Week 2 – Chiltern Challenge 50k

My legs have been quite heavy all week after the Wendover Woods recce.  On Monday I managed 30 minutes easy and on Tuesday I managed 10k easy around the woods.  After a 0330 start to catch a flight and lots of walking in CDG airport I went for a short 30 min leg stretch around the film camp before another 10k on Thu morning.  I also had a 70% dark chocolate magnum – never seen one on these shores but it was epic.

Friday was an epic travelling day so I took a rest day and arrived home at 2300.

I awoke at 0600 on Saturday and had some coffee.  I also started packing for the local 50k Chiltern Challenge Ultra which I hadn’t entered but was hoping for a response to my “can I enter on the day?” questions!  At 0700 I was told I could so I finished packing and discussed the plan with my patient better half.  So I drove 40 min to the race, registered and got my bag ready.


*Parched earth, hard on my feet*

With it being a last minute thing I really made a mess of some key preparations.  I definitely didn’t east enough breakfast (coffee, 2x digestives, banana and a Tribe energy bar).  This really came into play after kilometer 30.

I started too fast for my fitness, the course, the weather and the distance! It wasn’t suicidal but it made things harder later.  My first few km was pretty quick and I was close to the front so I backed off recognising that it would be unsustainable.

Checkpoints were well stocked.  CP1 had “you scream, I scream, we all scream for Soreen”!    CP2 had watermelon.  CP3 & 4 had iced towels for the neck.

I ran with the ladies winner between CP1-2, very friendly and great runner – her first ultra too.


*Beautiful Chilterns*

I got no blisters but a couple of hot spots – not sure 50 miles would have been pretty.  The trail shoes were a bit hard for the parched earth.


I kept a 26 min/5 km pace until 30k and wasn’t suffering although it was really hot.  Just before CP3 we got attacked by a nest that must have been disturbed.  I got stung once on the hand and 3 times on the back of the left knee – one was through my calf guard. Through my calf guard!  We reached the CP and lots of others had also been stung.

I pushed on as the quickest way back was following the route but 30-40k wasn’t easy and it was probably about 12k (advertised).

I was able to run a bit from CP4 to the finish.  Garmin battery died 500m from the finish but it recorded most of the run. Finish time: 5:42:14


Je suis un ultra runner! It felt pretty good running into the chute and I finished 23rd but was later downgraded to 35th as some earlier starters ran quicker.  Out of 247 finished I’m pretty happy with that especially as I basically entered on a whim, I mean what kind of person wakes up on a Saturday and runs an ultra?! I didn’t realise the football wasn’t on in the evening.  Doesn’t sound like I missed much.


Breakfast and nutrition – have a plan.
Charge watch.
Consider your pace for the conditions and terrain and distance – especially for 50s coming up.
Shoe choices for terrain.
Ultra vest worked well.

IMG_4029Nice medal, ate watermelon #TeamLucy drove home.  I had a salt bath and used ibuprofen gel on my feet. The biggest pain was really the wasp stings!

Sunday will now be a rest day and then I get to do more travel next week – I get to go to the best places!

Did I enjoy it?  Sort of.  It wasn’t an A race.  To test kit, pain thresholds and properly prepare for the bigger races I need to go long, get blisters, be tired, wet, hangry and overcome all of those.  I spent the flights reading and listening to ultra podcasts; Kilian’s BGR, the Dragon’s Back race, you name it.  Full immersion to get those 1%ers that will help me finish the hardest multi-day ultra in the world.




Reconnoitre. Time Spent, seldom wasted.

Despite picking up a random cough by the end of the week and working a lot I’ve actually had a good week training and pretty much hit my training targets for the week.

On Monday I followed up the 10K race with a very slow plod/jog (8:30m/m) around the block for just over half hour in the AM and cycled 10 miles in the evening.  I could feel that my body temperature was high and I was perilously close to being ill.  Luckily I survived (joke). Tuesday, not wanting to risk illness or injury, I jogged round the block.

Salad king in the small ring

Salad king in the small ring – bossing the avo/grapefuit combo.

On Wednesday I finished work and headed into the woods for a hills session.  The longest hill has about 50m of height change and takes 3:20-3:50 to complete.  An excellent session for building threshold and hills endurance.  I did 5 reps which I could probably increase next time as I wasted time after the first set trying to work out the best way down – what goes up, must come down! Same way down as up was best.  I read in Jonny Muir’s book that he’d do reps up a 25m hill so I should count myself as very fortunate!  It felt so good to be back on the training.  I even foam rolled afterwards.

Thursday was a rest day, not wanting to overdo it.  I ate quite well most of the week.  Friday was a bit of a cheat day and I felt like crap for doing it.  11 weeks to go and those hills are going to be a lot harder carrying these kilos!

As I said Friday was a cheat day but at least I got a plod around the block in.  I ate a salad lunch most of the week using up some yellow pastry salty picnic snacks but overall my diet was good.  On Friday I had loads of chips for lunch and they were amazing!  I got hungry in the evening so smashed in a sandwich chaser after my pasta.

Salming - fast and bright! (And Swedish)

Salming – fast and bright! (And Swedish)

So having written up to the last line on Saturday AM pre-Parkrun it was an enormous shock to run a course best in the heat at South Oxhey in 18:55.  I had company up the first hill but they soon fell away and finished over a minute behind.  He was a strong all round type who looked like Chuck Norris so he was probably surprised to see a fat dad bod wheezing and panting up the hill and then disappear out of sight.  We were 3:37 Km pace for the first Km so I was especially surprised when he pushed the pace.  I was able to do another Km at that pace before falling off the pace.  It was enough though.  I ran in Salming Speed 6 shiny shoes, Swedish but thankfully that was all they’d win on Saturday as England strolled to a 2-0 victory in the World Cup quarter final.

