Countries seem to be the new hot collector’s item and few have as impressive a collection as Eric Thanh Nam Nguyen, who has just arrived in the last country to set the Guinness World Record for youngest to visit all of them (male). With only a few weeks to go, Nguyen finally secured his visa (on his third attempt) and headed to the final country of his record-setting travels – Eritrea.
And he is just 24.5 years old!
When arriving to Eritrea at approximately 3:00 am on May 16th, Nguyen has set foot in 198 countries. His travels will need to be verified by Guinness World Records, but based on his information, he has the current record beat by just over two weeks.
Nguyen is a US citizen and started young – he started traveling at age two with his family and never really stopped. His parents instilled a love for travel by making a point to travel every other month, but when he was 18 is when he really fell in love as he started to travel on his own, heading out to Australia and Asia by himself.
Even though he traveled as a child, it was the appeal of the world, and cultures, outside of and in contrast to his small town that enticed him to explore:
I have always had an immense curiosity on what occurs outside of the town I grew up in. I grew up, quite sheltered by my parents, in a small town in California called Orinda, with about 17,000 people. It was a town filled with white, affluent kids, who would drive around town in their Mercedes-Benz or limousine...The town consisted of only white people and a few Asians, like myself. I was always curious on what happened outside of this small-town life. I also pondered what life was like in other countries.
Both of Nguyen’s parents arrived to the United States as refugees, risking their lives to travel by boat and helicopter from Vietnam. His father, Thanh, went on to study English and civil engineering, graduate as valedictorian and succeed in his field. They emphasized a focus on school for Nguyen, who graduated with his B.A. in biochemistry from UC Davis.
Getting serious about travel
At first, travel was a casual hobby, using school breaks to get to more countries. But after reading about a few other travelers who had managed to visit every country, Gunnar Garfors and later, James Asquith, he was inspired to take it to the next level and go for the record.
The title previously belonged to Asquith, who completed the huge goal of every country in 2013 at the age of 24 (and 192 days). Nguyen is also 24, but finishing a few weeks younger than Asquith.
A post shared by James Asquith (@jamesasquithtravel) on May 2, 2017 at 2:21am PDT
Nguyen was just 20 when he read about Garfors, and 21 when he learned of Asquith. He was already over 100 countries in at that point and realized the record was in reach. But not if he went into medical school.
An influential conversation with a mentor helped Nguyen make his biggest decision yet - medical school versus the world. Biology professor, Dr. Enoch Baldwin shared some regret over not traveling earlier in his life; Nguyen was convinced - he would finish visiting every country before going on to medical school.
Life “after” travel
Now that he’s achieved the goal of every country, his travel goals have adjusted; “in the long term, to visit every country and territory on the Traveler's Century Club [list] and to travel as long as I can. Traveling is my life. I still plan to visit Greenland, Siberia, Patagonia, the North Pole, Antarctica, and outer space.”
After Eritrea, Nguyen plans to continue to travel, until returning to the US to study to become a doctor. He hopes to combine his medical aspirations with his love of travel and experiencing new cultures by practicing in countries in need where medical care is scarce, considering Doctors Without Borders.
What’s with the trend to travel?
The onslaught of travel in our news feeds may have us questioning if travel has become more popular, or if it’s always been popular and we’re just seeing it more because of social media.
While some say it’s just social media, several studies support that travel as a whole, both domestic and international, is a growing industry. Travel is easier, faster and cheaper than ever. Plus stories of inspirational travelers make it further, faster, with the help of social media. It was, after all, reading about Garfors and Asquith that showed Nguyen that visiting every country was not only possible in theoretical terms, but achievable.
And now Nguyen hopes to pay the same favor forward for prospective travelers, specifically non-white travelers. He hopes that people seeing an “average person” like himself will show that going after your goals is not reserved for a specific skin tone or background.
With increased access to Wi-Fi all over the world, people are moving their careers out of their offices and onto their computers and smartphones. Digital natives are becoming digital nomads and designing careers that open up the world - travel that used to be confined to a two-week vacation that would require trans-Atlantic flights can now be done in the afternoon after wrapping up with work for the day.
