What I learnt while exploring Vietnam

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I travelled to Vietnam for a mixture of reasons, which combined free exploration, work related things (e.g a Torch innovation talk in Saigon), business (testing Pictoshirt.com and other projects in Asia), visiting friendsdiscovery and more.

In the past days I posted in FB a few pics of the many wonderful moments I’ve been experiencing recently while travelling. This helps me preserve some of those moments, in a sort of diary on facebook. However, this is also done as a sort of parody of what so many of us do sometimes: post these tokens of awesomeness on fb and just that, just the good stuff. So, from the beginning, I always intended to serve the other side.

Because every real experience is made of good moments and also hard challenges. And I believe that without those hard challenges an experience will not be transformative enough. And it is, in fact, the challenges, which are most worth sharing, which is why on purpose I have only tagged a couple of friends in the awesome pics, but will tag many more on the post about the challenges.

So this is not an article about the many beautiful pics and wonderful moments of this trip,  from Hoi An to Halong, Ninh Binh, Phu Quoc, the Mekong delta, Saigon, Hanoi, Marble mountains, My Son, etc. That’s pretty but not good enough to actually contribute and give you something really meaningful, something that lasts beyond a fleeting aesthetic impact, something that produces an interesting impact in whoever reads this. Instead, this is a post about challenges and teachings, reflections and some of the learning done throughout this trip.

During the last days I have been reminded of very important things I was starting to forget, learned new things, and had to face various challenges that ultimately are all proving to be useful and enlightening.

  • A few days ago, during an underwater expedition, my phone caught some water and stopped working. Suddenly no internet, no local calls, GPS, google maps, not even clock and time, etc. Tried to fix it in many ways but no luck. I considered buying a new one, but decided to try to go along without it. This forced me to become way more alert and focused, but also to spend some of my time reading books on my kindle rather than messaging friends. And of course, that has turned out to be very productive and useful. I also had to use paper maps sometimes. And this was very funny at the start. For example, at the beginning, I kept looking at the paper expecting to see my position updated in real time on the paper. What a great way to feel how technology is making us more productive in many ways and also, maybe, more stupid in others.
  • A few days ago, one of my main lenses, after 15 years of great performance, got destroyed in an accident. It was a great reminder that everything will break eventually, objects, relationships and ourselves. And what matters is what we do with that broken whatever. I intend to take the broken lens home and do something with it. And at minimum, I will celebrate all the good times  it gave me and thank it for reminding me that yes, everything breaks eventually.

  • On my very first night in Saigon, I was extremely dizzy and sleepy, big jet lag etc. I had to go to a restaurant to meet friends for dinner. They gave me an address and instructions  for a grabCar (sort of Uber). Something was wrong with the address and it was pointing out of the city, so I had to try to get there walking. I was in a particularly tricky area, surrounded by thousands of bikes and chaos. Crossing the street was like crossing a war zone (hard to explain unless you see it by yourself). Feeling so dizzy, I felt that I could be ran over at any second. It dawned on me, while I was there, dizzy and jet-lagged, that this was a great reminder that, in fact, we can be ran over at any second in life. We can indeed say bye at any moment. And I often remember that moment, a great visual representation of what is actually true every single moment of our lives.