Trig Point field

Trig Point field

On Sunday we headed out to Wendover Woods.  The playground is still being built but the kids enjoyed the Gruffalo trail and old fort.  I enjoyed a recce of the WW50 route.  The course (5 x 10 mile loops with 10000ft climb) has been likened to the Barkley Marathon, but shorter.  Some of the hills are brutal.  There is a descent under overhead cables which is very similar to the Testicle Spectacle except on a British scale!

Testicle Spectacle

Note the arrow on the tree to the left.

Thankfully it was dry today but I know November will be very different and I may need an ice axe and crampons to get up some of the slopes.  Poles definitely would have helped.  I got to run with butterflies in a beautiful wood so worth the experience.  The GPX was easy to follow although I missed a couple of turns.  Luckily it will be marked so should be easier and I hope to do a couple more loops before then.  Time spent and all that.  I managed around 1:40 for my loop…

It looks easy when it's a cartoon!

It looks easy when it’s a cartoon!

Scores on the doors:

Days active:6
Activities: 7
Parkrun: 18:55, 1st and Course Best.
Session: Hills 5x 3:37 (50m ascent)
Total Miles: Running 37; Cycling 11;
Total Time: Running 5hr 12min; Cycling 40min
Ascent: 3822ft (1164m)

So that’s a good start… 11 weeks to Snowdon 50.




Summer Runnin’ isn’t that fast

But it is a blast! I managed to fit in 4 hours of activity this week which is a good point to build on as I start to prepare properly for my first ultra.

On Monday, after reading last week about how any exercise is good, I went for a cycle ride around the lanes.  It was great to spin the legs and get the heart going for the first time in over year.  40 minutes of steady cycling.

On Tuesday I increased the mileage on my standard 4 mile woods loop by putting in an extra K easy loop for 4.7 miles.  It’s been tough staying focused with so much going on at work but I know I have to carry on or the end result will be painful or terrible (or both).

I managed to squeeze in 10k before work on the trails on Wednesday which was an excellent way to start the day.  The day ended with a good discussion about Legacy the All Blacks based popular management/leadership book.

I took Thursday off as deadlines started to approach on work and my legs were heavy.  I took advantage of the weather and an early finish on Friday to do some Orienteering practice in the woods.  I understand why we don’t Orienteer in summer –  very overgrown!  That night we hatched a plan to go camping on Saturday night.  We were up early (as usual) and packed the car before I got called into work but luckily only for an hour… camping was still on!  We drove for 15 minutes and stayed at Aldenham park.  It has great playgrounds, a farm and you can make fires!  We walked around the Winnie the Pooh inspired 100 Aker Wood and slept soundly all night.

As soon as we awoke (0700) we packed up the campsite (0730) and were home by 0800!  Mainly because we’d brought the stove but no pans for coffee.  I changed and decided to run to the Bushey 10k start 4 miles away.  It was already hot and there are lots of hills around here so it was hardly gentle.  Not surprisingly I could feel it by half way in the 10k.  I started well and was not too far forward but the heat took its toll and I had to walk the vertical wall-esque hill at Km 5.  I didn’t get overtaken although it was a very light field.  I did manage to get under 42 minutes which was probably my ‘c’ goal in the heat (38:00 and 40:00) were A and B based on Parkruns recently.


A and T had a go at the 400m race with A finishing in top 10% and T doing a great job to run all the way and enjoying running to the finish.  You can never tell with 3 year olds!

Run: 26miles in 3hrs 30min with 660m climb
Cycle: 10 miles in 40min
Weight: 79.7Kg (loss 3Kg post run weight)

The plan – next week aiming for 5hrs total activities with 1000m of climb.

I’ve also mapped our the next 12 weeks to the Snowdon 50 miler… it’s time to train.  I’ve also eyed a weekend for my next Dragons Back Recce.  Day 3 this time and i’ll be based out of Machynlleth for a 2 day adventure from Dolgellau to Ceredigion.  30 Aug/1Sep if you’re interested.

From now on…

From Now On… 11 months to go

From now on, a month has passed and I am no more prepared for my races than previously.  I’ve read ‘It kept me off the streets’ by Martin Thomerson https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kept-Me-off-Streets-Sleepless/dp/1526203235 and Steve Birkenshaw’s ‘No map in hell’ but I am actually no closer to running an ultra.  I need to stop messing around.  I’ve got some twinges on my left abductor and foot, I woke up with terrible back pain one day this week.  I’m working 60 hr weeks which affects my motivation to train when actually it’s exactly what I need to unwind.

From now on, I’ve pumped my tyres up on my bike – according to Martin Thomerson’s book you don’t actually need to run that much to complete an ultra!

Race diary:

1 July – Bushey 10Km fun run
29 July – Lakes 5 Day Orienteering
22 Sep – Snowdon 50 Mile Ultra
27 – 28 Oct – OMM
17 Nov – Wendover Woods 50 Mile Ultra
20 May – The Dragon’s Back Race


Rather than actually doing the obvious and going for a run I did a bit of basic googling:

The Preparation

  1. Enter and pay for your ultra. Give yourself at least three months to prepare. If you’ve already signed up for the race, that’s a great motivator.


Done. 3 months to Snowdon, good (phew). You’d think I’d be motivated!

  1. Lose weight. For every pound you lose, you can gain about two minutes in an ultra (if you are lean, skip to the next step). Imagine running 50K while carrying a 10 to 20 pound weight. You can train harder without those extra pounds.

24 Jun – 82.7Kg. 5 weeks until Lakes. 1 Kg a week goal (how many times have I said this!)

  1. Find socks, clothes and shoes that you love for training and racing. Tick. Love the shopping bit!

Other than that I just need to run! It starts tonight, it starts tonight. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PluaPvhkIMU



Signing up for crazy races

https://days.to/20-may/2019 358 days to go until the Dragon’s Back Race.  I’ve always wanted to run a crazy race where you question IMG_3383your entire being.  So deposit paid, i’m in and the training needs to begin in earnest.  As you can see in this photo taken today of me winning the South Oxhey Parkrun (hilly and on grass)  I’m carrying excess timber and going to struggle to complete one of the hardest mountain races and the 315 km of Welsh hills spread over 5 days with 15000m of climbing. So I did a SWOT analysis so I can ensure my weakness are identified and I can really work on them.


