Archive | November 2014

Vietnam: The Yin Yang results

Written in Hue Airport whilst waiting for my flight down to Ho Chi Minh to fly home…

A while back I wrote down ten positive and ten negative things likely to happen whilst in Vietnam. Here’s some anecdotes relating to that post… Ten things likely to happen whilst travelling without a plan in Vietnam:

  • Drive on the worst roads imaginable
    • The “main roads” are shambolic, with roadworks on long stretches. And any back roads are either dust or covered in huge boulders. Everything except the Ho Chi Minh Trail are the worst roads.
  • Get hurt
    • Thankfully nothing too serious. My inner calves took a battering from the bike. I was also bitten by Mosquitos hundreds of times. Thankfully no breaks, or death*.
  • Lose something
    • It wasn’t till I was packing for home I realised I’d lost my shaving moisturiser. Dry itchy face ensued.
  • Get completely lost
    • On occasion this happened. At one point (our first day on the bikes) we rode 15km past our first turning. Thank goodness for Google Maps.
  • Get drenched
    • At least twice I was soaked to the bone. I abandoned a set of clothes that never seemed to be dry. I took them as bad luck. The feeling of cold water dripping through dry jeans into your crotch…
  • Get angry beyond belief
    • Didn’t happen too often, but I did lose my rag with the bike a couple of times. I nearly ripped off the mirrors and launched them in a lake. The whole bike was going in a lake on another day. I’m not the most patient of men.
  • Fear for my life
    • In the bigger towns and cities the roads at rush hour are insane. Nobody looks. Nobody stops. Nobody cares. That was scary. I also had a local come over to say hello, but when I shook his hand he tried to drag me across the road to spend money. Had to struggle a little with him. Slightly scary.
  • Throw up
    • On the day I felt all better (and regretted selling my bike) I went out for food. I hadn’t eaten in 24hrs. As soon as I got back to the hotel I threw the whole lot up. I wasn’t better after all.
  • Use the phrases “this is f**king sh*t” and “who’s f**king idea was this?”
    • Day 1 on “crazy street” in Hanoi, I muSt have shouted this out loud a dozen times. And probably every time a delivery truck went by.
  • Want to go home
    • Only in the last couple of days did I feel like that.

Ten more things likely to happen whilst travelling without a plan in Vietnam:

  • Smile so much my face hurts
    • Every time a kid smiles and waves back and says hello… Such a great feeling.
  • See something mind blowing
    • The Paradise Cave was pretty spectacular.
  • Have an epiphany
    • We talked about Rip-off Britain s lot and why the balances of cost and taxes are so ridiculously skewed back in the UK. My one epiphany was “get the hell out of Britain”.
  • Laugh till I cry
    • I did on occasion laugh at the stories I heard from other people. Can’t say I cried at any of them though.
  • Shoot FAR too much video
    • Yes, I’d fit the GoPro to one of our helmets and leave it running. I’ve probably got about 4 hours of footage to whittle down to a few minutes.
  • Eat and drink things I never thought I would
    • Fresh authentic Vietnamese spring rolls are fabulous. The fermented egg wasn’t too bad either. Vietnamese tea is also interesting, if not slightly unpalatable for me.
  • Have a conversation with someone who has no idea what I’m saying
    • This happened with a group of builders at the resort in Sam Son. They were mesmerised by my drone video helicopter. Even though none of us knew dithers language, we had a good chat of sorts.
  • Laugh with someone I’ve never met
    • Either our first or second day whilst still struggling with the bike, I couldn’t get it into first at any point. We’d stopped to chill for a bit, and a local came over to laugh at me. He invited us to sit just a few feet in from the pavement in his shop. Clarence and the stranger laughed at me, like they knew me. I laughed with them, even though I was being laughed at.
  • Get completely lost
    • Yep. Regularly.
  • Not want to go home
    • Whilst sat on the airport I got an overwhelming feeling I was an idiot. Just because I was uncomfortable on a bike, I gave up? I was almost in tears at the thought of abandoning this trip. But the accumulation of everything else made going home the right decision.

So I wasn’t far wrong with the list. Regarding the “death” footnote, please see this post.

