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Images of Angkor

Wednesday April 23, 2014   

There are far too many images to put in my blog posts, so here they all are in one place. Hope you enjoy them.

Angkor Wat  -  Early 12th century (between 1113 and 1150) with later additions

The history of Angkor traditionally begins in the ninth century, when the young king Jayavarman II declared himself the supreme sovereign and established his capital first near present day Roluos. Previously Khmer history had been that of small independent states occasionally consolidating into larger empires, but never for long. It took a conqueror to establish the beginnings of one of the largest and most powerful of all Southeast Asia’s empires.

To gain a proper understanding of what a Khmer temple is, it should be noted that it was not a meeting place for the faithful but the palace of a god, who was enshrined there to allow him to bestow his beneficence, in particular on the founder and his familiars. One of the largest is the central shrine of Angkor Wat.

I started my tour at first light, this being traditionally the best (and supposedly quietest) time to view the temple.

More than 300 people lined the lakeside to take similar pictures.

I arrived at 05:00 a.m. to be the first to set up my small travel tripod, but it was another hour before the sun came up.

Sunrise at Angkor Wat

Because the sunrise doesn’t actually illuminate Angkor Wat effectively at this time of year, it was necessary to return later in the day to capture some of these images. I actually walked the full perimeter of the temple complex looking for the best pictures, before going inside and braving the heaving mass of tourists. It was of course Khmer New Year.

Angkor Wat from the South West corner

Images of Angkor Wat

Images of Angkor Wat

Inside the enclosure, Angkor Wat

Devata detail, Angkor Wat

Images of Angkor Wat

The northern library, Angkor Wat

Without doubt the best light to photograph Angkor Wat is at sunset, however crowds make it a little difficult to get good pictures.

Golden light falls on Angkor Wat at sunset.

Angkor Thom  -  Late 12th century

One of the largest of all Khmer cities (9 sq km in size), Angkor Thom was founded by Jayavarman VII and probably remained the capital until the 17th century. For most visitors (including me) the first sight will be the magnificent south gate, with it’s four faces pointing in each of the cardinal directions.

The impressive south gate of Angkor Thom

It’s actually very difficult to get a ‘clean’ shot of Angkor Thom at this time as there is so much restoration work going on, so I haven’t many pictures from this wonderful complex.

Angkor Thom seen from the east.

Victory Gate, Angkor Thom

The Smile of Angkor, Angkor Thom

Detail from the Elephant Terrace, Angkor Thom

Preah Khan  -  Late 12th century (1191)

Much more than a temple, with over one thousand teachers it appears also to have been a Buddhist university and a considerable sized city. Set in a more remote area, it was (along with Ta Promh) my favourite part of exploring the temples, purely because the photographic possibilities were endless.

The lake (looking from the balustrade) at Preah Khan

The east entrance gate, Preah Khan

Entrance gate, Preah Khan

Silk tree amongst the ruins, Preah Khan

Close up of the silk tree ruins, Preah Khan

Inside one of the many passageways at Preah Khan

Images of Preah Khan

Images of Preah Khan

Fine stonework in the arches of Preah Khan

Images of Preah Khan

Images of Preah Khan

The Dharmasala, a wonderful free standing building, Preah Khan

West gate, Preah Khan

Little is known about the two tiered structure with round columns At Preah Khan, with architecture reminiscent of both ancient Greece and from the Roman period. It is certainly from a different historical period.

The unusual structure seen at Preah Khan

The rural setting is what makes Preah Khan special.

Ta Promh  -  Late 12th to 13th centuries

A temple monastery, it was chosen by the École française d’Extrême-Orient (a French institute dedicated to the study of Asian societies. Translated into English, it approximately means the French School of the Far East) to be left in its ‘natural state’, as an example of how most of Angkor looked on its discovery in the 19th century. The trees that have grown intertwined among the ruins are especially responsible for Ta Promh’s ‘jungle’ atmosphere and were the setting for the Hollywood blockbuster – Lara Croft, Tomb Raider.

Away from the roads, Ta Promh is reached by narrow lanes.

Silk tree amongst the ruins at Ta Promh

Square stone columns were a distinct feature at Ta Promh

The cruciform cloister at Ta Promh

Devata, Ta Promh

Wonderful doorway detail at Ta Promh

Lichen covered ruins are a feature of Ta Promh

Trees intertwined with the ruins at Ta Promh

Doorway used in the film Tomb Raider

That concludes this photographic tour of the big four. I’ll do another post later with images from the outlying temples and include any I’ve missed here as there’s an awful lot still to be edited.


1 Comment
Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Siem Reap

Wednesday April 23, 2014   

Highway to Hell pt II

If I thought the road to Phnom Penh was bad, it was nothing compared to this section of my trip. I’ve ridden what are officially called “the worst roads in the world” back in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, but they were nothing like this. The roads were just rubble with a thick layer of dust on top, which would billow up each time a vehicle passed. Sheer hell and almost impossible to see or breathe, this went on for most of the journey.  Speaking with other cyclists, apparently it has been like this for some years.

It’s a real shame, because the odd section that was OK looked really nice with small houses set on stilts, most with a hay bail in the garden. The kids would run out and shout hello if they spotted me, even if I was far down the road. I’d usually raise a hand and wave while calling over my shoulder “goodbye.”

Out of the dust the scenery was quite nice.

In my last blog post I failed to mention another important landmark I photographed on the road just outside Kampot, so I’ll take the liberty of including it here. This is the old bridge as you head north to Phnom Penh, you have to turn right down a dusty old track. The bridge is still in service allowing traffic to cross, but many think it should not be as it’s structural integrity is very questionable. I think it’s worth the short diversion though and it does see a good few tourist buses stopping off.

The old bridge at Kampot

Incense sticks are burned at the old bridge, Kampot

By the time I arrived in Siem Reap, I looked more than a little wild. My hair was matted with sweat and dust and instead of it’s natural silver, I now had a rather fetching shade of red/orange. Every nook and cranny of the bike and luggage was also covered and I wondered just what the posh looking hotel staff thought when I wandered up to the check-in desk. I had been booked into the Angkor Vattanak Pheap Hotel by Phuong Nam Star Travel as a (very welcome) present and had arrived with enough time to clean up, then go and watch an evening sunset at one of the temples. I chose Angkor Wat for two reasons, it was the closest and it was free after 5 pm if you’d bought your ticket, as it didn’t count towards one of your days.

Angkor Wat at sunset.

I have created a separate blog post specifically for all the images (with descriptions) from Angkor, because there are just too many to put in this update. It is called  Images of Angkor  < click link to view.

It was then a bit of a rush to get to my evening meal and entertainment, this time kindly provided by Angkor Caravan Tours. They had booked me a table at the Smile of Angkor restaurant and a ticket to watch the show. Now I have to admit dancing shows are usually not my thing, but this one was excellent (I really did enjoy it) and would recommend any visitor to go and see for themselves, even if only for the history lesson you get.  Oh and the buffet is wonderful…

A full on laser show – The Smile of Angkor

I had a real blast cycling around the temples and honestly believe this is without a doubt the best way to go about seeing them. The only problem is deciding an itinerary, because if your time is short you’ll want to try and catch the temples when the light is good and knowing where to go for the best results is not easy. I got around this problem somewhat by making multiple visits, not too difficult if you’re on a bike. Strangely enough the big two (Angkor Wat and Angkor Thom) were not my favourites, as I took many more pictures from Ta Promh and Preah Khan.

Great cycling around the tracks at Ta Promh

Temple guidebook

If you’re on a tight budget (like me) then pick up a copy of Ancient Angkor by Michael Freeman & Claude Jacques, which is an excellent guide to the temples. It will save you an awful lot of time planning where to go. You can buy copies at almost every temple but bargain hard, I was asked for $20 and got mine for $5. I’ve heard they go for as little as $3 out of season, but it was their New Year during my visit so pretty busy.


