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…

Vietnam: The Long Unknown – What’s in the Bag(s)?

So what the heck does one take with them for a month long motorbike trip through Vietnam? This post could partially help with the answer…

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I’m not good with packing. I tend to cram in completely unnecessary things and forget the essentials. Somehow vital items get carefully wrapped and packed away in a choreography of rolling and folding, yet my phone charger and toothbrush sit idly by the side. With this in mind I took it upon myself to pack the rucksack today, with the hope I’d learn from past mistakes and know exactly what I was and was not taking with me. Yes, the flight is 3 weeks away, but I like to plan early!

Firstly, initially I was only taking the rucksack. The decision to take a smaller bag became necessary as the helmet I had already bought for the trip was coming on as hand luggage, and not going in the hold of an aircraft where it’d get bashed and smashed to smithereens. There are some forums out there that suggested I wear the helmet as I board the plane, although in this day and age I doubt that’d go down well with… well, anyone. So a second bag was decided upon, which would allow me to carry daily things on the trip too, like food and water, or easy-access items such as my Canon camera. Obviously whilst riding I’ll be wearing the helmet, and when we’ve stopped the helmet will be carried with us or stowed in a hotel room.

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So what’s in the bag(s)?

Small bag:

Open face helmet, goggles (came with the helmet!), iPad, Canon 550D, 11-16mm Tokina lens, 18-135 Canon lens, 50mm Canon lens, 8mm fish-eye lens, 3x 16GB SD cards, 2x Canon batteries, GoPro Hero3, GoPro cable, 8x GoPro mounts, GoPro links, GoPro waterproof case, GoPro helmet extension arm, iPhone cable, headphones. Oh, and 8x screws… I’ll explain later!

Big bag:

Waterproof jacket and trousers, spare jeans, tennis shoes, 2x pairs of shorts, 4x socks and pants, 4x t-shirts, 1x casual shirt, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush, DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter (yes, really!), quadcopter controller, 2x Phantom batteries, Phantom charger, towel, anti-malaria tablets, bug spray, H4N Zoom microphone, pocket radio, 3.5mm audio cables.

What does all this cover?

The clothing options cover me for the travelling to and from Vietnam, riding a motorbike in both wet and dry conditions, and extras if we try the nightlife. The Canon 550D and lenses covers me for both photography and any video documenting. The GoPro and all the accessories cover the video aspect of us (“Clarence” and I) on the bikes. The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ quadcopter is, quite simply, a radical piece of kit to shoot video from the air and provide awesome shots of us on the bikes. Totally unnecessary and overboard, but wicked nonetheless.

What’s with the microphone and cables?

Well, we’re not making a piece-to-camera documentary of our travels. However, I do have somewhat of an idea in mind for a video. Of course I’ll want to share a kick-ass video with you when this trip is all over. So the mic will record wild-track (essentially a few minutes of ambient sound of a particular area for the edit process), as well as recorded sound of the bikes, etc. I also have an idea to start and end the video as if a radio is being tuned in, so the pocket radio and cables will allow me to scroll through several frequencies and capture real-life radio in Vietnam and use that sample for the video. The items are small enough to be inconsequential to the weight of the rucksack anyway.

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Security is another thing that I’ve been concerned with. Clearly neither “Clarence” or I want to be kidnapped, robbed or to ride off a cliff and never be found. With me being a geek, I’ve set up some measures to help us along the way.

Firstly, both bags have a bluetooth tracking device installed. There’s also one on my keys, and I’ll likely stick one on the bike (for a giggle). These TrackR StickR devices communicate with an App on my iPhone, and keep regular track of where the items are. If any go missing, I can use the App to see their last known locations, and hone in on them. The devices also communicate two-way, so by pressing a button on the bluetooth device (which is no bigger than a pound coin) the iPhone rings. Or I can press a button on the App, and the TrackR rings. Fingers crossed these items work as they should and nothing goes missing.

One major benefit to the TrackR App is that if I do lose an item, and someone else is running the App, and they are in close proximity to a missing device, their App (without pairing) will update the last known location on my map. So something hundreds of miles away could still be found, thanks to another TrackR user and their “Crowd GPS” function.