Johnny Ward, who completed his goal of every country earlier this year, did just that - he wanted to travel, so he built a business that allowed him to. He spent about 10 years working and traveling to achieve his goal, which he completed 2 months ago in Norway without going broke by creating his own career.
Travel records, explained
You may have seen articles about other country collectors, such as Gunnar Garfors, the Norwegian and youngest hobby traveler to visit every country in the world (meaning he did it all while maintaining a full-time job) and Lee Abbamonte, self-claimed to be the youngest American to visit every country (since that isn’t a current category documented by Guinness, but Nguyen will have him beat). Or most recently, and somewhat controversially, Cassie de Pecol, the self-claimed first woman and now fastest person to visit every country in the world (though she’ll get the record for both female and overall).
What many of these articles lack is clarity around the framework in which those attempting records are operating. And context to their travels beyond the records. We are in an era of journalism that aims to exalt the achievers without helping everyone understand the environment in which those achievements came to be. As a country collector myself, and former record attempter, I thought it important to give a primer on the records to clear up some of the confusion that seemed to stir a lot of the backlash over recent news when it comes to travel records.
Some of the nitty-gritty of travel records
Guinness World Records documents several travel-related categories. Because the nature of records is that they should be breakable, that is how the categories are designed – youngest, fastest, etc. Most travel records are from the last 20 years, meaning anyone’s claims outside of the recording (either before they started or travelers who aren’t going for records) are not substantiated, which is why you may see many self-claimed title holders. It was only recently that Guinness created separate categories for some of these records for male, female and team, with the aim of reinforcing that there are many ways to approach a record.
Additionally, Guinness has rather low standards for what “counts” as a visit, but high standards for how that visit must be achieved (along with the documentation required). For example, setting foot in a country’s airport DOES count as visiting the country according to Guinness, but spending a week or more in the country DOES NOT count if you entered the country by private vessel, a shared taxi, a rental car or any other means of transportation that are not public.
It is because of these standards that the controversy surrounding de Pecol stirred up (well, that and her attitude and refusal to acknowledge other women). Because there wasn’t a female category until 2016 and all other titles had been held by men, she claimed to be the first woman on record to visit every country (which was true). And unlike Nguyen, her goal was not to get a record like the youngest by a small margin, her goal was to take the record for fastest and smash it. Which she did. But of course, with a record like “fastest,” come the critics saying that just visiting an airport shouldn’t count or that she can’t have gotten to know a country in such short time.
While those two things may be true in many people’s minds, it doesn’t seem that was her goal. Her goal was to be the fastest person (not just woman) to visit every country; and she did. Which is an accomplishment for sure, but an achievement many are having a hard time acknowledging because it doesn’t align with their personal views of or goals about travel. You wouldn’t say a cross country runner didn’t take enough time to look at the trees and flowers on their track during their race, and de Pecol’s record for speed is no different.
So, what “counts?”
This is where the travel community starts to split hairs. What counts as a country and what counts as a visit? Guinness counts UN member states, of which there are 195, including 2 non-voting, observer states, (although in the completed records the count varies from 191 to 197); many collectors, like Garfors, add 3 to the UN 195 to make it 198 (adding in Kosovo, Western Sahara and Taiwan because of their international recognition). FIFA has 211 countries competing, the Olympics recognize 206. The Travelers’ Century Club gets up to a whopping 325.
And of course, whichever number you land on will continue to change – New Caledonia and Transnistria are both currently pursuing sovereignty from France and Moldova respectively. So it takes a lot of planning.
As for what counts as a visit? Again, Guinness counts feet on the ground, as long as those feet got there by public, ticketed transport (which includes airport visits and transit). The consensus (or as close to one as you can get) among long-term travelers seems to be that you need to be in a country long enough to have an experience, meet locals and try the food, which usually means more than a day.
In come the nay-sayers
This is again where the critics will come in – challenging travelers for not staying long enough, not experiencing enough, not whatevering enough. What they forget is that these travelers don’t stop being travelers once the record is achieved. Most have specific things that they want to go back and see and do in most countries after the record is complete. For most, they don’t plan to go home and never leave again.
