Wow – several months downtime!

So I planned on being out of the UK for 1 week, and now 7 months later I’m still no where near home. Unfortunately my web host rebooted my server while I’ve been away, and I only have access to the server from my PC at home, so for many weeks my website was an error page and I could do nothing about it. It was kind of embarrassing travelling around trying to sell myself as a web developer when my own website was a complete failure.

I tried hacking in remotely with my host’s backdoor access via my Chromebook and failed. Unfortunately ChromeOS sucks for web-dev related apps. While in Singapore I purchased a new laptop, just tried to hack into my server again, (this time with Windows and Putty) and succeeded! :D

I still have a load to do – obviously I have a huge backlog of travel related blog posts – I’ve made 7 border crossings and covered about 10,000km (excluding flights) since my last published post. I never found a good enough internet connection in Laos to upload photos and videos, and it only got worse as I continued travelling until I returned to Vietnam in August.

I also still need to do a big recovery job on lost photos from Burma.

The server itself is now running on an obsolete OS so I need to update that. And I really need to get on with my custom WordPress theme idea. And of course I need to reset my SSH access.

But for now I’m just glad I have my server reset and the site up and running again which, despite not being great, still makes life easier while I get my digital home bug-bombed and rennovated.

In the mean time you can catch up on Facebook, which I’ve shamelessly be using as an alternative blog:
Lao Cai and Sapa
Phong Nha National Park
Tha Khaek Loop
Chiang Mai and Pai
Back in Chiang Mai
Entering and getting to Yangon
Bagan to Mandalay Slowboat
Thailand (2):
Great-Great-Uncle Harry
Vietnam (2):
Hang Son Doong (World’s Biggest Cave)
Singapore Visa Run

More Days in Hanoi

After saying goodbye to the Americans, I spent a few days in Hanoi. I Went to the war museum, showcasing various artefacts from the war, including the tank which busted the gates of Ho Chi Minh City and thus reunified Vietnam, and a monument made from a pile of plane wrecks. The museum closes for lunch, but the guards forgot to remove the ‘closed’ sign afterwards, meaning I had time to get some tourist-free photos of the display.

The next day I went into the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. The security is pretty strong; bags were scanned, and all my electrical items were taken off me (returned safe and intact at the exit), and anyone who stepped out of line was sternly whistled at. The walk from the start of the queue to Ho Chi Minh’s body was around 20 minutes, and constantly kept moving, no stopping to admire the deceased.

This still more to do in Hanoi, but I’ll be in and out of here a lot as I travel around North Vietnam, so I’m going to head out for a few days to get a break from the hustle and bustle.

Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Aftermath

Yesterday, we had a turbulent flight to Hanoi, but it seemed even to giddiest of fliers were too tired to be disturbed by the bumps in the sky.

The bus in to Hanoi from the airport rolled by factories and warehouses for pretty much any Japanese manufacturer you can think of, and at one point we drove along the world’s longest mosaic. For dinner we were joined by the trekking party, and had live music with traditional Vietnamese instruments. Auld Lang Syne and Jingle Bells were played in an oddly-seasoned manner.

We went on to tour bars in downtown Hanoi, and finally found some Jagermeister (though still no Southern Comfort yet) only to be kicked out by the police at the stroke of midnight, but kept the hotel bar staff busy until far into the early hours.

Woke up early to say goodbye to the fellow Brits, before going on a guided tour of the city with the Americans and Frederic who were staying another day. The president of Bulgaria is here, so the streets around the government district are lined with the Bulgarian and Vietnamese flags, side by side on each lamp post and tree.

We started with a walk along the front of Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum. It’s closed on Mondays so we couldn’t go in, so we proceeded to go on a tour of his humble abode, near to the presidential palace and the one-pillar pagoda. The pagoda was built in 1049, after the childless king had a dream instructing him to do so. Now the tradition is that if you climb the steps, you will have a long life. If you pray whilest up there, you’ll have children as you desire. I walked up, took a photo, and then walked straight back down.

From here we visited the prison (now a museum and Hilton Hotel) where the French kept political prisoners, and later there the North Vietnamese kept American POWs, which I think were all pilots. We went on to the B52 lake, named after the B52 bomber wreckage which sits in the middle of it, shot down during the 1972 Christmas air raids.