  • One day, I was having dinner with a Vietnamese friend. He shared with me that he has a wife and a son. The wife and son live in Hanoi, and he lives and works as a barman in Saigon, over 1000 kilometers away. The last time they saw each other was October.  And the next time they will meet may be March. The reason for such a long hiatus is financial constraints, work obligations, etc. This really puts in perspective the tremendous freedom and flexibility we have in other countries. I spoke to many other locals in the past days who shared similar stories, stories of how typical can be, for some of these people, what for us would be a tremendous obstacle. How much we take for granted what in fact would be luxuries for people in so many countries.
  • During the past days, I received different news, both from my location and from back home. Some were good, some were not so good. But when you are travelling in exploration mode, you become acutely aware that, in the end, no matter what happens, you cannot  control what others do or decide. But you have control over how you behave, react and deal with things. Another important reminder. In addition, some things I was expecting to experience, did not happen. But the flip side is that some things I would have never expected to experience, did happen. And they were so extraordinary, unexpected and enriching, that I soon forgot about the others.
  • One of the unexpected enriching experiences was this one. A few days ago, the Vietnam football team was playing the final of the Asian games with Uzbekistan. They were playing at a football field full of snow in some other country. Most vietnamese people have never seen snow. It was a tough match. Uzbekistan started scoring, Vietnam equalled. And then, in the most cruel way possible, at the very end of the second extra time, Uzbekistan scored and Vietnam lost. I was expecting a tremendous level of sadness to empty the streets and hearts of the people in the city. What followed is one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen. A massive amount of young and older people went onto the streets of Saigon to celebrate their heroes, to thank them. And they did it with such a display of joy and happiness, one that I have never seen before. But what matters the most, they did so without any of the displays of vulgarity and decadence so typical in the west. I was interacting and taking photography with them until 2 in the morning, and I did not see not even one drunk person, nobody taking drugs, nobody getting naked in the middle of the street, nobody insulting, nobody angry. I just saw pure raw joy, wonderful and beautiful joy, the cleanest joy I have ever seen, and all to celebrate that they had lost the final! Yes, that puts a lot of things in perspective, mainly how ignorant we often are in the west about our shortcomings and how much we exaggerate our supposed superiority over other countries. Maybe we are ahead in many things, and maybe we are actually behind in some essential profound areas.

  • This trip was also a great exercise in empathy. One day I was on a bicycle and I arrived to a pagoda on a mountain. I had been told that I could pay x money to have a person take care of my bicycle while I visited the place. So I arrived and this man offers to take care of my bike in exchange for many more times the money that I was supposed to pay. So, I look at this man, and I think, well of course, If i was in his position I would do exactly what he is doing. I would ask for a few times more the cost, because it is still so cheap and because he knows I have much more than he has. So I just smiled to him and in a playful way I told him that I knew he was asking more than I was supposed to pay and that I knew the cost was x. Now, the man looked at me puzzled, and I was all along talking in a very playful and fun way. So then he started laughing, agreeing with me, not with words that I could understand, but with playful gestures that were easy to interpret. It was a sort of “yes, yes you caught me”, but in a very cheerful, spontaneous and transparent way. And of course I did pay him extra because I wanted, and most importantly there was a great connection and empathy in this process, a reminder that we need to interpret people and things based on their context, put ourselves into their shoes. If we do that, things always become easier (and yes I know, easier said than done. This is not always easy to do, we try our best).

And I could share many more stories like this from the past days, but that’s enough. This is to emphasize what we all know, that every experience is a mixture of good stuff and essential challenges. And somehow, I feel that social networks and similar tools are only beginning their evolution, there will be a lot of changes in the future that will hopefully allow us to feel, sense and share fully our real experiences, rather than just the bright sparks within them. Ultimately, what remains is what we all know, challenges are tough but are the best way to grow. And the adventure continues, for as long as we don’t break. And when we do, we shall deal with it then.

To conclude, I will summarize some more of these teachings in a few random thoughts:

  • Like it happened to me previously in other places (Iran, for example), I often felt safer in the streets of Vietnam than in those of places like London, Paris or Barcelona.
  • Like it also happened to me many times before, seeing Vietnam with my own eyes corrected many distortions caused by the mass media. The only good way to truly understand something is to go and see it and experience it by yourself. The Communication media is a giant machine of stereotypes and generalizations that transforms richness and complexity into abstractions that are very far from the day to day experience.
  • Context is everything. You cannot separate what people do from the reasons behind their actions. And all of that chain eventually reaches you as well, as everything is interconnected. It also reaches discussions about the nature of free will and how it is manifested (such a long topic).
  • Relativity. I always thought that Barcelona had too many motorbikes. Until I spent some time in Saigon. Now I feel that motorbikes are very rare in Barcelona. Relativity. If you think there is too much of something: go spend some time in a place with more of that thing. If you think that there is too little of something: go spend some time in a place with even less amount of that thing. Turn relativity into a useful tool.
  • More relativity. One day, I hired a driver to take me to marble mountain, a famous set of mountains full of caves and statues, very Indiana Jones like. The weather forecast gave some chances of rain, but apparently not until the afternoon. So I decided to go very early, around 5:30 am. As we drove, clouds came in. By the time we arrived, it was pouring. Massive rain. At that time, I thought, what a bad luck, should we turn back? I had a little umbrella with me, so in the last minute I decided to stay. I said bye to the driver and went by myself inside the mountain, under the massive rain. What seemed to be terrible luck soon transformed into one of the best experiences ever. Because of the massive rain, nobody else came to the mountain. No tourists, no sellers, nobody. For a couple of hours, the rain gave me the entire mountain to myself. I ran the entire place with a hand on my camera and another in the umbrella, enjoying every corner and centimeter of the mountain, the caves, where water couldn’t get in, and all the secrets of that magical place. It was incredible. After 2 hours, the rain stopped and a ton of tourist buses started to arrive. Soon it was impossible to get any privacy in the mountain. Thanks to the massive rain, I had enjoyed two of the most magical hours I can remember. Relativity.
  • You cannot learn and grow deeply without facing challenges. Travel is great not because of the pretty landscapes (that also), but because of the unexpected challenges it throws at you (if you travel, rather than teleport to a resort and back, of course). Torch, the innovation methodology I created, is also a metaphor for travelling. Diverge before you converge is the way of travelling that makes you face diversity and challenges till you eventually converge onto a set of learnings and growth processes derived from them.
  • There are infinite ways to be satisfied. In places like Vietnam people adapt to their circumstances and find their point of equilibrium in the best way they can. Some get there, others don’t, but many do in their own personal way. One of the biggest dangers of living in countries like ours is how easy is to forget that there are many, many options to live our lives, apart from those constantly pushed to us by the media.
  • Like demonstrated by many studies, the correlation between having things (money, possessions, etc) and happiness partially works up to a certain level of affluence (the one that guarantees solving all the key needs). Beyond a threshold, it doesn’t scale. That’s why owning plus experiencing always beats pure owning. You always see and experience this while travelling.
  • Great frustrations can often happen right after great moments of bliss. Entropy rules and permanence is an illusion. This becomes massively evident when you free-travel.
  • I met a young german boy who is travelling for many months. He told me that the best decision he took was to travel by himself rather than with his friends. Moments of loneliness push you to be inclusive and to diverge (hence great learnings and growth). Fixed company often pushes you to exclusivity and convergence. In you find yourself alone one day, there you have the seed and opportunity to diverge and grow which you may not find in other contexts.
  • The massive learnings we can take from so many other cultures around the world are hidden from view because of how media works today. A new kind of media can and should exist in the future. Solving this issue is key because a lot of the misunderstandings and distortions that fuel conflicts and wars are born from precisely this lack of access to the deep nature and richness of the different cultures that surround us. In this aspect, technology can play a stronger and more positive role beyond what is going on today.
  • Slavery exists in many form today. It exists, like I saw, in the repetitive, constant work of girls at a textile factory, working for very low wages with probably little to no free time. But also exists in the way we are enslaved to our mobile devices, facebook, different comforts, ideals, etc.
  • The problem with technology is that it is progressing too fast and our physiology and psychology cannot evolve that fast to match it. That’s why exercising your mind by using a paper map to find your way around still feels great and sharpens your mind. And relying constantly and only on our mobile device very likely dumbs us down in a few ways (while improving our productivity to a point, but in a very dependent way).
  • We are all broken in some ways. I photograph textures everywhere. Broken, dirty, rich,  diverse, unpredictable, raw textures. In doors, walls, windows, floors, roofs. Textures enrich my work because they are raw, dirty and authentic. We all begin to break in different ways since our first years. We accept that and work around it or try to hide from it using temporary patches whose effect doesn’t last long and becomes less effective as time goes on (drugs, etc). We can embrace entropy as we embrace the rawness of visual textures. Embrace our imperfections, embrace our rawness, embrace how broken we are. Some of the most beautiful works of art are wonderful because of that brokenness. Perfection may win sometimes but rarely inspires, motivates, awakens and challenges you.