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Vietnam: The Long Unknown – Update 6

This blog covers sightseeing, leaving Dong Hoi, an unexpected stop, Hue, selling my bike, and travelling home early. Distance covered; 277km,

Total distance; 1279km (around 800 miles).

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We planned to leave Dong Hoi the next day. This gave us the opportunity to take advantage of some sightseeing before we moved on. After all, that is why we came to Dong Hoi. It’s become apparent on this trip that although we had grand ideas of doing the tourist bit at each place, the journey itself became a chase to the next location. If we left too late in the morning we were chasing the light to stay safe. Or the weather would make it dangerous and slow us down. And regular breakdowns took away precious hours and days. My lack of confidence on a bike meant I was constantly slower than everyone else. And nothing (except experience) was going to change that. We also never really had time to stop after a really good road, ride back to set up a camera, do a pass for the holiday video, and return to pick it up again. Even with a month of time, it just wasn’t possible.

Back in Dong Hoi, a lovely guy from the Buffalo Hostel, Un, asked us if a girl could join us on our bike tour up to the Paradise Cave. The German girl, who’s nickname was “Z”, rode on the back of Clarence’s bike. The Ho Chi Minh Trail roads were wonderful. Much quieter, better quality, less dangerous. It was decided we’d take this road the whole way if we can, rather than the coastal roads (which were a death trap). It’s a stunning road, a hundred times better than the main roads.

Along with us were two Canadian dudes, Jackson and Ting, with whom Clarence had got chatting to the night before. Clarence works in Canada (Big Brother) and so we became friends and continued the trip as a group. Canadians, German, English and Scottish. Our newly formed Temporary International Biking Universal Language Association (TIBULA) rode westward toward the caves… (Took me half an hour to come up with that. It’s still shit).

We stopped off at The Dark Cave first, but that required a zip line to the other side of an island to get into the cave, which was an (“unavoidable”) additional fee. Or they would kayak you over. That’d cost us too. It was starting to sound like it’d be costly when all tallied up. So we stopped there for lunch only and then rode off to find the other cave instead.

Paradise Cave is huge. Theres no denying that. It’s likely the biggest cave I’ll ever be inside in my lifetime. What people don’t tell you is that it requires a near 6km hike up the side of a mountain to get to. Even though they’ve paved it in ramp style, it isn’t easy for a guy of my stature or stamina to get up there in one piece. That nearly killed me. And even getting to the hiking area is a trek. Once off the main road, the track is like a roller coaster with steep climbs and huge drops on the bikes. That went on for 15 minutes or so. When we got to the gate we were ushered over to buy a ticket to park our bikes. Turned out it wasn’t the main entrance and we could have parked anywhere, but we fell (yet again) for a local trick. Still, it was only 10’000VND (about 40p. Still cheaper than Ealing parking prices).

Inside the cave is lit with slippery wooden walkways, with platforms built around the most spectacular stalagmites. Waking down even more stairs, the temperature drops dramatically. And for a guy like me, out of breath and sweating his butt off, cold was not good. As Clarence pointed out we’d be walking back up those stairs at the end. If there was a walkway all the way through… Well, it wouldn’t be a “cave”. Spotlights reflect off perfectly calm pools of water, subtly lighting the cave in various patches. With no air movement (you can almost taste 1’000 years ago) the water pools are perfect mirrors. It’s an incredible sight to see nature left to its own devices, making such beautiful creations. The smells and dim lighting adds to the atmosphere. It’s like stepping back to the beginning of time.

I was shattered after the trip, so much so that I hit the sack just after dinner. There was no way I could be “sociable” in the state I was in. A fever was setting in.

The next morning the Canadians joined us on our attempt to the next place. It was a long trip, up to 220km. We needed the time and the light, but we left it a little too late. Although the HCM trail was almost perfect, we ran out of time at around 177km. The rain had also caught up with us and we were all pretty drenched right through. So we scrambled to the nearest hotel for the night. My lack of good health was taking a turn for the worse.

