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?

A Symi Holiday: Day 7

Today I had a “reset day”, took holiday snaps of Symi in infrared, had pasta instead of pizza, was verbally abused by local children and watched a man jump from space.

But firstly, hello to all my new readers! People from all across the world have visited the blog in the past few days including the UK, Greece, Australia, Italy, Norway, Denmark, The Netherlands, the United States, Switzerland, Austria, Sweden and even South Africa. Amazing! It would be great if you left a message using the Comments box below. Let me know where you’re from!

Sunday is a day of rest. I had feared with Symi being a fairly religious place that bells by the dozens would ring out from dusk till dawn. Thankfully not. Instead I slept like a baby. Saturday evening had been a late one, stretching into the early hours as I spent quite a while going through the photos for the test time lapse, tweaking and editing here and there to get it looking good. Of course, those images were just a dry run. From Monday onwards I intended to capture various areas of Symi to make a short picturesque trailer. The idea was to have it look almost like a slideshow of photos, with just the tiniest amount of movement in them as the sun passes, stretching shadows across walls and reflecting off windows, etc. But this was my “reset day”, basically meaning a day to get back on track. I do this if I’ve been on a week of nightshift and I’m switching to dayshift, for example. Effectively it can either be a long or short day, in order to defy the jet-lag style shift to my body clock. This was a short day.

I had woken up with food on my mind. Any single self-catering holidaymaker will understand the fridge being empty, apart from bottled water. The only food of substance in the apartment was some form of Nutella I had bought alongside my essentials (instant coffee and milk). Two spoonfuls of chocolate spread had been my breakfast.

Come mid afternoon, after doing some hand-washed laundry (there’s no dry cleaners around here, nor a washing machine in sight) I decided to try some infrared photography around Symi. For those unfamiliar, infrared is a type of light that humans can’t see. So these aren’t normal looking photos. Spectacularly in infrared green foliage looks blue, the sky can be black and everyday colours lose their saturation. It’s a world away from the norm.

Below are three images taken today of the same place; one black and white, one full colour and one infrared.

Infrared comparison

Notice the subtle differences between the black and white version and the infrared version. It adds a twist to everyday photography giving dream-like results, sometimes producing images that look like they could be from another world. It’s fascinating, considering it is our world. We just can’t see it.

Kali Strata walkway, Symi
Click the image for a 360-degree interactive panoramic of Kali Strata in Symi, Greece.

When reaching the end of the Kali Strata steps I realised my legs weren’t burning with pain, like they were when I first walked this route. Clearly, a sign that my body was slowly customising to help with all these stairs. At last, another step towards being fit and healthy! So I headed to the pizza place…

At the Dolphin restaurant I was pleased that the owner recognised me. With a wide smile and genuine pleasure he took my order of number 22 and 7; garlic bread and cheese followed by pasta with fresh tomato sauce, tuna, onion, garlic, green pepper and herbs. A fabulous meal indeed, finished off with a fresh coffee. Although clearly my eyes were bigger than my stomach!

To burn off some calories, I took a short stroll along the main street and across the bridge, snapping a few images along the way. I had left it quite late in the day for doing infrared photography. Strong sunshine causes object to absorb and reflect a lot of infrared, but this was late afternoon. I had already worked out when doing the time lapse stuff that even a few hours before actual sunset means the harbour and most of the valley are already in shadow. The sun was sinking fast enough that whilst looking through the zoomed lens on the camera you could actually see the shadows racing across the landscape. It was now or never. Or next week.

Infrared Symi Harbour

Some of the images came out really well. They have that look of scratch art, where an image is created by etching off black ink painted over coloured layers of clay or paper. Given the race against time which the sun was clearly winning, I didn’t stay downtown very long.

One thing I noticed today was that the kids playing in the basketball court down in the village were nowhere near as loud as their projected voices were by the time they got up  the slope! I wondered if they were aware of this amplification. I’m sure the locals up the hill knew all about it.

Wandering back up the dreaded stairs of doom, I noticed there had been a lot more kids around than usual. I didn’t know if this was just a lack of observation, or if there was a reason for it. My walk took me passed a little girl sitting on her doorstep who’s hair was being plaited by a little boy, possibly her brother. The boy and another friend looked up at me as I walked by the trio, so I responded with a whispered “calimera” which I had heard Ian, The Saviour, use on our walk on Tuesday. Unbeknownst to me till later in the evening, this meant “good morning”. I’d been saying it all week to everyone, at all times of the day. The boy not pleating hair looked over at me, frowning in a puzzled way. I kept walking. He looked to the other two and asked them a question in Greek before turning to me and saying something. I didn’t catch it, nor did I respond. He chose another Greek word and shouted it in my direction. I still didn’t respond. He shouted again. The other pair were quietly giggling by this point, so I only assume it was some form of childish goad or insult. I had no way to respond, so I just kept walking. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the verbal one shrug his shoulders and glance over at the girl, mumbling something under his breath which I imagined to be something similar to “why did he say that!?”. It was funny to them. Looking back, it was funny to me too.

