After the trip through the steppes, a long period in Ulaanbaatar ensued. At the first evening after my travel mate went back to the Netherlands, I went out for a few drinks. At a Couchsurfing event I met some really nice people who quickly introduced me to a guy who had an extra room in his flat, and was willing to rent it. I eagerly accepted the offer, which was a great deal: very close to the city center, good apartment and a real fun guy to share a place with. I spent the whole month living more or less as a local: working during the day, going out for drinks at night and partying during the weekends. Though the city itself is ugly and chaotic, as I mentioned earlier, I had a great time. People were incredibly outgoing and fun, just very interesting folks everywhere I went. Many of the younger fellows speak very good English, and the travellers you meet in such a place in October/November are not your usual type of boring tourist. It's a city and a time of the year that attracts a more experienced, interesting kind of traveller. 

Unfortunately, after such a long time without any problems (8 months travelling through south-east Asia and China without ever being robbed, getting sick or into a fight), the big dirty mean capital of Mongolia finally threw me a few bad hands: my photocamera was stolen. This means I don't have many pictures of the city, but that's not a big loss for you guys, as there really aren't many beautiful spots to report. What I do regret not having more pictures of are the statues and art exhibitions that were all over the place. For such a small place (Mongolia has 3 million inhabitants, 1.5 in Ulaanbaatar), the art production of the city is just incredible. As for timing, I hit the jackpot: while it is true that the big festivals (Naadam) are in July, I think I couldn't have had a better first impression of this place. I hear July is very dry (I seriously dislike dry weather) and dusty, full of tourists (probably the more boring kind) and higher prices. Instead, I enjoyed a great autumn there, and had the luck of being just in time for several great events: a big art exhibition from the university students with concerts by small local bands followed by a great festival presenting renowned artists from the different regions of Mongolia. After that weekend, the jazz festival started, and after that week, a film festival took place. After all that was done, they threw a birthday party for Chinggis Khan, so I can say I had a pretty good time as far as cultural events are concerned.

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As for food, I must say the quality of the meals improved a lot compared to the time I spent on the steppes. Specially worthy of note is the traditional Mongolian Barbecue. It's prepared in a round solid iron griddle, with fire everywhere and a big show of how the cooks use the swords to mix the meat with the vegetables. Strange meal of the month: Sheep's head. I guess the most exotic food is in south-east Asia, but it's always possible to find some novelty when it comes to cuisine. And to be honest, I actually quite enjoyed the vegan place (yes, there are vegans even in Mongolia...) with the cute name of "Cafe de Amor", where I made a few friends and even participated in a few events, from meeting the Cuban ambassador to playing in a basketball competition. One might ask, "but why would the Mongolians be interested in basketball, and how good can they be?". Well, after wrestling, horseriding, falconry and archery, which are the main national sports (yeah, they're badasses, deal with it), basketball is the most popular thing. And though they're a small people, they're not that bad at it. Which means I sucked big time, but I should have known: I hadn't played any basketball in 15 years, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time I ran a few hundred meters. It was great fun anyway, as most of my stay in the city.

Prices were quite steep, though. They don't produce many things in this beautiful land: no grain fields, no plantations, no big farms were to be seen through most of my trip around the country - only amazing, untouched nature as far as the eye can see. That means they import a lot of stuff, which brings the prices up quite a lot. How they manage to live with the low salaries and the high prices was a puzzle to me at first, but later I learned that they rely on loans from family and friends, with very low or no interest rates at all. If they had to go to banks for those loans, I'd bet the country was doomed to crash in a few years, specially because of the rampant corruption going around. But I guess there is hope for a good future if they manage to clean up the politician's act and keep away from the big banks.

Nevertheless, I must be honest and tell you that the thing that impressed me the most about this city (yes, even more than the good nature of its people, the traffic jams, the cultural richness, the strange dynamics of economics and the barbecue places) were the ladies. I did not expect them to be this beautiful at all! Men too, when they are not ugly, are very handsome. They all look very similar, true - there is not a lot of variety. But the Mongolian ladies have a beauty that I cannot compare to any other. I may be crazy, but I can see traits of different kinds of beauty in them: to me they look like a mix of "Asian" with "Native American" and "European", whatever that means. I guess it means Chinggis Khan and his men really raped a lot of women everywhere, and peoples around the world inherited the traits of the Mongolian people. Not only the physical beauty of the Mongolian ladies impressed me, but also how strong and independent they are - they are not the stereotypical Asian girl, giggling timidly while cooking and cleaning for you. They'll drink a hefty load of alcohol (more than most white boys I know) and kick your ass if you rub them the wrong way. All while being elegant and good looking. 

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After two months, came the day when my visa was over and I had to leave the country. I had a ticket to Irkutsk, in Siberia. Therefore, I went to the town's market (Narantuul) to buy some winter clothes a few hours before boarding the train- after all, one needs to be prepared to be in Siberia, if the stories about its cold are true. Then Lady Luck decided to take a day off and my bank card was stolen- I was left without money on my way to Russian winter. But that story I'll tell on the next post...


Mongolia 2

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Riding a Mongolian horse around the White Lake was a great experience. I actually had this crazy idea of buying a horse in Mongolia and ride all the way back to the Netherlands, but my travel mate convinced me that was just stupid/insane. Therefore, I settled for a few rides around the lakes, and I have to admit it was... almost enough. I rode until I reached the Volcano, which offered a great view of the lake and the hills, and rode back to the Ger. When I arrived, I was greeted with a special dish - Marmot meat. It was so much better than I could ever have expected. Soft, tender, greasy and with a very unique taste... it reminded me a little of Capivara, which was actually the best meat I ever had in my life. We spent another night at the White Lake, and continued our journey towards Khovsgol Lake, the main destination of that tour. 

On the way there, we stopped at a few temples, like the ruins of Kharkhorum, the ancient Mongolian capital (of which we did not manage to take pictures), and Erdene Zuu. The view along the way was quite impressive as well, but I have to say I got tired of the food after a few days. Another very amusing perk of the trip were the frequent encounters with groups of cows, sheep and wild horses. Our driver evidently enjoyed it more than anyone else, because it gave him reason to honk as much as he wanted to, for quite a long time. He opened a big smile every time this happened. 

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Then, we finally reached the Khovsgol Lake - called the Blue Pearl of Mongolia. I swear I had never seen such bright, fascinating blue. I was mesmerized by it, and spent as much time as I could just staring at it. We also rode horses around the lake, and that was another great day, with great weather and great views. The family hosting us had a huge Yak for all sorts of heavy labour, and I went along on a trip to retrieve water from the lake. The big beast was well trained, and performed the whole drill without hesitation, but it was clearly working against its will. We pulled it by a ring in its nose, which I imagine MUST be painful. Seeing so many of its kind running free through the steppes, I had to feel a bit sorry for it. 