Driving in rain is no fun. The weather was awful. Even at lower speeds, raindrops hitting your face kinda stings. The sunglasses I had been wearing made it impossible to see when the cloud rolled in and it got dark. And the goggles that came with the helmet created a sort of tunnel-vision thanks to closing off my peripheral vision. Also. The rain just sticks to them and need constant wiping in order to see pot holes and rocks. Making matters worse was the occasional traffic jam. Some buses and coaches took this route, and every so often we’d come by a few cars honking like crazy to get past. None of them would give way to any bikers, so all we could do was slow down. Only on occasion could a batch of bikers creep by. This caused our group to divide on occasion, which makes it hard to keep an eye on each other and make sure nobody is having bike issues or an accident, etc.

The hotel we chose could have been the beginning of my stomach troubles. I classify my stomach as being one of iron. Normally I can eat anything and not have problems. Vietnam has broke through that iron cast. Now it’s made of candy floss, and I’m ill all the time. We ate a platter of food from this hotel, including fish. I’m convinced it was the fish that did it.

The next morning, stomach cramps in full swing, sweating but freezing, we rode on to Hue. With similar weather we trundled on through winding roads. For a biker these roads were amazing. Clarence was loving it, leaning into the corners where possible. I on the other hand was shitting myself, braking at every opportunity and slowing right down. I wasn’t loving it.

Then the rain started again. This time we stopped with enough distance between us and the clouds for us to get fully waterproofed up. It might have been wet, but it was still hot. Getting to the next place seemed to take forever.

After scraping past a few buses at a jam, Clarence shouted for us to stop. His front wheel was loose. He was watching the bolts undo themselves as he rode. Pretty darn dangerous. Then Jacksons checked his bike, and his was doing the same thing. I pointed out the change in sound my bike was making. And it turned out my rusted exhaust had snapped off. And to add to the mystery, Tings gear box seemed to be playing up and his second gear had gone all together.

Barely a single decent bike between us we carried on to Hue. The sun had set as we got off the main road. It was then when my chain started jumping off. The group were way ahead of me and I was left to fend off a group of school kids on bikes who were determined to test out their English.

The younger generation of Vietnam are so happy to say hello. From 5 years old to 18, anyone will say hello, ask where you are from, how old you are. I probably wasn’t the best person for them try out their skills. Soaked through, busted bike, lost team. I may have come across as grinning but slightly bitter about the whole thing.

Clarence came back for me. With his full face motocross helmet on, he didn’t hear me shout what the problem was. I felt I was frustrating the group just by being slow. That’s a genuine thing anyway, but also having a busted bike made matters worse. By then I had decided this trip was over for me…

The busy traffic was horrendous. All we could do was limp through town in 1st gear. Revving like crazy, the usual looks and smiles that passed us became confused faces.

I’m no biker. And I didn’t have the experience or the patience to keep going. Doing 70KPH downhill in the rain and attempting corners like its MotoGP wasn’t my thing. In reality I wasn’t looking around or seeing anything of Vietnam whilst on the bike because I was concentrating so much on the road ahead. Battered and bruised, my lower back in agony, feverish with stomach troubles. Two weeks in I wasn’t enjoying the experience of actually biking like everyone else was. Which was the point of the holiday.

If I was experienced and confident on a bike, things would have been different. But just passing a CBT in the UK wasn’t the qualification which gave me that. So as fun as it was, I wouldn’t be progressing further on a bike. Clarence suggested I should take the number plate as a memento, but I ended up selling the bike to a local delivery company. Seagal ( the name I gave my bike!) now delivers all the ice to the bars in Hue. And he got it for 1.5 million VND… £45.

So on the morning of Friday 28th, after the final supper (well, breakfast), the group split. One of the most depressing things in my life was hearing their bikes riding off into the rest of the journey, my back to them as I walked the other way. Their bikes were all fixed again (I’d suggest “patched up” as opposed to “fixed”) and they rode towards the roads that give spectacular views of the Hai Van Pass. I missed out, but I’m sure I’ll see the photos. I, on the other hand, walked back to the hotel and took the first taxi to the local airport. For £30 I could fly to Ho Chi Minh. And for £60 I was able to recover my flight originally booked for December. By the Saturday night I’d be home.

