The Downside of Solo-Female Traveling

12 Mar

Self-timers are your best friend when traveling alone.

Traveling alone has been the one of the most liberating, eye-opening, beautiful experiences I’ve ever had and I think any woman who is considering it, should do it. I do what I want, when I want. I have no one to answer to, no one to oblige and the possibilities are endless. I learn more about myself with each city I visit, person I meet and adventure I have. I’m stronger, more self-assured, and I’m proud of myself for taking the leap and following my dreams even though I had lingering fears.

But there is a downside – there always is. Traveling alone as a female carries it’s own dangers. We’re more vulnerable to things men don’t have to think twice about and we’ve got to keep one eye open in every situation.

I never know if a man is offering to show me around or inviting me to dinner because he wants to show me his city, have some company, or if he’s just trying to get into my pants. And it seems men are the ones who take the most interest in me. Sure, there are other female travelers but we’re outnumbered.

Men want to take me for motorbike rides outside the city and show me things I wouldn’t have known about on my own. They want me to join them for dinner, take me to islands I’ve hardly heard of and show me why I should consider moving to their part of the world.

I live by the rule of accept every invitation, spend as much time with locals as you can and when possible, become a fly on the wall to observe their daily lives. But I keep running in to situations where I think the people (okay, men) I’ve met just want to be my friend only to find out that they’ve had ulterior motives all along or our “bonding,” what I see as moments where our friendship deepens, becomes their ‘in’, their moment to make a move. A few days, hours, minutes into our shared time together and the relationship turns. They start inching closer, complimenting me, turning the conversation to something sexual, or just go in for the kill.

I keep asking myself if I’m doing something wrong. Am I bringing this on myself? Am I dressed too provocatively? Am I allowing the conversation to go this direction? Have I mislead them?

In some cases I can see where guys might get the wrong idea. We’ll have dinner on the beach or go for a long walk together. I’m friendly, I laugh at their jokes, smile often and tell them how grateful I am that I met them. But that’s it.

I’ll mention my boyfriend, talk about how I miss him and how it’s hard on us to do the long-distance thing… I’ll even tell them how I’ve met many other guys on this trip who put the move on me when I thought we were just friends… but it doesn’t matter

Men and women can’t be friends. They’ll always hope for more. One of you will, at least. When you’re thinking he’s kind, he’s wondering what you look like naked. I never thought it was that black and white and when the men in my life tell me, “men don’t have friends that are girls, they have girls they haven’t fucked yet,” I vehemently protest that that is too black and white, that I’ve had platonic relationships with guys for years and that it isn’t the case with everyone.

But when you’re traveling alone your senses are heightened. Your awareness isn’t marred by the dullness of everyday life and ordinary things are viewed under your traveler’s microscope. You can’t ignore what’s happening in front of you, especially when it’s a running theme.

Local men ask me if all American girls are open about sex and if we’re as “free” as what they see in movies. And if you tell them they’re not they assume that you are, because after all you’re traveling halfway around the world by yourself and you come from a culture that allows women to embrace their independence and sexuality.

I’m tired of things turning this way. I’m tired of men taking advantage of my worldview that everyone is ultimately kind and coming from a good place. I’m not naïve, I just choose to see things this way and for the most part it has worked in my favor – opening doors and opportunities that I wouldn’t have had had I been skeptical of each man I met.

But it’s getting old.

My second day in Ho Chi Minh city, formerly known as Saigon, I took a walk after lunch and found myself in the middle of a park. I was the only white person there and people took notice and stared. I smiled and kept sitting, taking in the experience. An older man, possibly in his late 60s or early 70s, walked by me and did a double take. (I didn’t think much of it. Everyone was doing that.) But then he came back about five minutes later and asked me where I was from, how long I’d been traveling, what did I think of the city… Another series of questions I’d been familiar with.

He told me he was a physics professor at the university and that he’d never met an American girl. He asked if he could sit next to me and of course I said yes. His sweet presence and excitement about practicing his English made me feel honored to be his first American friend. He asked if I’d like to get a drink after talking for about ten minutes. I wasn’t sure what to think, but not wanting to turn down an invitation and having nothing better to do I said sure.

We found a place within the park and he bought me a coconut. He asked me about my family, my boyfriend, and life in America. Later he asked if I would join him for dinner. I already had plans to meet someone for dinner but when I saw the look on his face after telling him this, I decided to cancel.