We spent two nights there, one of which was our driver's birthday. We gathered round with the family hosting us and the guides of another group staying there, and a few French tourists for a few drinks. I thought I would finally witness the great Mongolian drinking prowess, legendary among other peoples. As we settled down, around 19.00, the father, who managed the Ger camp, was already wasted beyond salvation, singing loudly and being made fun of by his son and wife. He left one hour later, leaving us with three bottles of vodka and a gallon of airag. Soon after, all other Mongolians were also pretty drunk, having a hard time communicating or even walking straight. While I was quite drunk myself, I was disappointed to see that they were knocked out much earlier than I expected, and that the legends were not so true. On the other hand, it was great to hear everyone sing traditional songs from their own countries - Mongolians and French did a great job, as was the case with my Italian travel mate. Unfortunately, I couldn't sing even if my life depended on it, and I made a poor job of representing traditional Brazilian music.

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I was actually quite sorry that I had to leave the place - I could have spent a much longer time enjoying that amazing blue that I have only seen there and the late night drinking and singing sessions.

From there we had a few more stops - temples and a few cities. Worth mentioning are the Amarbayasgalant temple and Moron city. I have never been in such a dark, haunted city. I went out for a walk after dinner, and I obviously got lost in the dark streets, and it took me a while to get back to the Ger. During that trip, under a full moon (thankfully, because the streets were horribly lit) I saw an impressive amount of stray dogs, big ones too. It was really remarkable. The scariest part was that during the night, every single one of them barked non stop. It was a relentless, haunting, scary night. 
The temple was a more pleasant experience, with great statues and an amazing view. From there, we spent a few days on the road, going back to UlaanBaatar. 

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Some of you may not know, but the whole point of coming to Asia was to see first Vietnam, and then, Mongolia. I enjoyed very much all the rest, but it was just that, in all honesty - the rest. Since my childhood, I have been curious about these two countries, and now, finally, I have satisfied that curiosity. I left Beijing by train, crossing the mountains, leaving the Great Wall behind me, going into what the Chinese call "Inner Mongolia". On a final note about the Great Wall: I cannot imagine what the Chinese must have done to the Nomad Peoples of the north to piss them off so much that they'd choose to cross endless steppes, deserts and those mountains, and on top of that, a huge wall. That's so much trouble that I cannot help but think that somehow, the Chinese 'had it coming'. No way the nomads decided that it was a 'good idea' to invade China, just because they were 'savages', or because they needed something. 

After a while, Inner Mongolia was also behind me, and the great Govi Desert graced me with its beautiful sunrise. From the train, I had enough windows and time to enjoy it thoroughly. A train which I heartily recommend - it was more comfortable than most night trains I took in Europe (and I travelled on quite some back there). The experience of having the train lifted for the change of bogies due to the different gauges between China and Mongolia was also an interesting one.

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As I arrived at the train station in Ulaanbaatar, the feeling of excitement grew and I was really eager to start living the Mongolian part of the trip. I went to the parking lot after I exchanged my Chinese money for Mongolian Tugruks. A taxi driver approached me, we haggled a bit and I accepted his offer to take me to the Guesthouse where I was meeting a friend of mine, with whom I was going to share a two week trip through the steppes. When he started the car, his speakers blasted the loudest music I ever heard in a taxi; it was so loud it was impossible to recognize what it was. He apologized while bringing the volume down. It was Deep Purple's Highway Star. I told him to bring it up again, and we rocked away through a whole Purple compilation, including some of my favorite tunes. "This trip started well", I thought, while we went across town with the speakers really loud - even bus drivers banged their heads to our sound as we passed them. Heavy Metal country, exactly like I had predicted!

--Unfortunately, that was the last time I ever heard decent music in Mongolia. People here have a horrible taste, and the best western music our guide and driver had for the whole two week trip was Avril Lavigne. Good thing they had some Mongolian music (which was also of dubious quality, but new and different to our ears, so it didn't matter that much).--

That same day, we went to the "Black Market" (every town has one - a market where merchants don't pay taxes, and everything is way cheaper than anywhere else) and bought what was necessary to face the cold - after months in South East Asia, I was finally entering colder lands, and was very happy about it. I was very disappointed to see Ulaanbaatar, though - after being positively surprised by how modern and civilized the main cities in South-East Asia were, specially in Vietnam, the sheer chaos, dust, big piles of thrash and lack of infra-structure in the capital city of the once-greatest empire of mankind were a big let down. The traffic jams are only comparable to those I have seen in São Paulo, though it surprises me that they manage to do that with only 1.5 million inhabitants, 12 times less people than my hometown. One positive thing I discovered about it, though, was the "hitch-hike/taxi" thing going on. Wherever you are, you can just raise your arm and people will stop to give you a ride. Short rides can be free, but mostly people will charge you around 50 euro cents per kilometer (taxis are rarely seen - usually, it's just regular people trying to make a few extra bucks).

The next day we set off for the trip across the steppes to reach temples, lakes and mountains. I was extremely excited about the whole thing, and didn't really mind the bad music and the many hours we had to spend sitting in the (comfortable) jeep. The vast steppes were a delight to see, though I can imagine that if you are the unlucky bearer of ADD, you'll get bored really quickly, as there isn't much change in scenery. It's also important to notice that there are very few roads in Mongolia, and only one that is partly asphalted, covering the main destinations around the country (when I asked our driver what was his favorite part of Mongolia, he promptly replied - the asphalt -). Mostly, it's just a track left by cars that went by before, and you just drive in the middle of splendid nature. Which, unfortunately, in many places is spoiled by the loads of garbage that people throw around. Another very interesting thing was the amount of carcasses we found while strolling around the steppes.

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Before sunset, we arrived at the first Ger of our trip, where a nomadic family greeted us with the tradition of sharing Ayrag and Khoorog. Ayrag is fermented horse's milk and Khoorog is a bottle containing something you are supposed to sniff, which really felt like someone was sticking a needle up my brain. The Ayrag was fine, though my travel companion did not enjoy it any better than the snuff thing. I must confess that the food was not so interesting: it reminded me of the Netherlands, in the sense that people view food as fuel, not as pleasure. Potatoes, noodles, vegetables and meat all mashed up together, in a generally tasteless mess. Nevertheless, sleeping in a nomad's Ger for the first time was an unforgettable experience.

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On the second day, we reached the hot springs, of which we unfortunately didn't take any pictures. My travel companion decided to play at the extra-hot pool, with the cold winds punishing him while he was out of the water. After that we ate dinner in a hurry and climbed the neighbouring hills, which were cold, windy and home to wolves, according to the locals. While he seemed pretty happy doing all that, the evening that ensued was not pleasant at all and he fell quite ill. I was happy that I had avoided the hottest pool at the springs, as this seemed to be the deciding factor in his sudden illness.

On the following day we drove on to the Tsagaan Nuur, the White Lake in the south, which was a beautiful sight. On the way there we stopped to view a beautiful canyon, which if I remember well, is the Orkhon. We spent two whole days at the White Lake, but I will talk about it next week, as this post is already long enough!

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The Great Wall

So, there I was, in Beijing, with a few days left before my trip to Mongolia. I decided that since I was in China, I had to see The Great Wall. 

I posted a message on CouchSurfing saying that all those interested should go together, and I'd help organize the whole thing. In the end, about 10 people decided to join - from different countries, as well as a few Chinese, which was great, as I had no idea of where to go, how to do stuff and what were the best options. So I just trusted the Chinese people who took the initiative and organized the trip. We met really early to try and avoid the traffic jams (which we managed) and headed to Jiankou, a particularly scenic part of the Wall. On the way there, I was told by a few of them that up to 10 people had died on the hiking/climbing of that part of the wall in recent years. As I am a young man with very little sense of consequence, that was an incentive, and I got all hyped up. They said the climb would take about 2 hours.

