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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Of course I’m also an avid people watcher…
…and waiting for the sunsets was pretty special.
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.
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…
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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
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!
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:
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.
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.
Tu Duc’s first wife, Empress Le Thien Anh is also honoured in Hoa Khiem Temple.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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…
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
Much has happened since my last blog and I have not had an opportunity to do an update until now. My visit to Hanoi is finally over, as I move further south and onto the Ho Chi Minh Trail. I had stayed far longer than planned due to a huge media interest in my story, which involved many interviews for the newspapers and magazines, as well as an appearance on television for a talk show! While I’m not happy with becoming something of a celebrity here, I carried it through because it was too good an opportunity to miss in getting my message across.
I had originally stayed in a hostel, but when I lost my debit card and ran out of funds I desperately contacted the local Couchsurfing group here in Hanoi, run by Mike (Le Minh Hieu) and was offered free accommodation. This started the whole ball rolling with what then became the media circus, as at first I attended the Couchsurfing meeting and then a series of interviews. It quickly snowballed and I was working full time on filming and giving interviews, leaving me after five days in a state of total exhaustion.
I’m not complaining, as even though it wore me out I think I have done some good here and the highlight was being given the chance to visit one of the cancer wards in a local hospital and meet up with Liem, who lost his leg to bone cancer and now has lung cancer. His battle began at the age of sixteen and interrupted his schooling, but despite this he went on to university to complete his studies. An amazing person who remains very optimistic and very inspiring to me. Click Here to visit his Facebook page.
While there has been much interest in my story, I’d like to make an appeal to the locals here in Hanoi: contact Liem and show him your support, or even better arrange to go and see him!
Another highlight was meeting up with a fellow RTW cyclist called Guim from Barcelona, who met his wife here (strangely enough during a media interview) in Vietnam and now runs The Hanoi Bicycle Collective (THBC), the best cycling shop in the city. Anyone passing through should definitely pay him a visit and sample some of the best food in Hanoi (in the cafe), while getting the bike checked over by his very experienced mechanic, George. The THBC produce a bike magazine called Mbike (printed in both English & Vietnamese) and I have been asked to write a feature about the Ho Chi Minh Trail and given a regular slot to talk about my travels. All good stuff. The magazine is also on-line Here.
Of course a special mention should go to Nick Ross, chief editor of Word magazine who came along to the shop to interview me and took the excellent pictures of myself and Guim.
It’s been a fun time here in Hanoi, meeting new friends, trying the amazing food and seeing something of the sights. There’s a vibrancy here that I’ve not found in other large cities (Which let’s be honest, I mostly shy away from) and the youngsters have such hope for the future. I think our western view of Vietnam is skewed, it is very different in reality and there is no doubt in my mind that Vietnam is a destination not to be missed, and I still have much to see! As for the youth, well I’ve gone out of my way to interact and joined in many events which have made my time here pretty special.
Speaking of the youth, I was very lucky to have one of my new Facebook friends offer to show me around the sights of Hanoi on a very wet Friday. Despite the rain we had a great time, I ate some of the best food of my whole trip and we got to see the water puppets at the theatre. Thank you Mai Anh for taking the time to show me the city and taking me to the best food in Hanoi!
Here’s a selection of photos from our day out:
Dating back to 1070, the Temple of Literature in Hanoi is the oldest university and was for centuries the place where the emperor recruited his mandarins for his goverment. It’s dedicated to Confucius (his ideas were taught here), sages and scholars. These days it’s a museum open to the public and well worth a visit if you are in Hanoi.
My time in Hanoi really has been amazing and back at the accommodation I was blessed with being able to meet some really nice people who I may well meet again on my travels. It’s been my longest period in a city by a huge margin, but I don’t regret a single moment. Now I just have to get used to riding the bike again (actually I did do a fair amount of cycling for the film crew!) and plan my route south. Guim has been kind enough to help me with this.
So that’s it for now, I’ll tell you more about the upcoming TV talk show in my next update. More soon…
When I began my journey way back in November 2012, I had something of an agenda which is much different than today. I spoke about ‘finding myself’ in my About Me page and knew I had very real issues, both emotionally and physically. My hope was that as the trip progressed, I would find some kind of solace from the past and become a better person. Truly, I needed to learn to like myself before I could be of any benefit to either society, or anyone unfortunate enough to try and understand me. Love, well how could I ask for love if I couldn’t even love myself?
This trip has been an incredibly difficult journey for me, of which I have described the physical aspects pretty well in my blog, but only shown brief glimpses of the real battle that was going on. Initially I didn’t even mention my cancer or the real illness – my depression. Believing I had to concentrate fully on the cycling and engage people with how fascinating this aspect was, that became my main focus when writing the blog. Yes the cycling is what most people want to hear about, so why bother with anything else?