He took me to a very famous restaurant in HCM. It was packed and I was the only foreigner there. The food was fantastic and the conversation was light but toward the end of our dinner, our very platonic dinner, he told me I was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, that he loved my hair and my eyes, and that he could “contemplate my face forever.” He said he loved me. He said he’d never forget me. I laughed it off and started planning my escape route. He asked if I would come back to his apartment and listen to music with him, knowing that I write about music for a living. I told him I was meeting a friend later and thanked him for the offer.

Does he look like a threat?

He drove me home and kept asking when he’d see me again, saying a few more times that he loved me. I felt uncomfortable. I felt sad. Weeks of having guys my age push for more than my friendship had jaded me and I was excited to have the company of a man I saw as my Vietnamese grandfather, and to have a night that I saw as an innocent exchange between two people wanting to learn more about the others’ culture.

He wanted to take me directly to my hostel but I had him drop me off at a streetlight a few blocks away. He mentioned earlier that he could try to find me tomorrow since I didn’t have a phone and he didn’t have email. I didn’t want to take the chance.

As I hopped off, he turned around to face me and asked for a kiss. I laughed, sweetly, and said, “Thank you so much for the evening. I’ll see you!” And that was that.

These instances have left me disenchanted with the idea that there are men out there that are genuine – that are nice for the sake of being nice and aren’t expecting anything in return. Now, I question every man’s intentions. I feel them out a little longer before I accept their invitations. This awful truth saddens me, as I feel the true nature of traveling is being spontaneous and embracing moments like going to dinner with a Vietnamese physics professor because he wants to practice his English.

My advice for other free-spirited, solo-female travelers out there is to go with your gut and get out of situations when they start to get sticky. Don’t live in fear or hide behind what-ifs because it doesn’t always turn out this way, but beware that it can and a lot of the time, will.

Take care of yourself. Be mindful of what you talk about. Don’t dress too provocatively or act in a way that will give anyone the wrong idea. Talk about a boyfriend that doesn’t exist and most importantly, use your head.

It’s a different realm that we women live in but it doesn’t mean we can’t travel alone. Be smart, be aware and don’t let it ruin your trip.

3 Responses to “The Downside of Solo-Female Traveling”

  1. shivani pandey March 12, 2012 at 11:29 PM #

    Being a journo i often travel alone…that too in various Indian cities however being a native definitely helps n also bcoz i keep saying that its for an article so people usually stay back knowing that I’m from the press.. however i know its difficult for ladies from outside India here even when they are together in a group they are still vulnerable.. and what you’ve written is absolutely correct…from my experience in the west i’m sad to say its more evident in the eastern n mid eastern part of the world…anyhow nice post…

    • alex March 12, 2012 at 11:48 PM #

      It’s sad that this is our reality but it doesn’t mean there aren’t some good guys out there or that we should fear traveling alone. We just have to be on top of our game at all times! Thanks for reading 🙂

  2. Thuy Dao March 13, 2012 at 8:22 AM #

    I’m from Vietnam and Ive been living in Europe for 3 years. In these 3 years I’ve travelled alone through most of Western Europe, except for Spain and Italy, cuz I dont feel very safe going there alone. I just got back to Vietnam and I dont even feel safe going out at night by myself. And truth is it’s really dangerous!
    I admire your spirit and I know exactly your feeling. I have been there also, wondering what men are thinking, being so friendly, so kind and all. I have run away from tricky situations, and sometimes I escape as soon as I feel insecured, without the men making any move.
    I have met really nice men, who did not make any move on me, but I’m not sure if it was because there wasn’t enough time or they truly wanted to be a gentlemen, or because I’m Asian so there’s some kind of barrier. But of course there were a number of jerks who disgusted me.. and made me so disappointed in men..
    I have a lot of male friends, some really close that I can talk about everything with. But asides the ones from middle school, who I have been with since I was a little kid, I know the rest are somewhat interested in me or at least once in a while imagine me naked. I don’t really mind that because it’s the nature of men. Of course it’d be great if we can have pure friendship, but I think it’s nice enough when they keep the distance and respect the friendship instead of making a move and hoping for more.

    Anyway, I agree with you. We shouldn’t live in fear but let us believe in the good :)!

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