 It all looks fairly simple.  Time in the hills, on similar terrain and lots of running.  No zoopy-zoopy!  I made some notes the other day under the training banner: Make mistakes – it’s where to make them, long runs, hills, rough trails, off-piste, back-to-back, test kit, test food, be efficient on the move.  Which means within a week i’m looking to cover hills, trail, long runs with a pack, a threshold pace run and a set of circuit training for core strength.  Finally for today as this is an epic I’ve bought an action cam and made a test video of today’s Parkrun and you can watch it here (only 1 min long). All comments welcomed – I’m learning and want a great memory video of my Welsh adventure next year!

Tomorrow i’m heading out to support the GUCR which goes close by.  145 mile along the Grand Union Canal from Birmingham to London.  They’ll have done 115 miles when I get to them!  Crazy stuff.

VMLM 2018 – Lies, damn lies and statistics

I had a really productive chat with a colleague today who convinced me to run London regardless of my result.  Sub 3 is probably at best a 20% chance.

Now for some stats… from Fetcheveryone.com  my 16 week pre-race mileage was 373 miles which will have included a holiday in Vietnam over new year.  My first sub 3 mileage… 373 miles…

Ave miles
Less than 10% chance…

So over 16 weeks it’s not looking good…

What about some graphs…Graphs

57% of statistics are made up…
Lies, damn lies and statistics…

I should that i’m not sure all my training uploaded correctly and can’t say I checked in detail.

  1. Rolling run miles. Similar to previous 2:55s.
  2. Run distance similar to first London but I was also cycling 50-100 miles a week training for an Ironman.
  3. Bad point – my ave run pace is about a min/mile slower.

2013 – 289 in last 90 days, 168 in last 60…

2013 stats


2018 – 308 in last 90 days, 236 in last 60…

2018 Stats


No half marathon race this time yet I ran 1:18 in 2013. No chance I could do that!

Recent fast and flat parkrun (furthest race this year) is 18:24.  That becomes 1:24 half and 2:56 full. This year’s parkrun time on a fast and flat compared to fall 2013 (also 2:55) is about 40 seconds slower.  If I put that new slower time (19:00) into a calculator… I get 1:27 and 3:02…

Remember calculators are for trained people!  I’m about 5Kg too heavy to run well.

Using http://www.attackpoint.org/trainingpaces.jsp to get a 10k time of just under 40:00.  I’m going to use 40:00 as my 10k time for https://feelrace.com/fr.pl?th=_Marco my favourite calculator… which says 3:09… uses a negative split profile and starts comfortably noting the heat and lack of training.  I’m going to use this and set 3:10 as my Australian training should help me withstand the 21 degree heat wave! I think I rarely ran in less than 21 degrees!


The Marco Plan!

So 3:10 it is.  Will I? won’t I?


VLM Training – Week 3

Training for Sub 3 – Week 3 – 12 to 18 Feb 18

Goal: Total 69 Km (43 Miles) Long Run 26 Km inc 16km at M pace (16 Miles with 10)

Weight: Unknown… oh the mystery!

The plan:

Monday and Friday are the planned rest days. Tuesday has 13km (8 miles). Wednesday 6km (4 miles) recovery. Thursday 18Km (11 miles) Saturday 6km (4 miles) recovery. Sunday 26 Km inc 16km at M pace (16 Miles with 10)

Monday was rest or cross training but I didn’t want to waste a day in port so eased my tight calf muscles out of bed for a slow recovery 4km. My legs actually felt much better after the run. I kept my HR below 130 so the training load should be minimal. I’ll be glad to do less walking for 48 hours.

I also played with my watch to finally put the %max HR screen on the HR page.

Book: I finished Duel in the Sun which is the Beardsley v Salazar Boston 1982 story. Interesting from a non-running perspective but not that insightful. Started Sapiens.

On Tuesday, I rose gleefully at 0515 and did an easy hour (12k @ 5:00).  Legs were still a little heavy and my feet were sore. Today’s run was probably a little slower than I’d have liked but the average HR was about 75% which is right in the middle of the training range for a General Aerobic run 70% -81%. I think taking it easier while I build training load (and reduce weight burden) will be better than trying too hard too soon. As I mentioned last week, I also have to account for the heat which could be worth 3-5 minutes over 3 hours or 30 seconds for a 5k.

We arrived in Sydney on Wednesday; what an iconic city. 4 miles recovery took me past Mrs Macs Chair for a view of the Opera House – never gets old! During my last 2 days of running I’ve had some plantar fasciitis (pf) issues I judge to be as a result of the Melbourne walking expeditions. I won’t rule out overtraining as I was a bit slack during January and so I’m taking it easy: luckily it is yet to affect my actual training sessions. Was tough in 34 degree heat though.

After declaring some pf pain on Wednesday, I managed 18km on Thursday with no issues, at a faster pace and good HR. Hopefully that is that all sorted now. Feeling really good about my running right now. I just hope I can lose weight and speed up ready for London. My leaving party on Thursday night where I was very sensible

Friday was a rest day after a long day of meetings.

I ran 6km on Saturday at a nice easy pace. On Sunday I only managed 20km easy and have a shocking neck ache on Monday. Not sure what happened.

Next 3 weeks will be tough but must fight through.

Achieved: Total 67 Km (41 Miles), Long run 20Km (12 Miles)

Weight: Unknown but I think it’s going down…

Diet: Alongside in Sydney…

Injuries: Soles of feet remain sore after so much walking so being careful. Neck hurts for some reason.

Next week: First of 3 hard weeks away with work, the last 3. This is where #Sub3 will be won or lost. Some of the sessions are tough on the treadmill (eg. Just 10x Strides are really hard).