As I have travelled I have opened up, talking for the first time about many things I have never discussed before. Not even my closest friends knew about many of the demons I was desperately trying to exorcise. But truth is my demons, inner strengths and physical battles have actually guided me through life and made me into the strong character I am today. Yes I have moments of weakness just like everyone else, then I use one of the blackest episodes in my life to give me hope, saying to myself “if I can come to terms with this, then what else can harm me.” If you think this is all a bit dramatic, then consider this: it was not until my friend Ruth told me to go for Christian counselling (following my attempt at suicide over the death of my wife) that I learned about my childhood. I had virtually no memories from before the age of 14 as my mind had blotted them out. The counselling exposed them, but that’s another very painful story for another time. How many people could cope with that at the age of 53?
So why am I writing all this, why tear up the picture of a strong man doing incredible things that undoubtedly many of you have built of me?
Because I HAVE changed. I have become a more complete person. I’m no longer the selfish guy who left England on November 13th 2012. Not only do I now share my story, I share everything I can. My goal now is to give something back. In fact it’s become much more than a goal, it’s become a burning passion. Yes I have cancer, yes I’m pretty certain it’s going to kill me, no I don’t want this to be what people remember me for – a man fighting bravely against a hidden and deadly disease. I’m not brave at all, I’m almost pissing myself with fear.
I want others to know this, not put me up on a pedestal to be admired. So no more pretending. I’m going to tell it like it really is, speak out about what I’m really going through. The physical pain is easy for me to deal with, as since I was a child I have always had a very high pain threshold, but what it’s doing to my mind, well that is the real battle. Speaking out I hope will not only help me, but the hundreds of people who now message me. As my journey continues this is really what will inspire me to finish it, to reach the end.
But wait, there’s more. I have absolutely no idea how much longer God will allow me to wander on this earth. I have tried to make my peace with him. Do you know the only thing I have ever asked him for? to take me instead of Caroline, my late wife. I now ask him for something else, because for the first time in my life I truly believe I will be able to accept it and not corrupt it. And now I am being selfish, because what I want is for myself, to prove I’m deserving of it, capable of nurturing it.
I want to know love one last time.
There are many key moments in a persons life when a decision made maps out their path for the foreseeable future, but it’s the unforeseeable future which has always excited me. Ideas and dreams can be turned into reality, if nothing else surely this trip has proved that? Yet it’s the unexpected changes in my plans that have for the most part brought me the greatest joy, the not-knowing what is coming next.
The ride through China stretched me to breaking point and while I complained in my blog, I kept quiet about the toll it took on my health. Instead of being sensible, I ploughed on in Northern Vietnam and further continued to put myself through a tough daily routine, knowing from my own performance and the struggle to complete a (decent) days riding that I was deteriorating badly. Arriving here in Hanoi I have finally accepted what I knew, that as strong as my mind has become, my body cannot keep pace any more. The weight loss has been dramatic and I know from loved ones I have watched lose their own fights that this is the biggest challenge I face.
I have no intention of stopping, not just yet. However if I don’t change things I will not last much longer and so I have decided to change the way I rest and recover. This will now be given greater importance and it may be that I take extended breaks like this one, although in fairness there is another reason I’m hanging about in Hanoi – I lost my debit card. The cycling will definitely have to be more measured though, but still be as much as I can manage sensibly in a day.
This creates a problem though, as wild camping and cycling large distances between breaks is dirt cheap. Resting up and staying in hostels is not as cheap (relatively speaking) for me and taking transport can further increase my daily budget. I’m going to try it, see how things work out. It may mean my funds run out much sooner, but if that’s the case I’ll simply put my ‘Goodwill Tour’ into action earlier than planned. Don’t worry though, I still plan on ‘cycling’ round the world, I just need to be much more careful in what I put my body through. I’m proud of the fact that I have become an inspiration to many and this has become my biggest motivating factor, therefore I will not stop while I can still turn a pedal.
Back to the present…
Arriving in Hanoi, it was cold, wet, grey and looked likely to remain that way for a while. I hooked up with David O again (we first met in Georgia) and he spent time showing me around on the back of his scooter then took me for the best meal I’ve had (seriously) since I left England, a wonderful buffet where I had four plates of main and two of pudding! That’s what makes this trip special, the friends I’ve made and kindness of strangers simply blows me away.