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Secondly, I’ve installed an app on my iPhone called FollowMee. This App runs in the background and updates my location to a server online. If there’s no internet connection is records the GPS data anyway and uploads it whenever it gets the chance. It’s also clever in that it doesn’t run the battery flat with unnecessary uploads as it only updates if the location has changed, and by the specified update times I choose (anything from every minute to every 12 hours).

The benefit of this App is that our friends and family can keep track of our location by checking out my blog, where an embedded Live Map will track us in realtime. They don’t need to download some “Friends” app, nor do I have to give them any log-in details or get them to register on a special website. It’s hassle-free with a link I can email them which takes me to a secure and private map, or I can choose to embed the map anywhere I like (in this case, my travel blog!).

The App can also show where we’ve been, by keeping the last 24hrs worth of GPS logging data visible on the map. If we go missing, at least you’ll know roughly where we went missing! There’s no subscription fee for this service, just the £1.89 price of the App. There is also a free version, but that doesn’t keep the 7-day history.

They also have the ability to store 45 days or 90 days worth of location data, although you’d need to pay for this separately (a very reasonable $5 and $10 per YEAR respectively).

The App works on iOS, Android, Windows phones, Blackberry and the Amazon Kindle Fire.

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Of course all of this security depends on having an internet connection. I’ve spoken with my phone provider and they’ve unlocked my phone so it can be used anywhere in the world, and on any network. This means when I get to Vietnam I can switch out my UK SIM card with a pre-paid Vietnamese SIM card, pre-loaded with data and calls. I’m reliably informed there will be full coverage along the way, even if it drops to 2G/EDGE. It should be enough to keep us connected to the internet, and our locations known.

As a back-up, I’ve also installed an App called myTracks, which can either record your GPS location 24/7 or be set to short-record anything from 1min-24hrs. The App can then export/email the data and be used to trace a route at a later date. Both Apps will run for the duration of the trip. This App doesn’t upload our location, but stores the data locally.

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Now, back to this helicopter… I appreciate that not everybody thinks of taking a remote control helicopter with them on holiday, but the opportunity to get amazing tracking and aerial shots is too good to miss. Yes, my friends and I have joked that I could start a war, should anyone decide that my drone is some sort of threat and it a) gets blown out of the sky, or b) it gets blown out of the sky and I get arrested. Either way, it’s packed.

So what’s with the 8x screws? Well, the only way I could fit the DJI Phantom into my rucksack was to remove the lower landing legs. All the cables stayed intact, but with the screws removed it means the legs can be folded over and out of the way. Otherwise the biggest and bulkiest thing in the rucksack is the quadcopter!

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Vietnam: The Long Unknown – Being Unprepared

With Vietnam a mere seven weeks away, the fear of not being prepared keeps slapping me in the face. Quite hard. Occasionally something comes up that needs urgent attention (vaccinations and a visa off the top of my head!). With this in mind, I’ve written a list of completed tasks, and a longer list of things still to be done.

So far I’ve completed the Compulsory Basic Training “course”, as set out by the UK Government. Since this 8-hour training was completed on an automatic bike, I’ve also gone ahead and completed a “Gears Conversion” course. This course is a step up to manual bikes, which opens up our options of what we can buy when we get there.

I’ve also already purchased a helmet, gloves, waterproof jacket and trousers, and waterproof boot covers. Why not just buy a helmet there? Well, some folks have suggested that helmets bought in Vietnam might not exactly have the best safety measures, or have the best processes during their production. It seemed best to just buy a helmet over here and take it with me. Thankfully it won’t take up too much space in the rucksack (UPDATE: This was a mistake. The helmet took up 1/3 to 1/4 of my rucksack, so it ended up stuffed in a smaller backpack that went on as hand luggage).

On the other hand, still to be looked into is the following:

  • Get vaccinated
  • Get a Visa
  • Get dollars
  • Get dong
  • Unlock my phone for International use
  • Get a Vietnamese SIM card

As the days count down, it’s about time I get the rest of these things ticked off the list!

Vietnam: The Long Unknown

This blog post describes a future trip and the reasons for it, delving into the thought processes of what might be required to travel 1600 miles from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh.