Once we arrived, I could see the Wall on top of a steep mountain, and wondered who the hell climbs all that in 2 hours. Nevertheless, I walked on, following the group. The day was incredibly hot, and even though I was wearing my Vietnamese clothes and hat, I was already sweating before we reached the hiking path. After a few minutes walking through souvenir shops, food stands and benches, two Frenchmen stopped me. "Do you know the way to the wall?" one of them asked. "I have no idea, I'm just following them." I replied. "Well, we hiked for 3 hours yesterday and couldn't find anything!" the other Frenchman said. "We found the wall, but there was no way around it, nor a way to climb it. We couldn't go to the top, so we came back here and camped". I said "Well, we have a few Chinese with us, I bet they know what they are doing." I left the Frenchmen, with a bad feeling starting to grow on me.

Soon after we found the path and started the hike. It was hot, too hot - and the path was not easy. After a few minutes walking up the steep base of the mountain. I looked up and couldn't imagine myself being there in 2 hours. Then I saw a sign which said "This section of the Wall is not open for visitors". I pieced all the information together and decided I had to say something. So I tried to convince the other travellers that the climb was certainly longer than 2 hours, and if 10 people had died there, the Frenchmen couldn't find the top and there was a sign saying that the Wall was not open for visitors here, it would be a better idea to go somewhere else. They didn't care, and moved on. All of them but one - a young lady from Vietnam, who had been living in the US for some years. We decided it made no sense to sweat that much and risk dying only to find we couldn't reach the top of the Wall, so we went back and took a taxi to the Mutianyu section - a bit more touristic, but with stairs all along the way and the certainty that we'd be able to reach the top and walk between the forts and shelters. And being the lazy cat I am, I do not regret at all the change of plans. In the end, they did manage to climb to the top, but there was not much to walk around or see, as the section was closed. Instead, I managed to see this impressive part of the famous Wall (from the top of which, I must confess, I 'numberoned', ehehe - Tyrion style!), and it was a lot of fun to walk up with the "Vietnamese-American" gal, which took several photos (which I should be able to retrieve soon and post here - she had a nicer camera and much more talent, so I think it'll be interesting to have some good photos for a change).

No picture can portray how massive and impressive the Wall is, but I'll post some of the photographs I took anyway, in the hopes that it will encourage some of you to come visit one day.

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I know, I know, China deserves a lot more than the two meager posts I have come up with, but I really didn't have the time back when I was there, and now I am in Mongolia, having a good time and filling my head with Mongolian things, so I'll just apologize to China. Nevertheless, I want to point out once again that I had a great time in Beijing - the friends, the jam sessions, the music, the food, the experiences and the oldest movie theater I've ever been to (built in 1903). Also, I must say that the cleanliness of the city was as impressive as their horrible habit of spitting everywhere (for each Chinese person spitting, there was a Chinese worker cleaning the streets, which were beautiful and spotless, despite the horrible car pollution).

In addition, I really liked the public toilets and showers - in Europe and in Brasil, you have to walk so much to find a public toilet, and if it's not disgusting, you usually have to pay. In Beijing, there are big free public toilets everywhere. Some are cleaned twice a day, and those can be very dirty and smelly, but many have a permanent personnel, cleaning it quite often. And being in the abandoned house, which obviously didn't have running water, I had to use those all the time - and let me tell you, Western society; you have to rethink your pooping habits. Squatting is the way to go. Seating toilets are not as healthy, that is a scientific fact. The public showers were also quite interesting, specially in comparison to the western European public showers I tried during my hitch-hiking days. Cleaner, cheaper, with warmer water and... sauna and massage service available. An amazing experience, which showed me that a little bit of the 'communist' spirit still lingers in this huge money-obsessed capital.



I know it's been a long time now, and that most people are just waiting to read about and see pictures of Mongolia, where I am now, but that will have to wait. For now, I'll fill you in with what happened during the Chinese part of the trip. I couldn't really update this weblog before because of the Great Firewall of China, and later on because I was travelling the steppes of Mongolia. It is my intention to go back to the original plan of posting weekly (or so).

At the airport in Vientiane, my first impression of the Chinese was quite bad. They were very obnoxious and loud, shouting at each other in the waiting room, elbowing their way past others while their children ran and screamed freely through the rows of benches. I feared for my sanity during the 7 hour flight ahead. Surprisingly, once inside the airplane, everyone fell dead silent, children included, and not a peep was heard until we landed. Then they became loud and annoying again, but I was very thankful for this strange, temporary, airborne politeness. The food offered during the flight was, as usual, horrible. But the seats were comfortable and time went by really fast.

Having spent my childhood and youth in São Paulo, I was brought up with a very unique point of view. Cities like Berlin, Paris or London, which are considered big, seemed tiny to me. But not Beijing. For the first time in my life, I arrived somewhere and was struck by the thought "Wow, this is a fucking huge city!". I imagine only a few other places may give rise to such a feeling - New York, Tokyo and Mexico City. Thus, I am compelled to make comparisons between the only two 20+ million population cities I have seen. Unlike São Paulo, Beijing is 'civilized'. The streets are clean, though the air is heavily polluted, and I haven't seen any violence during my whole stay. There are many subway lines - all very clean, modern, air conditined and well located. The ticket prices are amazing; 2 Yuan for a subway ride, 1 yuan for the bus. That sounds like a dream compared to prices in São Paulo (current prices there are equivalent to 7.80 yuan for both subway and bus tickets - much more expensive for a much crappier service).

Rush hour is inevitably a bad experience, but fortunately nothing compared to the experiences you can get in São Paulo. Alas, people are also very rude and impractical when it comes to organizing the flow on the subway - instead of waiting for people to leave the train, everyone tries to board it as soon as the doors open. I can't understand this absurd behaviour, which I used to blame on Brasilian 'culture'.

The city is quite interesting, with a great mixture of broad avenues and very narrow alleys, of modern skyscrapers and traditional eastern architecture. Tiananmen square is as impressive as I expected it to be, and I must confess that the "Forbidden City" was even grander than I could have imagined. Kudos to the communists for chasing the Emperor out and turning the Forbidden City into a huge museum. Shame on them for charging so much for the entrance, though, and making people pay extra to see the treasure room, the clock room, etc.

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The food is, obviously, an amazing experience. Cheap or expensive, traditional or modern, Chinese or international, it doesn't matter - it is always good, and always comes in vast quantities. I had a hard time finishing plates at first, but eventually got used to the huge mounds of food served by the restaurants. I have to admit though, that I have said "no" to some "exotic" dishes. We all have limits, and I draw the line before eating pork stomach or sheep penis. Thank you very much, but no. On a positive note, I have found chicken heart barbecue, something I missed so much (very common in Brasil).

