When talking with other travelers during my trip, they were most interested in whether I was travelling solo or with someone else. (It was a great relief from DC, where all anyone cares about is who I know.) Most people I would meet at hostels travelled in pairs. It was rare to find anyone travelling with more than one other person. Unsurprisingly, most of the people in the couple of hotels and resorts I stayed at were travelling with partners.
Certainly, there were other solo travelers I came across during my trip. Most of the other travelers I met through couchsurfing experiences were traveling alone. I guess, in the absence of a social partner, we solo travelers go out of our way to meet locals that can be temporary travel partners, along with experts.
I enjoyed travelling alone immensely. It was only time that limited my itinerary, not anyone else’s whims. Hypothetically, if I were travelling with someone else, I almost certainly would never have been able to convince him/her to sleep on the floor on a bamboo mat in Ca Mau, a city ignored by the guidebooks. Assuming my partner had a budget similar to most backpackers in Southeast Asia, I doubt I could convince him/her to pay for 9 flights in less than 30 days, probably eliminating Con Dao from my trip and extending the time spent on slow moving buses. That would have resulted in spending less time in the cities and seeing some of them in a mad rush.
On the other hand, I thought that staying with couchsurfers would have provided me more time to see the city. However, it kind of makes you feel like you might be intruding. While I could tell from her profile that Kalaya would have no problem hosting me for four nights (her sudden plan to throw me out notwithstanding), most couchsurfing experiences do not last more than a couple nights. This might be because couchsurfers are cheaper than those paying for a hostel and therefore have limited money to spend in the cities, but it could also be that requesting to stay in someone’s house for more than a few nights makes you feel like a leech.
It was very rare that I would meet a person at a hostel who had plans to stay for shorter periods than me. There was an American girl in Hoi An who had been staying at Sac Lo for a full week before I arrived and was there after I left. Only one person checked out of Baan Kai hostel during my entire stay there, which was four whole nights! Most people there had planned to stay for at least five days, if not more. (When you ignore the late night parties, both Koh Phagnan and Hoi An are very laid back and relaxing destinations, so it kind of makes sense to me that backpackers traveling through SE Asia for several months would want to take a break from it all and have extended stays at these locations.
Sam (known as Quan in earlier posts; I will explain why I am removing his alias from this blog in my next post) was running a hostel as well, even though he also promoted it on couchsurfing. At his place, there was a firm mix of people staying for a short 2 nights and those staying for open-ended periods of time like the Ukrainian I met on my second to last night.
Maybe, it would be best for solo travelers wanting to stay in a city for more than three or four days to mix couchsurfing and hostel/hotel stays. Or, as one pair of guests I hosted in DC once did, schedule back-to-back hosts in the same metropolitan area.
While there were things I could never have done while travelling with a partner, a partner would have probably helped at some points. I doubt I would have mistakenly eaten raw meat if I had someone with half a brain had joined me for lunch at Lac Canh Beef. Likewise, I probably could have used someone to remind me not to enter the wrong cabs at the airports in Vietnam.
On the other hand, if the plan is to couchsurf, the selection of hosts for couples drops dramatically (and even more dramatically for groups of more than two). The couchsurfing website allows hosts to set a maximum number of surfers that they can provide for. For many this number is one. Duy lived in an apartment so small that it would have been inappropriate for more than one guest. Binh could have hosted two surfers, but certainly no more than that. Kalaya regularly finds ways to host large groups, but I’m not sure it would have been a comfortable sleeping arrangement for more than two or three.
Beyond space considerations, I have found a surprising number of hosts that want nothing to do with hosting couples and the drama that can sometimes comes with them. The result is a large number of hosts that refuse to host any more than one person at a time.
Solo travelling has its benefits, and I would not hesitate to do it again if the time were available. There is something romantic and freeing about travelling alone, and I’m sure those feelings are increased exponentially for people who spend more time at natural sites than I did. But, in the end, there is a certain level of safety that comes with having someone to look out for you (and, just as much, someone to look out for).