What you can’t carry on the back of a motorcycle just isn’t worth carrying!
There are about 5 million motorcycles in Hanoi alone, with a population of about 7 million. The sheer number of bikes on the roads is overwhelming, especially as a pedestrian – even the pavements are used to park the bikes otherwise they are charged for parking on the road. Crossing the road is somewhat of an experience – You just need to go for it – just don’t step backwards – the bikes will determine whether they pass in front or behind you just don’t dither!
The bikes are used to transport just about everything – we saw so many obscure things loaded on the back of the bikes, fridges to trees, some we captured some we missed.
Families of four or five going about their business. Interestingly, if anyone is wearing a helmet it seems to be the parents and the kids ride without a helmet. The legal age to ride a bike is 16 but on many occasion we saw younger kids in school uniforms riding to and from school. Helmets are compulsory but not everyone seemed to abide by this and the police often turned a blind eye.
Then to the animals, hens; ducks; dogs; pigs; and even buffalo if the locals couldn’t afford the lorry to take it to market.
Paniers are definitely overrated and it seems all you really need is industrial sized sellotape or you can just hold on to it with your spare
Travel two hundred and nineteen miles north west of Hanoi and you will encounter stunning rice terraces that have been sculpted over centuries. Mu Cang Chai is a rural district of Yen Bai Province and a photographer’s paradise.
During the summer, the terraces bulge with ripening rice stems that blanket the hills in a vibrant green and by early autumn, the rice plants have turned a bewitching golden yellow, ready for the harvest. In wintertime, the lonely terraces fill with water, creating cascading rows of reflective infinity pools and then once spring arrives, the terraces are transformed into anthills of activity, as the farmers plant a new crop.
Mu Cang Chai is a six to eight-hour road journey from Hanoi with stretches of hazardous roads through infinite and primeval landscapes, grandiose ranges of mountains and in my opinion the most amazing landscapes of rice-terraced fields to be found in Vietnam. Unlike Sapa, the area of Mu Cang Chai and it’s mountain culture remains raw and untouched, although as the area becomes more popular, tourism will no doubt have an impact, I just hope a balance is found for everyone.
Hiking is by far the best way to see the beauty of the rice terraces and encounter local people, such as the Black H’mong, so unless you speak Vietnamese, hiring a guide will enable you to interact and learn about the culture and you will see some great locations that you may otherwise miss out on.
With the heat and humidity we encountered in September, keeping the photography gear light was a priority, lens wise I took a 24mm – 70mm f/2.8 and a 85mm f/1.4. I found the 85mm the best option as I could use it for portraits (especially in low light inside people’s houses) and the 85mm worked for a lot of the landscapes too. Despite having a good travel tripod, I decided to ditch the tripod to help save weight which enabled me to carry more liquid and some food which I shared with the locals.
On reflection did I get all of the images I envisaged? No, but I enjoyed the experiences which is what I think travel is all about. The weather and time were also out of my control, but I grabbed every opportunity I could photographically. If I were to return to Mu Cang Chai would I do anything differently? I think I would spend more time in the area, but I would still have little control of the weather.
Iceland has become one of the world’s most popular destinations, especially for photographers. Undoubtedly, the Northern Lights are one of the main reasons people visit Iceland, hoping to see the incredible and magical Aurora Borealis. Fran and I were lucky to see them for one night during our two-week tour, so we were very fortunate.
Iceland has a multitude of things to do and see, but the time of the year can determine what is and is not possible. Fran & I visited in the winter during Christmas and New Year, so because of the weather we did not get to see and experience everything we had planned to do. The Solheimasandur Plane Wreck and the Northern Lights made up for what we missed out on and I did not leave disappointed.
The weather is one aspect that is very difficult to plan for, but with hindsight I would not go in December or January, unless you just want to visit the main attractions.
As we like to get off the beaten path, we hired a 4×4 and driving was still challenging, mainly due to the wind and ice. Another challenge is places close down; perhaps this is because of the Christmas break? If you plan on visiting Iceland in December or January, plan well.
The Solheimasandur Plane Wreck
In 1973 a United States Navy DC plane ran out of fuel and crashed on the black beach at Sólheimasandur, in the South Coast of Iceland. Fortunately, everyone in that plane survived. Later it turned out that the pilot had switched over to the wrong fuel tank. The remains are still on the sand close to the sea.
When Fran & I went in search of the DC plane, you could still drive from the main road to the location of the plane, so we did not hike in, but I can still remember the anticipation as we were looking for it and from the route we took, it seemed to just magically appear.
The scenery of the white abandoned DC plane on the black sand is surreal and a photographer’s paradise, you really won’t be disappointed.
As they now forbid all vehicles to drive to the location of the plane wreck, you will have to hike in and out. The walk from the main road to the plane I would estimate at roughly an one hour, so the round trip would probably take about two hours, so take something to drink.
There are no signs on the main road to point out where the plane is (unless there are now?) and the plane cannot be seen from the road.
Since our visit, there is a newly made car park on the side of the road that provides an identifiable clue and provides a safe place to park. The GPS coordinates are (63 27.546-19 21.887)
A Few Travel Tips
They design the roads in Iceland to allow it to blow the snow off of them; So pulling off the road in the winter is not a good idea for many reasons.
If you travel in the winter to off the beaten track places, make sure you have plenty of fuel, food, and warm clothing.
You can get live updates of where the snowploughs have been and the roads they are clearing, but conditions can change quickly.
