Travel (cheaply) as a Student and Make an Impact in Southeast Asia

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Have you ever wondered if, as a student on a very tight budget, you can travel around Southeast Asia and make an impact as a student? If you’re currently pursuing your studies in within Southeast Asia, will it be possible for students to travel, connect and share Indonesian richness to the neighboring region without straining your budget? Here’s Joandy come to the rescue! With his budgeting savviness and can-do attitude, he successfully conquered Vietnam, spread Indonesian hospitality and came back to tell you how you can make an impact as an Indonesian Diaspora for the neighbouring regions around you.

Hi Indonesia Mengglobal Readers, Joandy here! I am a final year student at Nanyang Technological University, pursuing my Bachelor’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering in Robotics! I am here to share about my experience living and traveling around Vietnam for about 2 months in June 2018, especially since a lot of my friends do not know that they can travel around South East Asia with minimum expenses.

Before I go into the details, I would like to give how much, just to show some numbers as a reference.

  • I spent about 1.5 weeks in Vietnam to travel
  • I used up less than 200 SGD (2 million IDR) to try different local food (pretty tasty ones, as well, I must say), accommodation and transportation
  • My ticket flight was about 300 SGD (3 million IDR) for a return flight ticket

Other than that, I spent about 500 SGD (5 million IDR) for food, snacks and fruits to stay, and volunteer in a local organization for about 5 weeks, which I will explain a little bit later one.

I will split the article into 4 main parts: why and how I ended up in Vietnam, my volunteering experience, my travel around the Southern part of Vietnam, and the breakdown of the costs.

Background

Being a pretty active student, I actually have gone overseas several times, namely Korea and Romania, to participate in international competitions. However, at the start of 2018, I just realized that I have never tried doing solo traveling and living with the local communities. One of my friend, who is an active traveler, shared that there is something different about taking the time to experience the local culture and talking in the local language.

Being an occasional volunteer, I knew that there are various opportunities that provide accommodation if you volunteer to help with their local business or organizations. Other than just sightseeing, I have always been interested in trying living with the locals, while taking my time to really engross myself in the local food and culture. Fortunately, at that time, I have several friends who are and were working at AIESEC – an international non-governmental that provides young people with volunteer exchange experiences across the globe. I decided to apply and give it a try.

Decisions, Decisions

Apparently, due to some safety related issues, there were only 2 countries available for AIESEC at NTU; Poland and Vietnam. I knew that my budget was very tight, but I knew that I would miss another milestone that I might never do again. Hence, I decided to plan my costs really carefully, considering how expensive Poland can be.

After some calculation on the costs, I chose Vietnam. Fortunately, I also had the chance to get a very interesting volunteering project, through helping development of the organization, and the contributing to their projects, namely farming and projection of organization.

Volunteering in a Small Beach City

I spent about 5 weeks in a small beach city, Vũng Tàu, to volunteer with a local organization called EVOL, which raises awareness of organic lifestyle and help the local farms grow organic vegetable. Throughout those weeks, I manage to help out the local farm owners, by planting plants, expanding the farm and preparing organic composts. (Now, I think I can consider having a farm when I’m retired. LOL).

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A Picture with the Local Farm Owners on my last day of volunteering

Some of the experience that has stuck with me until today are:

  • Helping out at the local poultry ranch and enjoy a simple meal with the locals (although they consider it as a feast)

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Eating with the local residents, working at the duck ranch. It reminds me that often times, happiness is very simple

We went to a partner duck ranch to gather compost from ducks’ crap. The funny thing about duck crap is after a while, it becomes really hard, so we had to dig it out with shovel real hard.

After digging about 30 sacks of them, the ranch owners offered to cook us some lunch. Other than lunch, they also offered some home-made rice liquor and a bong to smoke from. Unfortunately, i was not a smoker, but the liquor tasted like rice wine.

  • Enjoying local food that people do not generally recommend online or making your own

Some days, I would try making local food with our local volunteer to see how the locals actually make it.

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Making our very own Vietnamese Spring Roll

Other days, we would eat local food that people don’t know much about online (trust me, there are so many good Vietnamese foods other than Phở)

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Left: My favorite Vietnamese dish (hủ tiếu); Center: famous dessert in Vietnam (Chè); Right: Vietnamese mini rice pancake (Bánh khọt)

From these experiences, I realized that the food in Vietnam really love using herbs as their “condiments”. You can also see that they love fruits and vegetable in general.

  • Cycling around the town to explore the sights and beaches to just take a break from the hustles

My main way of travelling between places is basically cycling, and it is very enjoyable, especially remembering I’m doing it in my summer vacation.

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Some pictures I took when I was travelling around the cities on a bike.

Being a nature person, I really loved that small, scenic city. I can’t get over the beaches, the food, the bustling city early in the morning, and especially the slow pace of life there.

Solo Travel around the Southern Part of Vietnam

The places I managed to visit were:

  • Ho Chi Minh City
  • Cao Đài Great Temple at Tây Ninh
  • Cần Thơ (Mekong Delta)
  • Mũi Né (Sand Dunes)
  • Đà Lạt Highlands

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The places I visited throughout my 10 day trip around Southern Vietnam

Here are the things that I learn in Vietnam:

  • Accommodation can be pretty cheap if you are more open-minded

When I was planning my trip around these places, I remembered that my friends, who are avid travelers, mentioned about using Couchsurfing — where many people would offer their couch for your stay (hence the term) in return for sharing your experiences or talking to them in English — as alternatives for accommodation.

