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On a recent trip to Vietnam, while my husband ventured out to check another item off his street-food checklist, I spent a quiet afternoon enjoying high tea in the lobby lounge of the Park Hyatt Saigon. As suit-clad servers filled and refilled a gargantuan center table with palm-size Santa-shaped pastries and red and green macarons, fellow patrons fluttered around me like swans, each with higher Louboutins and a more beautiful Chanel bag than the next.
The lavish, cinematic polish of the scene was powerful enough to knock even the most well-dressed woman off her bergère — after all, who among us hasn’t been one-upped by a stranger in a better get-up? Me? I was just grateful I had packed a pair of decade-old gold Havaianas — or my “nice shoes,” as they became known in vacation parlance. The only other options were sneakers and all-terrain Merrells, which would have both looked ridiculous with the only “formal” piece of clothing I had packed: a shapeless black sack dress.
It took fewer than 30 seconds to get dressed that day and every other day on this two-week excursion through Vietnam. When you’ve got limited things to choose from, decisions are easy. You’ve unsubscribed from the challenge of coordinating the perfect outfit, because all the makings of the perfect outfit are located in a closet thousands of miles away.
I joined the congregation of underpacking after spending one too many vacations lugging around enormous suitcases — on our honeymoon, a multi-leg journey through Portugal and Morocco; in Thailand, where I could have gotten by on gym clothes; last winter, on the three trains and a ferry it takes to get from Kyoto down to Naoshima Island, in southern Japan; and, most recently this summer, on a ten-day drive across central France and the Basque region of Spain, where a rented Smart car and myriad European elevators creaked under the heft of our belongings.
This time around, my slim haul consisted of workout clothes, wrinkle-proof dresses-slash-beach coverups, a sweater, jeans, and a small army of 3.4-ounce toiletry bottles. These items could withstand multiple wears, work for a wide range of settings, and be mixed and matched with abandon.
If you have any anxieties — not just about luggage, but about anything in life — sitting on a 15-hour flight in seat 64D will do nothing but make them worse. But all of our lingering doubts about packing too little dissolved the moment we landed in Hanoi. Breezing past baggage claim, carry-on in tow, is the one shred of air-travel glamour the 64D set has to look forward to. Let everybody else wait: You’ve got a platter of bun cha to eat and a vacation to start.
As two healthy, able-bodied thirtysomethings with no kids and no medical needs beyond a couple of pill boxes, we are uniquely positioned to travel light. And although you can’t survive every two-week expedition with a single carry-on suitcase and shoulder bag — certainly not if you’re going to Iceland in December, for example — Vietnam, ever hot and humid, is a shoo-in.
Despite the exhaust caused by staggering swarms of motorbikes — by local news reports, there are 7.4 million in Ho Chi Minh City alone — much of life in Vietnam takes place outside. As a traveler, that’s also the case. You’ll perch on tiny plastic stools in a food-stall alley in Hanoi, lapping up pho tiu; guzzle mango smoothies at a canopied beach bar in Phu Quoc; crouch to descend into the dizzying, claustrophobic network of Vietnam War–era tunnels in the Cu Chi District of Ho Chi Minh; whiz, by bike, past rice fields and rubber trees in the Mekong Delta; and gawk at Halong Bay’s surreal limestone crags from the upper deck of a junkboat. All of these activities are blissfully free from dress codes.
Of course, during a two-week trip, you’ll inevitably need something you failed to pack. But I’ve learned to regard these moments as opportunities — cultural learnings available only to people who haven’t planned for every single “what if.” Had I brought more than one pair of worn-in sneakers, which, after a day of traipsing around, proved not supportive enough, I wouldn’t have gained the experience of trying to replace them. The ugly, yet supremely comfortable, pair of men’s Adidas sneakers I settled on are a reminder that it’s impossible to find women’s shoes larger than a size 7 in Hanoi. As a souvenir, they do exactly what they’re supposed to: tell a charming, personal story about an unfamiliar place.
In the end, I had to hand-wash a few things; I also splurged on hotel laundry — just once, and just on a handful of items. Sure, our beach selfies on Phu Quoc would look far more glamorous had I been wearing just the right silk tunic, bejeweled sandals, and dangly earrings (all things I possess, and all things I considered packing). But that would have meant more minutes cloistered in a hotel room attempting to pull a look together, and fewer minutes watching the sun blazing magnificently over the Gulf of Thailand, making its fiery exit behind the horizon.
The (Under) Packing List
Chic carry-ons | Like Betty Draper, your luggage should look gorgeous even if it’s a mess inside. I’m a fan of Tumi’s hard-shell international carry-ons ($475), which fit in most overhead bins, and MZ Wallace’s Metro Tote ($225), which includes a trio of detachable pouches.
Black leggings | Lululemon’s featherweight Align Pant II ($98) are comfortable enough to sleep in, tailored enough to be seen in public, and easily dressed up or down.
Gym clothes | Tops, pants, and shorts in solid colors (blacks, grays, navys) will make getting dressed a no-brainer, and wick-away fabrics will make hand-washing a breeze.
Tide sink packs | An underpacker’s lifeline, these TSA-friendly dollops of detergent weigh nothing and take up no space.
Two pairs of shoes | You can’t will your feet into feeling good, so identify your most comfortable sneakers and sandals, pack those — and only those — and never look back.
A scarf | If you must bring something fashion-y, make it a scarf, which will work just as well over a tank top and workout tights as it will over a dress.