I didn’t really do much else in Siem Reap other than visit the temples, apart from going to another show organised by Angkor Caravan Tours. This time it was a buffet with Apsara dancing on a small stage and while it was very kind of my hosts to do this for me, after seeing the Smile of Angkor it was a very poor imitation. It was however good to experience both and make the comparison.

I’ve written elsewhere about the accident, which had a profound effect on me and how I wished I could have just talked about it. My very good friend Mandy came up with the suggestion that I just go off somewhere quiet on the bike and sort myself out, and this in fact is what I eventually did. My previous plan had always been to cycle around northern Cambodia to Battambang, take the Krong Pailin border crossing into Thailand, then follow up the coast to Bangkok. However the time I’d lost meant I was running short on days before my flight to Canada, so I took a more direct route and four days of hard cycling, camping out in the horrendous heat (I couldn’t find cheap accommodation) saw me arrive in Bangkok earlier today.

So that’s it for this update, don’t forget to check out my pictures and story from Angkor.

Images of Angkor  < click link to view.

More soon…

Coming to Cambodia

Friday April 18, 2014   

The border crossing at Prek Chak was pretty straightforward, with the only hassle being the border guard trying to pocket an extra $5. I smiled and told him I knew perfectly well the price of the Cambodian visa ($20) and wasn’t prepared to pay any more. He insisted it was $25 and unless I paid this I couldn’t pass through. I just kept smiling and handed him the $20 dollar bill, then sat down in front of his window. After a brief conversation with his colleague, they called to me and I filled in the form, handed over my passport and got my visa. No problem.

My first stop along highway 33 was to take this picture.

I followed highway 33 past Kep National Park on a mixture of initially good surfaced roads, then soon found that what Google maps considered to be a main road following the coast was nothing more than a sandy track and was impassable. I back-tracked onto the highway and continued onto my overnight stop, Kampot, where I found a cheap $3 room in a lovely little guesthouse called Tich’s (named after their dog) run by a nice Australian couple. When they heard about my travels, the entire bill was donated free. The kindness of strangers once more.
If you are stopping by in Kampot, make sure you check them out because the draft beer is to die for and the views over the river from the rooftop terrace are stunning.

View from the terrace – one of the fishing fleet returning at sunset.

Watching the sunset in Kampot

Cambodia is very different from Vietnam. For a cyclist, the roads in particular are hard work, not only because of the surface but because of the dust. It permeates absolutely everywhere and after suffering badly with my breathing, I resorted to wearing a face mask purchased from a roadside stall. It helped, but I still had to stop regularly to find some clean air and try and clear out my lung.

The main highway just outside Phnom Penh

I spent just the one night in the capital, a busy city that just didn’t appeal to me. Some Facebook friends had paid for me to splurge by booking me into the Princess Hotel, so it was a chance to get my washing done. What I should have done first is asked the price because to my horror they tried to charge me $15, which after arguing I got down to $10. It left a very bad taste in my mouth, because this was more than I would have paid for a hostel (and washing) so I was not happy. Even less so when I discovered they had burned a hole in my favourite shorts.

The Independence Monument, Phnom Penh

I did go for a wander around, but my mind was already fast forwarding to my next destination Siem Reap and the magnificent temples of Angkor, so it felt like I was just marking time. It’s funny how different cities can have different effects on you and I suppose it’s also down to not having anyone here with me, as had been the case with the last few visited. It makes me appreciate even more when friends make an effort to show me around.

A very unusual tree I spotted on my walkabout

Wandering about did however give me my first real opportunity to get used to my replacement camera and knowing that I wouldn’t have to spend time removing dust spots from every image (seriously, with the previous damaged camera I could spend up to 20 minutes on each image) was very much appreciated. I also like the colours straight out of the camera, which seem much more vibrant.

No idea who lives here, but thought it worth a picture!

So now I’m back up and running (so to speak) I hope to capture some stunning images from my travels, so as not to disappoint all my avid followers who constantly write to me about my photography. On that note, I am going to set up another Facebook page to not only answer some of the many questions, but to actually run an on-line tutorial workshop. More about this soon.

Monument honouring King Norodom Sihanouk, Phnom Penh

OK that’s it for this short update, in the next blog I have the pictures and story of my trip around Siem Reap and the amazing Angkor temples. But just as a taster, can anyone tell me which film made this image below world famous?

An iconic image, but from which movie?

Please post your answer on my Facebook page rather than in the blog comments.  More soon…

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Who Chooses?

Wednesday April 16, 2014   

One of the things you learn after spending many months on a bicycle is how to recognise the sound of danger from other traffic, least that has been my experience. I like to think I’m finely tuned to what’s going on around me and this is the reason why I only ever wear my music earphones when off-road or in a location with no traffic.

I can certainly tell when a racing engine is approaching fast behind me, but I don’t endanger myself by looking round unless it’s perfectly safe to do so. If I can I’ll move even closer to the roads edge, but that wasn’t possible as I was passing a tuc tuc (a motorbike with a caddy for passengers/tourists attached) when the bus skidded to a halt behind me, leaving a trail of black rubber on the sandy tarmac. I turned and looked the driver square in the eye, gestured and shouted “what’s the rush” then pointed to the busy road ahead. He gunned his engine, then sped past me and the tuc tuc driver. I clearly remember the thought entering my head “that idiot is going to kill someone” then moments later their was a screech of brakes and the sickening ‘thud’ of an impact.

I’d hardly had to turn my pedals to reach the crash, I was that close. The front end of the bus was unbelievably damaged, he’d gone less than 150 yards past me yet reached enough speed to break his windshield and cave in the front end of the bus. Now considering the motorbike he hit doesn’t even come to halfway up the height of the bus and the windshield is even higher, how hard was the impact?  I ran over to the young lad lying on the ground. Blood was oozing from numerous places on his head and I thought ‘he’s dead’ but checked his pulse as I’d long ago been trained to do. I couldn’t find a wrist pulse, so checked his neck – it was almost imperceptible, but I did feel it. I began to go through my routine, checked his airway, but then I lost the pulse completely. I knew he’d gone and no amount of CPR was going to bring him back. Prayers and tears go together so well.

I’ve been unfortunate enough to witness death many times, both with loved ones, comrades and strangers. It doesn’t get any easier and I don’t think it ever will. So then you are just left with unanswered questions:

Why couldn’t it have been me who the driver killed?
I’ve had my life, I’d happily of switched places and given this young lad a chance to do something with his life.

Who chooses?
If I’m being saved for some greater good, then that’s bullshit. I don’t deserve it. My wife deserved to live, I asked God to take me instead. I prayed for this lad the same way.

So who chooses?
My faith is in tatters, because prayers constantly go unanswered. Nobody listens.

What’s the point of it all?
I’m dying, so why keep me alive anyway?
I’m glad I inspire people, but at what cost?
Is my life worth so much more than others?

I don’t think so. How much longer do I have to suffer the pain of watching others pass away, while I seem to have been given a golden ticket to live. It’s obscene and too much for me. No more please. If anyone out there does have a hotline to God, ask him to let me be as I think I’ve done my fair share now.

The above sadness will take a while to go away, if at all. But the response from my friends out there has been overwhelming and humbling, I love you guys with all my heart. I need time now, just to gather myself and then start again. My journey will of course continue, how could it not do so?  There is simply nothing else for me to do and I know only too well the debt I owe.


Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Ho Chi Minh City

Tuesday April 8, 2014   

Firstly, please realise that I’m a little behind with the blog and although this episode is about Ho Chi Minh City and Phu Quoc, I’m actually much further along on my journey. Check out my Facebook page for my current destination, which I’m now updating on a regular basis. By the time I reach Siem Reap in Cambodia, I should be back up to date with this blog.


