What I Learned From Overpacking on My Backpacking Trip to Asia

Less is more. And not exactly for the reasons you’ll think.

Marlen Komar

Two days before I headed to Vietnam for a month I found myself right where I expected: In the middle of my over-turned room, kneeling in the midst of half of my wardrobe, which happened to be strewn all across my carpeted floor. The pieces on the floor were my “maybe” options for my trip…and the five pieces left hanging in my closet were the “definite nos”. Running a hand through my hair on a frustrated groan, I wondered if there was a way to just roll everything into my backpack and not have to decide.

I was flying out for a month and I had no idea what to wear. I had so many scenes in my head that I wanted to do justice, and if I wore the wrong dress or the wrong floral print, well, everything would be ruined, wouldn’t it? I had images of me sitting inside open-faced restaurants, ordering pho as I fanned myself with my city map. I’d probably be wearing a striped maxi dress in that situation. Or I’d be riding my bike through winding side streets, dipping into alleys and weaving between locals and tourists alike as I made my way to the market, in the mood to buy some breakfast and a bag of lychee for later. It would only do if I was wearing something high- waisted and floral in a situation like that. And how about when I’d be stuck in a small fisherman village, having nothing to do but watch the kids play and the shop owners talk as I waited for my sleeper bus to make a pit stop and pick me up? What would I wear then?

See, I needed options. So I did the usual thing and decided to pack everything I could force into the 60-liter bag, feeling confident that the back strain would be worth the seven pairs of sandals I’d wear throughout the month.

And do you know what I learned literally three days into my adventure?

An adventurer doesn’t have time to worry about dresses when she’s in the middle of being dazzled by life. On day one I still had a newness to me, and so when I arrived at the hostel I carefully considered which maxi dress would be just the thing for my first Vietnamese coffee down the street. On the second day I was so sweaty all I wanted to do was wear as little as possible without offending anyone, and by the third I couldn’t care less what I put on, as long as I got out the door and into the busy streets as quickly as possible. There were colorful foods to eat, exotic words to roll around in my mouth, history to feel, and people to connect with. I didn’t have any more room left to think about if my shoes matched my dress, or if another pattern would have added a bigger wow factor to my look.

And while I can’t say that I didn’t have moments where I wanted to primp — a moment where I flirted with an Aussie over pineapples and mangoes at the breakfast table made me vehemently wish I had mascara on— I will say that I learned one very important lesson: Less is more. And not exactly for the reason you’ll think.

Sure it would have been way more convenient to have a lighter backpack, and I’ll admit with a little bit of humor and a little bit of sheepishness that I started leaving clothes behind at hostels so I wouldn’t have to lug them across countrysides and jungles. But the main reason I wanted less wasn’t just for the comfort of my shoulders. It was because the pieces I did have to choose from became part of the story.

They became bleached by the sun the same way my hair turned blonde at the tips after a full day hiking through rice paddies. They got caught and snagged by tree roots and thorns in the jungle the same way my knees and elbows did every time I stumbled or slid down a dip in the path. They got dirty, run down, weathered, and worn, just like I did after hours of bus rides, miles of walking, days of climbing, and a month being wildly curious. They felt the heat, they caught the smells, they lived through everything I did, and because of it, they became part of the story.

And if there were less options, they’d become more prevalent. Now that I’m home and I look at that one black dress, I think of sitting on tiny stools under a balmy night, drinking five cent beers and laughing till I couldn’t anymore. When I put on my white crochet tank, I remember going to the night market and watching my friend eating a roasted cricket for the first time, much to the delight to the small boy that sold it to him. I knew that this would happen- that the clothes would be an important part of my memory- but it turned out it went deeper than that. They didn’t just make the memory prettier and sweeter, they saved it for me. Like a memento in a scrapbook, the clothes you bring will bring back your adventures every time you slip them back over your head. So choose carefully, and choose little. They can handle it. All you need to do is let them.

Marlen Komar is a writer living in Chicago with a penchant for mom jeans and kimchi tacos, and primarily writes about fashion history. She has bylines in Bustle, CNN Style, Racked, Allure, Curbed, and Apartment Therapy, and rarely stays in one place too long as she travels for most of the year. Website: marlenkomar.com