I tried messaging some hosts around the places I am visiting to start up the conversations. To my surprise, there are many locals that are willing to chat and get to know each other. In fact, most of them were very friendly and very open to bringing me around town despite not being able to host me.

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My Couchsurfing dashboard showing how many hosts there are in Vietnam

There, I managed to find some hosts that are willing to let me stay at their place. So, the cost of accommodation can be cut down for quite a sum amount. Some of my hosts would even go as far as accompanying me to places that I wanted to visit and drove me around town with a motorbike. Other than that, I stay at hostels or take overnight trips.

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Some of my really cool and friendly Couchsurfing hosts

I was very fortunate to have met Thanh and Suong who accompanied me to Cao Dai (a local religion – which the internet claims – to have combine Christianity , Buddhism and Islam) temple and the remains of WW2 bunker in Cu Chi.

There was also Anna who took me for a ride around town and a tour around Mekong Delta, Bill who brought hang out with his friends over coffee, Rosie who introduced me to the Vietnamese teens, and so many other friendly people.

  • There are many good local food other than that the internet recommends

For the meals, I asked recommendations from my hosts and friends, or I would use a local phone app/ website (yes it is in Vietnamese) to see what is popular among the locals in the area. This way, I managed to enjoy meals that I previously would have never known about. These things were not written on the internet, and I managed to find it with a local food app in Vietnamese

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Left: eating freshly picked cocoa fruit from a famous cocoa farm; Right: Mung bean pancake with lots of herbs

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Left: one of the applications I used in Vietnam; Right: Star apple fruit that is available in Vietnam, Cambodia and Sierra Leone

 

I had the privileges to try as many different food as I can, and have as much inside information about what to try there.

  • Taking local public transport is exciting and cheap

Most of the time, I normally cut down my transport cost by taking the public transport or overnight bus between cities. These are some the things that I learned from asking my local friends. Of course, there are a lot of uncertainties and risks, but with proper research and clarification, it can be done.

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Left: Taking the public bus to travel within cities; Right: The “sleeping” bus that you can take for overnight ride between cities

  • Traveling doesn’t have to be expensive (especially for South East Asia)

As I mentioned very early on this article, I only spent about 500 SGD (5 million IDR) for my whole travel around Vietnam for about 10 days. I remember that my friend who went to Poland for AIESEC would always say “You can always go to survival mode” when he mentioned how you can save up from a meal there. So, it really goes back to your priorities on what to spend on.

Traveling around South East Asia or Asia, in general, can be pretty cheap if you know how low you can go. I would recommend trying to make a local friend from the internet to ask for typical costs for meal and accommodation to plan for your trip. Having information from a local’s POV — instead of a tourist’s one — definitely helps in planning your trip. Traveling in groups and tours have their own perks, but there are things that you can better enjoy while traveling solo.

  • You should try traveling solo! Don’t stress too much about it! Traveling should be fun and enjoyable!

You are not the first person to travel solo, and you will definitely not going to be the last, so don’t stress out and be afraid! There are so many people and communities online that you can ask around! You can go to Couchsurfing, Reddit, and other online communities. They are very friendly and be more than willing to help you!

If you are in Singapore, consider yourself lucky because you can travel relatively easier than Indonesia! If you consider travelling around South East Asia? Better! You can see how much it costs me on average for each part!

How Much Did It Cost to Travel?

If you remember the start of this article, I mentioned that I spent merely 500 SGD for my travel.

Here are the breakdowns:

  • I spent about 2.4 to 6 SGD for 2 meals a day . Food costs 80 SGD
  • Transport generally costs me about 52 SGD.
    • Transport between cities costs about 8 SGD per trip. That’s 32 SGD
    • Transport within cities costs 0.36 SGD. Let’s take 20 SGD for that.
  • Accomodation other than Couchsurfing costs me about 30 SGD
    • Hostel costs me about 10 SGD per night.
  • Souvenirs costs me 10 SGD.
  • Other things and snack costs me about 20 SGD.

If you do the math for the number in bold, you would get that I spent about 192 SGD. What a surprise right!? Yeah, I was shocked when I planned it as well. So it is really not that expensive to travel if you are daring enough to go on Couchsurfing. You will be surprised by how friendly the people are, especially from the reviews.

In conclusion, do not be afraid to travel! You get to see a lot of new things! I am telling this to my fellow Indonesians in Singapore, you can just take a 7-10 day off to travel the different cities in South East Asia! With proper research, that is more than enough!

Last but not least, if we do meet each other one day, let’s have a cup of coffee and talk about our experiences! (Or you can approach me on my social media because my name is pretty uncommon LOL)

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Joandy Leonata
Joandy is a final year student at Nanyang Technological University Singapore. Passionate in technology and people development, Joandy explored various opportunities in competitions and organizational positions throughout his university. He also loves to explore things and volunteer for different social causes. Currently, Joandy is finishing his Bachelor's degree and expecting himself to work in tech companies upon graduation.