Most people seem to use this old name for HCMC and it is easier to write!  I arrived here on the train, which in months gone by would have been a definite no-no, but I’m getting a little wiser in my travels. The main reason for not cycling down is I simply would have run out of time on my visa and extending again was not an option – I need to get my flight to Canada before the end of April. I was a little nervous when I discovered my bike would go on a separate goods train, while I would take the overnight sleeper a day later. It all worked out fine though and arriving in the early morning gave me plenty of time to find my hostel.

No I’m not lost, I’m simply finding my way!

I had been in touch with Hang, a local couchsurfing girl here in Saigon, but she was unable to host me. However this was more than made up for by the amount of time she spent showing me around and in particular introducing me to the local food and drink. Hang is a journalist and more than a decent writer. During our time together she proceeded to interview me (without notes) and then wrote an article on me, which was not only published, I made the front page!

The beautiful and very proud Hang Dinh, and rightly so!

It was a crazy city in terms of the traffic and trying to take photographs was a major challenge not to get them filled with bikes or other vehicles. It was kinda fun though being driven around on the back of a scooter and wandering through the park at night, sitting eating ice cream and swigging on a beer. I almost forgot that I was a round the world cyclist for a while. I liked Saigon, but never saw enough of it due to wanting to spend my last few days in Viet Nam cycling across the Mekong Delta, and then have a rest period on Phu Quoc Island. Anyhow, here’s a selection of photos I took:

Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Stained glass windows in Notre Dame Cathedral, Saigon

Saigon Opera House

Angels over the entrance of the Saigon Opera House

My favourite photo though is of an old man that Hang told me spends his time in the main post office building helping foreigners. I asked his permission to take a picture and his English was perfect, but then he has been working there for very many years!

The very helpful post office man.

We decided to try and get some sunset shots from the bridge overlooking the city skyline and the sight of the huge high rise flats reminded me of my home town of Huddersfield in Yorkshire, which had many like these ugly behemoths before they decided to pull them all down.

Would you want to live in one of those flats?

The Saigon skyline, viewed from the bridge.

As a photographer and photography teacher for many years, I often play around breaking all the rules of composition and framing – it can produce some quite surprising images. I’m not quite sure if this one works perfectly, but I know I like it a lot.

Breaking all the rules

I asked Hang to try and capture some ‘non-posed’ shots of me and I now have a good selection of pictures as we both snapped away with our cameras. It was a very enjoyable time for me, you can’t not enjoy yourself in this fun young ladies company. As I know she is saving for yet another travelling trip, I do hope our paths cross again.

Through the lens… courtesy of Hang


The Mekong Delta

All too soon it was time to leave and set off cycling across the Mekong Delta, destination Ha Tien and then a ferry onto Phu Quoc Island. As always after a break, it felt good to be spinning the legs again. Because the terrain was flat the only difficulty became the heat, so early starts were the normal routine and I got finished before the hottest part of the day. Wild camping was easy enough in terms of finding a location, but it was unbearably hot and with a guest-house as cheap as 3$ to 5$ I switched.

Fishing on the Mekong

I made something of a mistake when booking the ferry from Ha Tien, taking the slow (bigger) one instead of the slightly more expensive faster boat. The difference in price I later found out was negligible, but what was a pain is that the slower ferry dropped me well out of the way on the North East side of the island and I had a long cycle to get to Duong Dong and the accommodation Hang had kindly arranged for me. The guest-house had no free rooms, so I camped on the roof terrace!

Home while on Phu Quoc Island

The Island itself had good main roads and then dirt tracks as the secondary means of getting about. It still seems to me more than a little off the beaten track and very quiet, but this could have been because it was the end of the busy period and I still met up with other travellers. It was nice to have a bit of relaxation and just chill out instead of having to run about taking photographs, but of course photo opportunities are never far away amidst this kind of scenery.

Bridge on Phu Quoc Island

Stopping to photograph a rather unusual bridge, I noticed over the other side was a Catholic church, one of a few I later saw on the Island. Even stranger (to me), I was approached by a bible wielding local during my time here who could speak pretty good English, or at least quote verses in pretty good English!

I didn’t have far to go to get to the beach as it was only a few hundred yards away, and while lounging around on hot sand has never been my thing, I do enjoy a good swim and the sea was warmer than the shower back at the guest-house.

A short stroll to the nice quiet beach

Of course I’m also an avid people watcher…

A local boy taking time out on the beach

…and waiting for the sunsets was pretty special.

Sunset, Phu Quoc Island

A travel agency was right next door to my accommodation so I took the opportunity to pre-book my return ferry ticket (and save money by doing so) making sure this time I would leave from the nearby port, instead of having to cycle 30 km to the north of the Island. My R&R (rest and recuperation) was complete, I would need to leave Vietnam the next morning as my visa expired and the Cambodian border awaited just a few kilometres from Ha Tien.

Waiting for the ferry, Phu Quoc Island

The ‘fast’ ferry that would take me back to the mainland

It’s an indication of how much I love Vietnam that I left on the very last day of my visa. I wished I could have stayed longer, but my travels have to continue. In the next blog I’ll be able to tell you all about Cambodia and how I suffered in the dust riding to Siem Reap. More soon…

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Thư ngỏ gửi Việt Nam

Friday April 4, 2014   

I think it only right that I put the Vietnamese version here first. Please scroll down to read it in English.

Thư ngỏ gửi Việt Nam

Ngày hôm nay sẽ khắc ghi mãi mãi trong trí nhớ tệ hại khủng khiếp của tôi.

Vì sao? Vì hôm nay tôi rời Việt Nam.

Lá thư này được viết vì tôi muốn chia sẻ những suy nghĩ và cảm xúc rất riêng tư của mình về đất nước của các bạn, và đó là về những con người hết sức tuyệt vời tôi đã gặp. Không qúa cường điệu khi nói rằng khoảng thời gian tôi ở đây thực sự là những trải nghiệm thay đổi cuộc đời mình. Ngay từ những khoảnh khắc đầu tiên khi tôi nhấn chân lên pê đan xe đạp và tiến vào Việt Nam, tôi đã được đối xử với sự tử tế đáng kinh ngạc.

Về phần mình, tôi đã cố gắng hết sức để tìm hiểu lịch sử đất nước các bạn, thăm thú những địa điểm nổi tiếng và làm quen với người bản địa, đặc biệt là các bạn trẻ, tương lai của đất nước đáng tự hào này. Sau chưa đầy hai tháng ở đây, tôi mới chỉ cảm nhận chưa được là bao và chẳng giấu gì các bạn, tôi ước mình có thể ở đây lâu hơn nữa. Nếu mọi thứ khác đi, tôi cũng sẽ không chọn bất cứ một vùng đất nào khác để sống và cống hiến. Tôi yêu Việt Nam, yêu con người, yêu văn hoá, yêu lịch sử và dĩ nhiên, yêu cả ẩm thực của đất nước này. Việt Nam đã thuộc về một góc rất đặc biệt trong trái tim tôi và sau khi đã đi hơn nửa vòng Trái Đất, tôi có thể nói đây là đất nước yêu thích của tôi.

Có rất nhiều người đã khiến cho thời gian của tôi ở Việt Nam trở nên rất đặc biệt. Sẽ là không công bằng lắm nếu liệt kê ra chỉ vài cái tên, nhưng tôi muốn nhân cơ hội này để gửi lời cảm ơn đến họ. Vì thế, dưới đây danh sách đó, nếu tên bạn không được nêu ở đây, không có nghĩa là tôi đã quên bạn, tôi chỉ không thể kể tên tất cả mọi người, hoặc đơn giản là cứ đổ lỗi cho trí nhớ nghèo nàn của tôi. Những cái tên dưới đây được liệt kê không theo thứ tự đặc biệt nào:

1. Các cán bộ Nhà nước Việt Nam: Những người tôi đã gặp và tiếp xúc đã cho tôi thấy sự tử tế, tôn trọng và đối xử với tôi với một cung cách rất chuyên nghiệp.