When you ask travelers to be their community’s own critic is when you typically get the best answers - records are great, if they’re inspirational.
Justin Carmack, who’s currently at a count of 88 countries, sums it up by the impact he’s looking for from record-seekers (especially those going too fast):
I think some records are stupid, and do not exist for a reason. The reason I explore the world is because it is the best education you can possibly get, as well as a life-changing experience. That is for yourself. If you are recording and sharing your experience to inspire others, then that’s good too, and a lot can come out of it. The people the world looks up to are the ones with real world stories, the people who have seen and done it all. Not the pretentious ones who did nothing but spend a fortune on plane tickets to the capital of each country, just to make a name. I'm not inspired. Records like "fastest" and "travel" shouldn't go together. That’s like saying you were the fastest person to stop having fun. But give me an example of an inspiring record, and I'm all for it.
This is where Nguyen’s goal of combining his travels and medical interests really become inspiring - his travels are not just for a record for him to keep to himself, but to build a life and a character that impact the world he so happily explores.
Garfors has had fun racking up some speedy travel records, but emphasizes the importance of the experience as well, “in love, war and world records anything is allowed. But I would never have said that I had been to any of the 19 countries we visited in 24 hours had I not been there properly before. One thing is to formally have been somewhere with a passport stamp or a photo to prove it. Another thing is to travel somewhere, to smell, feel and soak in the atmosphere of a place.”
When asked about these critics, Nguyen gets it.
I can understand them well. You travel to travel, not for records. Even in my journey to 198, there are places that I felt like I haven't really gotten to known well, because I only spent a night or two in the country. Of course, that is why I'm flying back to some countries after the record, so I can spend quality times in the countries that I did like. This trip was more to satisfy my curiosity of what happened in other countries. It also helped me decide which countries I want to re-explore and spend a long time in.
When the goal is every country, momentum is important. The longer someone stays in each country, the harder the overall goal becomes. “Of course I would love to spend 3 months in each country, but that’s not possible [with my goal] because I’d be dead by the time I finished every country. I do a lot of activities in the short time that I spend in each place and I surely make the most of my time,” says Drew Binsky, who is also trying to visit every country (currently at 103). He has become an expert at making the most of any visit or transit, no longer how short. His 20 hours in Tokyo video is one example of many where he uses his layover time exploring, rather than staying in the airport and playing Candy Crush.
Ross OC Jennings (current country count 60) notes that each person’s travel goals and style are personal, as long as they’re respectful, “travel how you want and where you want, just as long as you're not knowingly harming people or the environment that you're travelling to. Research the places you're going, so that you don't offend people or break any rules.” But he also offers the most sound advice, “ABSOLUTELY DO NOT CLAP WHEN A PLANE LANDS.”
Full time traveler Gloria Atanmo wrote a fun and informative piece to help us all understand when counting countries makes you a d*ck, and when it doesn’t, reminding everyone, importantly, that, “you’re a grown a$% person and basically, you can do what you want.”
Regardless of individual opinions on records
Congratulations to Eric, who now gets to celebrating completing this goal with 15 days in Eritrea, which he claims is now his favorite country in Africa. 198 countries is an achievement that for some might take a lifetime, but for Nguyen, will inform the lifetime ahead of him.
Other country collectors
Now that your palette has been whet to see every country, whether with your own feet or via your smartphone screen, there are plenty of collectors to help guide you. Whether aiming to go in the record books or not, there are plenty of travelers out there, each with his/her own style and many of which you can follow for travel inspiration, tips and stories.
Nguyen shares his travels on Instagram and here are a few who are documenting their journeys via blogs, videos and social media to follow along (many have been quoted in this article):
Ross OC Jennings (60/198): Ross is aiming to visit every country in the world in a way that honors his heritage. The Scot is traveling with his bagpipes in tow and playing the pipes in every country he visits. We’re talking seeing the world, and a kilt - don’t miss his Instagram.
Jessica Elliott – How Dare She (82/198): The author of this piece, Jessica, is aiming to dare in every country in the world and documents the journey by photo on Instagram, and in stories on How Dare She.
