The bucket list

2 05 2013

The term ‘Bucket List’ seems to have gained significant popularity over the past couple of years. For those who are unfamiliar with the term here is the Urban Dictionary’s definition;

Bucket List

A list of things to do before you die. Comes from the term “kicked the bucket”. ‘I need to remember to add skydiving to my bucket list.’
The most memorable use of ‘Bucket List’ for me was the venerable Karl Pilkington’s ill fated journeys across the globe in ‘An Idiot Abroad’. If you haven’t seen any of these I really do recommend putting some time aside to watch them.
All of that aside I have not thought much about my bucket list. As I drift towards the comfortable middle ages of my life, I think about what I still want to achieve. I am not talking about financial or career based achievements, but life events. A positive event that fundamentally changes the person that you are. Impacting not only you but those around. How can you conceive such a notion? How can one determine what events are so significant?
From the vagaries of my mind, one item has always stood clear as a ‘must do’. That is to write a book. I am not artistic or creative. I cannot paint a picture or draw well. A five year old painting with their toes would do a better job than me. Therefore to take experiences, emotions and sensory inputs and process them into words. Words so others can experience and feel as I have. To walk alongside, hearing the sounds, feeling the air and having their noses filled with smells.
I am very proud to announce that I have taken the Vietnam blogs and converted them into a book. Expanded and with many photos included it really chronicles the journey, including the events that led up to it. It feels like a life achievement, six months of work finally in print. Actually it was almost never in print thanks to Adobe Lightroom. I lost all text within the book for weeks. Six months work gone, lost forever. Before you ask, no I did not make a back up. Luckily Lightroom seemed to get it’s self back together and the text recently reappeared. Several hundred back up’s later and it was complete.
My original theory behind my blog was to make my journeys and experiences available to my family, in particular my daughter. As the blogs have developed so has my writing style. The blog has become not so much about self expression, more about self exploration.
If you are interested you can take a look at the book

Noodle Soup





Day 19 – Ha Noi to Home – End of the Road

3 05 2012

I slept like the proverbial dead. The beds in the AVI Hotel were large and comfortable, and incredibly the hotel and it’s surroundings were quiet. Of course I could not escape the inevitable rooster proudly declaring it’s presence to the world. I was exhausted but elated. I really felt like I had achieved something special, I felt privileged to have experienced so much. In fact I am still processing it all now, my tiny brain is overloaded with the trip.

Breakfast was a simple but delicious fried eggs and soft bread, and some orange segments. Plus some of the most delicious coffee I had drunk in Vietnam. Mr Vi and his wife were warm and hospitable hosts and I felt most welcome with them. I still had the dubious company of Sylvie so we decided to explore the local market.

The market was very small but was beginning to pack up when we arrived. Sylvie wanted to eat (again) so with her stomach rumbling off we went. The locals were very friendly and there was no hard sell, for the moment. It was mostly a fruit and vegetable market, but some stores were selling meat that had been outside in the air for some time. I didn’t want to think about what type of meat it was, or what was living in it ! Toan had told me that 98% of the dogs we had seen would end up cooked. it had made me a little more tolerant of their barking, as I knew what fate had in line for them.

We approached one store and the guy on there became rather animated. He was babbling at 200KPH in Vietnamese at us and of course neither of us understood a single word. Then another store holder came over with a bundle of clothes, and started literally shoving a dress onto Sylvie. It was really comical and they seemed to find it funny too. We knew that it was a ruse to get us to buy it ! Still it made an excellent photo opportunity.

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We were attracting quite a crowd, and I think the old woman now wanted paying ! Still we had no intention on buying the dress, so managed to escape intact. The village itself was quite small and quiet by Vietnamese standards, so a cheeky ice cream satisfied our sweet tooth.

The taxi was booked to take me to the airport at 1pm, and that was fast approaching. It was a fixed price of $5 to the airport, which is probably way over the odds but it was trouble free and worth every penny.

Vietnam still had a couple of surprises in store for me. The first one really tested my patience to it’s limit, and I did experience a sense of humour failure. Vietnam Airlines insist on you presenting the credit card used for purchasing the ticket. No doubt you have guessed where the required credit card is…that’s right back in England. So it took me giving every form of ID that I had to them, but that was still not sufficient. I had to purchase another ticket on the proviso that I would receive a refund on the original. Knowing how crafty airlines are, I don’t think that I will receive that refund. That could be the cynic in me though !

Sylvie and I parted ways, we had had good fun together and I hope she keeps in touch. Her plan was to find a guest house in Ha Noi, or worst case to Couch Surf. It was a rush to get to the gate as the ticket based shenanigans had almost made me miss the flight.