2. Mike ( Lê Minh Hiếu), đại sứ Couch Surfing Hà Nội. Không chỉ cho tôi một chỗ ở vào phút chót và thức ăn miễn phí, cậu ấy còn là tác nhân khiến cho giới truyền thông địa phương quan tâm rất lớn đến tôi. Tôi đã không thực sự trân trọng điều đó vào lúc ở với Hiếu, vì cậu ấy khiến tôi quay như chong chóng, nhưng những gì Hiếu đã làm thực sự đã thay đổi cuộc đời tôi mãi mãi. Chẳng giấu giếm gì, Hiếu đã đẩy tôi vào ánh đèn sân khấu và trong lúc tôi không thích bị gọi là người hùng, tôi vẫn có thể thấy thiện chí và lòng tốt của Hiếu trong tất cả mọi điều. Tôi nợ cậu một món nợ không bao giờ có thể trả.

3. Các thành viên của Couch Surfing Hà Nội. Tôi đã có một buổi tối thực sự kỳ diệu với các thành viên (hầu hết) là trẻ tuổi này và đó là một trong những kỉ niệm đáng nhớ nhất suốt thời gian ở Hà Nội. Xin cám ơn vì đã chào đón tôi rất nồng hậu.

4.  Mai Anh. Co gái trẻ đáng yêu này đã nghỉ làm một ngày để đưa tôi đi khắp Hà Nội, hướng dẫn tôi đến những địa danh và cho tôi nếm những món ăn địa phương mà tôi chưa bao giờ được thử trong đời. Đó, một lần nữa, là một ngày mà tôi sẽ không bao giờ quên. Cám ơn Mai Anh!

5. David Oliver, người bạn xa xứ đang sống và làm việc như một giáo viên ở Hà Nội. Nếu không có sự giúp đỡ của bạn, tôi đã rơi vào những tình huống khó khăn nghiêm trọng, nhưng lần thứ hai bạn đã giải cứu tôi. David, bạn là một người bạn thực sự.

6. Duong Tran, cô dẫn chương trình xinh đẹp của Talk Vietnam. Ngay từ những phút gặp gỡ đầu tiên, bạn đã khiến tôi rất thoải mái với cung cách ấm áp rất đáng yêu của bạn. Chương trình diễn ra không chê vào đâu được, những câu hỏi của bạn không thể khiến tôi ngưng lại và giúp tôi thể hiện được những điều tốt nhất của mình. Tôi rất trân trọng tình bạn với bạn và tôi hứa sẽ tiếp tục giữ liên lạc.

7. Linh (Lê Hoàng Linh), VTV4. Linh cùng đội làm phim của mình đã tới quay những cảnh tư liệu cho chương trình Talk Vietnam và chúng tôi gần như thân nhau ngay lập tức. Những gì bạn đã quay đã thực sự khiến câu chuyện đáng giá và đẹp hơn rất nhiều. Và cám ơn cho chiếc áo thun tôi đã “lấy cắp” của bạn nữa!

8. Các nhân viên của VTV4. Tôi không biết tên của tất cả mọi người, trừ những người kể trên. Xin cám ơn tất cả các bạn vì đã kể câu chuyện về tôi thật xuất sắc, nó không thể tốt hơn được nữa.

9. Nick Ross, Biên tập của tạp chí Word. Một chuyên gia rất tài năng với phong cách phỏng vấn tự nhiên lẫn những bức hình đơn giản là rất tuyệt. Cám ơn Nick.

10. Guim Valls Teruel, The Bicycle Collective Hanoi (THBC). Một người đạp xe khắp thế giới từ Tây Ban Nha đã gặp và kết hôn với một cô gái việt. Guim không những tặng tôi những chiếc áo thun chuyên nghiệp của dân đạp xe mà tôi thực sự rất cần, mà còn đưa tôi lên hẳn một mục trong tạp chí của cậu ấy. Chiếc xe đạp của tôi đã được sửa chữa và lăn bánh trở lại trong tình trạng cực tốt nhờ cả vào kỹ năng và những linh kiện tuyệt hảo của cậu, George. Tôi sẽ cần đến những lời khuyên hữu dụng của cậu về một chiếc xe đạp điện sau này.

11. Sarah Ha. Hiếu giới thiệu tôi với Sarah và kết quả là chúng tôi đã có vài buổi tối sống chung nhà với nhau (trong nhà của Hiếu). Thật dễ mến khi nói chuyện với Sarah và tôi hy vọng mẹ bạn sẽ bình phục sớm.

12. Carole and Ian Lister. Là những người đồng hương với tôi ở Huddersfield, họ đang định cư ở Việt Nam. Ngay từ lúc Carole mời tôi một miếng bánh Shepherd’s Pie (một trong những món ăn truyền thống phổ biến có nguồn gốc từ Anh) trên điện thoại, tôi đã biết cặp đôi đáng yêu này có điều gì đó rất đặc biệt. Tôi đã không nhầm. Không những mở cửa đón chào tôi, họ còn giúp tôi có những tháng ngày nghỉ ngơi thoải mái. Hơn thế nữa, tôi và Carole còn có với nhau một lời hứa. Tôi hy vọng họ nhận ra với tôi họ còn hơn những người bạn?

13. Hằng Đinh. Một cô gái rất đặc biệt và thực sự tài năng. Dù không thể cho tôi ở nhờ, cô dành thời gian đưa tôi đi khắp Sài Gòn và quan tâm nhiều đến việc ăn uống của tôi, đồng thời phỏng vấn tôi mà chẳng cần một ghi chú nào. Không chỉ làm việc ấy rất tốt, cô còn viết những bài báo và đăng chúng trên tạp chí. Nhưng điều ấn tượng nhất là việc cô đã thực hiện cả một chiến dịch quyên góp (cho tôi) và điều cô làm được thực sự kinh ngạc. Mọi thứ không phải vì tiền, mà về việc Hằng đã khiến rất nhiều người đồng cảm với câu chuyện của tôi và từ đó động viên tinh thần họ. Facebook của tôi không kịp cập nhật với rất nhiều tin nhắn được gửi tới. Ngôn từ thực sự không diễn tả hết được lòng biết ơn của tôi. Nhờ Hằng, tôi không chỉ có thêm rất nhiều bạn mới, những người không những giúp đỡ tôi mà còn truyền cảm hứng cho tôi.

Như tôi đã nói, làm ơn đừng thất vọng hay cảm thấy bị xúc phạm nếu bạn trong xuất hiện trong danh sách trên. Sự thật là mỗi người tôi gặp ở Việt Nam đều tác động đến tôi theo một cách nào đó, và tôi chỉ đơn giản là có thể kể tên họ suốt một tuần. Xin cám ơn tất cả những khoảng thời gian vô cùng đặc biệt các bạn đã cho tôi, tại đất nước kỳ diệu này. Nếu Chúa cho phép, tôi sẽ trở lại một ngày nào đó.



An open letter to Viet Nam

Today will be forever etched into my appallingly poor memory.

Why?  because it’s the day I left Viet Nam.

I’m writing this open letter because I wanted to share my thoughts and very personal feelings about your country and it’s wonderful people. It is no exaggeration to say my time spent here has been a life changing experience and almost from the first moment I turned a pedal in Viet Nam I have been met by outstanding kindness.

For my part, I have tried my best to learn about your history, visit the sites of most interest and get involved with local people, in particular the youngsters, whom are the future of your proud nation. Yet after two months I still feel I have barely scratched the surface and it’s no secret that I wish my time here could have been longer. If circumstances had been different, I can think of no other country I would like to settle in and give something back. I love Viet Nam, the people, the culture, the history and of course the food. You have earned a very special place in my heart and after travelling more than half way around the globe, you are also my favourite country.

