We travelled through Vietnam with 3.5kg backpacks. Here’s how.
Updated: Sep 3, 2019
When we realised that our flights only allowed 5kg carry-ons, we saw an opportunity arise. Instead of paying extra for hold luggage, we watched a few thru-hiking videos about packing and ended up going 1.5kg lighter than we needed. It worked out fantastically for us, because we were able to do so much more than originally planned. We didn’t need to drop our bags off before going sightseeing. It felt liberating. Amusingly, a few Dutch travellers even took pictures of us out of disbelief.
1. We took advantage of hostel freebies.
These toothbrushes are from a hotel I stayed at in Beijing. They lasted us the whole journey. We also used small packets of shampoo, conditioner, and soap from other hotels and accommodation. We made sure to pick up a few on the way, ready for our next trip. These types of things are super light and also disposable, which means your backpack will weigh less at the end than it did at the start. #goals
2. We thought on a minute level.
Thru-hikers have been known to go to neurotic extremes like ripping out used pages of guide books, taking the toggles off zips on their backpacks, and cutting their toothbrushes in half. But there are simple things even the average sun-seeker can do, such as leaving behind heavy clothes in favour of lightweight ones (even simple things like padded/non-padded bras). Those jeans were only going to make you sweat anyway. On top of that, we both had hiking rucksacks that weighed next to nothing. We switched our wallets for an under-the/clothes security pouch from Montbell. We brought travel towels that dried quickly and were tiny. We wore shorts that didn’t require belts and hats that folded up. We bought cereal bars and nuts along the way as snacks because they are light, nutritious, and very calorie-efficient. Don’t be like me and carry an apple in your side pocket for 2 days without eating it.
3. We prepared small containers.
I squeezed some face cream into a 10ml tub. We also had tiny suncream bottles, but if you don’t, you can empty your sun cream into a 100ml bottle. I did this on my solo-travel trips around Europe. We made all our liquids (including mosquito bite cream) fit into one small transparent case. Bandage, tape, hair bands, ibuprofen, and plasters went in another small bag. An important thing is that the containers are made of flexible material so they can be squashed down. Hard cases - even for glasses - use up a lot of wasted space.
4. We shared.
If you’re travelling with other people, you can have communal items. Jacques and I shared deodorant, a battery bank, first aid, and suncream. We also had a phone charger adapter that had multiple outlets so we could use it at the same time. If we were travelling for longer, we might even have got to the point of sharing clothes.
5. We were efficient with our outfits.
I love crazy patterns, but I limited them to my shorts and trousers. My T-shirts were plain, neutral colours. That way, any outfit combination worked and I could recycle items of clothing simply by airing them out overnight. Things like dresses, playsuits, and jumpsuits can only be worn by themselves, so they’re less efficient. I know in my head I like the idea of wearing a long flowing maxi dress on the beach, but those pictures on insta are not worth the extra weight.
6. We were realistic.
I remember the days when I packed my enormous suitcase full of heels and white sandals. But, let’s be honest, hobbling over cobbles are barely worth the aesthetic. The first time I travelled with only one pair of shoes was when I was 18 and I wore a pair of Toms a bit like these around Europe for 3 weeks straight. This time around, we figured we just needed a pair of high-quality trekking shoes. I got a pair of omni-grip shoes from Columbia and I LOVE them. I had no issue at all clambering through the caves of the Marble Mountains or the treetop course at Thanh Tan Hot Springs.
Another area where I’ve been over-optimistic in the past is how much reading I’ll get done. It’s hard to predict whether the trip will be relaxing or challenging, so nowadays I just bring my kindle, rather than 5 books I might not even pick up.
It’s also important to be realistic about accessories. I’ve often brought loads of big, heavy earrings with me and ended up wearing none of them. This time, I brought my three lightest pairs of earrings and no make-up. But that’s because I knew that if I did, I’d have to bring make-up remover and cotton pads: all extra weight and totally unnecessary.
7. We were prepared to forfeit comfort.
If you’re travelling, you know you’re going to be roughing it for a bit. It’s okay. You don’t need hair gel, tea bags, hair curlers, travel pillows, perfume, noise-cancelling headphones, tweezers, iPads, floss, razors, ukuleles, or lucky charms. Wet wipes are a traveller’s best friend. As for clothes, we washed on the go and clipped them to our bags to air as we walked. Doing the occasional “whore’s wash” at a toilet sink isn’t the worst thing in the world... but we knew we’d feel a bit sticky after the night train from Hanoi to Hue. That's where our stay at Thanh Tan Hot Springs was really appreciated.
8. We bought along the way. In all likelihood, you will have forgotten something essential and will need to buy a new one on the trip. Before leaving, I knew I was going to buy myself another pair of lightweight shorts, which I did in Hanoi for approx £2. Some things you can rely on being readily available in touristic large cities. The day we went to Cham Island we got horrifically sunburnt, so we picked up some Aloe skincare and I bought a cheap long-sleeved top to protect my skin.
Due to the lack of drinkable tap water in Vietnam, we bought bottled water along the way. Jacques had an ingenious idea of boiling water, letting it cool, then filling our empty bottles, and refrigerating them. It worked nicely, but we still got through quite a lot of plastic. I think if you’re environmentally conscious most of the time, the occasional slip for a good reason is ok.
9. We did our research (mostly). We’d been keeping an eye on the weather for our main stops for a few weeks before the trip, so we knew what kind of clothes to take. We were told by friends that for some temples and churches in Vietnam, we would need to cover up, so I made sure to bring a pair of long lightweight trousers. One thing we didn’t research in advance was plug sockets. Vietnam has the same socket shape as Japan, so our universal plug adaptor was an extra 30g we didn’t need in the end. Also, it turns out that many of the places we stayed provided soap, shampoo, and conditioner, so we didn’t actually need our own supplies in the end. We have both said that if we were to do the trip again, we would probably make our backpacks even lighter.