Symi by infrared

It would be a great shame for me to post a blog without mentioning a stray kitten or cat. So here’s a mention for day 7. Just down the path from the flat was one of the cutest but saddest ones I’d seen. A kitten that could only have been a few weeks old, curled up asleep on top of a wheelie bin. It was clearly homeless due to the mess it was in. Its dominant white with black flecks were splattered with dirt and it had dried mud all over its face. It had obviously been in a scrap or two as well. Such a terrible way for something to live, considering the small life it’s already had and the life a loving home could give. I’ll try get a photo of it for next time.

And so, that was that. Short and sweet. The body should have been successfully reset, meaning I could plan a sunrise time lapse for early Monday or Tuesday morning.

A Symi Holiday: Day 6

On this day I was held hostage by a spider, rescued by The Saviour, laughed at by some ex-pats, made a time lapse video showing the Milky Way and spent the evening taking photos of the stars…

As nice as it was to capture photos of the sunset yesterday, I hadn’t planned on seeing sunrise today. My alarm was set for near enough the afternoon. But something happened through the night that caused me to be awake. Very awake. At about 3am as I flipped on the side lamp to swipe away yet another mosquito that had been harassing me, something caught my eye across the other side of the room. On the roof. Now I’m no fan of spiders, so seeing this was less than enchanting. There was an actual, real life, wild tarantula in my holiday apartment. Quite a large one too. I won’t post a picture of it on the blog as, if like me you have “the fear”, rest assured it won’t help you sleep. If you really want to see a photo (there was nothing else to do!), click here. Or alternatively for a wee video of it crawling along the wall, click here.

Hours passed with me standing in the middle of the room., just staring at it. Putting it mildly, the sunrise could go screw itself. I wasn’t taking my eyes off this thing till… well, till it wasn’t in the apartment anymore. But then, how did it get in? I didn’t give it a key, and given its size it sure as hell would have had to use the door. Maybe it had been here all along. But where? Every shadow made me jump. Every tickle on an arm or a leg. I was literally shaking with fear. All the stress I had relieved so far on this holiday came back in one massive attack, just as the sun started to come up.

Ironically I found mosquito spray whilst looking for something I could capture the spider with. I thought I could scare it, at least make it move from where it had moved and perched itself (above the beds, of course). I tried spraying deodorant in it’s general direction. The Lynx effect. It didn’t work. Aptly, in Greece Lynx deodorant is called Axe. I could have done with one of those too. I tried waving at it with the Accommodation Welcome Pack folder. That didn’t help either. It had probably already read through it when it came in. Smug spider. And now it smelled good too…

Lynx deodorant in Greece

I had a look online to see how to catch them but didn’t get very far. Apparently they’re fragile and cannot kill humans, unless you are allergic to their bite, which is similar to being allergic to a bee sting. They can also fire barbs from their back legs if threatened.

More hours passed as I stared at it with both eyes, it staring back with eight. Now it was getting silly. In the end, during normal office hours, I called the holiday folks. And who should arrive? None other than Ian the walking guide from Symi Visitor. From hereon in I shall refer to him simply as “The Saviour”. Borrowing a long broom from the neighbour, The Saviour took a swipe at it. This caused it to fall like an eight-legged rag doll onto the beds and scamper off. I shuddered slightly. On hands and knees he then casually looked under the bed. Remember in the movie Aliens, in the MedLab, when the facehugger jumps out? Yea. Exactly…

It was between the pillows and the headboard. Another swipe later and it flew, literally, across the room behind the wardrobe. I ducked. I may have shrieked like a little girl too… I’m not sure… *cough*… moving on… The Saviour then cornered it, before inching it out of the apartment dangling from the end of the broom, holding it aloft over the wall. And with a thud it was gone, having fallen some distance further down the valley and back to nature. In an instant, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. Like a burst water dam of sleep depravation, the tiredness that I had been holding back rushed forth as I took the first breaths of freedom. Dramatic, I know. But you get the idea that I really don’t like spiders. And with that The Saviour was gone, riding off down the rickety street on his scooter. No doubt off to rescue another foreigner. His last words to me were “if it happens again, stop reading on the internet how they can kill you”. Wise words from The Saviour.