VLM 2018 Training – Week 2

Training for Sub 3 – Week 2 – 5 to 11 Feb 18

Goal: Total 63 Km (39 Miles) Long Run 24 Km (15 Miles)

Weight: Unknown

Bold predictions made last week:

Monday, Wednesday and Friday are the planned rest days… Tuesday is a tricky day with 18km planned on the treadmill in the Great Australian Bight. Thursday will need dedication, commitment and strength of character to be achieved on terra firma prior to my hosting duties in port. 13Km with 6 @ half marathon pace Saturday is meant to be a recovery run but the opportunity to run a new, iconic Parkrun may prove too much so I could swap with Thursday. Late night – T20 cricket. Sunday is a nice 15 miles – hopefully it will be cool, and I’ll feel good enough to maybe grab an extra mile.

Monday was rest or cross training, so I did 30 min at level 12 on the bike (HR about 100-110 – about 60%) with some light bodyweight exercises and weights followed by a good stretch. I was also very conscious of over eating. I’d had caramel slice dessert on Sunday as I’d burned so many calories on my long run but on a rest day it’d be easy to waste any precious calorie deficit I’d gained.

Breakfast: 1 slice of Burgen seed toast with peanut butter and a banana. Lunch: Noodles with tofu and some mini corn supplemented with salad leaves, beetroot, tomato, raw peppers and guacamole. Dinner: Mushroom risotto with cauliflower and green beans. Fresh fruit salad dessert (No added sugar) Snack bar: Salted caramel and chia bar from ‘The Bar Counter’ (only 130kcal).

On Tuesday, I forced myself out of bed at 0450 and like Ted Hughes’ Ironman I creaked into life although I was a little slower than expected by treadmill pace – it felt fast. It’s fairly warm in the gym with no air flow. Hopefully that will be a game changer in 10 weeks’ time once I return to cooler climes.

Wednesday was a repeat of Monday – cross training consisting of 30 min bike, 10-15 press ups, 15 sit ups, 10 one leg squats, 10 shoulder press (7kg), 10 arm curls (7kg), 10 Lateral di vincis (2.5kg!), 10 leg raises. It’s enough for me!

Thursday should have been with 4 miles at HM pace but I want to do the Parkrun on Sat so swapped sessions. 8km easy. Work party on Thursday night where I was very sensible

Friday was another rest day in the programme but being on land was too much of an opportunity to pass on a quality session. 7km easy along the Geelong bay front. I spent the day driving the Great Ocean Road and the PM exploring the streets of Melbourne after a Vegetable Pho dinner. Definitely burned some calories today!

I got up early on Saturday to run 2.5km to the Albert Parkrun. My Garmin froze so 7.5km were manual kms. Running naked I ran 19:40 and was aiming for 20:00. It certainly wasn’t HM pace but it wasn’t 5km pace either. Some threshold training value for sure. It wasn’t uncomfortable but probably closer to 10k pace. Lovely bircher museli for breakfast at the Grain Store before racking up the steps exploring Melbourne by day. Tired feet when I finally got to bed at 2359 after another terrible English cricket performance. Walking 20k plus steps a day must be good for training.

Sunday. I was so tempted to stay in bed this morning. I finally got up and out at 0700 after a wholefood energy ball and water. I ran with a small bag and had a few stops for water and to go the toilet. It took a K to get going but settled into just inside 5:00m/km. I ran from the Melbourne central YHA to Albert Park where I did the Parkrun yesterday. I ran round the lake with a guy at about the same pace for a 4.7km lap before heading north to Fawkner Park which has a nice tree lined path through the middle. From there I hit the famous ‘Tan Track’ for a lap and a half around the botanic gardens. I knew from the amount of descent at the start of my loop there must be a nasty surprise ahead. There is quite a cheeky hill. Total 3.8km all the way round. I ran nearly 2 loops and then followed the Yarra river back to the YHA. Running close to the buildings lost GPS near the end but I will have run close to 24km and the amount of walking I’ve done means I’m not worried about it being short. I got a nice warm liquid poo surprise from a bird on my shoulder as I went under a bridge about a km from the end. Lucky me! Good bombing feathers! I checked out and headed to the Grain Store for another great breakfast before walking a bit more. I rode the trams and checked out the Melbourne museum before heading back to Geelong.

Can’t wait for next week.

Achieved: Total 67 Km (41 Miles), Long run 24Km (15 Miles), cycled 1hour static

Weight: Unknown but I think it’s going down…

Diet: not bad – few beerskis this weekend but I’ve eaten fairly well choosing mainly vegetable whole food dishes. Not had much appetite to be honest which is strange. It may be that eating better has removed massive sugar rushes?

Injuries: Been okay all week. Got blooming sore soles of my feet now though after exploring Melbourne. I didn’t make it to Pin Oak Court though (Ramsay Street)!

Next week: Opportunity for some quality training Wed to Sun alongside – don’t waste it.

VLM Training Week 1

Training for Sub 3 – Week 1 – 29 Jan to 4 Feb 18

Goal: Total 56 Km (35 Miles) Long Run 21 Km (13 Miles)

Weight: 83kg – Not accurate fluctuating between 84kg and 81kg

Not the most auspicious start to this year’s marathon programme. An excess of lethargy caused by an impending trip away and a milestone birthday which meant I didn’t run when I was supposed to this week. I got the miles in, but it wasn’t pretty. Monday 29th and Tuesday 30th were lazy days (because rest is training too, and these were not that) using up valuable blank days. Wednesday 31st became a must run day and with the eldest back to school I had time to get out for 14km (8.7miles) before doing the school run. Easy Pace 5:00m/km. A return to blank for Thursday 1st wasn’t ideal but it was my surrogate birthday, so I let it slide meaning I needed 100% attendance to stick to the plan on week one.

A later start on Friday 2nd prior to setting off on another adventure gave me chance to get a double Yangebup Lake loop in and add 14km to my tally and at a slightly faster pace than Wednesday. The weather on Saturday was fair and I treated myself to a birthday 8km at 5:00 on the treadmill. There was a slight flow of air around the gym possibly contributing to the exceptionally low HR (or more probably there was interference)!