There are certain individuals who have helped make my time very special, and while it may be a little unfair to single individuals out, I really think I should take this opportunity to thank them. So here is a roll call – if you’re not on this list, it does not mean you are forgotten – I can’t name everyone, or just blame it on my poor memory. In no particular order:

1. The officials of Viet Nam whom I have met and interacted with. You have shown me kindness, respect and dealt with me in a very professional manner.

2. Mike (Le Minh Heiu) from Couchsurfing Hanoi. Not only did he give me last minute accommodation and food for free, he was the catalyst for the huge media interest in me. I never appreciated it at the time, because you worked me too hard, but what you have done Mike has changed my life forever. I don’t hide any more, you have pushed me into the spotlight and while I dislike being called a hero, I can see the good that is coming from all this. I owe you a debt I can never repay.

3. Members of Couchsurfing Hanoi. I spent a wonderful evening with these (mostly) youngsters and it was one of the highlights of my time in Hanoi. Thank you for giving me such a warm welcome.

4. Mai Anh. This very lovely young lady took a day off work to show me around Hanoi and introduce me to the sights and more of the local food, which I had never tried. It was once again a day I will never forget. Thank you Mai Anh.

5. David Oliver. My ex-pat friend who lives and works in Hanoi as a teacher. Without your help I would have been in serious difficulty, but for the second time you came to my rescue. David, you are a true friend.

6. Duong Tran. The beautiful host from Talk Vietnam. From the first moment we met you put me at ease with your lovely warm manner. The interview was done immaculately, your questions never caused me to pause and you brought out the best from me. I value your friendship Duong and I promise to keep in touch.

7. Linh (Le Hoang Linh) from VTV4. Linh came along with his film crew to capture some movie footage for the Talk Vietnam program and we hit it off immediately. What you have edited has really added to the story and fitted in beautifully. And thank you for the T-Shirt I stole from you!

8. The staff at VTV4. I don’t know the names of everyone involved, except those above. Thank you to everyone who worked on the project and for telling my story so well. It could not have been done better.

9. Nick Ross. Editor of Word magazine. A consummate professional, not only was your interviewing style relaxed, the pictures were simply superb. Thanks Nick.

10. Guim Valls Teruel, from The Bicycle Collective Hanoi (THBC). Another round the world cyclist from Spain who met and married a Vietnamese girl. Guim not only gave me a couple of cycling shirts which I was badly in need of, he also gave me a column in his magazine! My bike was fettled and sorted too by his excellent mechanic, George. I’ll be picking his brains later about an electrically assisted bicycle.

11. Sarah Ha. CS Mike put Sarah in touch with me and the result was another couple of nights of being hosted along my journey. It was lovely to meet you Sarah and I hope your mum is recovering.

12. Carole and Ian Lister. Originally from my home town of Huddersfield, they are now settled in Viet Nam. From the moment Carole asked me on the phone if I wanted shepherds pie, I knew this lovely couple would be something special. I was not wrong. Not only did they open up their home to me, but really helped me get a much needed rest period. But it goes further than that, as myself and Carole made each other a promise. I hope you realise you are much more than just friends?

13. Hang Dinh. A very special and truly talented lady. While not able to host me in HCMC, Hang spent her time taking me round and looking after my food needs, all the while interviewing me without notes. She not only did a brilliant job, but has gone much further by writing articles and getting them published. But her real ‘tour de force’ has been organising fund raising and what she is achieving is outstanding. It’s not about the money, Hang has brought together so many people and made my story something they can take courage from and my Facebook page cannot keep up with the many messages I receive. Words are simply irrelevant to describe my gratitude. Through you Hang I have made many more friends that are not just helping me, but inspiring me.

As above, please don’t be offended if you are not in the list. Truth is almost everyone I met in Vietnam had an impact on me and I could go on naming them for a week. I thank you all for the very special time you gave me in your wonderful country. If God grants me permission, I will return one day.

April 4th 2014

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Da Nang and Hoi An

Thursday April 3, 2014   

Firstly, please realise that I’m a little behind with the blog and although this episode is about Da Nang and Hoi An, I’m actually much further along on my journey. Check out my Facebook page for my current destination, but I’ll attempt to catch up with my blog posts too a little later.

Da Nang

I set off early from Hue, knowing that the ride to Da Nang would be a difficult one. It wasn’t just the mileage that would stretch me, after 80 kilometres came a blinking great mountain pass. OK so I profess to liking hills, but not when I’m tired at the end of a days riding!  Still I was looking forward to reaching my destination, as I had the promise of a real spaghetti bolognese from my English hosts, Carole and Ian.

Gateway to Da Nang from the north, Hai Van Pass is a challenge for any cyclist. With a fully loaded touring cycle, negotiating the hairpin turns and climbing up through the misty fog became a serious battle of endurance. As I passed the little yellow signs informing me of the ten percent gradient I knew I was in for a long haul, so settled into a nice steady rhythm. On a clear day the views down the mountainside are stunning and once you crest the summit, Da Nang lies sprawled out before you. Sadly not today as Đèo Hải Vân, (ocean cloud pass) lived up to its name, enveloping me in a blanket of thick fog.

Mist rolls in on the Hai Van Pass

As I climbed up the pass, I thought about what I would do when I could no longer manage difficult climbs like this. It’s something I have pondered on quite a bit lately and I have come up with a solution. When the time comes, I will ask someone to sponsor me to ride an electrically assisted bicycle. I first got the idea after reading about Guim’s journey using one and this seems a good option for me, as I would never want to stop cycling altogether, but help on the hills would be welcome.
Speeding down the descent I made quick work of it, as the cool of the mountain pass was replaced by warm sunshine. Nearing the last bend I was hailed by an unmistakably English voice from a scooter coming in the other direction. It was Ian, who had come out to meet me (we had spoken previously about meeting up and then again when I reached the summit) and I can’t tell you how happy I was to hear another genuine Yorkshire voice!  However what didn’t please me was just how much further I had to go, as Carole and Ian lived the other side of Da Nang. In the end I ended up doing a marathon 132 km, actually suffering from ‘the knock’ and running out of energy, to the point where Ian had to go buy me some chocolate so that I could continue. Phew…

The ride into Da Nang was on wide, quiet roads, with little traffic. As we turned onto the coastal strip, the impressive skyline of its towers came into view – with the new Administration Centre (of which Da Nang is justifiably proud) taking centre stage. I was already looking forward to having a better look around on another day.

Da Nang skyline, with the new Administration  Centre on left

Close up of the new Administration Centre

The wonderful warm hug from Carole quickly made me forget my trials and I was soon tucking into my spaghetti bolognese and washing it down with a nice cold beer. Carole and Ian have lived in Da Nang for almost seven years and are the part time English Editors for the Danang Today Online English newspaper. They live on a golf course (designed by Greg Norman) and have a lovely apartment, which they threw open to me. It was heaven.

My very kind hosts, Ian and Carole

The next morning and we ventured into town, where alongside being bought (as a present) a pair of prescription sports glasses (I could now see properly for the first time in many months) I took my Nikon camera in to be repaired. Then I was introduced to Loan, the Editor of Danang Today. Carole was writing an article about me and this generated a lot of interest in my story, but I also agreed to do a photo shoot around Da Nang for the newspaper. What I never expected was to be paid a small fee and the staff even had a collection for me. I was really touched by their kindness.

Quiet streets made cycling a pleasure

Cycling around the city was a joy and much different to the streets of Hanoi and Saigon, two of my other destinations where you have to be on your mettle. Yes it’s busy, but not difficult to negotiate and time just slips away here, as there is so much to see and do. A visit to the thriving indoor market gave me endless photo opportunities, alongside the many street scenes. For a photographer, it really is a wonderland of images.

You’re spoilt for choice with the street photography

I think to do Da Nang justice you would need to spend at least a couple of days here. Sadly my time was short and I didn’t see as much as I would have liked and in particular the beach area looks very inviting. It is certainly a place I would have no hesitation in returning to if I was able.