It was now 11am. Tired, and with a jelly brain, I headed to The Olive Tree and ordered their Special breakfast; fruit salad starter with orange juice followed by scrambled eggs, bacon and mushrooms on toast with a mug of tea. I deserved it. If you’re ever in Symi, I implore you order one. It was utterly delicious, and the perfect way to reset my mood. The girls in The Olive Tree had a good laugh with me about the whole arachnid experience, as did a few of their customers. “Buy a spare mop. They’ll cling to it, then you can just chuck the whole thing out”. Even more wise words.

After a brief and paranoid siesta I decided tonight was the night to do some time lapse photography. My intention was to capture sunset, by walking up to one of the churches with a good view of the harbour and try catch the boats coming in to berth. The church I originally planned on going to was being used for a celebration so I headed to the back-up church. (Note to all: always have a back-up church).

Here’s me looking ever professional, showing the locals that I know what I’m doing. Sort of:

Mercian Media at Symi

There’s dozens of options and settings when doing time lapse photography. And there’s no hard and fast rule to setting up. Not to mention I’d only tried it a few times before. Time was critical as the sun was sinking further westwards towards the mountains so I took a few test shots, including the often forgotten white balance, and got on with it. I wanted to get some soft blur into each image, to give the final video a bit more smoothness to it. Most time lapse videos are quite choppy. I tried fitting a variable ND filter, which is effectively putting sunglasses on your camera lens. It allows you to take longer exposures in bright daylight, which can allow moving objects to blur.

Symi panoramic

If you haven’t tried it already, click the image above and another window will open. It’s an interactive 360-degree view from where the time lapse was shot, up at the church. I quite like making these as it allows you to stand in my shoes and see what I saw when I was there.

When I figured it was dark enough I stopped the camera and reset for a new angle, pointing down toward the main street and harbour. With little to no action going on down there I wanted to try something different… so I looked upwards. It had become easy to see the stars. They just popped out of the blackness as soon as the mountains hid the sun. The shape and colour of our Milky Way galaxy was clearly visible. It really is a magnificent sight. So I carried on with a few photos. I tried a couple of High Dynamic Range photos (HDR). This is where you take 3 photos of different intensities of the same thing and merge them together. But it was far too dark and they didn’t come out. On to another time lapse. This time, the Milky Way itself. I just knew capturing this as it moved (or we moved) would be spectacular.

Here’s the overall video from this days’ venture. Not perfect, but still beautiful all the same. I need more time in the day, and effectively more battery power. I’m a fool to not realise I had left my spare at home. Practice makes perfect!

A Symi Holiday: Day 2

Day one on Symi was a waste, to say the least. I could have made better use of the hours left in the day other than falling asleep. Arriving at 9.30am and sleeping the entire day is worth a slap in the face. It’s fair to say half a days worth of traversing the skies above the Balearic and Aegean seas before sailing the Dodecanese islands would take it out of you.

Still, a waste is a waste.

Day two began with a startled awakening. I did that thing where you sit up with your eyes open wide and your brain has no idea where you are. It took a few seconds to realise that the heat and bright sunshine streaming through the window meant I certainly wasn’t in the UK. Ian, who met me at the dock (not a euphemism), mentioned a walking tour on Tuesday morning, and it made sense for me to spend some time learning about the place I’d be staying for the next two weeks. So off I went to the meeting place.

What immediately struck me when I left the apartment was that I had no idea where I was. Arriving was such a blur and I  remembered very little between getting off the catamaran and falling asleep in the apartment. I could have literally been anywhere on this island. I started walking, vaguely remembering the various stairways and turnings between the apartment and the main street. Before long I was surrounded by… cats. Lots of them. Dozens in fact, like little furry hoodies. They had ASBO written all over them, purring deeply and pacing with one paw crossing the other as they paraded in a circle like a scene from some musical. One-eyed kittens stared at me with anger on their faces…

Cats of Symi

As cute as they can be, it was pretty clear these were wild cats. And potential monsters. There are signs dotted everywhere in both Greek and English asking people not to feed the cats. No wonder they look pissed off.

My timing appeared impeccable as I spotted Ian at the end of the street in front of me towards the meeting point. He was chatting to Neil from Symi Dream, who invited me to their last meet-and-greet wine session (free!) on Sunday. Something I added to my to-do list.