By the time Sunday came around I was getting back into it. Motivated and keen I set an alarm for 0415 to run 1:35 before anyone could moan I’d been on the treadmill too long. As it happened the sea state south of Australia was high and after the 7km at slower than M pace I couldn’t keep focused. The treadmill was rolling and pitching too much to increase the pace. I showered and tried again 6 hours later. I managed 4.66km in about 20 min but again a combination of motion, excess heat and sweat was making the whole episode particularly disheartening. I decided to turn it into a time on feet run and just do an hour in M pace HR zone which would make 1:35 time on feet. I only lost a kilometre of running which given I’d run an extra one round the lake one day meant I finished the week on programme.

Achieved: Total 56 Km (35 Miles), Long run 19.75Km over 2 runs (12 Miles)

Weight: Unknown

Diet: What’s a diet… emotional crutch in final week and cake for birthday. Flexitarian pseudo-vegan diet from 2 Feb.

Injuries: Sore right Achilles after running.

Next week: This is being typed on Sun 4 Feb but won’t get published until later in the  (10 Feb with no edit), so I will know the answer as to how I’m doing but to be honest here’s the plan. Hindsight may be a glorious thing!

Monday, Wednesday and Friday are the planned rest days… Tuesday is a tricky day with 18km planned on the treadmill in the Great Australian Bight. Thursday will need dedication, commitment and strength of character to be achieved on terra firma prior to my hosting duties in port. 13Km with 6 @ half marathon pace Saturday is meant to be a recovery run but the opportunity to run a new, iconic Parkrun may prove too much so I could swap with Thursday. Late night – T20 cricket. Sunday is a nice 15 miles – hopefully it will be cool, and I’ll feel good enough to maybe grab an extra mile.

Vietnam – Travelling with children

Xin chao! So, I said I’d put down a few words about our trip to Vietnam and I’ve been a bit lazy so in the style of James Joyce; here comes a stream of consciousness. I know I’m not the first person to have gone to Vietnam, so please indulge me! It’s also not great England so I may update this (or not) when I get chance but the 80% solution will do today. Also, apologies for format – I will turn this into a photo book at some point which may help me edit. I will confess though “it is not good enough for me” to quote a former boss and mentor.    Pictures on FB for friends and @ZorroUK Instagram

Expectations. Reading back my notes in my journal from the trip I had low expectations. I expected we’d get ill from the food even with our Travel Lan and Travel Bug for the kids. The weather in winter in the north could be cold with rain. I was hoping we’d not get ripped off, robbed or run over. How wrong could I have been! It’s amazing. I’m not sure writing this now is healthy as I just want to go back.

Guide. We used the Best of Vietnam Lonely Planet which is a nicely presented distilled guide suitable for a 2-4 week trip. It had enough ideas without overloading and we tried to tick off everything that it recommended. We never had a terrible experience at a recommended restaurant.

Flights. We flew with Scoot via Singapore to Hanoi which included an 8 hour stop over. Pre-book food if you want it. It’s cheap and cheerful but was fine, as in we didn’t crash! The kids got a hot dog and we had Nasi Goreng which was a little spicy.   For the stop over try to get into the airside nap hotel – we only got into the lounge (where you’re not meant to sleep). We booked late so ended up on poor flights 2 weeks later Singapore air had better flights at $1000 less. You know your own budget.

Visa. We spent 28 Dec 17 – 12 Jan 18 travelling with 14 days in Vietnam. For Brits and Europeans there’s a 15-day free just turn up visa scheme but it gets renewed this year and no one knows if it will be. Do your research. The scheme is to promote tourism and whilst it wasn’t a factor in us choosing Vietnam, in fact we thought we needed a Visa, it made it all very easy. At the border we asked an official before joining the immigration queues which we should join as it wasn’t obvious, he directed us to the empty VIP queue! So simple, stamp and in.

Health. We had to have some vaccines – check. We took anti-malarials (Doxycycline) and a stomach bug protector called Travel Lan. There is a child version called Travel Bug. We were never badly ill.

Day 1. Hanoi 29 Dec. Arrived AM, hotel car was waiting although I had to call via Wifi at airport to find the driver. It cost about $20-30 to hotel. We always took pre-booked hotel cars from airports. Yes, it was more expensive, but we wanted piece of mind with the kids that we’d have a decent vehicle for these longer trips to get into the city. Wifi is everywhere – tour buses, hotels, restaurants, streets, trains… and free. Sure, they’re unlocked and hoovering your data but who isn’t? (post note – we had $1200 taken out of our account 20 days after return – possible scan as I’m not sure we even used the card it came from). I bought a Viettel sim which cost US$13 for 10GB, data only. I bought it from the tourist information booth at the airport – had no issues and worked the entire time.

The first thing that hits your senses is the traffic density and the noise. Horns honk all day and thankfully all the rooms booked were quiet. Crossing the road is an interesting adventure. There are some traffic lights but it doesn’t mean anyone stops! There are humorous t-shirts that joke green -go, amber – still go, red – I can still go! The traffic will avoid you if you pick your moment and walk at a steady pace. We put the kids on the non-traffic side and tried to find a local to cross with initially but soon got the hang of it. There are specific blogs on this if you need more detail but it’s fine, honestly!

We stayed at the Grand Silk Queen Hotel on Lo Su Street near Hoan Kiem Lake in the centre of Hanoi. It had good views of the lake and New Year’s Eve show held in a nearby square from the roof restaurant and bar. The restaurant and bar are not great or a reason to stay there but the food was okay, reasonably priced and clean. We ate there on arrival as it was lunch time and then went for a walk. It was pretty much the walk detailed in the Lonely Planet we used. We walked around the lake to St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. There are Buddhist pagodas hidden in small squares off streets, it’s worth exploring. We walked through the market stall lined streets back to the hotel via the main square where the New Year’s Party was to be held. We had a rest and shower before heading out to dinner.

