Review sites nearly took over my relaxing trip.
Arriving on Phu Quoc island during low season meant my husband, Dave, and I stayed at a semi-deserted beachfront resort. Our cottage was outfitted with crisp white sheets and a porch where oversized geckos greeted us at the door. It was like vacationing in an outdoor steam room, but we could sit in the swimming pool and drink cold Tiger beers for a dollar a pop. I had visions of doing little else.
The only problem was: I couldn’t relax.
Halfway through a month-long trip through Asia, we were on the biggest island in Vietnam with an unplanned itinerary hanging over our heads. We had completed a series of pre-planned flights, hotel stays, and restaurant meals—each vetted by scouring website reviews and traveler photos to piece together a picture of the destination. The previous legs of the trip had fallen together like the components of a Rube Gold Berg machine.
But now the marble had just jumped off the track. The lack of plans was by design. We’ll just wing it, I had thought before I left. The problem is, I am not good at winging it. I spent more than one backpacking trip through Europe with an unplanned itinerary and a carefree friend, wondering when our spontaneity would earn us a night sleeping on a park bench. It never did, but it did get me a stay in a room full of rusting bunk beds at a World War II army barrack-turned-hostel.
But that was in the days before online reviews, when you often had very little information about a place. Now, I never travel with limited information. Instead, I have become obsessed with researching.
My need to plan became apparent that first morning in Phu Quoc, as I fretted about where we would go and what we would do. After a breakfast of fresh fruit, cooked-to-order pancakes, and homemade yogurt in tiny glass jars, we set up camp in an open-air Internet café, where computers loaded web pages at a painfully slow rate.
First, we looked at trips on the Mekong Delta. Our guidebook recommended a tour operator, but the company’s TripAdvisor ratings averaged 2 out of 5 stars and noted things like “stark raving mad tour guide.”
“We can’t take this one,” I said.
Dave nodded; he was already on an online travel forum. While he scoured that, I Googled tour companies and searched my email for recommendations from friends. After a couple hours we were dripping with sweat and no closer to a decision, so we bailed out to swim in the ocean. As I floated in the water, I watched a fisherman launch a small, round boat from the beach. It was nice, but my mind was in overdrive: Where else could I search? Maybe we should skip the Mekong altogether? What about going to Cambodia?
The next day the search resumed. I knew there were fish sauce factories and an expansive national park on Phu Quoc that I could be visiting that day instead, but they would have to wait. I had Mekong tours to research.
In the pre-Internet days, I would have simply reserved the company named in my guidebook. But at the café, I cursed the dial-up connection as I read about how recent reviewers noted that they were the only travelers on a Mekong boat that time of year. The idea of the two of us alone on a boat for 20 felt painfully awkward. The more I looked online, the more none of the tours sounded all that great, but I thought if I just kept looking I would find the one.
“Let’s take a break and get lunch,” Dave said. I nodded as I watched a tiny gecko crawl over my notes.
Before we left, I searched for restaurants in the area and made a short list. We walked up the beach under the punishing sun and found one place closed for the season and another devoid of customers. I was hungry and hot, but trudged on with my list.
Eventually, we reached an open-air restaurant with worn picnic tables adorned with bottles of fish sauce and dried peppers. It wasn’t on my list, but the tables were bustling, so we took a seat. While looking out at the rolling waves, we dined on grilled pork with a tangy pepper and lime dipping sauce and crispy mini spring rolls. It was the best meal I had had on the island.
Back at the hotel, I surrendered: “Let’s just book the tour in the guidebook.” And a few minutes later it was done. Our afternoon suddenly free, we hit the beach to focus on the sunset.
A week later we were the only tourists aboard a half-full wooden sampan boat on the Mekong. We were also the only people at the tourist-trap candy factory tour and at the open-air restaurant in a colonial style mansion where we stopped for lunch. It wasn’t a perfect trip, but it was nice to sail an uncrowded river and taste a fresh batch of sweet puffed rice candy, swirling in circles on a giant pan in front of us.
I’ve since learned that research has shown that too many choices can be paralyzing. When I’m faced with the decision now, I weigh the consequences to see if it is worth spending lots of time on. Deciding where to go for dinner? I can just choose from the first couple things that come to mind without performing an exhaustive Yelp search. Deciding where to buy a house? That’s a decision that is worth an exhaustive information gathering expedition. When I find myself spending too much time searching, I try to think of the waves rolling into Phu Quoc to slow myself down.