Landing in HCMC I wanted to blow the VND that I had left on tacky souvenirs. Again Vietnam has already got this covered, so I stocked up on wonderful pictures and the obligatory red star T-Shirt. The assistant in the store was wondering why I was carrying a motorcycle helmet around, so I relayed the past 17 days to her. She simply said “You crazy”, then wanted to try the helmet on.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="600" caption="This is Red Leader"] This is Red Leader

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Her curiosity satisfied, I relaxed with a 333 beer before joining the flight. The flight was packed, and a guy sat next to me who didn’t know what deodorant or the anti social effects of body odour. Then someone behind me was sick, the noise of them retching actually waking me up. Then came the smell…there is something very unsettling about smelling someone else vomit. Especially when you can’t get away from it.

So, now I am sat in Istanbul airport waiting for my final flight. I feel kind of strange. I have lived a very simple existence over the past few weeks in an alien land with an alien culture. I think of what lays ahead for me over the next few weeks and it’s a complete 180 degrees. In fact it’s so diverse my head is spinning just thinking about it.

After seeing how a large number of people in Vietnam live such a hand to mouth existence, meeting and playing with orphans, and feeling the most free that I ever have…I am going to struggle to return to ‘normality’. Depeche Mode’s “I Belong Here” is randomly playing on my iPod.

Fate is screwing with me…





Day 18 – Nimh Binh to Ha Noi – 100KM

3 05 2012

Morning was a rather relaxed affair. Our new menage a trois indulged in the predictable beef based soupy goodness, although the latest entrant elected for a huge dish of fried rice…charlatan that she is ! Breakfast was swiftly followed by an excellent Ca Phe Se Da where we discussed the days plan of attack. Today was the final day, and it felt strange to be thinking about return flight arrangements and work.

In recognition of the huge influence that Ho Chi Minh had stamped on Vietnam, it was only fitting that we try to visit Uncle Ho’s final resting place in Ha Noi. Unluckily for us it was currently the hot season in the north, so opening times to Uncle Ho’s mausoleum were limited to 0700-1000. This is in order to preserve humidity for his body which is embalmed and on display in there. There was no way that we could reach it in time, especially as we were taking coffee at 9am ! So a “leisurely ride” to Ha Noi was in order. As we mounted the bikes one of the guys on the hotel came over to me, then pulled the hairs on my arms. A rather odd thing to do, but he just seemed to be fascinated with them !

We had loaded the motorbikes a little smarter today, and Rat Bike seemed better for it. Cruising through the busy traffic of Nimh Binh, we were soon back on the highway. I wanted to take the Ho Chi MInh Road for nostalgia’s sake, but it lay far away. The road was excellent in parts and would then disintegrate into gravel and sand. The gravel and sand itself didn’t present much of a problem, but when combined with the two lanes of oncoming traffic (on the two lane highway) it made the journey difficult, and at times terrifying.

We stopped about 30KM outside of Ha Noi for a water break. The vendor asked why we were travelling at the hottest time of the day ? I thought that his question was accurate, especially as the temperature was approaching 40c. I was riding without a jacket and could feel my arms burning. Perhaps not the wisest of choices. Continuing north we soon reached the outskirts of Ha Noi, and it’s legendary traffic. Now a familiar recipe, bikes, cars, trucks and buses all vying for the same few feet of road. I tried to take it in my stride, like the veteran that I am…but there were even times when I thought ‘Shiiiiiiiiit that was close‘. I heard an occasional squeal from behind me too, especially when we slide down a 1m gap in between two buses !

Toan was waiting for his ‘Brother without a mother‘ to come and join us. They had worked together years before, and Toan had help him gain a trade as a Stone Mason. We waited at a roadside drinks vendor, and I plied myself with sweet cold tea and sunflower seeds. Sylvie said that I was eating bird food !

First stop on the journey was the temple in the centre of Ha Noi. The scent of tourism hung heavily in the air and it was quite odd to see some many Westerners after being in deepest darkest Vietnam. The temple had a beautiful bridge which looked glorious in the afternoon sun. There was an American woman playing a Ukulele on the bridge for some bizarre reason. Don’t know if she was famous, but people were taking her picture ?

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The whistle stop tour of Ha Noi didn’t stop there, and cruising past the Ha Noi Flag Tower we eventually reached Uncle Ho’s house. I had never seen so many Police in Vietnam. Striding around, next to the Special Guard dressed in their white ‘Number One’s’ who were motionlessly guarding Uncle Ho’s house. Leagues of red flags displaying the Vietnam Star and the Hammer & Sickle thronged the lines towards the mausoleum.

This represented the end of the road to me, and it was a special moment. We had travelled around 2400KM in 16 days on motorcycles that should have been turned into Coke cans a long time ago. Yet they had conveyed us through desert, thunderstorms, mountains and perilously dangerous roads. These little beasts had performed well. Rat Bike – I salute you.