We had dinner at Highway 4. It was okay, but it was probably the worst meal of the trip. Some misunderstandings of menu items (in English) meant we were probably partly to blame. The rice liquor was very strong. The fried rice cakes were brilliant, but the mountain stew had a lot of bones and little ‘stew’. We were all in bed by 1900.

Day 2. Halong Bay 30 Dec. I slept quite well but dozed from 0410. At 0545 I cut my losses and went for a run around the lake (it’s on Strava). A loop is exactly a mile which is nice for OCD. During weekends and holidays there is no traffic which was a luxury. People do Tai Chi, aerobics, walk, run, cycle, play badminton or a type of football badminton during the morning and there were markets in the afternoon. It’s as if there’s a socialist poster saying – exercise makes Vietnam strong. Breakfast was a standard hotel buffet with more traditional Vietnamese offerings. I could never face fried rice for breakfast!

We had pre-booked a day trip to Halong bay, leaving at 0900. The bus was bigger than they advertise but was still comfortable. The tour host was funny and engaging and gave us some insights which stayed with us for the whole trip – learning Vietnamese tonals was great fun. We were also given some top tips on where to eat.

It was about 3hrs to the bay with a short stop at an expensive stop for tourist buses. The traffic lanes are purely advisory even with traffic coming the other way! Out of the city, we saw buffalo in the fields which we didn’t expect. We got on a Vietnamese tourist ‘junk’ at 1pm and were seated for lunch on arrival. There was plenty of food and watermelon dessert.

You get 5 hours in the boat with lunch and tour of the islands including the famous ‘kissing chicken rock’ and the rock on the 200k VND note. We also had the chance to kayak or go in a traditional bamboo boat through caves via a floating ‘village’, which is really just a pontoon rather than one of the larger ones which people live on. There is also a massive cave system which was amazing. We got what we wanted from the trip. You can do overnight boat trips, private charters etc but for a quick taste of the area our tour was great. Then it’s another 3 hours in the bus back via an identical bus shop where we bought some chips. The kids were great! We got back at about 2100 and went straight to bed.

Day 3. Hanoi 31 Dec. This was our last full day in Hanoi as we were checking out the next day to catch the sleeper train to Sapa. I went for another run around the lake enjoying the Tai chi and aerobics as I enjoyed the cool start to the day. We had breakfast and went straight out to see the sights of Hanoi. We got a taxi to the area near the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. There was a massive queue and we knew the kids wouldn’t be interested so didn’t enter. You can’t get near the square either which is huge without doing the queue to get into the square. The impressive presidential palace is nearby but you can’t go in. We ended up in a park near the Army Museum (which is closed around midday) where we paid for the kids to go in battery toy cars. As we walked back, we accidently found the train track through the city which went viral recently. It’s a train that runs right between the houses.

For lunch we went to the Green Tangerine which had delicious great value French food in an old Indochina house from 1928. You get a free cocktail with the flyer they give away on the door.

We had a rest before going to a water puppet show in the afternoon. This is a traditional Vietnamese puppet show they used to put on in the rice fields and are now in the cities for tourists. We went to the one by Hoan Kiem lake and it was good lasting about 40 minutes. The kids kept focused for about 20 before getting restless but stuck it out. I didn’t curb their enthusiasm laughing and cheering at the snakes, dragons, turtles and unicorns battling in the water stage. Enca bought a North Face jacket for our imminent return to England at a shop near the market. There’s so many and they’re all very similar. We sat in the square to make plasticine dragons and figures at the market which the boys enjoyed. We ate dinner at the hotel. They had a ‘posh’ dinner including ‘Italian wine’ both of which were pretty poor, but we didn’t complain as it really obvious they were trying really hard to impress on their big night and they were lovely people who took great care of us during the stay. I’d bought a cigar (Cuban, probably, if not fake) from the Hanoi Cigar shop by the lake. There are not many places to buy cigars in Vietnam. We had cocktails on the roof listening to the amazing Heineken sponsored dance music show and then watched a rather short 30 sec of New Year’s fireworks which was a bit of a let-down after Sydney 2017!

Day 4. Hanoi 1 Jan. I bagged a final run including a bit of tourism to see the Hanoi Hilton (prisoner of war prison). We checked out leaving the bags in the hotel store and completed the walking tour we started the other day. We walked to Dong Xuan market. It’s pretty big and has everything but I thought it looked pretty tacky. We had lunch at New Day which is a genuine local place recommended by the tour guide in Halong Bay and Lonely Planet. After we went for coffee and rest at Cong caphe, a Viet Cong inspired coffee chain all across Vietnam. Then we went to the Army Museum. There are loads of planes, jeeps and tanks in the grounds. The parts of the B52 bomber which crashed in the lake in Hanoi is also there. The boys went on the electric cars again before we walked to the Chinese literature pagoda – this was a real surprise. Chinese architecture and walled patios with Koi ponds. We underestimated how good this would be although it didn’t take long to visit. We had dinner at a hot plate self-cook BBQ place called Avalon above the square which was being cleaned up after NYE. The best thing about this place is the amazing view out over Lake Hoan Kiem. The bridge over the lake is lit up red at night.

After dinner it was time to collect our main rucksack to take to Sapa and got a taxi to the station. There is a specific ticket office you must go to for the Sapa Train, be warned – it sounded from our agent like people had been caught out! We knew there isn’t much room on the train and our hotel let you leave bags to collect later. As we’d bought our tickets from an agent you must meet the agent and they then give you the train ticket on production of a receipt ticket that a different agent had given me the day before when I paid at the hotel – easy! The agent’s website we used for the train looked professional so it’s an easy mistake to mistake it but I think the official one is chapaexpress.vn. There are lots of companies’ carriages all hooked up as one train. They range from seated, through basic 2 or 4 berths to more ornate carriages with cushions and ‘free’ water and snacks. You can board about 50 minutes before hand. In Hanoi, we had to walk across the tracks to the platform. Once onboard we got ready for bed. There was a wash basin and toilet at one end of the carriage. There are charging points and aircon in the cabin with WiFi throughout the train although it did sometimes lose signal and they warn you of this. It’s quite cool to watch the train leave through the streets of the city before drifting off to sleep.