B52 wreckage

B52 wreckage

We also visited a craftshop, where the goods are produced by orphaned victims of the Vietnam War. There were some beautiful tapestries I wanted to take home, but the price and logistics of doing so were too much of a complication.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be saying goodbye to the Americans and starting my own solo adventures. It goes without saying that the experience has been great, from searing heat to torrential rain, and from uphill slogs to downhill crashes, it’s been educational, sometimes emotional, and just great. A toast to everyone who I shared one of the best weeks of my life with.

Final damage report:

  • Exotic diseases contracted: None – that I’ve felt symptoms of yet at least.
  • Mosquito bites: Just the one, despite not using any repellent yet.
  • Dangerous wildlife encountered: None, but Del claims he rode past an old man who’d just caught a snake.
  • Crashes: Just one. Grazed calf.
  • Trouble with locals: Just the bus incident.
  • Aches and Pains: Mostly lower palms from contact with the handle bars. Lowered sensitivity in left-hand fingertips.
  • Sunburn: Very minor on right wrist. Stupid glove-tan though.

    Stupid glove tan

    Stupid glove tan

  • Clothing, jewellery or gadgets lost: left earpiece adapter from my earphones, but I have spares.

Basically, things went better than expected :D
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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Day 6

Today was the final ride, and I’m sad it’s all over. We left Dong Ha quite early, to maximize downtime for our final night in Hue. The flat kept us going at a good, breezy pace, which meant it wasn’t until we stopped at a school that I realised I was getting sunburnt.

The classroom we visited was around 30-40 infants who hadn’t started learning English yet, but on the blackboard was an equation relating to thermal dynamics I never encountered until late into my GCSEs. With the help of Sene, one of the teachers in our party gave a powerful motivational speech to the class inspiring them to do well and not to take education for granted.

From here we continued the ride home, ending with a photoshoot in the citadel, followed by the perilous ride through Hue’s traffic to the hotel. After checking in we had a short trip on a river boat, piloted by Yancy.

The End!

The End!

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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Day 5

Today we were greeted by rain. It started out as drizzle but eventually turned torrential, with moments of hail. It felt surprisingly refreshing and great, considering the heat we’d had to endure the last few days.

The route was coastal, up to the Vinh Moc tunnels, the result of an entire village relocating underground to shelter from the war. From there we cycled on to the cemetery of the North Vietnamese Army. The American veterans paid their respects to the dead soldiers they once fought against.

When I was contemplating joining the regular army, one of the sticking points was knowing that I’d probably have more in common with the guy I was fighting against, a soldier, than the guy I was fighting for, a politician. One of the veterans reiterated this in his speech (paraphrasing as I don’t remember the actual words): “we have no animosity, we fought for what we believed in, and they fought for theirs. These guys were sons, fathers, uncles.”

NVA Cemetery

NVA Cemetery

No karaoke tonight, but cheeseburgers are on the menu. Most of us are feeling a bit of cabin fever from the repetitive diet of rice, noodles, fish and unchewable beef for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. For dessert, Matt bought us a giant bottle of wine, which had a dead lizard in it. I’m not sure where that lizard is now…
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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Day 4

Khe Sanh Airfield Memorial

Khe Sanh Airfield Memorial

A hint of fog created a picturesque atmosphere at Khe Sanh airfield where we started the day. The American veterans hosted a ceremony dedicated to their comrades who were posted there with them. From here we were blessed with a long downhill, followed by a long flat. Along the flat we stopped at a school where we donated some pens and notebooks, and some Lego. We also stopped in view of the Rockpile and Razorback mountains, where Bob the veteran told us about the endless fighting that went on between his unit on the Razorback and the NVA on the Rockpile.

Showing off my Giant Talon in front of the Rockpile, and Razorback, further behind.

Showing off my Giant Talon in front of the Rockpile, and Razorback, further behind.

Later on we accidentally-on-purpose took a 2km detour uphill to a monument marking the site of Camp Caroll, a place where Bob once called home.

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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Day 3

Start point for the day's ride.

Start point for the day’s ride.