As for the communist/capitalist subject I often write about, being in Beijing was a bit disappointing. Though it is a country controlled by the communist party, I'm sure this is beyond any 'capitalist dreams'. All the big brands are there, with their flashy signs and immense posters. McDonalds, KFC, Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc. But the local stores, with Chinese-made products, were also not bad at all. In a way, I had the impression that they export the crap away with those very 'competitive prices', and keep the quality stuff for themselves. The "Silk Market" was a building with cheap stores of all kinds of products in several floors. There I found all the Brazilians that I had not seen during my whole Asian journey; they seemed to be in ecstasy, in a shopping frenzy like I have seldom seen. I overheard young and old ladies alike bursting with joy about the prices and quality of bags, purses, shoes and all that jazz.

As usual, my luck led the way, bringing me to unexpected and delightful places. I met and befriended very interesting locals and expats, found an 'abandoned house' to live in and had a great time. There's much more I can write about my stay in Beijing, but I'll leave that for next week, in which I'll also post pictures of my trip to the Great Wall.

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My first trip in South-East Asia is now over. I spent 6 months in this area; 3 months in Vietnam, 2 months in Lao and 1 month between Cambodia and Thailand. Still, I can't say I know this part of the world well: there is a lot I haven't seen and a lot I haven't done. It's no secret that my favorites are Lao and specially Vietnam, but I'm willing to concede that this is probably because I have always been a fan of Vietnam, very curious to see how a 'communist' society differs from the rest and that I really don't understand why a country should have kings and queens in this day and age. But I must confess that, so far, I have not seen any major differences between a country led by a communist party and a country led by other kinds of parties.

I spent a long time in Vientiane and almost did not go anywhere else during my stay here. This was a sort of 'vacation' from travelling. As you probably know I'm travelling and working at the same time; this can be very exhausting, as I have to spend several hours in front of the computer and then be a tourist during my free time. I get carried away with the local bars, trips to nature and all the sightseeing. I found that this was almost impossible to keep up for a long time, specially in this heat. So, I decided to just be in Vientiane for a while; work, relax and make preparations for the next months, in which I intend to visit China, Mongolia and Russia (and hopefully some other countries).

Though I really prefer Vietnam and would love to spend more than just 3 months there, I'm pretty sure I would not have been able to work much or make any preparations for the rest of my trip - I'd be going out every day, chasing pretty girls, playing at the jam sessions, going to nature and trying to learn the language. Here in Vientiane, on the other hand, there is not much to do, not many pretty girls around and I couldn't find a single jam session (though I did find a studio with amazing drum kits, which I rented for very low prices). Many people asked me, baffled- "Why are you here for such a long time? This is so boring!". Well, I'm lazy. I liked it here, but if you're not into lazying around, indeed there is very little to enjoy.

Nevertheless, I managed to learn a few things here and was quite happy with their rhythm, which is totally different from Vietnam, where people are busy, there is a lot of traffic and things happen all the time. This place is the opposite: most people are really chilled out, things are done slowly and every one seems to be taking it easy. A long time ago, I read this saying somewhere: the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it and the Lao listen to it grow.

One evening, I met a French development consultant here. His work consists in going to developing countries and giving advice, based on what worked for the most developed nations. He told me that in Lao, wherever he goes - factories, farms, etc - there is always a point when people tell him "Please, can you just stop now? We have learned new methods and have acquired new tools, but we don't want to develop any more - this is good enough for us". I wish more people had this attitude. Not that I would stop developing my country when it reached the state that Lao is at, but there is always a point in which no further development is necessary - sometime, it's just enough. And it's up to each one to decide when they have reached that point. This is a very poor country but they seem genuinely happy, so it follows that there is no need for more 'development' - that would only make things worse, in my opinion. Happiness is the final goal, not a space program or a nuclear arsenal.

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It's a strange feeling, to be here for such a long time and leave now, knowing that it's very unlikely that I will ever come back. I think it's the first time I spent so much time in a city which I don't see myself coming back to in the future. I do hope to see South East Asia again, go through some more of Thailand and Vietnam, then move down to Malaysia, Indonesia, etc. But Vientiane is probably just a... "one month stand". And it was an excellent experience.

Tomorrow I fly to Beijing. Let's see what I'll find there.


Nong Khai (Sala Keo Ku)

The trip to Vientiane was an interesting experience. I travelled on a night bus that had (not so) reclining seats, down a windy and treacherous road. My seatmate was a very nice Israeli lady who had recently finished the military service. She got an amazing discount for us and two Hong Kong girls on the Tuk Tuk to the city center; the Lao driver initially asked for 80.000, but the mighty Jewish bargaining skills on the army lady brought it down to 25.000. I was very impressed.

Vientiane is very chilled out, has a nice view of the Mekong, and is itself quite a cute looking place, with a nice blend of traditional Eastern temple and colonial French style. But I'll not write about Vientiane today.

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Today I'll talk about Nong Khai, a small city on the other side of the Mekong, in Thailand, and Sala Keo Ku, a small village outside Nong Khai, with a very special statue park.

After a forthnight in Vientiane, my Lao visa expired and I had to leave the country and enter again, spending a a few days in Thailand. The closest city from the border is Nong Khai, which I did not explore much, but it didn't seem to have that much to offer anyway. Nevertheless, I was surprised to see how friendly people were, and how much more open, compared to Lao.

Here in Vientiane you can find quite a few 'after-40' expats who are trying to find a pretty local flower, but in Nong Khai I saw a much higher percentage. Some fellow travellers have given me their opinions about it, and it's usually negative. And usually against the old white western ugly old man who is in South East Asia trying to find a nice young wife. Well, the way I see it, it's not so bad. They probably have other reasons to be hanging around here, and finding a younger wife is no sin. But even if some of them are creepy old men who are here just for the plucking of flowers, well, I wouldn't say they're the evil villains and the locals are the poor victims. They seem to be nice guys, and their (usually ugly) girlfriends seem to enjoy the whole thing quite honestly - and I heard that they often break the old gentlemen hearts, after they build houses and exchange promises.

But the greatest part of all the "Visa Run", as they call it, was certainly the statue park and the temple within it. Some of the sculptures are just plain wicked!
While I was walking through the park, mesmerized by the really cool stuff there, enjoying the interaction with the Thai tourists, I heard a deep low beat somewhere, irregular and vibrant, which made me think of some sort of slow-motion DubStep. I followed it, and reached the temple, in which people were praying and... playing the Mighty Gong, which reverberated through the whole building. I could feel the sounds not only with my ears, but my whole body. I really hope to become the owner of a Gong in the future.
(I recommend seeing the following pictures in larger size, through this link)
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Luang Prabang

With the Vietnam visa over, I needed to decide where to go next. Lao was the most obvious choice. After being in Hanoi for a while, with its busy streets and long roads leading to distant neighbourhoods, I looked forward to taking the bus to Luang Prabang - a small town in the North of Lao, in a beautiful mountainous area. The trip took around 27 hours and was quite testing, as the roads in the mountains were not so smooth.

I had an idea of how Lao would be different from Vietnam. Nevertheless, I still got surprised by the cultural and infra-structural differences.

In Luang Prabang, I have been told, things are even more quiet and chilled out than the other main Lao destinations. I can say that the locals are very relaxed, and the street vendors are not nearly as pushy as any of the Thai, Cambodians and Vietnamese who do the same line of work. It's even more surprising to notice this during low season, when there are far fewer tourists. If you want it, you buy it. Otherwise, peace, and see you around - that's their attitude.