Anyways, back to Uncle Ho. Please forgive the pictures, as the sun was really in the worst place possible.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

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This seemed like a fitting spot for the gratuitous group shot. I prepared the Vietnam flag that we had purchased a few days before, and got Toan’s friend to take the picture. He may be an excellent stone mason, but he is a lousy photographer !

The worst photo ever

The worst photo ever

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A Police Officer came confidently striding over to us, and quietly told Toan that we couldn’t display any flags or banners near the tomb. Another brush with the law in as many days, although I suspect that this one could have been more serious. Luckily he was quite chilled and saw what we were doing, and not making any offensive gestures. I was really hacked off that the moment had been ruined, and we couldn’t repeat it. So I made do with a shot with Toan.

Me & Toan in Ha Noi

Me & Toan in Ha Noi

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After another late lunch, we made out way to the Ho Chi MInh Museum. Lady time was not on our side today, and we arrived too late. So a slow walk around the museum, and the adjoining temple was pleasant in the cooling afternoon air.

Some nice flags

Some nice flags

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Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh Museum

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Sylvie commented that I have an ‘ze obsession with taking pictures of ze flags‘. Perhaps she is right, but they looked wonderful ! Whilst we were walking past another Buddhist temple, we could hear music coming from inside. Toan said that the Buddhists were having a funeral, and if we looked we would see people with white bandanas, with the deceased persons name written on them.

Feeling like disrespectful intruders, Sylvie and me ventured into the temple. It was an explosion of colour and smells. Bunting and flags everywhere, and a huge tree with the same image of the deceased adorning it. No one was crying, people were smiling and seemed happy. It struck me about the huge difference between a western funeral compared with this wonderful occasion. What more of a fitting tribute could you have to the end of someones life ? I have decided that this is how I want my funeral to be. No black, no church…just colour and fun. People didn’t seem to mind us being there either. It was beautiful.

I had deliberately chosen a hotel close to the airport in order to minimize trouble. What I didn’t realize was that the hotel was 35KM away from Ha Noi City Centre, and it was now rush hour. With stares from the Police Officers, we rode off into the madness.

Madness is probably too small a word to describe the traffic. It was a sea of people and wheels, all noisily moving around. Imagine how red blood cells move within your blood stream, gliding along next to each other in unison. Passing the huge lake in the centre of Ha Noi we watched the sun falling into the sky. People were paddling huge swan shaped pedaloes around the lake, the white of their bodies painted orange by the setting sun. Not that I could admire the view for too long, otherwise I risked death ! We made our way towards Noi Bah along with 75000 other people, but had to stop to take a picture of the setting sun against the bridge. At the risk of repeating myself, it was beautiful. Obviously we were not the only people who thought so, and others were stopping to do the same.

Sunset on Ha Noi Bridge

Sunset on Ha Noi Bridge

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The bridge was to be the next part of our road trip. I am really glad that Sylvie took pictures and video of the complete madness, because it’s actually difficult to describe. The cars and trucks have a normal road, and the bikes have a path approximately 2m in width. This wouldn’t be a problem was it not for the sheer number of bikes, including the one in front of me carrying a wardrobe. If I thought that the bridge was bad…the end of the bridge was hell. I simply burst out laughing at the wall of people ahead of me. I tend to do that when I am nervous. Imagine being in a football (soccer) match, and then trying to ride a motorbike through the crowds. Factor in a poor road surface too, and market stalls on the road…it was interesting ! We got through onto the highway intact, and the going was good. Toan nearly ‘came a cropper’ when a silly person riding a scooter on the wrong side of the road with their headlights on full decided that they wouldn’t move. I heard the squeal of tyres, and seen his bike lurch to the right. Sylvie screamed and I expected the worst. Amazingly there was no crash, and the lady just sailed on by as if nothing had happened.

Toan wasn’t sure where the hotel was, so we stopped many times for directions. The locals seemed to be excellent in sending us in different directions. In fact we stopped at a bus stop, and I saw each one of the locals point in different directions. It was completely Python-esque. This was repeated several times, nd we even rode down a back alley. I said to Sylvie “I will be so happy if we survive this”  and I wasn’t joking.

The Airport Hotel AVI was on the same street that we had passed several times before. It was set back therefore obscured from our view.

Never had I seen a more welcoming sight.