Today was the hardest ride ever. Heading inland towards Hamburger Hill near the Laos border, it started out flat, with a bit of uphill, followed by a nice downhill, followed by an intense uphill. A constant 1600ft ascent with no let-off, spread over around 8 miles, would normally be a fair challenge, but 42°C heat, again with no cooling breeze or shade, made it hard. Factor in the heat reflecting off the cliffs and tarmac, which melted under our tyres, made the ride near-impossible.

Looking back the way we came.

Looking back the way we came.

Needless to say we arrived at lunch late, and the food was cold. For safety concerns regarding the heat, a chunk off the afternoon’s route was removed, and we only did a small stretch of the Ho Chi Minh trail.

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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Day 2

“Bonjour Frederic, bien dormir?”
“Oui, et vous?”
“Nooon, J’ai beaucoup de.. de..”
“Rêve? Cauchemar?”
“Cauchemar.. that sounds like the right word”

I had a recurring dream that I was lying on top of one of the Zhangjiajie pillars, and despite having lots of room, still found myself precariously balanced. The slightest movement meant falling over the edge, but I could only hold my breath for so long. And down I’d go.

We left the hotel at 7am. The route started flat and coastal as we doubled-back on the way we came yesterday. We stopped at Red Beach, where the American veterans told us how the this was where the US Marines became the first troops in Vietnam when they landed here, and served as the main supply port for the troops in the area.

Tex, one of the Vietnam veterans, tells us the history of Red Beach

Tex, one of the Vietnam veterans, tells us the history of Red Beach

We then headed inland, destined for the top of Hải Vân Pass. The pass is on the main supply route between Hue and Danang, and hence it was strategically important ground during the Vietnam war. These days traffic goes through a tunnel, except for lorries which aren’t allowed through.

As the climb began, things were starting well. I was at the front of the group while at a comfortable pace, but the sun also continued to climb upwards. The heat became intense, with no shade and no cooling breeze, and as if that wasn’t enough, every time a lorry came past, the exhaust fumes hit like a passing blast furnace. Eventually I reached the waterstop, emptied my pockets of all electronics and had a good stand over the spray from a cut hosepipe. I then tried to sit in some shade, avoiding the funnel webs, but this rest was short lived when the ants started to bite, and bite they did.

On the way up I saw a dollar bill on the floor. To my amazement it was a $100 bill. And then there was another, and then some more. Admittedly by the second note, I felt something was amiss, but I still scooped them all up. Dozens of hundred-dollar bills, and a few notes in some other strange currency. I decided it had to be fake. Maybe a criminal got chased up here on his scooter and was bailing his counterfeit cash. A guide explained it was indeed fake money, but with good intentions. At funerals in Vietnam, families throw fake money over the ground to please the gods. I’m not sure I’d be a happy god with counterfeit money offerings, but to each their own.

Eventually we reached the top, had a quick photo and snack break, before having the privilege of the downhill on the other side.

The group started off gently, but I couldn’t contain myself. Faffing with my GoPro, I was one of the last to set off, meaning I got great footage of flying past everyone down the hill. The road was tarmac, with the occasional pothole, and lots of hairpin bends blanketed with scree. The bumps meant the camera, mounted on my handlebar, kept needing to be resecured in place and tightened. I neared the front of the pack where the pace was much faster and intense. I eventually hit a hairpin bend too fast, not used to the weight of the bike compared to what I ride back at home, the brakes weren’t effective. I saw the scree and made a the decision to crash into the wall, rather than try to turn too sharply and slide off across the road in front of everyone.

I managed to minimize the attack angle against the wall, so it was going to be a relatively gentle graze rather than head on crash, but as my wheels locked up, I heard Gabe, one of the American amputees, yelp out behind me. “Oh crap” I thought, “of all the people…”, and instantly fealt a sense of dread for what was about to happen. The remarkable thing is, at the moment of impact, the loose camera mount flipped back, meaning it got footage of the aftermath; me landing gracefully sat on the wall with a cut leg, apologising to Gabe, who was thankfully OK except the brake handle had snapped off his bars.