To make things even slower, it rained during most of the week. On the first 3 days I was there, it rained relentlessly, and tourists were trapped in their guesthouses (which are many, and well equipped, though the internet is really slow - I've been told by locals and foreigners that it's not the equipment, but the many filters that the government applies, and all the "communist privacy invasion").
The surrounding nature is remarkable, as the pictures from the waterfall show.

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Unfortunately, though it is a beautiful place, I learned that it is quite poor as well. As it is usual, there's the need to criticize US behaviour here as well (I wonder - will I find a land outside Europe where they haven't fucked everything up?)

During the Vietnam War, the US and Lao had a peace agreement. Which was completely ignored by the US, who carried out a "secret war". They dropped bombs in Lao like it was "bomb rain season", which helped the country in becoming the most bombarded nation in the history of warfare.

The cherry on top of it all? About 30% of these bombs, many shaped and colored to resemble pineapples, did not detonate when they were dropped. Which means that sometimes, a farmer's wife will try to grow a new rice field and will lose a leg. Or children will play between the trees, and picking up what they think are pineapples, or even metal scraps (which are worth quite some money for them), will blow up to pieces. The incomparable works of Uncle Sam.

Having suffered such atrocities in the past, the socialist government is now trying its best to not let the western world fuck their people in the ass again. Therefore, I understand the quite unique law they have here; sexual intercourse between Lao nationals and foreigners of any nationality is illegal, as is prostitution. Ironically, the age of consent is 15.

Though a great thing in my opinion, as it prevents sexual tourism from happening (which is now quite common in Thailand or Cambodia), it does discourage many of the Lao nationals from having any kind of exchange with foreigners. I had a really hard time meeting locals, and only managed to have interesting conversations with a few of them. While in other countries the ladies will look at me and giggle, and possibly approach me with the usual "Where are you from?", here in Lao they just look away; being with a foreigner can put you in jail, so they don't even want to be seen talking to one.

From what I heard, tattoos are also illegal, though that I do not understand at all.

Next stop: the capital city of Vientiane, because now my South-East Asian part of the trip is about to end, and I must arrange the details of the next part of the trip: China.


Until we meet again, Vietnam.

The wheel of the law turns without pause.

After the rain, good weather.
In the wink of an eye
the universe throws off
its muddy clothes.

For ten thousand miles
 the land spreads out
like a beautiful brocade.

Light breezes. Smiling flowers.

High in the trees,
among the sparkling leaves
all the birds sing at once.
People and animals rise-up reborn.

What could be more natural?
After sorrow, comes joy.


Ha Long Bay

First of all, I want to call the attention of all those who read these words to what is happening in Turkey and in Brasil, and declare that I fully support the protests and demands they make, and would be myself very happy to join them in the streets of Istanbul or São Paulo. Turkish and Brasilian friends; do not forget this feeling. Do not forget this power we all have. Let's organize and create a better world, because the current one is mostly a big load of crap.

If you don't know what is happening in those countries, please stop reading this and look it up, as those events are more important than what I did last week in Vietnam.

Now, on with the Travelogue.

This week in Hanoi was great fun. I explored the city a bit further, found some great bars and even an excellent Jam Session - Hanoi Rock City. I played the hell out of their drum kit (with a double bass pedal, for which I was so thankful), until the session leader (some US or Canada dude) asked me to play Michael Jackson with them. I thought that was a good moment to leave the stage.

I met some strange and interesting people these days; a French expat who owns a great bar, a British toyboy to an elder, empowered, westernized, rich and vulgar Vietnamese woman (a remarkable exception among the 'marry as a virgin' majority of -probably not really so- shy Vietnamese ladies), and a plethora of locals who wanted to practice their English.

On the weekend, however, I went to Ha Long Bay.

In this UNESCO heritage site, tourist activity is intense. The bay is quite beautiful, but failed to impress me as 'the most beautiful place in Vietnam', as I heard some people say. I experienced the same feeling as in Angkor Wat; it seemed like I was looking at nothing but (very) pretty rocks.

In the morning, rain struck hard, so we had to postpone the trip to the afternoon. Which was great, as I don't like doing anything in the morning. When the weather was good enough, we enjoyed a tour of the bay and caves, which were interesting, but I ended up taking a nap on the boat after a while.

I avoided the biggest traps (I hope) by travelling with locals, of course, but even then, vulgar capitalism slapped me in the face time and again.

No collective music in the city and beaches, and no communist spirit to be found, only good old money-making greed. Private beaches in a country that hangs The Hammer and Sickle flag everywhere makes no sense at all. Upon being denied free access to a certain beach, I tried to find some path that could lead me to the sand, but all was blocked everywhere, and unless you pay 200.000 VD, no beach for you. While exploring the area, I chanced upon a motorbike driver who introduced himself as "Captain Cheap-Cheap", and offered to take us on his boat for dinner and swimming for 1.000.000 VD. We refused, decided to head back home and enjoy some swimming at a different beach the next day.

That we did, and though it was a decent beach, it is not comparable to Da Nang at all. After a nice swim, I joined my friends, who were sitting on chairs under beach umbrellas. A young man came to take my order, but I thought it was too expensive and declined his offer. He said something in Vietnamese and left. A few moments later, we took off, but the fellow and some more Vietnamese youths came after us, saying we should pay 40.000 VD for sitting on their chairs.
I am outraged by people charging for a seat and shade anywhere in the world, as I have been in Brasil, Italy and wherever else people try to charge me for urinating, seating down or enjoying shade. Those things I refuse to pay for. A man should have the right to enjoy these simple pleasures without having to pay for it. But to have this done to me in a country controlled by The Communist Party makes me raving mad. We were also charged when using an elevator to access a bridge later that day. That is not what Uncle Ho lived and died for.

Staying at a local's place and sharing these (and other) experiences with them was alright, and all in all I can say it was not a bad trip. I tried several local dishes, but nothing really exceptional or eccentric. The greatest lesson learned is that, unfortunately, there are some places and situations in Vietnam in which they fail to live up to my expectations (which were quite romantic and idealistic). The police bribery system (which didn't fall upon me, but was quite evident in people's complaints), the women abuse, despite the deep respect most men have for most women (I heard a lot of stories of young, long haired beauties being kidnapped and sold...), and some other difficulties have become the plague of this country, and consumerism has arrived here as well. That is not to say that they haven't surpassed many other expecations; in areas where I expected to find ignorance and negative outcomes, I was greeted with intelligence, culture, modernity and open mindedness beyond my most optimistic ideas of this country. It certainly is far from being perfect and has its own (many) vices and faults, but it has a lot to teach, in my opinion. Lessons that perhaps the Brasilians and Turks can draw upon now, to organize, fight and win some rights, without forgetting that after these rights are won or lost, you must choose carefully what you do with them.

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After a whole week in Hanoi, I can give a decent opinion of the capital of Vietnam: not my type of city, but certainly worth seeing.

The streets are always busy, the bars are crowded, the beer is cheap and the weather is unbearably hot. I have a view of the sunset that does not ever let me down; the nice shades of red, purple and blue are splendid every evening, as I watch it all happen from my hotel window. I prefer the smaller, quieter towns, but I'm not unhappy at all in Hanoi.