Drew Binsky (103/198): Drew wants to hit every country by 30, holds a Guinness World Record for most UNESCO sites visited in 24 hours (12) and documents his travels on his blog, but more interactively on Instagram (be sure to watch his stories to see what his travels are like).
Sal Lavallo (175/193): It looks like Nguyen just beat Lavallo to the finish line to be the youngest American to visit every country, but with only a few left to go, you can check his 193 journeys out on his website and Instagram.
Lee Abbamonte (198/198 and 319/325): Lee has finished not only every UN country (finished at age 32), but is close to finishing the whole Travelers’ Century Club list of 325. His travels are documented on his website and on Instagram.
Global Degree (85/198): Mike, Alex and Andrew are visiting every country in the world and producing a YouTube series to document it, with at least one episode per country.
Justin Carmack (88/198): Justin is collecting countries, but only as a by-product of collecting the world’s best SCUBA sites and hopes to eventually go after a SCUBA world record; his travels are documented on Art of Scuba with great underwater visuals on Instagram.
Are records just about collecting countries?
While Nyugen and several others in this article are after visiting every country, there are plenty of categories from Guinness World Records that involve travel. Browsing their database by searching travel will result in finding records that have been achieved, and some categories that remain unclaimed.
If you are looking for a record that hasn’t been claimed yet, these are available:
- Most well-travelled rabbit*
- Most countries visited by a dog*
- Most countries visited on foot in a week
- Most countries visited by bicycle in a month
- Fastest time to visit all sovereign countries (team)
- Most United States state capitals visited in 24 hours by scheduled transport
- Fastest time to visit all 50 US state capitals
- And my new goal, fastest time to visit a pub in all 50 US states
And a sample of some of the most impressive achievements (more detail is available on the Guinness website):
- Youngest person to travel to all sovereign countries: James Asquith (UK) who was 24 years and 192 days in 2013. [Eric’s journey will still need to be verified by the record-keepers]
- Fastest time to visit all sovereign countries (male): 3 years 3 months and 6 days by Yili Liu (USA) in 2010.
- Fastest time to visit all sovereign countries (female): 1 year and 193 days by Cassandra De Pecol (USA) in 2017.
- Most countries visited in a continuous journey by car: 111 countries and three territories by car between 1 January 1999 and 5 January 2002, by Jim Rogers and Paige Parker (both USA) visited.
- Most sovereign countries visited in six months: 191 by John Bougen and James Irving (both New Zealand) in 2003.
- Most countries visited in 24 hours by scheduled transport: 12 by Adam Leyton (UK) in 2016.
- Youngest person to visit both poles: Jonathan Silverman (USA) at age 11 years 211 days in 2002.
- Fastest time to visit 48 contiguous US states by bicycle (female): 43 days, by Paola Gianotti (Italy) in 2016.
- Fastest circumnavigation by scheduled flights, visiting six continents: Kirk Miller and John Burnham (both USA) visited six continents is 63 hours 47 minutes, covering 27,241 miles (43,840 km) in 2016.
- Most continents visited in one calendar day: Gunnar Garfors (Norway) and Adrian Butterworth (UK) visited five continents in one calendar day (28 hr 25 min) in 2012.
- Most UNESCO world heritage site visits in 24 hours: Drew Goldberg (USA) and Rodrigo Touza (Spain) visited 12 sites in Germany and the Netherlands in 2016.
- Fastest cycle journey of the Pan-American Highway: Carlos Santamaría Covarrubias, from Alaska to Argentina, in 117 days and 5 hours in 2015.
- Fastest time to visit all countries by public surface transport: 4 years and 31 days, completed by Graham Hughes (UK) in 2013.
- Most countries visited in one year by scheduled surface transport: 133 by Graham Hughes (UK) in 2009.
- Most countries visited by train within 24 hours: 11 by Alison Bailey, Ian Bailey, John English and David Kellie in 1993.
- Most countries visited in 24 hours by bicycle (individual): 6 by Michael Moll (Germany) in 2016.
About the Author: Jessica is a full-time traveler on a mission to visit every country in world, sharing her trip, pictures, video, stories and observations at How Dare She. Follow her on Instagram to see the whole world through her eyes [slash camera].