Market ladies, Da Nang

Ask permission and you can get some nice photos

In the evening I cycled out to photograph Thuận Phước bridge, one of three that cut across the Hàn River. Da Nang really comes alive at night and cycling is pretty low key, with traffic being minimal. It’s a good way of seeing the sights at a nice relaxing pace.

Just one of the three amazing bridges that span the Han River

Just outside of Da Nang lies Marble Mountains. This is a strange place because it is both an area of religious significance and home to numerous stonemason shops. In days gone by they used the marble from within the mountains, but nowadays it is all imported to preserve them. On the top is a large Buddhist temple and some natural caves which can be accessed by a huge lift system they have installed. It looks an eyesore but I managed to get a photograph with it out of view.

The Pagoda, Marble Mountains

Hoi An

Hoi An lies a short hop down the coast from Da Nang and is a good choice if you just want to make a day trip on your bike, as we did on my final full day with Carole and Ian. Following the coast road you’ll have views out to the East Viet Nam Sea, but it’s worth turning inland at some point and taking in some of the river views, which are spectacular. This is certainly one of the most beautiful and scenic cycle rides I have seen here in Viet Nam.

Fantastic river views are never far away!

Fishing boat seen on the way to Hoi An

Having heard about a working water wheel at a small 300 year old village called Tra Que, I had no hesitation in accepting an offer to make a small diversion and visit. In truth it was not far off our route into Hoi An, though we did stay longer than planned. Nowadays they have turned it into a tourist attraction where they do cookery classes, make rice paper, show you how to plant herbs with the local farmers and even play musical instruments with the water wheel. What I never expected was to find yet another collection had been made for me, along with a third from the hotel manager of a friend introduced to me on Facebook, Tien Pham. I’ve used the phrase many times, but I’ll never tire of repeating it, “the kindness of strangers” continues to show me the very best in human nature.

The water wheel at Tra Que

Then it was on to Hoi An, through the back roads and quiet villages with amazing scenery at every turn. Watching the farmers in the fields, conical hats glistening in the sunlight, with water buffalo cooling off in the mid-day heat was pretty special and seeing it from a slow paced bike is by far the best way of taking it all in.

Water buffalo cooling down in the blistering heat

Hoi An is a bustling town ideal for visiting on a bicycle, though there are pedestrian only sections so arrange to leave it with one of the cafes then wander around at leisure. There are lots of great buildings here (including a Japanese bridge) and it was pretty busy during our visit, but it is a real feast for the senses. If you are able, take time out for a boat trip down the river then stay until the lights come on. Hoi An becomes transformed at night and not to be missed. It was a good note to end my time here with my Yorkshire hosts, as I would leave the next morning.

The Japanese bridge in Hoi An

Wonderful colours and architecture abound in Hoi An

See what I mean?

What better than a gorgeous sunset to end the day

OK how about a cute night shot?

While staying with my wonderful hosts here in Da Nang there were too many highlights to pick just one out, but something which made me very happy was when I asked Carole if I could weigh myself. When I reached Hanoi after travelling through the mountains I had weighed just 55 kg, far too little for someone of my size. I made a conscious effort while there to try and put weight back on and being given free food by CS host Mike helped, as I then went out and ate again – so was consuming five meals a day. I also then upped my food intake while riding, because it is so cheap to do so here in Vietnam. Anyway the end result was I now weighed 64 kg, a much better proposition.

Many of you following my blog will know and realise that the photography is an integral part of this journey I am on. Without it, I wouldn’t have anything to leave behind, except maybe the books I’m working on. So finding out that the Nikon camera was even worse after being fixed I made what could have turned out to be a trip changing decision, to buy another camera body. Thankfully the donations would help and I actually bought a new but quite old model cheap in Da Nang. However this also used up some of the funds I’d put aside for my ticket to Canada, so it was a huge gamble. Little was I to know that I would meet a lady in Saigon who would not only help me, but give me back a little breathing space with my meagre funds. More about that in the next blog…

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Amazing Hue

Friday March 28, 2014   

During the ride to Hue the sun came out and played for a while. It was the first time in six weeks I had seen anything more than a short glimpse of it and it’s amazing how it lifts your spirits. I had taken the scenic route following the beach and then riverside through some great scenery and taken pictures with my iPhone, which failed to give me any decent landscape images. I would have to address this problem very soon.

My first priority was to get something to eat and then find a hostel, so I headed for the backpacker area, crossing the Perfume River over the Trang Tien bridge and turning north to the south bank area around Le Loi street. There seemed to be more westerners than locals and I knew I would have difficulty finding a dorm in the more popular hostels, which proved to be the case with the first two I tried. Walking down to the end of ‘backpacker alley’ I came across a small hostel called Hue Amazing Homestay, where for $5 I could have a bed, breakfast and a beer. It was a nice family run business with the owners speaking some English and I met up with a group who were staying there, including another Brit, an Irishman and a couple of American girls. We sussed out the cheapest local restaurants and had a couple of meals together. This is what I love about my trip – meeting up with other travellers and sharing stories.

Hue Imperial City and the Royal Tombs

Map & legend of Hue Imperial City

Next morning I planned my tour of Hue, which would start with a walk around the Imperial City. Once again the sky was grey and overcast, but I did manage to get some usable images. I have to say though that I was a little disappointed with the Imperial City, maybe because I’ve been very fortunate in seeing other sites that impressed me more, but I think mostly because many sections were being repaired or renovated and were out of bounds. There was however a great photographic exhibition on display which obviously for me was the highlight!

One of the passageways displaying the photographic exhibition.

The stone carvings on the steps caught my eye too, as the detail is amazing. Here’s a small selection of the images I took:

Inside Hue Imperial City

Inside Hue Imperial City

Inside Hue Imperial City

Once I’d finished my tour of the city, it was time to visit the Royal Tombs. I had chosen two distinctly different types of tomb to try and add some variety to my photographs, but having just the iPhone I found I was very limited to what I could capture and the resulting quality was not great. My first stop was Tu Duc Royal Tomb which was built between 1864 and 1867 as a tribute to the fourth Nguyen Emperor. Tu Duc is the longest reigning Nguyen Emperor on record.

Hoa Khiem Palace, Tu Duc Royal Tomb

The forecourt was lined with a honour guard of stone mandarins, a horse and an elephant (on both sides). The mandarins are smaller than usual – this was on purpose, as the Emperor was a diminutive man.

The honour guard, Tu Duc Royal Tomb

Tu Duc’s first wife, Empress Le Thien Anh is also honoured in Hoa Khiem Temple.

Archway leading to Empress Le Thien Anh’s tomb

The tomb of Empress Le Thien Anh

The Emperors Sepulchre, Tu Duc Tomb

The grounds surrounding this tomb are very extensive and require a good amount of time if you want to walk around. It’s a nice peaceful spot, even with the bus loads of tourists disembarking regularly. While the architecture is not as striking as the next tomb I visited, I spent an enjoyable couple of hours here wandering in the gardens.

Dragons were everywhere!

In another part of the grounds I discovered a separate temple (Chap Khiem) dedicated to Tu Duc’s adopted son, Emperor Kien Phuc, who reigned for just 8 months and died in 1884 aged just 15.

Chap Khiem Temple

The next tomb was a good few kilometres distance away, but not a problem on a bicycle except for the heat, as by now the sun had reached it’s peak in the sky and the temperature was soaring. It was impressive. From the roadside as I peered up through the gates of Khai Dinh Royal Tomb, I knew my decision to choose this particular tomb was the right one.

The impressive gateway to Khai Dinh Royal Tomb

Khai Dinh’s tomb was purposefully designed to be difficult to visit as the tomb was built on the side of a mountain. Its inner sanctum is reached by climbing up the 127 steps from street level and court officials were required (on pain of death) to climb the steps and pay their respects to the late emperor.