I have made some interesting acquaintances, went to a few nice bars and events and look forward to the rest of this week. The Ho Chi Minh museum was a great surprise; it is a modern, enticing building paying a well-deserved tribute to one of the greatest men who ever lived. I knew little about him until I visited the museum, but was already a shallow fan. Now I am more than that; I am inspired by his ideals and way of life.

Before I move on to more serious and important remarks, I want to pay a tribute to the beauty of Vietnamese ladies. I have travelled to many places, and I have lived in a few countries. The beauty of Italian women is famous throughout the world and the French ladies are almost a cult, though I personally always preferred the Dutch with their generous proportions, fair skin, independence, long legs and strong character. I had the privilege of being close to all these beauties, and know how true they are. Thus, I expected the Vietnamese ladies to be nothing in comparison to the fantastic beauties of the north. How wrong I was!

These ladies are like delicate flowers blooming out of the strongest of stems: they are usually very fit, perfumed, with gentle, happy faces that show a certain pride that I find lacking in most women around the world. They are also witty (at least the ones I had the chance to meet) and very determined. How they age is an entirely different matter, and I must confess that in my humble opinion, the French are still the best at this art. Nevertheless, looking at old propaganda posters and their messages, I could see that the empowering of women here began a long time ago; the men needed the women to win the wars against the French and the United Stateans. They could not treat them as child-bearing beasts, as most men around the world tend to do. They needed partners, fellow warriors. And that these women were. And that shows in today's culture; Vietnamese men respect the Vietnamese women like I have seldom seen, perhaps only in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. I also noticed that quite many of them do not shave their legs. That is only visible on the whitest of them, but still I noticed it quite often. I prefer it like that; I don't see the point of a lady going through the painful ordeal of shaving or waxing her legs every week, making the hair uglier and tougher. These ladies have very few hairs, fair and soft, and let them grow freely, as nature intended. Some of them are still among the prettiest I have seen, though the 'hairy leg' thing is not 'in' where I was brought up.
It's interesting to see, though, that despite all this respect for, and strength of, women, the roles are still quite clear: I have never seen a woman driving a taxi or giving paid rides on their motorbikes, just as I have never seen men roaming the streets selling pineapples and sweets.

I read a lot, nowadays, about the ongoing protests in Brasil; comments from both 'sides'. The protesters want a lower bus fare, the right-wingers want them dead because they are 'a bunch of miscreants who only want to make a mess'. In all honesty, I know that Vietnam has many problems, their currency is worth shit, their politicians are corrupt and the bribe system rules the land. But I wish Brasil was half as well off as Vietnam; I could easily live for many years here. I dread going back to Brasil even for a quick visit to see old friends and family. I hope the students and protesters in Brasil get their way and move towards a society a bit more like this one, and less like the USA Wannabe that they currently are - exploring neighbour countries and creating the mega-rich and the despairingly poor.

A Vietnamese friend invited me to drink last evening. She told me we would meet some Australians at the bar. There I was, drinking with my friend and 4 people I had never met. The couple in front of me was Irish, and I couldn't really recognize the accent of the other 2 people, so I just assumed they were Australian like she said. At a certain point, one of them, the organizer of the whole tour (they were all travelling together), points to the 'Old Propaganda Posters' shop across the street and says "I want to buy a poster, but I need a Vietnamese to assure me that what I'm buying does not say 'Death to America'". The whole table laughed for a while and I said "Well, I think it's highly unlikely that there is such a poster". They all quickly disagreed, and my Vietnamese friend backed them up: "I'm sure there is some poster that says that", to which I replied "Well, if there is, I want to buy it". A shy burst of laughter came from the other people. The tour organizer seemed to increase his aversion towards me (which was apparent from the beginning), and the other fellow whose accent I could not recognize said: "I'm from the US, and I think it would be funny to have such a poster!". I looked very serious and asked "Why?" to which he replied, embarrassed; "Well, it reminds us of how cruel we were in this country!". I proceeded to ask "How on Earth can that ever be considered 'funny'?". To which he had no reply. From then on I just ignored the rest of the table, finished my drink and went back to my hotel. If remembering how cruel you have been to another country, dropping napalm and killing children, is "funny", there is something really wrong with you, my friend.  
Despite all those wars, the propaganda they had to create to encourage an increased rice production and the role of women in the war (and I did not find a single poster which said "Death to America", though many said great stuff like "let's get rid of the US invaders" and "Let's celebrate the destruction of the 4000th US airplane"), just 50 years ago, this country is quite developed, peaceful, safe, modern and clean. I cannot help but imagine what they would have achieved if they didn't have to get rid of imperialist invaders so often, and I cannot help but wonder what their future will be. I admire this country more and more - its people, its ideals and its beauty, even though I must recognize it has many flaws and problems, as any other place in the world. I look forward for these last 10 days in Vietnam, and I am sure that I will miss it sorely once I'm gone.

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PS - I wish all the luck in the world to my Turkish friends and their friends and families. Hopefully, it will all have a happy ending soon.


Hoi An, Da Nang, Hue

Watching the sun set always brings up the possibility of having a great moment. As I watched it settle between low clouds over Hanoi, I embarked on one of those moments, thinking about the past few weeks while appreciating the great blue and red combination over the rooftops of the city.

Hoi An was a very pleasant and unexpected surprise; a charming place, with a couple of pretty bridges and a great taste in clothes, music and colors. Wikipedia describes its Ancient Town as "an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century". The tourists area is surrounded by tailors and shoemakers, and they're good at what they do. It's easy to ride a bicycle around town, and though the sun was very punishing, the place had a certain freshness to it, with lots of trees everywhere. On a random evening I decided to go out of the hotel room and explore the city properly, taking my time to roam around. I did not know it then, but the moon was full, and they celebrate that occasion quite elegantly. The whole city center had dimmed lights, with beautiful lanterns hanging everywhere, and down by the water people were carrying candles, monks had their banners, children laughed and music was played. But not as it usually happens in such occasions. I don't know if this is common elsewhere, but it seems to me that this was the first time I heard all the shops and bars in a whole city center playing the exact same music. What bliss, this gift from socialism, that night - no ultrabass systems booming rap next to a bar that is about to explode with electronic music, and so on down every street you walk by. No! All the shops, restaurants and bars were playing lovely European classical piano music - Beethoven, Chopin, etc, on a reasonable volume.

Da Nang offered me a similar experience, at the beach; there too, between the announcements through the public speakers, vietnamese music played through the whole extension of the beach; the same song all over, in a very decent volume, which also created a beautiful delay effect as the sound brought by the winds play the exact same thing you just heard, but softer and mixed to the sounds of the pacific ocean. Da Nang is one of the biggest cities in Vietnam, and developing quite fast. I didn't really explore the city itself, as I was busy during those days, but decided to at least visit the beach before moving on to Hue. My hotel was about 5 km from the beach, and the sun was also very punishing there. To that problem, I had 3 possible solutions. Renting a bicycle was not possible, so, in order to go to the beach and return from there, I could either hire a taxi car for about 150.000 VD, hire a taxi scooter for about 120.000, or rent the scooter itself for the whole day for 100.000. As I started an automatic scooter for the first time in my life, after putting on the helmet, I heard the owner ask - "You good driver?", to which I replied "Not really. First time for me". He looked concerned, but said "Go slow". I started, and went quite slow. It wasn't nearly as hard as I thought it would be. I just hopped on and got off, enjoying the feeling of finding the balance on a new ride. Then I heard the owner of the scooter shout like crazy, and realized I was driving in the wrong direction on a one way street, with two police officers riding straight towards me. They were baffled by the situation, slowing down to witness it, but moving on to more important things, probably. Realizing my mistake, I turned around and took off, and had no more problems throughout the rest of the day, in which I enjoyed a large stretch of white sand beach, with clear, warm ocean water, mysteriously empty from 14.00 to 17.00. After that it got crowded, but during those 3 hours, I had it all for myself - I saw very few others enjoying the sea, and a small number of people people walking by or jogging. There, as well as with the sun set, one of those great moments just brought itself up, and enjoying the sea while watching the distant fishermen on their floating baskets made me feel like this trip is definitely something I should be doing right now.