If you are held up by the weather and need to take an alternative route, you may find that accommodation is not available when you arrive in a small town or village.
In relation to winter conditions, you might think about the snow? When conditions are not so good, the wind chill and ice are the most challenging and problematic things to deal with and will have a real impact on the distance you can travel and the time it will take.
Like most things in life, it’s all about common sense.
Twenty-eight years ago I traveled across Europe via an Inter Rail Pass, but despite getting as far a Poland, I never made it to Romania to visit Transylvania and the famous castle and the stories of Dracula.
As this summer approached Fran and I both started thinking about where we could go. We had both thoughts about taking the VW van to Romania previously, but we decided that taking the van would eat into the time we would have in traveling in Romania. The plan was to fly to Bucharest, spend a few days in the city, then catch the train into Transylvania, spend a few days in Brasov, then catch another train to Sighișoara, spend some time there, then get a final train to Sibiu and hire a car so that we could get off the beaten track.
Bucharest is a big city that is split into six sectors; the transport system is like any other city. However, currently there is no metro from the airport to sector 3 where we wanted to be based, so if you are traveling independently, your choices are either, taxi or bus. We opted for the bus, which was a bit of a challenge if it is your first time.
I hope this info helps others who have just landed. From the arrivals area follow the picture signs for buses, walk down the stairs until you can see the road outside, when you walk out of the doors, turn right, keep walking straight ahead past all of the other machines that look like they dispense tickets, eventually you will see a little hut with a glass window, this is where you can purchase tickets. Might sound simple, but that little ticket both is not easy to locate, as there is no information anywhere.
I can remember watching Michael Palin visiting Palatul Parlamentului (The Palace Of Parliament) informing people that Nicolae Ceausescu’s idea was to redesign Bucharest by constructing a series of impressive buildings meant to prove to the world how wealthy and powerful was the Socialist Republic of Romania was, but the thing that stuck in my mind was the sheer size of the building. I did some homework as to how we could visit this building prior to leaving the UK, so I knew we had to take our passports to gain access and that there would be security checks like at the airport as it’s a working political building.
Initially, I was put off by the fact that you have to be guided, but you have no other choice, as it is a working political building. However, the guide we had was excellent, I learned a lot about Ceausescu and the impact on the people of Romania and the history of the building. Despite only being able to take pictures handheld, we were able to take some images inside of the building.
Palatul Parlamentului is no doubt one of the most controversial administrative buildings in the world. Maybe Ceausescu didn’t succeed in his initial goal of redesigning the face of Bucharest, but by building it he made sure that his work will never be forgotten and personally, I think it is well worth a visit.
On the southern slope of the Magura Codlea sits a small Transylvanian village called Holbav. Although Holbav is only about 25km away from Brasov City, it feels like you have stepped back in time.
Holbav is a world away in relation to Brasov which is what makes it so appealing to me. Not much seems to have changed in Holbav over the last 100 years, there is still no electricity, no running water and none of the other comforts taken for granted in the modern Europe most of us live in.
I think Holbav represents what Romania must have been like a long time ago, and this was what I wanted to photograph.
I had read about a photographer named Vlad who lives in Brasov and discovered that I could hire him as a guide, to be honest I was not sure what to expect, but after looking at his photographs I was hooked.
As Fran & I did not have a car in Brasov getting to Holbav would have been difficult and as I cannot speak Romanian, it would have been impossible. I did not understand where to go, so we took a punt and hired Vlad as a guide.
Vlad met us in Brasov’s main square and as we walked to his car, we talked about rural Romania and photography, it became clear that Vlad was passionate about the places and people he photographs and this only made the journey more enjoyable and valuable as he told me about his Romania.
We passed what was Holbav and then continued onto a dirt track road where we passed local people with horses and carts until we came to a small tree lined valley where Vlad parked the car.
We walked up a steep dirt path in to the woods and walked for about 40 minutes until I could see a clearing ahead, Vlad then said “see that shack on the ridge, that’s where we are meeting Anna and her husband”.
As we approached the ridge, a dog barked and I could see a figure waving in the distance. The scenery was amazing even though it was overcast I kept thinking this is such an incredible place. When we arrived at what was a small holding Anna & Peter came to meet us, Anna then lead us along a steep ridge where there was a cow grazing and Vlad translated, “Anna his bringing in the cow for the night” As Anna walked with the cow, I took images as we followed her back to the small holding where there were goats, chickens, cats and the dog, together with a calf, it was a photographic paradise for me.
After taking more photographs they invited in us to Annas home, where she offered us fresh milk, cheese and other food. Vlad translated my questions and thoughts and although I could not speak a word of Romanian and Anna not a word of English, I felt like I knew Anna and had a connection. I heard some hilarious stories and some sad facts about how their way of life is dying out as young people leave rural Romania for life’s modern trappings.
The one thing that struck me, was how happy they both seemed, undoubtedly their life is hard and their material possessions limited, but they had something that was special and to me priceless.
I don’t remember how long we stayed, but after sampling home made Cherry brandy (Holbav Moonshine) it was time to head back to the car. As we left and walked back along the ridge admiring the vistas, I realised how lucky I was to have had such a great experience and to have met two very remarkable people and invited in to their lives and home. I also realised how lucky I was to have Fran and share such a magical experience.
We live in fast changing times and as Anna stated their way of life is dying, so it will disappear one day and I am pleased I have witnessed it before it vanishes.
What made Holbav and the people so special? Find out for yourself, it is the only way.