The Stele Pavilion, Khai Dinh Royal Tomb

The tomb began construction in 1920 and took eleven years to complete, and was still unfinished when the Emperor Khai Dinh died of tuberculosis in 1925. His son, the last Emperor of Vietnam Bao Dai, finally completed the tomb in 1931.

The Royal Guard, Khai Dinh Royal Tomb

Looking down on the Royal Guard

The emerald eye caught mine!

Another flight of stairs takes you to the elaborate Thien Dinh Palace, which must be entered by a side entrance (on the right) as the front is kept locked.

Thien Dinh Palace

The Emperors Crypt, Thien Dinh Palace

The Emperor’s successor Bao Dai became the last ruling Nguyen emperor, for a time becoming a puppet head of state for the Japanese, then the French, then finally the South Vietnamese government based in Saigon. The end of the Nguyen dynasty also ensured that Khai Dinh’s Royal Tomb would be the last constructed in Hue.

I had planned on telling the story of my journey to Da Nang and my time spent there in this blog post, but as I have some nice images to show (my Nikon camera was somewhat fixed in Da Nang) and this post is already image heavy, I’ll leave it till next time. More soon…

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Cycling to Paradise

Wednesday March 26, 2014   

Prior to my arrival in Dong Hoi, I had spoken on Facebook with Mike (Le Minh Hieu) and asked if he could arrange a couchsurfing host for me. He did and I spent two nights with the lovely Sarah Ha, who showed me some of the local food joints and looked after me during my stay, despite her busy schedule. Thanks again Sarah.

Dong Hoi became my base to explore the beautiful Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, wherein lies not only the largest cave in the world – Sơn Đoòng, but also the caves of Phong Nha and Thiên Đường (Paradise Cave). I did a little research on the internet and then spoke with other travellers and the decision which one to visit was obvious. While it would be a dream to explore and trek into Sơn Đoòng, because it is so newly discovered, the cost is prohibitive for all but the extremely wealthy. Of the two remaining, it was unanimous that Paradise Cave was the most beautiful.

For an ex spelunker, this was simply heaven.

I had two reservations:  1. It was a Sunday and the place would most likely be packed with local and foreign tourists, despite the still drizzly rain. It was.  2. I only had my iPhone to take pictures with, having broken my camera lens in two. Despite this, in the end I’m pleased I came away with usable images. As for the cave itself, it’s quite simply breathtaking and I’m glad I made the effort; it is certainly one of the biggest highlights of my trip to date.

The entry to the park was just 40 Dong (less than $2) and as I viewed the Karst mountains beyond the rice paddy fields it looked like something out of a Jurassic Park movie!

The entry to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park

Vietnam has 9 world heritage sites and this National Park is one of them. The dark clouds gathered overhead as I made my way towards Paradise Cave, which lies a further 17 km inside the park. I was surprised when I came across the first Catholic church I have seen (close up) here in Vietnam, which looked totally out of place in it’s surroundings.

Not what I expected to find here in a National Park!

Thiên Đường (Paradise Cave) is the largest ‘dry cave’ in the world at 31 km long and in places 100 metres high. Sadly (or more probably wisely, given the rubbish I saw not put in the bins provided) only 1 km is available and open to tourists. It’s a 1.6 km walk from the car park, but they have electric golf cars to transport those not able or wanting to walk to the entrance. I walked of course.

The walkway inside Paradise Cave

Here are several more images taken inside the cave and it’s worth remembering these were taken with an iPhone 4s, which is awful in low light. We have Lightroom 4 software to thank for bringing you these images!

Stalagmites, Paradise Cave

Incredible formations inside Paradise Cave

Flowstone and drapery, Paradise Cave

The lighting was perfect

When you think there is another 30 km of this fabulous cave which we are not allowed to see, you begin to imagine what it must have been like for the original explorers. Given a choice of discovering a cave like this and walking on the moon, I know which I’d choose.

Next up I’d visit caves of a totally different kind, as I made my way to the man made tunnels of Vinh Moc lying just 80 km south of Dong Hoi. I took the AH14 route as I knew it would be quieter than the Ho Chi Minh trail, which to my horror I’d discovered was now a major highway and the sections that I explored were pretty uninspiring. It was another good move and I really enjoyed this quiet road which offered many opportunities to wild camp. The plan had been to camp and then visit the tunnels the next morning, but as I’d arrived pretty early in the afternoon I decided to use the time wisely and made my way there.

At a guess, I’d say Buddhist?

It was another popular tourist destination, complete with tour buses. A group of monks caught my eye as they posed in the gateway for pictures and I couldn’t resist snapping one of my own. Then I quietly left the organised parties to find my own way into the tunnels. Had I wanted to I could quite easily have joined one of the many English speaking tours instead of doing my own thing, but having done my research I was happy I wouldn’t be missing anything.

Entrance No.5 Vinh Moc tunnels.

The tunnels had been left in the original state they were built and when you see them you realise how a small and beleaguered nation like Vietnam could overcome the greatest military force in the world. The American forces believed the villagers of Vinh Moc were supplying food and armaments to the North Vietnamese garrison on the island of Con Co which was in turn hindering the American bombers on their way to bomb Hanoi.

The stairwell leading down from entrance No.5

The idea was to force the villagers of Vinh Moc to leave the area but as is typical in Vietnam there was nowhere else to go. The villagers initially dug the tunnels to move their village 10 metres underground but the American forces designed bombs that burrowed down 10 metres. Eventually against these odds, the villagers moved the village to a depth of 30 metres.

Map of the tunnels, Vinh Moc

It was constructed in several stages beginning in 1966 and used until early 1972. The complex grew to include wells, kitchens, rooms for each family and spaces for healthcare. Around 60 families lived in the tunnels and as many as 17 children were born. It’s a testament to the courage and tenacity of the Vietnamese that no villagers lost their lives.

Lit passageway in Vinh Moc tunnels

Family room, Vinh Moc tunnels

Stone stairway, Vinh Moc tunnels

Tunnel entry/exit from/to the beach

Tunnel entrance No.10 brings you out into lush green vegetation, where a pathway leads to the beach. I imagine this pathway is a somewhat new addition and therefore the entrance would have been concealed pretty well.

The ‘concealed’ No.10 entrance

The beach at Vinh Moc

I visited the on-site museum before calling it a day and collecting my bike from the car park, where I noticed one of my water bottles missing. This is the first time in Vietnam anything has been taken from the bike and it’s not as if it was hot! I’m pretty sure another tourist will have taken it.

Camping was a delight as I found a quiet spot further down the beach area, out of sight. I wanted to make an early start the next morning to call in at the Citadel in Quang Tri, another famous military landmark. I would not be visiting other sites which are considered part of the DMZ (de-militarized zone) tours here as without a guide to explain them they are not just difficult to locate, but it would be pretty pointless simply looking at ‘a rock’ without someone to explain it’s significance. I’m not sure the internet would suffice in this instance.

The Citadel at Quang Tri

The history behind the Citadel is too rich and complicated for me to explain here, so I’ll give those interested a link to the Battle of Quang Tri (< click here) to get them started. It is a very important and interesting part of the story about the Vietnam War, which has captivated me ever since I visited Dien Bien Phu to learn more about this proud nation’s history.

I wanted to arrive in my next destination Hue with time to spare before the light faded and also I planned to find a hostel, so why I didn’t just ride down the (much shorter) Highway 1 will never be known. As it was I chose to take the more scenic route of the TL 68 and TL 4 which totalled 70 km, as opposed to 57 km for the above. Not that it mattered, because being flat I ticked it off fairly quickly anyway.