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As I said, I was quite busy during those days, so I ended up taking only the few photos above. Nevertheless, I add the below images, which were not captured by me, but I think is important to have here to make justice to both events, which I enjoyed thoroughly.

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I then travelled to Hue, were I stayed for a bit longer and allowed myself to be more of a tourist. There, I crossed paths with the Elder Sisters for the second time, after meeting them in Siem Reap weeks ago, visited the Imperial Citadel, got really drunk, visited a nearby cave, thought about getting a tattoo, worked quite some and moved on further north.

The work was carried forward thanks to Google Hotel's Internet. Something else they offered was free beer from 17.00 to midnight. That, combined with the presence of the powerful Elder Sisters meant a great time and a great hangover the next day. They're rarer and rarer, but they still happen sometimes.

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The Imperial Citadel was ok, but I was not very impressed. The tattoo was postponed to Hanoi. Phong Nha caves, a few hours north of Hue, however, were beautiful, and travelling on little boats through it was a very comfortable and enjoyable experience. After enough time in this mildly enjoyable city (which unfortunately had none of that beautiful harmony of music of Hue or Da Nang), I moved on to Hanoi, where I am at now, after having one of those great moments. Despite the heat, which was a big problem at the beginning, I have definitely fallen in love with Vietnam.

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Da Lat + Nha Trang

Well, I spent a whole week more in Da Lat, as I was really enjoying the cool weather, the surrounding nature and the few attractions the city had to offer. It is very interesting to notice how much more gentle and elegant cold cities are compared to hot ones; streets are cleaner, colours are more delicate and people, of course, dress much better. I don't know if it was the landscape and atmosphere, but I also think that the prettiest girls I've seen so far were there (though many were not originally from Da Lat). I visited a few more interesting places, and the winner is definitely the Hang Nga Guesthouse. An architect inspired by Dali and Gaudi created this great looking guest house, which is still under construction:

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

I know I have been overdoing the whole "Communist Fanboy" rap recently, so this time around I'll just go with the anti-theocratic stuff. I get angry when I see monks nowadays. Specially the Thai ones. Not only do they have great, clean, comfortable temples decorated with gold back in Thailand, where people are sleeping in the streets with rats and cockroaches, prostituting themselves cheaply and working from sunrise to sunset to barely make it through life, they are also to be seen everywhere in Vietnam and Cambodia enjoying trips to other temples, taking photos with their iPads, smiling away and 'meditating' on nice, touristic spots. Bastards.

At the last few days in Da Lat I had a great time with several locals, some of which I will consider friends from now on. I visited neighbouring small villages, had a good time at a couple of English Clubs (locals and travellers meet to practice the language) and enjoyed the rain.

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After a great time in Da Lat, I was starting to ponder if I should just stay there until the end of my visa period, but I really want to see more of Vietnam, so I had to move on. While my European friends strongly advised me against going to Nha Trang, the Vietnamese themselves were very generous when praising the beaches and the food, and all of them said I should visit it. So I did. My European friends were correct. It's not that bad, but it's not so interesting either. The worst part may be that the city has been taken over by ugly Russians. Never had I seen so many Russians, and most of them were exceptionally ugly (specially when you expect the Russian ladies to be like the ones you see on TV, which are very good for the eyes). I remember taking a ride with a motorbike driver, and a few meters after we started, he pointed at two Vietnamese girls and said "Good, eh?". They were quite fit, with beautiful legs, long, shiny hair and nice smiles. I agreed with him, pointed at two blond, white girls and said "Fat, eh?" and he laughed a lot, and asked me why is it that most people from the west are so freaking fat. Those two were exceptionally fat though; obese, which made the moment quite a funny one.

The food was just decent, or I was unlucky not to find a good restaurant (Vietnamese, that is - I ate the best Greek food in my life in Nha Trang). This time around, the new animals to have been eaten by me were the Eel and the Crocodile. The crocodile was not as chickeny as people told me it would be - I felt like I was eating something between chicken and pork. It was very well prepared and seasoned, so it was quite a pleasure, though the meat itself did not have such a strong taste. The eel was delicious, though, very soft, and very specific. I love when I eat something that I cannot really describe or compare, and eel is certainly one of those types of meat.

Finally, again I had the opportunity to meet locals and see their homes. One of them was specially generous, and took me on a tour around the market, temple and a more humble part of town, free of tourists (there I was, braving unchartered territory)! This was a highlight of Nha Trang, as the food was great, the kids were a blast and the narrow streets (parts of it over the water, both road and houses) were a unique experience.

Now I just arrived in Hoi An, and so far the impressions are good.

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After my last post, I went from Binh Phuoc to Buon Ma Thuot, a small city in the Vietnamese highlands. As I am not on vacation, and that city was refreshingly cold and remarkably non-touristic, I took the whole week to work, on my job and on my projects. That means I did not spend a lot of time being a tourist, and had nothing to post about. Buon Ma Thuot was a very pleasant experience mainly for two reasons: the excellent coffee and the refreshingly cool weather. It is the capital of coffee in Vietnam, which is one of the main exporters in the world. There I was told about a quite peculiar type of coffee they produce: Cà Phê Chôn, or "Weasel Coffee". In practice, coffee producers feed the coffee beans to weasels, let their digestive systems somehow 'improve' the coffee, which is later... defecated, separate the grains from... the rest, and sell this 'shit coffee' for quite steep prices. I haven't tried it, mainly because I have never been into coffee at all, and it wouldn't make sense to spend so much money in something I am ignorant about, as the 'regular' coffee was enough for me - very good indeed.

After that I came to Dalat, a beautiful city also located on the highlands, with even cooler weather. Finally, the rain season started and every afternoon greets me with a blast of tropical rain, which I honestly missed.
Dalat is, from what I understand, a favorite destination of the Vietnamese tourists. It is considered a romantic city, where lovers come to enjoy their honeymoon around the lakes and waterfalls. There are far less international tourists than the other main cities, and I thoroughly enjoy that. One interesting fact about this place is that it is the only one in Vietnam that has no traffic lights. Good thing the traffic here is not nearly as chaotic as in Ho Chi Minh city.

Dalat is very different from any other Vietnamese city, or at least that is what people say. It was mostly built by the French, including the Royal Palace, before the 1950's. Most of its buildings are no higher than 2 stories, as the vista is beautiful, and people don't want to ruin it with ugly modern buildings.