I was expecting a group of camera-clad tourists to be at the meeting point already, but there wasn’t. Just two other people bothered turning up. During Ian’s walk we discussed architecture on the island and the reasons for it. We touched upon the water supply, which is either imported via water boats or via the desalination plant. Water capacity on the island is less than 50% of what it can be, so using it sparingly is advised. The water boats which top-up the local tanks come and go less frequently than in the past thanks to the single desalination unit that still works on the island. The other unit, german built, exploded and burned to the ground a few years back allegedly due to “lack of servicing or improper use by locals”.

Ian mentioned the helipad which sticks out like a military sore thumb upon the mountainous region. If you’re seriously ill or injured the ambulance (not ‘an‘ ambulance, ‘the‘ ambulance) will whisk you up to the pad and await extraction to Rhodes. The helipad ‘fact’ is connected to the water supply ‘fact’ in this way: the helicopter used to land in a peculiar place, right down by the dock on the only wide section of road. It was a tight squeeze between the police station and the clock tower, but they managed it with precision (like our air ambulances do in the UK). Occasionally they still land there, depending on the injury of the person and whether the trip in a shoddy ambulance up a steep incline through mountainous terrain to the helipad is a good idea or not. Ian tells us that one fateful morning a lady with a potential neck injury was to be air lifted from the dock rather than the helipad. But the water boat arrived in it’s speedy fashion, and without thinking twice about their normal procedures steered towards the dock and ploughing straight into the perched chopper, sheering off it’s tail. Whether this is true or not is unknown.

But back to the water situation. Because it’s interesting. Water is stored in large containers somewhere in or around each dwelling. It’s pumped locally via electric pumps from your tank through your taps or shower. This brings us neatly to the loo situation. And it is a situation. In Greece you don’t flush loo paper down the pan. Oh no. You complete your actions and pop your used items into a bin. It’s an odd thing to get used to but it’s done this way, yet again, because of the water supply. I’ve read elsewhere that locals do it this way as the sewage system gets blocked due to narrow drains. But Ian gave us another reason: Papier-mâché. Waste from the loo, or black water as it’s known, ferments the local trees and gardens. Yes, you read that right. Another area built somewhere locally to each dwelling contains all your unmentionables which eventually liquify and penetrate a single drywall in the structure which then feeds the trees and plants leading downhill. Loo paper doesn’t biodegrade and blocks the drywall, stopping the process.

Here’s my chance to state why greek wine tastes like shit.

The walk continued uphill through the long narrow lanes of the old ancient town where hand-chiseled stone buildings lay in ruin, waiting for owners through some miracle. Property ownership is a big thing in Greece, and if someone comes forward with documentation suggesting long lost relatives of Symi own a building, it is handed over to them. Ruins lay in complete disrepair, sometimes surrounded by beautifully bright renovated homes. And that’s just the way it is.

Symi has very much an unorthodox Christian following. With a population of only 2’500 (90% less than during the war) it seems incredible to have so many monasteries, churches and chapels. There are purportedly over 300. And on our walk we visited at least four or the larger ones, one of which is perched high up overlooking everyhwhere else on the island.

A View of Symi

This is the view I had seen online from previous visitors, though they didn’t mention they had walked for hours and were actually on the grounds of a church when they snapped their version.

We had started our walk-and-talk just after 9am. Four hours later we had reached the end, somewhere high up the terrain. Meaning it was literally all down hill from there. I expected to be coated in sweat with aching legs but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had thought. Back at the meeting point we said our goodbyes and I headed downwards into the town, where from high up appeared to be the heart and soul of Symi. Various tourist couples and families pottered around the sponge shops occasionally hopping on and off anchored yachts. Some clearly from the UK, others spoke German and Dutch.

What struck me about the harbour is just how clear the waters are. And I literally mean crystal clear. I’ve never seen anything like it, with the bobbing hulls of boats and yachts clearly visible, with shoals of tiny blue fish mingling around the surface.

Previously I mentioned the walk and how my legs and body were ‘okay’ with it. This is where things go wrong. The walk back to the apartment was via the Kali Strata, translated means “the good way/route/steps”. Hundreds of steps. Coming down was fine. Going back up in direct sunlight was not. Several times I had to stop and sit in shadow, attempting to catch my breath. When I eventually recognised the route back, several hundred steps on, I was in dire straits marching into the first available shop and grabbing bottles of water from their fridge. I think the owners were slightly startled by my demeanour, something I hope to resolve when I deliberately go back there for breakfast!

Although technically this was day two, I’m counting this as my day one. Knowing I had plenty of time left, I didn’t take out my big camera nor was I in a hurry to take photos. I merely snapped away instagram images on my iPhone for the purposes of FaceBook (probably clocking up massive data costs for when I get home).

On Wednesday, the photography starts.