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…

Vietnam trip bags

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.


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.


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!


Personal Power

My first digital SLR camera was a Minolta 7Hi, and it went through AA batteries like I eat hot dinners. Many years ago several reviews pointed toward Fameart 2500mAh rechargeable batteries as the best on the market. I’ve still got them, but they no longer hold their charge for any long period. I can charge them one day and they’ll be dead the next, without them being used.

My Canon 5Dm2 and Canon 550D have their own proprietary batteries and so I haven’t needed the rechargeable AA’s in a while. But recently I’ve purchased a lot of sound kit, all of which use AA batteries. So I’ve started looking at the latest rechargeable technology to see what might work best for me. Many places online (including “The Gadget Show” and “Which?”) recommend the 3rd generation Sanyo Eneloop 2000mAh battery. They have “Low Self Discharge” technology, meaning stored power doesn’t ebb away quickly. In fact, they’ll still hold 70% of their charge even after five years in storage. That is incredible!


Digging deeper, there are other variations of these cells. The 2nd generation Eneloop 2000mAh batteries are quoted as retaining “75% of their capacity over 3 years“, whereas the 3rd generation are quoted as retaining “70% over 5 years“. Their latest variation is called the Eneloop XX, which hold 2500mAh, but I’ve read a few things about them that make the 3rd gen ones better. Namely, the 2500mAh cells have the same Low Self Discharge technology and can hold their charge up to 75%, but only up to ONE year, compared to three for the 2nd gen.  Also, the 2500mAh ones are rechargeable up to 500 times, compared to the 2nd generation recharging 1’500 times and the 3rd generation 1’800.

I guess it depends how power-hungry your equipment is. As an example, the Yongnuo 465 flashgun has been documented to last 360 flashes with the 2000mAh cells, but 460 with the 2500mAh.


On a day where I’d be using all the sound equipment I’d need eight AA batteries in total; 2x cells for the Sennheiser E835 wireless handheld microphone, 2x cells for the Sennheiser EK-100-G3-GB Diversity Receiver, 2x cells for the Sennheiser EK-100-G3-GB Bodypack transmitter  and 2x cells for the Zoom H1 digital recorder. That’s a lot of AA batteries.

Now, at the moment I don’t know how much power my sound kit will actually use in a day, but in essence it’d be nice to have a fully charged set in the kit whilst shooting, and a fully charged back-up set. Sixteen batteries! I’d also need 4x chargers in order to get the drained cells recharged whilst I was using the back-up set. Logistically, this seems a nightmare. However, it might turn out that the batteries last several days so there’d be no need to carry any extra kit. For the moment, I just don’t know but I will get back to you…

Sound Kit Composite

I should also point out overall cost here (and there is some maths involved so bear with me)… A standard 4-pack of Duracell Plus batteries cost £3.50. That’s £14 for 16 batteries, for one days use (for arguments sake). Whereas I can buy 16 Eneloop 2000mAh rechargeable batteries for under £28, and they will last up to 1’800 times. I could recharge and use the Eneloop batteries every day for nearly 5 years instead of just one day!! Financially it’s a “no-brainer”. But… you must also factor in the cost of electricity to recharge each battery. But this works out to be less than a penny to recharge each one.

The biggest spend is probably on a charger, if your batteries didn’t come with one. I’ve been recommended the PowerX MH-C9000 “ultimate” recharger, due to it’s built in LCD screen and clever electronics which will help keep your batteries in the best possible shape. It has independent charging circuits so you can charge 1, 2, 3 or 4 batteries independently. It has Charge and Discharge functions to extend the life of your batteries. It has temperature sensors which monitor heat during recharge, and it also has an Analyser to check battery health.

You can also be smart in another way by using some sort of solar powered battery panel to recharge the batteries… Now although the solar panel idea seems a little crazy, I currently own a Voltaic Fuse 10w solar panel kit with two rechargeable batteries. The solar panels will recharge a Voltaic V60 universal battery in 10 hours of direct sunlight. One Voltaic battery would recharge 8 AA batteries no problem. It’s free electricity, and environmentally friendly. Even better for me, the V60 battery has a switched output which means you can charge anything USB powered, or anything that uses 12, 16 or 19 volts. I use the Fuse kit to recharge my Macbook pro when I’m out and about, and use a cigarette lighter adapter to recharge my Canon DSLR batteries too! It’d be a fair point to suggest this only really works in the summer due to the British weather. If you live in Los Angeles, you’ll be fine.