I arrived here on the 29th of April, which is a national holiday (from the 28th to the 30th). On the 30th of April, 1975, the communist troops finally managed to defeat the US troops and take control over former Saigon, which was renamed after their inspiring leader - Ho Chi Minh. The whole city was out celebrating, and the party was great - good food, good live music and lots of happy people. Not surprisingly, the farther north I go, the more they are proud about their communist ways and victory over the invading troops, which had their headquarters in the south. I can only imagine what it will be like in Hanoi.

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All in all, I have not been a good tourist in the past two weeks, but have instead been enjoying what you can call 'the life of a local' - working during the day and enjoying a couple of drinks with the locals I have befriended at night. They even have a rock'n'roll bar with a jam session, which I very much enjoyed playing at - something I had not seen in Vietnam yet (Siem Reap, in Cambodia, offered a couple of great jam sessions). Talking of Cambodia, I forgot to mention something that quite surprised me about that country: many food places, both street stalls and restaurants, cook your meals with instant noodles! They are actually not that bad, after all, I imagine they have been doing this for years and can make them as good as they get, but still, this says quite a lot about the economic situation of the country. Fortunately, in Vietnam the noodles are fresh and made of rice: usually quite good.


Binh Phuoc

I ran away from the Cambodian new year; I had already overstayed, and if I had let the new year celebrations grab me, I'd stay for another 4 or 5 days. I was glad to be back in Ho Chi Minh, and soon after on my way to Binh Phuoc.

A young vietnamese lady, Cherry, invited me and an English traveller to spend the weekend in her home town, a quiet village 3 hours north of Ho Chi Minh City. We stayed at her family's house, far from the center, in a sort of almost rural area - big gardens where people keep their own animals and grow their own vegetables and fruits. Apart from Cherry, no one Vietnamese I spoke to understood any English. I communicated the most with the little girl, who really didn't care if I understood her or not, and was not really worried that she couldn't understand the sounds I produced. Unfortunately, this was also the very first time I felt sorry for a cat - she seemed to love it alright, but had no idea it was crying because it was desperately trying to run away. Instead she thought it meant it liked it, and that she should squeeze the poor animal harder.

There was not much to see in the area, but it was quite interesting to share a couple of days with a local family. Of course, I tasted a few new flavours during those 2 days: watermelon seeds, boiled rooster head (brain included), duck blood soup and fried cicada, which they catch in their own garden - very nice. That, my friends, I recommend. When asked 'what does it taste like?', my only answer is 'like fried cicada'.

We ate those meals sitting on the ground, no table between us. After dinner, they cleaned that spot and prepared it for sleeping. Only the guests had mattresses - the rest of the family slept on the ground. The Grandmother had a folding bed in the kitchen, and they had a couple of hammocks which were tied to something that must be quite common, but I saw for the first time: a hammock holder that can easily be transported.

The town itself was quite nice, clean and spacious, with a beautiful and well lit park, which displays spotless, grand statues of communist heroes. The parks and squares were crowded until late, and the children played freely, not unlike Ho Chi Minh City.

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Cherry told me that behind the wall that limits their garden, there are U.S. soldier graves. If we had been there 5 years earlier, we could have taken a walk, but since the wall was built, the field is left to grow and it's impossible to see through barbed wire and thick vegetation. The father said he had to hide in the tunnels during the conflict and the grandmother explained that her husband was not really in with the United Stateans - they threw her in jail, releasing her a week later, when her husband enlisted to fight against the North.

In practical terms, I am being led to the conclusion that there are only few minor differences between a socialist country and the rest, at least when it comes to everyday life. I've seen rich and poor and I've seen happy and hungry, but all that I have seen in each country. The main difference I see as a tourist between Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, as far as law and customs are concerned, is that roads are cleaner (not always, unfortunately) and prostitutes are less abundant in the country run by the communist party - whereas the Monarchies kinda stink and are filled with mildly aggressive hookers walking around exaggerated tourist areas. Many people also told me that the Vietnamese will try to rip you off at every turn, and charge you a lot more than what they should. My experience so far leads me to consider two possibilities: people were wrong, or they have become so good at it that I'm not even noticing. Whenever you buy something, anywhere, you are being ripped off. Coming from Brasil and then a period in Italy, you get really used to identifying those moments, and I honestly think I have had very few of them in Vietnam. And on top of that, all the Vietnamese people with whom I created the tiniest of bonds of friendship have offered me drinks, food, rides and even their full hospitality.



After some time in Ho Chi Minh City, I realized I would not have time to see all the other countries I had in mind: Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia and all the rest will have to wait for a second Asian trip. For now I will focus on what one may call "the communist trip"; Vietnam, Laos and China (and I was hoping for North Korea, but that sounds quite far-fetched at the moment) before I reach my oh-so-desired period in Mongolia.

But, before I dive into it, I had to go check out something I have been curious about for a long time: Angkor.

Thus I bought a ticket to Siem Reap (it was sold to me as a direct bus trip), the small town next to the ancient temples, in the Kingdom of Cambodia. They call themselves "The Kingdom of Wonder".

Of course the direct trip became a trip with a change in the capital, Phnom Penh, at 14.30. That was not a problem, even though the day was incredibly hot and the roads were dusty. There as well, I had the impression of being in a big dirty city, and I didn't really feel like going around to check it out. On the way to Siem Reap, I tried some fried spider, which was disappointingly similar to shrimp. That doesn't mean it was bad at all, but I was hoping for a unique flavor. I still didn't feel like eating the grasshoppers or beetles. Maybe later.

Siem Reap is my only impression of Cambodia, and that is probably a very poor one, because the place is filled with tourists, from all over the world. The Cambodians seemed to be a nice and open people, but it was hard for me to be in an environment that had no tourists. And whenever I managed, conversation was a difficult task. I did talk to some locals, of course, and their main theme is still the horrors of the Khmer Rouge. It's amazing how young the country is, because of that conflict. And though I had a great time, and prices were very comfortable, it was not the best place to be. Apart from the dust and the dirt, the incredible heat was killing me - for a couple of days, I was officially at the hottest place on the planet, according to some weather reports. But what is more; there still is something quite dark about Cambodia - the prostitution, the child-beggars asking for milk (which is actually quite expensive there), and the many orphanages are just a part of that. Pub Street, while a very western and exaggerated party-like part of town, can be fun for music and drinking, and other parts of town were not bad at all either, including the Night Markets. It is a place on the rise. Great numbers of tourists visit it, so they can see those fabled temples, which I had the opportunity to explore:

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

While they are impressive and it is a beautiful scenery, I honestly expected a bit more, both from size and from 'vibe'. Unfortunately, there is not much 'holy' or 'spiritual' left in those temples. The vast quantity of tourists changes whatever buddhist or hindu atmosphere it had into a regular tourist attraction. Nice to look at, though.

Created with Admarket's flickrSLiDR.

Food was also quite good there, and very cheap. I specially liked their bread and their banana pies, and fish amok was a great dish to find out. It was also interesting to meet quite many travellers who have the intention of staying there for a longer period, teaching english and crafts; German, Cuban, Valencian, English, South African... it seems the whole world took an interest in these children, and want to help build a better Cambodia. I wish them all the luck in the world!