The Long Unknown suddenly became clear, changing simply to The Long Flight Home.

Vietnam: The Long Unknown – Update 5

This blog covers our trip from the middle of nowhere onto Dong Hoi, my first breakdown, repair troubles and a hotel shuffle. Police checks avoided; 3. Distance covered 222km.

Total distance: 1002km.

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After checking out of the Hotel Of Dreams (aka, an asylum), we headed along to the cafe where we’d eaten dinner with the owners the night before. We’d promised Bee that we would see him before we moved on, and to his word we were invited back in for coffee. I love coffee, and their stuff is great. It comes like a miniature coffee machine, with a thimble of coffee in a metal cup and the hot water brews through it and drips into a glass below. But it comes out like syrup and is quite sweet. I also had an inch of milk, though it’s more like yoghurt. The dripping coffee doesn’t mix with it and it needs a good whisk together.

Bee looked a little tired, possibly from a heavy session the night before. Since we had quite a trek still ahead we exchanged details and shook hands before getting back on the bikes. And just like our little adventure started at this cafe with the father giving us a wave in, from the back of the cafe, wearing the same clothes and with the same nod and smile, he raised his hand as a sign of farewell. A curious human interaction that will stay with me forever.

Hitting the road was harder than usual. This would be the longest stretch we’d done so far. 220km of main roads, road works, dozens of small towns and police checks all awaited us. Just getting out the town was tricky ( the towns name we can’t find on google maps, hence its being called “middle of nowhere”). We ended up on an empty road along the coast but quickly found ourselves behind a military truck. Obviously the headline of “Britons Arrested in Vietnam” is something we are avoiding, so we took it slow (although they themselves were tanking it). I tried to keep central on the road so as not to be constantly visible in their mirrors. Eventually on a hilly part we snuck past them, only to find a convoy of another 5 truck another km up ahead. They definitely clocked us, but they had other plans as they synchronised their indicators and pulled off onto a different main road.

These roads started off so well. Now there are ruts in the road from heavy vehicles and never ending streams of motorbikes. The roads can control your steering when you’re in these troughs, pushing you one way then the other. Kind of like a skateboard in a half pipe. Roadworks became a very regular thing too. Seems they don’t concentrate on completing one section all at the same time, but rather rip up one lane for kilometres at a time (forcing both lanes of unstoppable long haul trucks and both single biker lanes onto a single road). We’d get back onto regular roads but then less than a mile down the road we’d be forced onto the other lane for more roadworks. This went on for hours.

Sometimes bikers nip into the freshly laid lanes and shoot out the other side ahead of the trucks. The workers saw this as normal, so we started doing it too. But not all of the sectioned areas were complete. Some of them were full of pebbles and pot holes. One of them was thick sludge which ended up covering us and redecorating the bikes. We looked like we’d been off-roading. The motocross helmet Clarence wears doesn’t help keep us inconspicuous either. It’s an attraction wherever we go.

This was also the first day we got caught in the rain. Seeing locals coming the other direction with ponchos on, it seemed a good idea to stop and pull out the waterproof covers for the rucksacks. Sure enough, with seconds to spare, the rain started. Hot drizzle soaked us for a half hour, and I rode with a face like thunder. Streaks of mud washed across the roads, and those roadworks turned into quicksand.

The rain doesn’t slow down the psycho truckers either. They seemed to increase their bullying by forcing bikers off the roads altogether. This is where my bike took a battering from pot holes as I tried to avoid the death drivers. My gear box started shifting by itself and eventually the chain would come off. Clarence took a peek and spotted the bolt was also missing off the gear change lever, so I had to ride with my ankle holding it on. If I lost that, I’d probably be stuck in a high gear till we found a garage. With the chain on (and now covered waist to boot in clay, mud and oil) we attempted to carry on. But the chain kept skipping out. Luckily there was a small garage right where I broke down, and they put on a brand new gear lever for 100’000VND (£6). It mostly helped, but there was still something severely wrong with it.