I didn’t realise how ‘green’ I was till now!

UPDATE: The PowerX MH-9000 charger did attempt a “break-in” cycle to recharge the old Fameart batteries which initially seemed to work. However the batteries are still incapable of holding charge. Also, thanks to a seller taking advantage of confusion on the Amazon page, I ended up with Generation 2 batteries instead. Rather than send them back I’ve just kept them. As stated they came near enough fully charged, needing only 10 minutes in the charger to boost them to 100%. Brilliant. If you want a charger and batteries, go for Eneloop and a PowerX MH-9000.

Get Out And Shoot!

This morning was mostly spent researching various freelance jobs on the internet. I’m at the stage now where I have a full production kit list of DSLR equipment, and a strong passion to make great pictures. I know jobs don’t just appear and aren’t going to come to me. I also know that to learn anything and be successful I need to get out and shoot and gain experience and trust. So that’s the plan.

Recently I’ve overloaded myself with knowledge on shooting and lighting interviews. I’ve seen dozens of tutorial videos of other people using DSLR cameras in their own fields of work for assignments and music videos. I’ve seen do’s-and-don’ts and behind-the-scenes clips, how-to’s and making-of documentaries. They’re all good for taking away great ideas, but nothing really compares to actually going out with a camera and creating something.

As a freelancer I have a few companies who I regularly get work with. Although, I have only been freelance for a year and I know that not all of that work is going to be continual and never-ending. I’ve recently found out that one of my employers are closing down the majority of their London office. Statistically, this takes away just under a third of the work I was getting. Yes, it’s bad news for me. It’s worse news for the 100 staff who will soon be job hunting themselves.

Armed with this information I’ve taken the leap I have always intended to take and started contacting freelance studios and production companies, in the hope someone is looking for someone with DSLR kit who is more than willing to learn for free. I know full well that getting ahead in this industry is a mix of experience and contacts. With little experience the best option for me is to do any offered work for free, or for less than what others charge, to get onboard and grab the experience required to get ahead.

Some of the work is done. I picture the “ball-that-needs-to-roll” as an actual toy ball, perched atop a confusing and well constructed puzzle game. It’s just a case of waiting for someone to give it a nudge and let it take a course.

Glidecam XR 2000 Update

Last week I smugly ordered two quick release mounts with plates from eBay which would allow me to remove my camera from the Glidecam system and mount it on my Weifeng/Fancier 717AH fluid head that’s on my Glidetrack and tripods. The idea was to have kit that was all compatible with each other. Unfortunately for me the quick release mounts are not compatible with the Glidetrack. Why, I hear you ask? Well, the quick release mount has a safety button on the side which stops the plate from sliding out completely should you not have the lever tightened and it tip forward. But the diameter of this safety button is larger than the height of the mount itself.

717QK front view by Mercian Media

This means the mount would not sit flush on the top of the Glidecam system. And the trigger catch isn’t adjustable, so if it did sit flush you wouldn’t be able to lock the plate into place. Also, the mount does not have the usual screw holes in the bottom. Instead of one 1/4 inch hole (standard to a lot of tripods and kit) it has a hole in each corner which did not line up with the pre-drilled holes on the Glidecam plate.

EI717QK bottom view by Mercian Media

So these EI717QK mounts and plates will be going back on eBay as they are no use to me. Such a shame, considering all the hands they went through to get them from New York to the UK.

After a bit more research (I did lots already) I decided upon the Manfrotto 577 quick release mount with 501 plate. This is perfect for the Glidecam. It sits flush with the Glidecam plate and the quick release mechanism is moveable so that it doesn’t interfere with the camera or the Glidecam plate. It can lock and loosen within 90 degrees. Perfecto!

Manfrotto 577 quick release on a Glidecam XR 2000 by Mercian Media

Manfrotto 577 quick release on a Glidecam by Mercian Media

However, this means that in order for me to stick to the compatible-with-all ideology, I now need to purchase Manfrotto tripod heads that are comptible with the 501 plate!