2500KM - time to rest

2500KM - time to rest

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So, Toan on his Bonus 125 and me with my Rat Bike “125” had completed the mammoth tour of just under 2500KM. However I was too tired and in need for a shower to celebrate. I would describe myself as smelling like the contents of a farmyard, and probably looking like them too. Unpleasant for all concerned ! Toan gave me a high 5…it was a fitting tribute. Toan and the ‘Brother without a Mother’ disappeared off for me bit, which gave me a chance to turn the A/C to maximum Arctic and rest. I decided that I would love the celebrations until later. The hotel was really nice, with comfortable beds and most importantly it was clean. Mr Vi who is the hotel manager was warm and accomodating and made us feel most welcome. I said my goodbyes to Toan, and wrote something appropriately sarcastic in his note book. I’ll miss him !

Sylvie was hanging with me until tomorrow, so we explored the area surrounding the hotel. It was a small town and at nearly 10pm most places were shut. We found a scabby looking Pho joint and ate, well you know what we ate. Sinking a couple of Ha Noi beers, I felt elated but exhausted.

Sleep was not going to be a problem tonight…





Day 17 – Thanh Hoa to Nimh Binh – 125KM

2 05 2012

The hotel in Thanh Hoa held some interesting surprises for Toan and me. The first such surprise was in a shape of a bedraggled backpacker trudging past the hotel in the evening. She had the kind of “rabbit in the headlight’ look, and looked completely lost. Thanh Hoa didn’t seem to have it’s share of backpackers or foreigners, so she was out of place. We stopped and asked her if she spoke English, and replied “Yesss I speak Engleesh” in a very thick French accent. So this is how we met up with Sylvie, who joined us for the last two days of our adventure. Sylvie explained that she had just arrived in Thanh Hoa from Lao and had been hitch hiking and backpacking across the world for the last five months. An impressive achievement. Toan kindly managed to negotiate a cheap hotel room for her too. He’s a good guy !

The next surprise was a hotel maid standing over Toan and I at 7am demanding to be paid. Before you get any nefarious thoughts into your mind, it was for my laundry and not a ‘happy ending’ or ‘take a relax’ in sight ! For the rather extortionate price of 130000 Dong she had personally taken care of my smalls. However she was not leaving until she had been paid and at 7am my mind was not on paying for bloody laundry !

Breakfast was again based upon a combination of beef, noodles and soup. I actually don’t eat much red meat and was beginning to tire of beef soup for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Afterwards we set about accomodating our new passenger. Sylvie’s luggage weighed more than her, so I tried to put her bag onto the back of Rat Bike. Rat Bike was not keen on the additional weight and fell over onto it’s side, breaking an indicator lens and cracking the bikini fairing. Not a good start to the day, but at least I wasn’t on the bike when it went over. Toan to the rescue again and he secured the luggage, and we were off with Sylvie on the back of Rat Bike.

Thanh Hoa was quite a busy city with National Highway 1 passing through it. Consequently the traffic was very busy, and it was quite a challenge to keep up with Toan especially with Sylvie and her dead body on the bike. In fact I narrowly escaped a brush with the Highway Police (CSGT) as I accidentally ran a red light. I saw the cop as I sailed through, his face meeting mine and his arm raising the whistle to his lips. He then saw my face and thought of the hassle involved in stopping me and decided not to. Dan 1 CSGT 0 !

National Highway 1 was a dangerous, dusty and crowded road. It is the main road from Sai Gon to Ha Noi and there were trucks, coaches, cars and the unavoidable bikes vying for the same spots where the sand or gravel were flat. Rat Bike was groaning under the weight, it’s tired old shock absorbers creaking with the strain.

We soon reached the Bao Vet temple. Bao Vet was a warrior princess who protected Vietnam from the Mongolian invaders several times hundreds of years ago. She would fight whilst riding an elephant. The Mongolian’s sent one of their finest warriors to capture Bao Vet. Trapped and faced with inevitable capture, she took her own life on a mountain just above the temple. Her legend has provided inspiration for generations and she is considered in effect a Saint. The visit was free and it was a nice and quiet temple.

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We continued on Highway 1 towards Tam Coc. Tam Coc is a a river that runs through caves and provides a unique and very surreal experience. However be aware, it is a huge tourist trap and vendors will try their best to extort money from you. Don’t let that detract from the experience though as it’s breath taking.

Joining the throngs of people waiting at the river side, we were soon ushered into a small steel row boat, skippered by an equally small and manic looking old woman wearing a conical hat. The boats were everywhere, but it did provide a nice photo opportunity.

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We set off with the woman rowing the boat with her legs. Think of a frog kick method with oars attached to your feet.

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The scenery is some of the most stunning that I have ever seen. To be almost silently drifting along, hearing the cicadas in the trees and the water lapping around the boat was simply amazing. One of the highlights of the trip, and in future times of stress I will close my eyes and think of that moment. If it wasn’t for the other tourists around, it would be heaven. However it was nice drifting along and nattering with Sylvie talking about life, the universe and everything. Apparently the answer to life is 42 ?

