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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