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I spend a lot of my time doing things for other people. I do it naturally without thinking, and it’s always been just the way I am. If someone needs a hand with something or I can be of assistance in any way, I’ll “down tools” and help. Simple things like swapping shifts to ease someone else’s troubles, picking up and dropping things off because someone isn’t in a position to hire a van or has no licence to drive themselves, or storing someone’s belongings long-term up the attic whilst they work abroad. If someone needs a lift to work, has some shopping they need collected, something dropped off at the post office or their kids collected from school, I’m the one to do it. Not to mention the three years I spent as a Special Constable Police Officer in London, giving my time every weekend and other spare hour to volunteer and help the city and its inhabitants. God knows how many hours of my time that was, and the countless human interactions I must have encountered and helped along the way. But these are all easy things to do at little or no cost to me. And whilst these examples are in no way any burden or problematic in any way, it was highlighted to me that I don’t necessarily look after myself in the same way that I might look after other people. And that’s a fair point. So when a discussion at work arose regarding a long, and rather daunting, off-the-beaten-track “holiday” to Vietnam, it seemed like it could be the ideal trip for me to take the time away and hit the “reset” button, and do something I wouldn’t normally do. And do it for myself. It’d be nice to be out in the wilderness, away from society and technology, and take a closer look at life elsewhere. An eye opener. Perhaps a slap in the face. We’re all of limited time on this earth and I’d hate to have missed the opportunity to take on such a task. Especially given my nature with not doing things for myself! So with my limited spontaneity (I don’t like unpredictability), I agreed with my friend, Clarence (not his real name!), to join the trip. There’s a high percentage of people who’ve suggested they’re quite jealous of the prospect ahead for Clarence and I, though I realise there’s also a handful (my family!) who’d rather I wasn’t risking myself in such a way. Hopefully all ideas of fear and dread will fade as time goes on, though I understand the situation and their thoughts completely.

Long story short, the journey involves myself and a friend flying to Hanoi in northern Vietnam, buying motorbikes and travelling southwards towards Ho Chi Minh over a period of 28 days.

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Easy, right? The distance would vary, depending on the routes we decide to take (and how lost we might get), but could be anything from 1200 to 1600 miles. We’ve worked out worst-case scenarios including delayed flights, how long it might take us to find second-hand bikes, weather conditions (it’d be at the end of monsoon season), accidents, getting lost, etc. With contingencies considered, we decided upon a target of roughly 60 miles per day. Given the length of time we’ve given ourselves, we could easily complete the journey in 25 days. With bikes that will likely only be able to do 30-40mph, we’d only need to travel two hours per day to achieve this. Depending on where we end up, and the weather conditions, we may end up riding longer than required just to get to a hotel or hostel (or beach). This gives us extra time at the beginning of the trip to find the bikes, and time at the end to get to Ho Chi Minh the day before our flights home. 28 days seems perfectly achievable. Today we sat down to work out a rough plan. One thing we’ve both agreed on is not to have a fixed itinerary. Over the last couple of weeks we’ve both researched other bloggers and travellers, reading reviews of similar trips, gathering do’s and don’ts, tidbits and gems. All of them seem to suggest taking it easy, and taking each day as it comes. Don’t plan anything. For us this is perfectly do-able, though we have factored in a visit to a friend along the way. This pit stop works in our favour as they live in Da Nang, which sits roughly half way down the coast. This basically means we should be half way through our journey by the time we reach Da Nang. With a few other key places along the way, we’ve more than enough days to take time, stop, and just look around. One thing we discussed was shooting travel documentaries for websites, in order to give future travellers an insight into what they might experience on such a journey. With this in mind, we’ve also agreed on taking camera equipment split between us so we can capture both photographs and video of the journey. As it stands, a lot of this trip is completely unknown. There’s probably dozens upon dozens of worthy sights I’ve seen online. Clarence has too. But the best plan, if you can call it that, seems to be just to get there and see what happens.

28 days in Vietnam with nothing but the unknown ahead. Getting to the start seems like the easy bit. What happens next is completely out of our hands. And that’s something I’ve fallen in love with.

Have I mentioned I’ve never ridden a motorbike?