Gabe and I after our crash

Gabe and I after our crash

Further on down the slope, Martin, one of the British riders, wasn’t so fortunate and had a similar crash but flew over the wall. Luckily he managed to do so a the one spot where there was land on the other side, rather than a cliff-drop.

Video: Martin crashes over a wall

Martin after his crash

Martin after his crash

This earnt Martin a badly grazed leg and the sash-of-shame, but was still able to pedal on. The final leg of today’s journey went by loads of cemeteries. Fake money everywhere! It also went over some roads that were being rebuilt, so we got caked rather nicely in mud.

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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Day 1

A calm flight got us to Da Nang in no time, with our bags too. We had lunch briefing on the seaside, met some local journalists and were introduced to our bikes. I’ve been blessed with a Giant Talon, a hard-tail with disk brakes, but quite heavy and the saddle’s not so great.

We went for a gentle warm-up ride along the coast to get used to the bikes and environment. The pace was gentle enough for me to get the camera out and get some photos and footage of the pack.

On the bus ride home from dinner that night, we got into some fun with the locals. A local on his scooter, passenger on the back, swerved infront of the bus and slammed the brakes; a failed smash-for-cash. He did this several times until the bus driver eventually hit him. In a fit of rage he lay the scooter on the floor, and walked to the driver’s window, which was open, and tried to punch him. Failing to do so, he then picked up a stick of bamboo and proceeded again to try to hit the driver, while talking on his phone. Eventually a group of his friends turned up and gathered around the bus. Meanwhile, our guide phoned the police and the second bus to warn of what was going on.

We were a bus of ex-soldiers, some special forces, some still serving, others wounded and possibly carrying the kind of mental scars not to be trifled with. We also had ladies aboard. The air was saturated with testosterone and adrenaline. No one spoke but we all knew were ready for a brawl, just waiting for them to make the first move. Eventually the second bus arrived and they soon left. One of the scooter’s driver’s friends explained he was drunk and carried on.
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Help for Heroes Cycle Vietnam: Prelude

I’m here in Vietnam primarily to cycle 300 miles for the Help for Heroes charity. The charity helps wounded British soldiers and their families, and we will be joined by their American counterpart, Operation Comfort. The area we will be cycling is around the 17th Parallel and DMZ, where most of the fighting happened during the Vietnam War.

If you enjoy reading this blog, please donate to the cause. Online payments are secure. I’ve paid the expenses out of my own pocket to ensure that your donation will go to the benefit of the charity, not my plane tickets.

Donate Here

Everything except the clothes.

Everything except the clothes.

Drama before the trip even starts! This morning we landed at Ho Chi Minh City, but our bags were still at Kuala Lumpur airport. Our flight from Heathrow was delayed by an hour due to missing passengers, so the crew at KL didn’t have time to swap our bags onto the connecting flight.

The novelty of being in an A380 quickly wears off once you’re inside, but the tail-cam showing the take-off and landing was a pretty cool feature. As I’m spending at least a few weeks here, I forced myself to eat all the unfamiliar in-flight meals to get used to the local cuisine. Combined the with the set-meals at a cafe and restaurant in Ho Chi Minh, I think I’ve already gone through about 15 new foods, half of which I have no idea what they were.

Early impressions of ‘Nam are promising. I was expecting Ho Chi Minh to be like Kathmandu, where I had the misfortune of staying a few years ago. In some senses, there are similarities: The high scooter-to-car ratio, the adrenaline buzz that is trying to cross the road safely, and the architecture in some of the buildings. We’re still being hassled by beggars, but no where near as much, and the air’s much cleaner.

Ho Chi Minh Traffic

Ho Chi Minh Traffic

Still wearing the clothes we flew in, tired and unwashed, and without sun or mosquito protection, We had a quick tour of the War Remnants Museum, and the Independence Palace. The Remnants Museum is fairly big, and worth a whole afternoon if you want to see all the exhibits, including the planes and tanks parked on the front. The Palace was less interesting, unless you’re looking for some interior design inspiration.

Independence Palace, Ho CHi Minh City. A great source of inspiration if you’re looking to redesign your boardroom.

In the evening we joined up with the American team and had dinner. Thankfully we were reunited with our bags upon our return to the hotel afterwards. Tomorrow we ride, and I can’t wait to get going!