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The batty skipper wanted to take some pictures in order to increase her likelyhood of  receiving a tip. More on this later !

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The river began to take us into a cave with a very low ceiling. I am glad that I am ‘vertically challenged’, otherwise I would be sporting a new headless look. At the end of the  second cave system we were greeted by a flotilla of tourists and vendors selling drinks and fresh fruits. I snagged two bags of mango, then for some reason got my picture taken by numerous Vietnamese people ?

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As we drifted back towards the start point, the batty skipper began the hard sell. I had wondered what the steel box behind me contained, I presumed that it was safety equipment. How wrong I was ! It contained all manner of tourist tat, embroidered bags, t-shirts, tea towels. The batty skipper who was now becoming rather irritating kept pushing this junk in my face. I could feel an impending sense of humour failure‘. Eventually she got the message and packed it all back away for the next unsuspecting tourist. As we neared the starting point, she began to say repeatedly “Monsiuer Tip”. By repeatedly I am not exaggerating either. Over and over like a stuck bloody record. The boat was secured and I thrust $3 in her hand. The cheeky f–ker then asked for more !!! Discussing our experience with Toan he was disgusted with how she had behaved. He wanted to report her to the Police, but we didn’t know her name or the boat number.

Hitting the road again we made our way through Nimh Binh. The road is so dramatic. Imagine ridng through Ha Long Bay on land. The road snaked through the huge limestone formations, allowing Sylvie to enjoy being on the bike for the first time that day.

We eventually reaching the large temple complex just outside. We paused for a late lunch, having some excellent pork and goat. Nothing can prepare you for the hundreds of vendors outside the temple. Amazingly all selling exactly the same things. Not sure about you, but I am sure that I don’t think when visiting a temple “I must buy some Power Ranger figures” or “So that’s where they sell the tacky plastic singing birds“. Apparently they have every whim catered for !

The temple was thronging with tourists. I would have expected that at 5pm they would begin to diminish a little, but apparently not. The late hour did provide some excellent shadows through the temples columns.

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The sides of the temple were lined with statues of Buddhist monks, presumably now passed on. The knees and fingers of the statues were worn smooth from people touching them for good luck. The luck hadn’t worked for the numerous beggars who lined the corridors who simply said “Money” to us !

Continuing up the hill towards the main temple, I noticed a golden glow emanating from the interior. I recall Toan telling me that the temple housed one of the largest statues of The Buddha in the world. He was not wrong, and The Buddha was looking extremely resplendent and enlightened today.

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It was a beautiful sight indeed. Nervously approaching the big man himself, I offered some Dong to him and prayed again. Hoping that he would grant me a safe journey and empower me with some of his wisdom. I sure need it at times !

Dusk was approaching as we left the temple. With thoughts of the dangers of riding at night at the forefront of our mind, we rode back to Nimh Binh. Despite the light falling it was still as dramatic as before. Nimh Binh was a little difficult to negotiate, so cue us riding around in circles looking for the pitiful excuse for a hotel. Unfortunately we found it, and it wasn’t that great. Again re-enforcing my view that hotels in the north are much worse than the south, and you pay significantly more for that privilege !

Nothing significant to report on things carried on bikes. I think I am becoming immune to it !





Day 16 – Vinh to Thanh Hoa – 240KM

30 04 2012

Toan’s and my night in the Asean Hotel in Vinh was without incident. The room although small was fine, and quite cheap at VND300000 per night. However there is a definite quality difference between hotels in South Vietnam and the North. The hotels in the north seem much poorer quality, looking tired and in need of renovation. There seems to be a difference in the people too. They aren’t as friendly towards me, and I hear “Tay Ba Lo” (Foreign Back Packer) much more frequently here.

Vinh is a major city in the north east of Vietnam. It is the closest city to the birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. Unsurprisingly most of the day’s activities were dedicated to Uncle Ho. In the centre of Vinh is a 20m statue of Uncle Ho, and the first stop on the tour. It is surrounded by manicured lawns, pristine pavements and lots of red flags. The first thing that I noticed are the rousing Vietnam songs played by multiple loudspeakers over the area. Approaching Uncle Ho, a young Army Guard approached me and asked where I was from (Vietnam Standard Question Number 2). Then he said “NO” as I approached the statue, and moved me on ! At least he didn’t add Tay Ba Lo to the sentence. I think it’s because tomorrow is Independence Day here in Vietnam, and statue had probably been secured.