Day 5. Sapa 2 Jan. Thirty minutes before arrival (0605) you get a morning call accompanied with an offer of coffee or Milo (20,000VND). We paid for a private transfer to Sapa from Lao Cai which takes about an hour winding up mountain roads. It reminded me of Travelez or other European mountain towns. At 1500m above sea level it can get very cold and as such there are loads of North Fake shops. Some people will tell you that they’re seconds or that North Face deliberately put real ones in the area for some reason, I’m not convinced. Arriving early, we dumped our bags and went next door for breakfast which was edible, but we should have gone to the café in the Lonely Planet – Baguette and Chocolate. We explored the town and went to the Tourist Information to try to get some local knowledge about the weather, how to get to Cat Cat, waterfalls or Fansipan cable car. They weren’t that helpful except telling us the price the taxis should charge to several places and to be fair to the drivers they didn’t try to rip us off.

We went to Cat Cat – this is proper VietDisney. It’s like visiting Ironbridge or a similar mock traditional town. Whilst the people there are traditional folk who live and work there and other towns won’t have tourists it feels very un-natural and that their main way of making a living is basically tourism. I enjoyed it although there was a fair bit of walking on steep mountain sides for the boys. There’s a nice waterfall and the coffee shop was basic but gave us a chance to recharge. We weren’t sure which way to walk back – the route carries on and eventually gets back to the upper town by looping round. Once onto the road again motorbike taxis offer to take you back – we declined and got our previous friendly taxi man to pick us up. We could have gone back uphill though the lower town. This would have been quicker and shorter, but it was nice to explore the quieter path and there’s a nice bridge to cross too.

We got back to Sapa to check in to the Luong Thuy Hotel which promised valley views but the low cloud sadly didn’t allow us to see them. I went for a muddy run around the lake while Theo had a sleep. We went to the Mountain Bar (LP recommend) for some lunch and a happy hour which lasts all after noon with 2 for 1 on Lao Cai beer which was pretty terrible 3.5% and may have given me an upset tummy the next day. Enca and I had a nice typical fried rice and the kids had a pizza. The family which run the bar are friendly with a small cat and young children. It has a log fire and a football table.

I checked Instagram and Twitter for recent #Fansipan photos. I saw it was clear on the summit and, so we set off to the cable car 10 minutes away in taxi. It’s expensive by even western standards but very impressive. The longest 3 wire cable car takes you 6km across the valley and up 1500m to just below the summit of Fansipan the highest peak in Indochina. There is a funicular railway to get to the summit from the station or you can walk 600 steps. We paid for the train up and to walk down. The view from the top was great. The day was perfect, and we had the clouds below us. We took some photos before heading back down.

For dinner we went to an Italian restaurant – I know very Vietnamese – basically Andrew had been asking for lasagne for about 3 days and we’d not really found any yet, so we seized the opportunity. We also had the chance to sample Vang Dalat, the table wine of Vietnam. There are some funny blogs about this wine if you have a look.

Day 6. Sapa 3 Jan. The next day I went for another run around the lake, very muddy on one section but stayed on my feet. We had an easy day as the weather was awful and we were tired. I went shopping for table runners and wall hangings. I didn’t haggle here as the prices we good, very nice pieces and good quality. Also it was not a market environment but a gentrified shop which wouldn’t look out of place in Fremantle or Southsea!