Somehow we got to the next hotel before my bike gave up. The chain was coming off every few minutes and my patience levels were at breaking point too. At 4.30pm it was too late to find a mechanic that was open, which meant we couldn’t book any tourist events for the next day. All of them started at 7 or 8am and returned after 6pm. Our plans of a 2-day stay went out the window. After breakfast the next day we pushed it to a place around the corner. For 200’000VND the guy tightened up the chain, lubricated every moving part and changed the oil in the motor. Clarence had a new front tyre put on. I took it for a test drive and it felt (and sounded) fine. But about 2km into a little sightseeing jaunt up the coast my chain hopped off again. So back we went, but the mechanic had shut up shop. Seeing this, the hostel next door helped us out and drove us to another mechanic where their guy gave it a proper look. Although, after two repair attempts, the chain was still jumping off. I really needed a new gear box. And that was going to be costly, and take a long time.

We were going to be stuck in Dong Hoi for 5 days, instead of two. But the next day we sat having coffee at the Buffalo hostel when one of their guys came over and said “grab your helmet. Your bike is ready”. He carted me across town on the back of his bike, translated and asked for the cost then drove off. Incredibly helpful, for no reason other than being helpful. Less than 24hrs later the bike was like new. New gasket, gears, chain, washed and lubricated. Cost me less than £20.

So we plan to leave Monday morning instead of Tuesday or Wednesday. It does mean we get the chance on Sunday to do one of the tourist things, and bike it up to the cave trails (which is kinda the reason we chose this town over others). Bu Monday we should be on our way, and on a different route. An American guy working in the hostel told us to take the Ho Chi Minh Trail for its roads which are not only great to ride but have virtually no traffic.

Sounds good to me.

Vietnam: The Long Unknown – Update 4

This blog covers the drive from Ninh Binh to Sam Son, an awesome resort, the drive from Sam Son to the middle of nowhere, and an awesome experience with a local family. Police checks avoided; 7. Distance covered 240km.

Total distance; 780km.

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I felt sad to leave Tham at the Anna Tham Hotel. She was incredibly grateful and such a hard working young person. She runs that whole place (as the only English speaking person in her family business). So much to deal with. She was so happy to have had us, and grateful for being such model guests. She even asked me if I’d come back and marry her friend, and hopes we have the wedding at her hotel! (I even gave my address, just in case!!).

After breakfast we said our goodbyes to the Dutch couple (Eric and Renatta) who we’d sat and had drinks with both nights before, and hit the road. The journey was a short one of only 80km, so not much compared to the monster journeys we’ve done before. There were lots of smaller towns along the way which slowed us down, thanks to traffic lights and crazy no-rule junctions where kids bolt out from nowhere. On one of our stops, a security guard appeared from a factory and walked over to see us. He spoke no English but pointed to his own ID Card. He also pointed to the licence plates a couple of times. We think he was trying to see if we had ownership or licences for the bike. In the end, we’ll never know. We tried to tell us the route we were planning, and he recognised Hanoi, Ha Long, Da Nang. That kept him content that we’d ridden quite a distance already. But just in case we decided to move on, so as not to draw more attention. He nodded and drew out “150km” on my bag as indication to our next location, then waved us off. Nice enough!

We headed towards a place on Google Maps where we knew there was a 9/10 rated hotel. It was a beach location in Sam Son. But when we finally got there, both Clarence and I were quite shocked. The entire town, beach front and all, looked completely desolate. Everything was closed down, worn out, sun bleached, and wasting away. It was like an abandoned film set. There was even a mini theme park with roller coaster and tea cups, but it was truly degraded and broken. A handful of locals were sorting out fishing nets, and ladies in nón lá (leaf hats) spreading tiny shrimp out across swathes of the road to dry them out. A very strange sight indeed.

We stopped to double check the map and see if we were in the right place. When we looked up, an old man was stood beside us. He was more interested in the bikes than us. Usually it’s the other way around. Turns out an expensive (for Vietnam, but in reality only £20 per night per person) resort was just around the corner. The Van Chai Resort is a huge luxurious place with indoor and outdoor pool, gym, sauna, massage, beach front, gorgeous rooms and a large restaurant. We worked out it could probably host over 100 in the houses (they were individual little flats, like a small village), but only 6 of us were actually staying. The staff were very keen to help us and keep us pleased. A typical Vietnamese custom.