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After a rather tasty Bun Bo Ha Noi, we rode north towards the tomb of Ho Chi Minh’s mother (Loan). It was a relatively short journey to the site, which was bustling with Vietnamese tourists paying their respects to Ho Chi Minh’s mother. Toan seems to have a fascination with making me lose weight through exercise. So pressing a pack of incense onto my and arming me with a lighter he said “Go and light incense for me, give thanks for Ho Chi Minh and what he has done for Vietnam”. Climbing the all too familiar steps now in the heat, my old friend perspiration said hello. I looked a mess, even more so than usual.

Reaching the top of the plateau, Loan’s mausoleum was huge.  Devoted crowds were gathered around, all lighting incense to pay their respects. I felt very out of place and this was exacerbated by the stony stares delivered to me by the faithful. One older lady was faithfully praying, reading a huge prayer from a book. Her devotion fascinated me and I watched her for several minutes.

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I lit the incense as Toan requested. This produced even greater stares from the faithful. ‘Why is this Tay Ba Lo lighting incense?’. Nevertheless, I did and hopefully made Toan proud.

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Next stop was Sen Village, birthplace of Ho Chi Minh. It was a very small place, with the bamboo hut showing how him and his family would have lived. I bought the tackiest Ho Chi Minh gift that I could find, along with a T-Shirt. However It did provide the first opportunity for me and Toan to get our picture taken together though.

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We had a very long ride ahead of us to Thanh Hoa, which was going to be our overnight stop. We rejoined the now familiar Ho Chi Minh Road and pushed east wards. The road was excellent and quiet, so it allowed us to really make progress. We averaged 90KPH and it was amazing just blasting through the green tea plantations, over taking the slower traffic such as buffalo pulling trailers or ploughs. I felt alive, I felt energetic, I felt free. Yes it may seem like a cliche but riding today made me feel like I did not have a care in the world. Rat Bike had some open heart surgery yesterday on it’s carbs. The difference today was amazing. It purred like a kitten,

Whilst on the Ho Chi Minh Road we can across orange growers selling their wares. We stopped to purchase some oranges and share some ‘monk biscuits’ with the kids.

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However I did muse upon something. Something that has been itching and tickling me since I arrived in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh is a demi God in Vietnam. He is everywhere. For most of the journey we have ridden on the Ho Chi MInh Road. The road has taken us into bustling cities, high into the mountains and today into arrid almost desert like areas. He is like the friendly Big Brother always looking down on you, trying to bestow his knowledge onto you. It’s not difficult to see why. Ho Chi Minh came from a very humble background. His major philosophy was that the Vietnamese should study to make their country great. This to me seems like a fine desire. During this past trip I have ridden all over Vietnam. I see a country that is still early in the throws of major development, but a country that is still strong. Like any developing nation they have their growing pains, but don’t we all ? Ho Chi Minh and his teachings have unified all aspects of Vietnam, enforcing a national identity and pride. If you have read my blog ‘A Sense Of Pride’ you will see that I have talked about this before. It’s something that I feel Brit’s lack.

The other thing that I have noticed is Ho Chi Minh’s words everywhere. Generally in red and on the roadside. The propaganda posters always show two things. A small picture of Ho Chi MInh in the elevated corner. Also a member of the Army or Navy, the ubiquitous AK47 assault rifle in the background. Just a reminder about who is in charge.

In conclusion, I feel that the heart of Vietnam is in the country. The Viet Cong recognise this and place banners and posters everywhere in the country. The farmers who toil every day to provide for their family. The small shop repairing motorcycles (Rua Xe Om) giving people mobility and freedom. These are what makes this country proud.

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Cue the cheesy picture…

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Day 15 – Ky Anh to Vinh – 125KM

28 04 2012

Considering the general ‘grittiness’ of the hotel in Ky Anh, and the fact that I slept underneath the mosquito net..the night was quite restful. Toan described the hotel as “Designed By Farmers”. Obviously there is an Vietnamese architectural or interior design skill that I am not aware of.  I got at least six hours which completely recharged the batteries. It was needed as I was really struggling yesterday.

We visited the same place to eat as last night. True enough to form I got insulted again, so I am glad to see last night wasn’t an isolated incident ! Leaving behind the dismal town of Ky Anh we continued northwards on National Highway 1. The traffic was not as busy, but there was still a heady mix of trucks and mini buses screaming towards me. I think that I am becoming immune to such things as the don’t seem to bother me now. There are still a couple of “Asian-isms” that I don’t get. 1. The shared glass/cup – go to a table or water dispenser and there is a “universal glass” for all to use. 2. Spitting – Asian’s don’t seem to ming hawking back and spitting out. It’s a horrendous sound especially first thing in the morning.