And that’s it for this instalment. In the next blog I’ll tell you about some nice friends I met in the hostel, my trip around Hue, then how I rode over the Hai Van Pass to Da Nang and met a most wonderful couple from my home town of Huddersfield, who are now living here. As I’m behind, this will be posted soon. Stay tuned…

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn

Back in the saddle

Thursday March 13, 2014   

I left Hanoi much the same as I’d arrived – in the rain. The fine drizzle seemed to creep into every opening in my clothing, but at least it was not cold. My plan for the day was to take it nice and steady and get back into cycling with my fully loaded bike, knowing of course that if I ended the day in Hoa Binh, I would have a relatively flat ride. The cycling was much the same as the weather, pretty disappointing, but then riding highway 6 out of Hanoi was never going to be much fun even if the sun had been shining. I would have to wait until I picked up highway 15 and then the Ho Chi Minh trail before things got interesting.

Hoa Binh was certainly an interesting place. I arrived there a little after 2 p.m. with just 75 km on the clock, so had a look round for a likely camping spot just outside town before returning to try and find somewhere to eat. The town must have a hundred mobile phone shops, but very few food joints and I eventually settled on a cafe with free wifi. Once fed and watered I set about pitching the tent in the rain, which had hardly abated all day. I just hoped I would not have to pack it away the next morning wet. I slept early and well, most likely because sleep had been pretty difficult the previous week and now was my chance to catch up.

My wish for a dry start was forlorn, so I just got on with packing everything away and made an early start. Almost immediately on leaving Hoa Binh I was climbing and my legs complained, no doubt about the lack of hills they’d ridden since I came through the mountains from Sapa. However it was short lived and I soon dropped back into the valley road where the scenery was beginning to change and I could see the karst peaks in the distance. I took the opportunity to go on the back roads (read mud tracks) through some of the villages and ran into what must have been a school run, with youngsters in their school uniforms (green and white tracksuits – can’t help thinking what a great idea!) and rode for a few kilometres to the sound of ‘hello’ and much merriment. Good kids.

The school run?

Lot’s of laughter…

I captured a few more images in the valley before starting the long climb through dense mist, heading in the direction of Mai Chau. Visibility near the top was just a few yards and I decided it would make a good picture, so duly set up the camera with self delay, placed it on the barrier then ran back to the bike a little way down the hill. The idea was right, but I should have used manual focus! As I placed my bike back on the barrier I watched in horror as my camera slid off and down a steep bank, where the lens promptly broke in two. Checking the camera over it seems the lens took the brunt of the impact so it may be OK, except where do I get another lens and can I stretch my funds to do so? Oh well, let’s worry about it later, for now it’ll have to be the iPhone which is really crap in low light.

Seconds after this out-of-focus shot my camera did a ‘lemming’ impression.

It was getting quite cold as I dropped back down to the tight hairpin bend and the junction of the QL6 and QL15. Mai Chau lay just a short distance further down the valley and I was a little sad to pass on by, but in truth there was little point in hanging about unless I was going to do a home-stay in one of the stilt houses. Although tired from the climbing I decided to push on to the nearest decent sized town, not really aware that it was a good 40 km away. This next section of road was pretty awesome, passing through small villages and for once I could enjoy cycling without being disturbed by the sound of horns. I was climbing steadily and progress was slow, with darkness starting to encroach upon me. It had been a long day, but as I had taken decent breaks for my meals I didn’t mind that much as I rolled into Hoi Xuan with 107 km on the clock. I was shattered but well pleased with myself. A quick meal of fried noodles and I was off again, this time in the dark. Camping just off the QL15 was really easy as there are lots of little tracks leading away from the road, so I didn’t have to go far. The roads (so far) were mostly paved, although there was one section of pure off-road through the villages that I enjoyed immensely.

Stilt House, Mai Chau

Overnight the drizzle continued and I awoke to find my tent in a shallow pool of water, as I had unwittingly camped in a hollow in the dark. The inside of my tent was of course dry and was packed away in it’s separate dry bag (for those travellers who have an inner and outer tent, take my advice and do this – it means I never have a wet inner tent!) but the rest was once again packed away wet, which significantly adds to it’s weight. After a quick cup of coffee I went in search of breakfast, which ended up being a couple of hotdog sausages in a bread roll. That would do me until later in the morning when I’d stop for some noodles.

The cycling was a series of short ups and then dropping down again, which continued for many kilometres. I’m not sure which I prefer, the long climbs or this constant up and down which at least gives you a little rest in between the hills. Although it was no longer raining the road sections that were not paved were covered in a thin film of wet mud and this made for a pretty dirty ride – I had already changed clothes and my nice clean ones were filthy after just a few hours.

A brief dry spell before the rain came again.

This part of the journey was enjoyable, as there was very light traffic, but that all changed when I met the Ho Chi Minh trail at Ngoc Lac where it was nothing more than another busy highway, complete with buses, cars, bikes and trucks. Once again the sound of horns spoilt the riding and although I looked for alternative roads, this particular section cannot be avoided on my route south. Guim advised me there would be sections like this, so not only will I look to get off the highway at every opportunity, I’ll check out on-line which parts I should not miss.

Even though my legs were a little sore from the previous days climbing I made good progress and camped off the trail just outside a small town called Khe Ha, having ridden 92 km. I managed to find a nearby food stall complete with toilet block, so I unpacked my shower kit and had an all over wash – bliss. I’ve gotten into a habit of searching the roadside food stalls for electrical outlets when I stop to charge my GPS, as with the complete lack of sunshine my solar charger has become somewhat redundant of late. This means I no longer have the luxury of watching an evening movie on my laptop and filling the time can be difficult, because if I sleep too early I’ll wake early.

Dampened spirits don’t stop me capturing unforgettable images!

Day four gave me not much to write about, just another section of the Ho Chi Minh trail that is nondescript to say the least. By now the constant ups and downs were becoming a chore and in truth I was not enjoying the riding much, so my mind was considering the possibility of coming off and heading west to Laos. I would make this decision in the morning as I reached Thai Hoa, which was basically the cut off point if I was going to take highway 7 to Laos. What was really putting a dampener on my usually high spirits was the drizzling rain, which had stayed with me since leaving Hanoi and totally fed up I called it a day after just 75 km. I was covered in filth from the road with no real means of getting clean, save using my water bottles once again. This is when cycle touring is hard.

Still smiling, despite the rain

I thought long and hard about taking the trip into Laos, as I so wanted to go there. In the end I opted for common sense though, because in reality I would really be pushing the boat out (in terms of my budget) and with the additional costs of visas (as well as the Laos one I would also have to get a new Vietnam one) I would possibly be using the money put aside for my flight to Canada, so the choice in the end was a simple (but painful nonetheless) one. I couldn’t go. It made me think back to all the media interest in me and the thought that maybe I’m doing something wrong, because I never ask for a penny and would it be so wrong if I did?

The sound of heavy raindrops falling onto my tent from the overhead trees told me the rain had not gone away in the night. As I peered out I could see the valley was shrouded in mist and I decided I was going to try and find somewhere to dry out, I would ride until I came across the first cheap hotel or guest house and take a rest day. By the time I’d packed everything (wet again) onto the bike I was feeling guilty and so just got on the bike and rode off into the driving rain. It seemed even the food stalls had shut up shop and I struggled to find anywhere to get a breakfast, so thought I’d try hitching a lift for a while to try and get me nearer a big town. While the Vietnamese are friendly enough, they won’t stop. I have tried on numerous occasions and never been shown the slightest chance of getting a lift. Thankfully my misery ended after 37 km, when I pulled into what in England we’d probably describe as a dive motel. I didn’t care, it was a (very) cheap roof over my head, a warm shower and (appallingly slow) wifi, just what I needed!

Thanks to Mike from Couchsurfing Hanoi I now have a sim card which I use sparingly to check emails, so if you need to contact me you can. Nick Ross did just that, giving me the names of a couple from my home town of Huddersfield who now live out here in Vietnam, in Danang. I will be dropping in on them shortly.

That’s it for now, more soon…

Thursday April 24, 2014 at 12:16 am

Thank you for the lovely pictures, Derek. Blessings, Lynn