At sunset I took out my QuadCopter for a fly around the area. What I didn’t see were the workers at the other end of the resort who were building another restaurant by the outdoor pool. They all stopped to study my flying camera. They didn’t see me, so I nudged it over towards them and they jumped around with glee. One of them coaxed it like a dog to come towards him. He directed it around, and I entertained it. Fun to see. When I wandered over they were fascinated to be able to see the shot on my iPhone from the camera. I pointed up and fired it straight up over 800ft and showed them the whole resort from above. They were awestruck. One of the workers pointed out to a fishing vessel and directed me to fly it over them. I took it out over the water but lost visual with it. The downlink video just showed sea and a tiny boat, and without line of sight I felt uncomfortable. I pretended to lose it. The workers clapped and jumped, thinking it was gone. So I turned off the controller and crossed my arms, shaking my head. They looked surprised and incredulous. But I knew the QuadCopter would trigger the Return To Home function. About 20 seconds later it shot out of the fog towards us, climbing to 60 feet. With no signal from me it hovered then slowly dropped before landing at my feet and shutting down. By their reaction you’d think I’d have won a gold medal. None of us spoke each other’s language but I tried to explain it needed to recharge. There were smiles, nods and handshakes before the who,e thing was over. It was a rather interesting 20 minutes.

The rooms (or little dorms) held two beds with mosquito nets, stone slab floor, shells embedded in the floor, a huge bathroom with bath, and an outdoor shower. I mentioned this was just under £20, right? It’s the height of decadence for my experience!

The next morning we headed off. I strapped my GoPro to my helmet to get some footage. I ended up leaving it till the battery run out. In a bizarre turn of events we’d ended up taking s wrong turn. Down back streets and criss cross roads, we’d turned into a rundown slum area. Tiny kids played dice in the street, hit each other with sticks, helped their parents in the fields. Every single one of them smiling. Even though they were covered in dirt, ripped clothes, proper slum kids. And every time they saw Clarance up ahead and then me, they’d shout “hello!!” And we’d get a wave.

Waving hello and peace signs have become a regular occurrence. Though I’m still not convinced we are saying “hello” with a peaceful V sign. Online there’s blogs where people say it’s a happy way of saying hello by the younger generations. They do it constantly on their Twitter and Instagram feeds. The older generation link peace to the war. Others have said we are simply announcing the number two, as “Hi” in English is “Hai” in Vietnamese, which simply means the number two!

Several hours later we rolled into yet another dead seaside town. This had much more people, but certainly no fancy hotels. We booked something online and rolled up to find the place looking closed. The owner directed us behind the building and we ended up locking our bikes inside a desolate restaurant. The hotel was open, but it was more like an asylum or prison. Not a great place, but there were beds and wifi. No toilet roll though.

Wandering the streets for food became an experience. Clarence and his massive beard drew crowds, and kids began surrounding us on bikes shouting “hello!” and flashing the V gesture. You’d think we were rock stars. A bit too close for comfort though, so we headed back to the hotel after grabbing a bag of biscuits from some baby store. Looking defeated we headed over to the last cafe-looking place just before the hotel. An older man was sat eating what looked like potato fritters. He gestured for us to come in. I thought he was going to serve us, but he actually pulled alongside two chairs and handed us slices from his plate. I’m guessing they were mashed potato with herbs and onions in, pan fried. Tasty though!

A few minutes later we had beers, and the old mans son, Called Bee (?) came and joined us. He spoke English and invited us to have dinner with his family. We sat shoeless and cross legged on the floor, eating cabbage, fermented eggs, boiled meat, fish slices and rice. An authentic Vietnamese meal with a real family. We swapped interests and discussed football, TV, and skirted around the war. We talked about marriage and travel, and he translated the news channel for us (one story was about a couple importing 2kg of heroin. He told us they’d be shot instead of imprisoned. That’s what happens in Vietnam).

Being tired after our longer trip we agreed we’d see them in the morning before we go, and Bee said he would have breakfast and coffee ready for us at no charge. This place is such a friendly happy place…