Our first stop was to the Dong Loc three way crossroads. I was not expecting what I saw. Leagues of tourists at the site, all had come to pay homage to the ten Vietnamese girls whom had laid down their lives for Vietnam. Dong Loc was an important supply route for the Viet Cong from the north to the south of Vietnam linking into the Ho Chi Minh Road The Americans bombed the road many times. Each time, a dedicated team of young female workers would repair the road in order to let the supply trucks through. One fateful afternoon, the ten girls heard the approaching B52’s and hid in a bomb crater. A large bomb landed close and killed them. Their death embodied the struggle of the Viet Cong against the Americans, and they entered into martyrdom. The Dong Loc crossroads became a shrine for the girls. Vietnamese from all over the country come to Dong Loc to give thanks to the girls and how they laid down their lives for the country. Toan told me the story and I could see how proud he was.

I explored the site on my own, walking around some superb pieces of art work.

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My feet took me round to the temple and monument. Large numbers of tourists were offering gifts to the graves of the girls. The girls who were killed before they could experience love, or the joy of childbirth. I looked at each of the graves, I wanted to take pictures but it just didn’t feel right. The youngest was 17 and oldest was 24. War is an ugly thing. I walked around to the pagoda were numbers of people were praying. The incense was thick in the air, it’s sweet aroma and smoke cloying and making my eyes smart. A very friendly guide told me that I could take pictures.

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Something felt very wrong about me being there. Here was I, wearing an Aeropostale t-shirt saying NYC whilst drinking a Pepsi. I felt like I represented all that the girls had died against. A sobering feeling indeed.

We left Dong Loc making our way towards the city of Vinh. The next stop was Huong Dich, another major site in the Viet Cong struggle against the Americans. It was here that the Viet Cong Generals planned their attacks of Khe Sanh. In addition it was an ancient Buddhist temple, first enshrined in 1282. Toan had said “Take plenty of water, it’s not close”. He was not kidding…

The 7km walk ranged from hilly roads to walking over streams, up and down huge rocks. It was an arduous climb especially in the afternoon sun. I was soaked in sweat, my poor Irish skin not coping so well with the heat and humidity. Still it was beautiful. Hardly seeing anyone and only hearing the crickets and cicadas, and the occasional bird. I reached a marker stone that said “Houng Dich 1750m”. I hoped it was incorrect as I had already been walking for ages. I met a couple walking back who simply said “Take Picture” ! So I did :

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A cable car had just been built to convey people to the top of mountain. I was reticent to pay the 100000 Dong until I saw another marker stone saying ‘Houng Dich 1000m’. I looked up, it was a very long and rocky path up. I yielded and paid. The cable car ride was eerie. It’s actually the first time I have been in one. Virtually silently gliding up the hill, it provided some amazing views.

My heart sunk as I exited the cable car and saw more stairs, then the inevitable gauntlet of vendors. Gliding past them like a cable car, I reached the foot steps of the pagoda. I slowly made my way up them. A young monk saw me struggling and told me to sit. I took his advice and rested my weary frame. He waited for me at the top of stairs and in pigeon English told me about the pagoda’s history. He lit incense for me to place and to pray. I had a conversation with the ever compassionate Buddha, so I hope he listened.

The monk seemed to so happy to spend time with me. He took pictures of me, and even wanted to buy my sunglasses ! I would have just given them to him, but I needed them for the journey. Perhaps I will send them in the post when I am finished ?

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It was getting close to dusk, so I bid my farewells to the monk and walked off. He took pity on me and thrust packets of cookies into my hands ! So off I walked on the return route, armed with my monk biscuits. Apart from a group of local guys asking me to go swimming with them, which was inviting given the copious amounts of water I was leaking the walk back was uneventful. There was still the blissful silence though.

Dusk was beginning to fall so we got back onto the madness of National Highway 1 towards Vinh. Tonight’s hotel is considerably better, it doesn’t come with free mould.

Things that I have seen carried on a motorbike today :-

1. A Pig
2. A Buffalo
3. An Inflateable Goose (lost but later recovered)





Day 14 – Phong Nha to Ky Anh – 110KM

27 04 2012

Morning was brought to my attention by a huge thunderclap over Phong Nha. The heavens had opened, spilling forth it’s watery contents all over the sleepy town. Whilst Phong Nha is a small place, it is dramatically flanked by huge cliffs towering over the town. The green of the ferns and trees sparsely covering the cliffs screamed in HD colour against the slate grey sky. My tired and gritty eyes appreciated the contrast, but my ears did not ! I grabbed a quick coffee and skipped breakfast as the schedule was tight today.

Half of the day was taken by a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site ‘Phong Nha Cave’, and ‘Fairy Cave’. This was probably number two on my Vietnam bucket list. Access to the caves is only by boat, so I joined a Vietnamese family group from Da Nang and began our journey. As we slowly pushed off into the Son River, the lazy diesel engine quietly started and we were off. The boat’s gentle motion sent me to sleep like a baby. I awoke to snap a picture of two guys collecting weeds from the river.