  • Social networks today are, apart from a wonderful way to keep in touch with friends, mainly tools to escape pain, insecurity and anesthetize our minds. This has some dangerous side effects of course. Eventually social networks can and should become tools to produce deep engagement and share the whole deep complexity and richness of the human experience. Then we can all truly learn from one another in ways that make us better people, more confident, more relaxed, more motivated and empathic.
  • If they promise you something and then they don’t deliver, it’s easy to get discouraged and disappointed. We need to remember that we cannot control most things in life. We cannot control how others will behave. So any time lost on dwelling on their behaviour is that, time lost. If they don’t deliver, first we recognize that this (somebody behaving in this way) could have been us in a different context, even if now it feels impossible (because our context is so different). And then, we move on. Next.
  • Innovation begins to matter when survival needs are met (Maslow, etc). Even when innovation is not a conscious concern, creating paths of least resistance is a proven way to create better solutions to all kinds of challenges. Paths of least resistance is what the mind generates to produce learning and process information efficiently (See The Torch Principle book). In a world saturated by too much information, tools, apps, services, products etc, generating paths of least resistance, hence, better usability in any area is how innovation often happens in places where it is not necessarily a conscious necessity.
  • The best drug in the world will always be genuine, deep human contact. Stimulating the dopaminergic circuits of our brain in the right way is all we need to feel the highs we seek. You can try to get there using external aids (drugs, alcohol, smoking, etc, etc). But typically, you build tolerance, get addicted, face harmful side effects, etc, etc. Or you can get there by the natural organic stimulation generated by the processes that originated those circuits in the first place (and others derived later).

  • If you feel organic, spontaneous enthusiasm and the drive to explore and learn constantly, you are rich in ways that money cannot match, even if you are not conscious of it.
  • When you travel, observe the faces of people in the street, in the underground, in front of a beautiful landscape. Sometimes the face reveals that engagement is minimal. Travelling is not about changing the place. True travel begins with an attitude. Without that attitude you may as well be at a cinema back home. Deep engagement is the secret of deep learning, growth, discoveries and rich experiences.
  • Empathy facilitates deep engagement. When you look at that local in her/his country, that local is looking at you as well. We are the same person in different circumstances. They all look similar to you and we all look similar to them. Until empathy kicks off. Don’t stay on your shoes, step into theirs and facilitate deep engagement. Now every contact is totally unique.
  • We cannot hide from bad feelings, tears or frustrations. We cannot avoid life if we are alive. We cannot avoid the night if we wish to see the day, neither all the sides of our complex nature, the pretty ones and the less pretty ones, mirrored in the people around you. This reminder came to me as I was travelling and interacting with people. When we see something we don’t like in another person, we are seeing ourselves in the past, present or future. The potential to be just that, exactly that, is always there depending on the context and the circumstances around us. Then we choose to reject what is actually part of our nature, or learn new things about it, how it happens, when it happens, why it happens, but always remembering that we could be that person, that could be us at some point, past, present or future.
  • Dunkirk, great movie (one of the few ones I watched in the planes). Poetry in the drama, the two sides of the same coin. The potential to go high or low in each of us.
  • We are in the infancy of how politics and geostrategic decisions are taken. Contemplate from the top and realize how the decisions of so few individuals have impacted dramatically the lives of billions of people throughout the planet. Maybe technology will help generate new, more inclusive and currently hard to predict ways of generating harmony, peace, stability and global cooperation. To get there safely we will have to deal with many issues including the technology divide, making sure that whatever technology helps in that process becomes a universal human right accessible to all.

  • We are not that important, but what we do matters a lot. Single individuals have produced very positive or negative impacts in massive ways. We try to do our best because what we do matters, not because we are important. We are not. We will not be remembered for long. But the impact of our actions is forever embedded in the fabric of the universe and human existence.
  • It may all be a dream. Days ago I was taking a long flight and I was feeling very, very sleepy. At one point I looked at the map area of the screen in front of me and saw that there was 1 hour left in the flight. That felt great. I was so close to arrive. But I was actually dreaming. I realized I was dreaming so I looked again at the map area and saw that there were actually 2 hours and 20 minutes left. Ok, still not bad. However, here is the cool thing. That was still a dream within a dream. I eventually fully woke up to find out, looking at the map, that there were still 3 hours and 10 minutes left of the flight. Two possibilities. Either the plane was moving backwards, or It was all a dream, within a dream, within a dream.

So, maybe, this is all a dream. So go and make it wonderful. Make your dream a wonderful one.

Good night