  1. We went to the market and bought some cheap and noisy toys. There wasn’t anything else we thought was worth buying but the food market is good, not for eating but looking around and leaves you in no doubt where your food comes from!
  2. There is a café/deli called something mountain station deli?? where we took shelter and had a deli plank (nowhere is safe from planks) before heading over to the Mountain Bar. Before long it was time to get the train but our driver had already left! A quick call and 10 minutes later he was back. Top tip – get there early to not miss buses etc which leave at the time stated (even for a private hire)!
  3. Same routine as before although we were there quite early and there’s a little station cafe for a drink and snacks. In bed before the train left and asleep soon after. It was very early 0530 when we arrived in Hanoi but we went straight to hotel and bought the hotel breakfast before getting a taxi to the airport. It takes about 40 minutes and traffic is chaos.
  4. No issues with the internal flight although it was delayed about an hour. Another 40 minute taxi trip towards Hoi An from Danang. Apart from the signs saying the APEC summit was in Danang in 2017 and the Dragon Bridge I’m not sure there’s anything to see. It’s not in the guide book.
  5. We arrived in the afternoon and our villa at Le Belhamy was ready. I quite liked it except the reason we chose that resort was for the Kids’ club which was not available due to another building losing its roof in a recent storm. A little disappointing as we’d hoped to enjoy some time at the beach without rugrats. Anyway the weather wasn’t exactly beach weather! We headed into town on the free hotel transfer (with our washing) which I took to Mrs Anh while the boys had more Italian! Mrs Anh was quite expensive and I managed to get her down by 50% but wished we’d managed to have time to go to the place outside the hotel which was cheaper. Going rate is about $1-2 a kilo according to some blogs.
  6. With full children we started to explore the magical city of Hoi An. Paper lanterns line the streets, the roads are closed and it’s full of tourists! It’s definitely worth the visit. I got some leather Chelsea boots made which was fun. We had dinner at Mango Mango owned by a Michelin star celebrity chef. Amazing 3 course menu each, 4 cocktails, 50GBP total. The cocktail, La Mango Guapa, is probably the best I’ve ever had! We launched a wishing lantern on the water and took some photos before saying good night to Hoi An.
  7. The next day we needed a lie in but I’d booked a taxi for 0800 to take us to My Son Cham ruins approximately 1:30 drive from Hoi An. I’d agreed 800k VND with a driver the day before which seemed a good price as it was 1.2mil VND by meter (which I watched nervously hoping this driver wouldn’t renege the agreement. My Son was excellent. It was a VC hideout during the war and was heavily desecrated by the US bombardment until Nixon personally told them to stop.
  8. We arrived in Hoi An by 1300 and walked the streets. We tried to eat in the amazing Nu Eatery but it’s not very kid friendly – was delicious though.
  9. For dinner we had a disappointing meal in the hotel and didn’t mind telling them. They were receptive to feedback and removed the offending items from the bill.
  10. The last day brought the best weather and apart from collecting my boots from Hoi An we spent it by the pool and beach. For dinner we got a cab to the Soul Kitchen which is within a collection of beachside restaurants and bars just before sundown. An Bang is the name of the beach. It has a view over to the Cham Islands which have great diving in the better seasons. We watched a lovely red sky as the sun went down even if being on the east coast we never saw the event! The food was lovely local seafood with great cocktails and a funky live band.
  11. We left Hoi An by private transfer to Danang and got the flight to HCMC – again no issues, again about a 1 hour delay on the runway due to weather. C’est la vie.
  12. It was a short 20 minute transfer from the airport to our hotel in the centre. We dumped the bags and went to the closest restaurant in the Lonely Planet. Cyclo Resto. Family run, 5 dishes split between the family, there’s no menu, crazy cheap, amazing food. It’s down an alley with more aesthetically appealing options so you’d never know it’s there without the guide – although they are on trip advisor!
  13. After lunch ???? not a clue and want to publish now and don’t have that diary with me!
  14. We did a self-led walking tour similar to the one in the guide heading through the parks to the Reunification Palace which is a very grand building with Austin Powers/Doctor Strangelove style long tables and a secret bunker from the war. It’s where the tanks broke through the gates in the final day before the fall of Saigon. It was getting rather warm and sticky so we had a break in a Starbucks (we came for the aircon rather than the coffee)! From there we passed the Notre Dame church and went into the Post Office. The route then heads past a grand palace and down to the Opera House which had a traditional cirque du solei style show on. Flanking the Opera House is the Hotel Continental and Caravelle. The Hotel Continental was the favoured hotel of Graham Greene and wrote The Quiet American from a room there. His table is one by a window and the staff are happy to answer questions. Tired children made this a perfect stop so we had the lunch menu which was classic French and as expected from a 4/5 star place. They do not have a children’s menu!
  15. After lunch with tired eyes Enca and the boys got a cab back to the hotel for a break and a play in the pool. I headed up to the rooftop bar of the Caravelle. Note: the new modern and tall hotel of the same name is not the famous one. Hotel caravelle is a 10 storey hotel on the corner. It was from here the journalists monitored the war as the disinformation and propaganda came out of the official channels. I imagined what it must have been like. Rivers of time by Jon Swain is a good starting point for a journalist’s experience during the mid 70s in Indochina.
  16. Dinner in the hotel – not very adventurous. We booked a tour to Cu Chi tunnels.
  17. Standard hotel breakfast and the bus collected us to head off to Cu Chi. We went by boat which takes about 75 min (plus bus to river). It’s a nice trip and meant when we didn’t go to the Mekong delta we felt we’d seen something similar. Cu Chi was good. A guided tour around the tunnels and camps. It’s quite claustrophobic and these tunnels have been enlarged for westerners. I got to shoot an AK47 for 600k VND – Andrew was devastated to be told he was too young, I didn’t point out the hypocrisy…      Lunch was included and was pretty good.
  18. Bus journey back to Saigon, tried to scare us with time it would take etc… and how we could take the quicker boat. In the end we were back by 1530
  19. Final day we had to take it easy as we were pretty fatigued (evident by my cough I’d picked up and left bed ridden 24 hours later once home). I went to the War Remnants Museum which was okay and very shocking but not as bad as I thought it would have been after how much people had been telling me. I think that because I’d read a fair bit before I went I wasn’t shocked by the images which were just horrible.
  20. We then walked to get a coffee before getting a cab to the Emperor Pagoda which is a hidden treasure. Tucked away in the north of the city it is off the street and hard to see the appeal. Inside it is amazing.
  21. We found an even more hidden gem for lunch – the secret garden is a roof top bar recommended by the Lonely Planet, my friend Joe and now me! Down an alley and up a stairwell (we chose the wrong one and just ended up of the roof of an apartment block! Good exercise though. The guide, Joe and us all comment on the unlikely location of the restaurant. It was frequented by locals and tourists alike and the food was excellent. We tried some green been and black bean desserts which were an acquired taste!
  22. After lunch we walked back to the hotel, the boys did great and must have had calves of steel after pounding the streets. We had a relax in the pool although I was starting to feel unwell. For dinner we went to the street market which is very tourist focused and fairly safe. It’s hardly street food at all and could have been in Fremantle.
  23. We had an early breakfast before getting the pre-booked hotel car to the airport. After a scare with Enca’s passport and visa we were allowed back into the country.
  24. No issue with the flights and we were home by 0200. I then was bedridden for 24 hours with a terrible cough.

The verdict: Vietnam is western middle class friendly… what do I mean… I mean it is now gentrified in some areas to a degree that you could easily think you’re not in Vietnam. I mean, it’s not some parts of Africa. There are parts of Africa can be scary for a strong male who has his wits about him (not sure who he is) and certainly with kids I’d be pretty nervous. Our experience in Vietnam was so pleasant – we had no ‘scares’, I never felt too harassed, threatened or intimidated. I think Enca saw a road accident but if so it was the only one despite crazy traffic. I do refer to our experience as Viet-Disney. We didn’t live with local families that ‘all’ the blogs will tell you that you must do to have a truly authentic experience!

What an experience. Amazing country. We loved it and the boys did too I think. Very experimental and adventurous. People will say – “you don’t know Vietnam unless you do a home stay” – of course every time you go to France you stay round someone’s house do you?! Do what you want, how you want. We could have got more buses, trains and interacted more but we also wanted to enjoy it, relax and not worry about little things. Remember it’s meant to be a holiday and fun! I’m off out for Pho in Melbourne now – Tam biet!