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The scenery was truly magnificent, and made more dramatic by the mist hugging the mountain tops.

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Falling back asleep, I woke just as we reached the mouth of the Phong Nha cave. I was unprepared for the surreal experience that came next. The engine was cut, and the ‘skipper’ began to row in. Now I must mention that the majority of the crew and skippers on these tourist boats are women. Their upper body strength must be incredible to row a boat that is probably 9m long.

We glided silently into the darkness. Occasionally large rock formations would be illuminated by different colour lights. What made it more strange was the sheer amount of tourist boats all rowing silently past. It was like a conveyor belt for boats. Reaching the end of the system we were able to get out and take a walk around. It was a perilous experience, and my Hi-Tec Magnums were not the best at gripping. So with a sandy bottom our group explored the system.

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Leaving Phong Nha Cave, we began an arduous climb to Fairy Cave. At this point I was extremely glad that it was raining because I was sweating like the proverbial stuck pig. The steps were relentless and not exactly even in height. They ranged from a few centimeters to nearly a meter in height. It made the going really tough, especially with the wet and slippy floor. However the view over the river was breathtaking…or perhaps that was just the exercise ? I was annoyed by the vendors selling postcards, ice creams, and even plastercast busts of Ho Chi Minh every 20m.

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Thankfully we got to Fairy Cave without the requirement for oxygen or a defibrillator. Great Success ! I got slapped on the shoulder by an old woman in there, and another woman simply said ‘Marry Me’. You could at least buy me a drink first my dear !

I was thrown together by circumstance with the Nghia family group. However they made every effort to make me feel welcome. They shared their lunch with me in Fairy Cave, and it was a very tasty chicken sandwich. I really appreciated their openness and generosity, and it made me think back to sharing a picnic with a group of plastic surgeons in Busan, South Korea. This kindness and generosity is why I love Asia.

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Making our way out of the cave, we again had to run the gauntlet of vendors. They were rather more insistent this time, and my politeness wore thin. At one point one vendor was walking alongside waving a bag of sweet corn in my face. Unscathed we got back onto the boat. Definitely feeling more tired now, I woke again to a corn cob being waved in my face. The Nghia family had bought some and again shared it with me. It was lovely too, warm tasty and filling. Once we reached shore I bought them coffee to say thank you for their kindness. We had a nice conversation and they practised their English, which is better than my Vietnamese.

Time was again of the essence so after a quick fishy hot pot, we hit the road. Following Ho Chi Minh’s road again towards Ky Anh. Now Rat Bike has started to develop some more serious issues. The battery has all but died and refuses to charge. So I have to start it on the kick start, which is no big deal as I like ‘retro’. However it is running rather badly, coughing and spluttering then kicking back into life. It’s made riding Rat Bike a little less enjoyable today.

The weather had cleared so we made our way up into the hills toward National Highway One. Pausing to reconnect with our bottoms on the border of Quang Tri province, I snapped a picture of a faded Vietcong sign. Those who have been reading my journey will know that I am sucker for these. I love the form and faded nature of this propaganda. What was the message that the sign purveyed ? What issues affected the people at it’s time ? It’s abandoned nature is beautiful.

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The scenery behind the sign was beautiful too !

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Reaching National Highway One, and after being briefly insulted by a Pump Attendant we continued north. I was really beginning to struggle due to exhaustion at this point. I could feel my eyes beginning to roll in my head, and the sickly dizzy feeling that accompanies it. Not good when you consider the HGV’s screaming past/towards you a meter or so away.

After several coffee breaks we reached Ky Anh. First impressions were not good. It’s situated right on Highway 1, which is a deafening and dusty cacophony of horns and engines. As I stopped I saw a bus driving past with it’s passenger door open. A guy standing in the door way blatantly urinating off the bus, virtually into the face of a female rider. I am not easily shocked, but that’s just disgusting. Welcome to Ky Anh !

We didn’t have a hotel booked and checked a couple of guest houses in the area. The first one Toan came out looking ashen faced. He said “Many spiders in that room, not good”. The second and better of the two has mould on the walls. The best part is the half chewed bathroom door. It looks like a dog has gone to town and literally chewed the bottom 10cm of the door away. Then we have the electric breaker switches next to the shower. Finally we have the din from Highway 1. Very dez rez !!

Dinner was a simple Pho Bo (beef). It came with free insults from the chef, and him telling Toan that I should go to the local whorehouse !

If circumstance forces you to pass through Ky Anh, for the love of whatever deity you choose KEEP DRIVING !

Nothing exciting on the things carried on motorbikes today.

Tomorrow – Ky Anh to Vinh.

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