by motorists.
Not all motorists will stop at traffic lights.
Vietnam is taking great strides to improve road safety. The major cities are more closely monitored by traffic police compared to a decade ago and the roads are improving, but you must remain vigilant.