The (many) hostels here can be as cheap as $4 a night and the best deals include breakfast. Don’t jump in to the first one you see unless it is exactly what you want though, as the spotlessly clean (with good wifi) hostels are the ones to choose and still only $5-6 including a cooked breakfast.
I’ll do another blog update later with pictures of Hanoi as it’s set to improve and I’ve not yet taken my camera out in earnest in the rain. I decided to do a trip to Halong Bay and Cat Ba Island but in hindsight I really wish I’d waited for the better weather as it was pretty grim (and cold) even though I did take a few photographs. The highlight of the trip (for me) was meeting some other travellers, two guys from Austria and a lovely young couple from Germany, then forming a nice little group for meals and socializing.
It was pretty misty in the bay and quite a challenge to get decent pictures, yet the scenery (what we saw of it!) was stunning. You see pictures and postcards of the huge Karst towers but they can’t compare at all to actually being there – it really is something special. When you consider that the limestone in this area has gone through 500 million years of formation and many of the Karst towers have been formed over 200 million years under the impact of the wet tropical climate.
I chose to go on one of the trips organised by our hostel, but if you wanted to you can shop around the many travel agents and get them for as cheap as $30 a day. The quality will vary and all I’ll say further is I would not go again in the winter on a trip like this as many of the activities are either cancelled or really dummied down. It’s only because of the logistics I took this one (when I calculated the costs of visiting Halong Bay and Cat Ba I could not have done it myself as cheaply) – tours are not really my thing.
I do however think it is a ‘must see’ sight if you’re visiting Vietnam and one I’m glad I took, even if at times it felt like we were sheep being herded around by our guide (incidentally my excellent impressions of a Yorkshire sheep got very disapproving looks!) who like many Vietnamese (and Chinese) repeated every sentence (in English) at least twice just to make sure we understood him.
Despite the many tourist boats filling the bay you can still catch sight of the locals going about their daily chores and I stood watching a couple of locals doing some traditional fishing from a small boat and wished I still had my telephoto lens for the camera as I was a little too far away.
Cat Ba Island lies at the southeastern edge of Halong Bay and as we made our way across the waters we’d hoped for a change in the weather, as day two of our trip was to involve both kayaking (to see a ‘wet’ cave) and trekking. Sadly it didn’t and I opted out of the kayaking (still feeling run down I can’t afford to get a cold) which to be honest didn’t look up to much anyway, the group were only in the kayaks for a very short time and it seemed hardly worth the effort.
On the bay, as the boats drop anchor locals would come up alongside offering all manner of goods for sale, but mostly sweets and drinks. That’s one of the things I’ve certainly noticed since I’ve been here, the Vietnamese are pretty canny at spotting any opportunity to do business!
The trekking involved a trip to one of the Islands high points but really was a major disappointment because of the weather, as there was nothing to be seen – only the surrounding trees. This is where I think some flexibility in the tour program would go a long way, it was obvious from the outset that once we climbed the hill it would be a major let down so why not schedule something else?
I did step off the trail when I spotted this lovely ruin and let the group wander on while I photographed it. I was even more surprised when I saw the year above one of the doorways (1977) and later learned many of the properties on the Island have been damaged in the storms that sweep across this part of Southeast Asia.
Cat Ba town was enveloped in a cold grey mist and drizzling rain. My afternoon ‘free time’ where I had planned on going fishing went out the window as no way was I about to sit out in that, despite how much I had been longing to have a go at catching my own meal. Some of the group went off exploring on the local motorbikes and came back with tales of how cold it had been, whereas I remained nice and warm cuddled under the duvet and got some much needed sleep.
My own personal thoughts on the tour were perhaps unfairly critical because of the weather, but there were many areas that could so easily be improved. My main bugbear was on the bus out our half way stop involved being dropped at a ceramics shop where the prices were more than doubled for even the simplest of snacks, so I did without. We could so easily have stopped at a decent place to get something substantial to eat – there are no shortage of these on the route. On the way back we were not given any water or a free drink as we had been on day one and the feeling was they just wanted rid of us and couldn’t care less about our comfort. OK grump over.
I usually shy away from big cities, yet I love Hanoi. It’s a real mixture of culture and people and the food is very good. I’m meeting some really nice people and enjoying my ‘chill out’ rest period – I did really need this. As I said above I’ve yet to do the wandering about like a ‘tourist’ with my camera, but as the weather is set to improve that will happen soon. I hope it won’t be too long before my new card arrives and David has kindly arranged to let me send it to his address. Then I’ll be back on my way – else my legs will be forgetting how to cycle!
I’ve also got some pictures from the cave we visited, but again I’ll save them for the next blog. To end here is what’s been keeping me happy in Hanoi at a cost of less than 50 pence.