3 Million Motorbikes on the Streets of Hanoi?

Yesterday I spent the time from 4.30pm till 6,30 pm in my favourite “Bia Hoi” hangout around the corner from my apartment.

This local street pub is on the corner of two small streets – where traffic is not as busy or dense as elsewhere. I felt it was still quite busy enough to raise my curiosity and find out how much traffic there actually is.

All in all I measured the flow of motorbikes 4 times between 4.30 and 6.30. I started my stop-watch and counted 50 bikes and hit the stop-button. Interestingly the traffic flow was constant all the time. It took between 25 and 29 seconds for 50 motorbikes to pass – on average 27 seconds. That’s 111 motorbikes per minute or a whopping 6,666 per hour – or more than 13,000 during the two hours I was sitting there! At the corner of two small streets, not even in the centre of Hanoi.Bloody amazing!

In some tourist guide I read that there are an estimated 1.8 million motorbikes in Hanoi. I believe that these figures are old and outdated. With about 7 million inhabitants my guess would be between 2.5 and 3 million motorbikes in Hanoi. You simply cannot imagine the amount of traffic here! I have not seen anything like this anywhere in Asia!

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZEN

Normally I know what makes me tick. And I consider this the biggest achievement in my life. Not the fortunes I have made (and most of them spent), not the career that led me to the European management board of the biggest and richest investment bank on the planet (back then), nor any of the other countless touchable achievements I have collected on my way.

My biggest achievement is to have found peace with myself – and peace with the world. To have only friends and no enemies.To “understand” (and live) life. To prefer  giving over taking (and this way receiving much more than most people ever will). To be spiritually and financially independent to afford doing only what I consider right. And so on. All this comes from understanding yourself and having a glimpse of the universe…

Sounds arrogant, doesn’t it? Maybe so, but I feel humble. And I enjoy life more than anybody else I know or ever met in my life!!! Now, that’s a statement, isn’t it :)

Everybody has to find his own way himself. Most people never do. The Dalai Lama can say whatever he wants, publish whatever books he pleases, people still don’t learn from him :) Because it comes from inside :) C’est la vie!

I got carried away again. I wanted to write about the reasons why I love Bulgaria and also took a liking to Vietnam – despite that both countries are so far from being perfect. But this is a longer subject and I will keep it for another time when I am “in the mood” :)

Велика нация – Great Nation (Bulgaria, of course)

Today I was at the Bulgarian embassy in Hanoi. To check them out, if there is something in common with the wonderful film “Mission London” about the Bulgarian embassy there.

Two weeks ago I tried to call them – and after only a couple of hours (or was it a day) they even answered the phone. Well, I got hold of the man in charge of the visa applications and told him that I would stop by one of these days because I had some questions. Their official working hours are from 9 am till 11 am or so. He told me between 9.30 and 10.30 am would be fine.

OK, then :) Today I rode my motorbike there and arrived at 10.10am. I was impressed that the embassy is quite a big compound for Bulgarian standards. But that is, of course, from the socialist times when the Vietnamese were socialist brothers.

There were two doorbells at the entrance (of course, none with any marking). So I pushed all the available buttons. Nothing happened. I pushed again and again and again…and a Vietnamese woman let me in.

This is the entrance (from the inside by now):

She led me into the “visitors’ room” and asked me to wait a moment while she would call Mr Glava…(I won’t give you the name) and tell him that I am here.

A table with some information (under glass) about the devaluation of the Leva…status 1999.

A big poster on the door to the secretary’s office depicting the “new” Bulgarian banknotes in force 1999:

That was, of course, ALL the information about Bulgaria available at the Embassy (as it turned out later): Our new currency from 1999! Tourism to Bulgaria? Investments in Bulgaria? All we fucking present is our currency?!

The Vietnamese secretary, obviously with Bulgarian training, talked on the telephone for 20 minutes before she called my man to tell him that I was here. He was shocked that somebody was visiting and wanted to talk to me. She handed me the phone and the Gospodin said that we should have made a precise appointment as otherwise he had different tasks (“zadachi”)!!! ….With no f…ing human being at the whole embassy! “Other tasks”! Why did I feel so at home all of a sudden ?

After telling him that I had been waiting for half an hour already he pulled back and said he would come downstairs. Which he did 10 minutes later. Accompanied by a woman.

It was so familiar to me that I did not know if I should laugh or cry. The man, overweight office worker in his late forties/early fifties, recognisable as Bulgarian from 500 yard distance, the woman, overweight office worker (like you have them in Sofia at your local outlet for the electricity bills), dressed in this unmistakable brown (nowadays available only in Bulgaria and only on the weekly markets in the villages), with a perm and brownish hair available only where you still can find those clothes…

I felt like catapulted back to the late 90ies when I came to BG. With the slight difference that these people represent Bulgaria – and they came to Hanoi only 3 months ago! And it’s the same story all over the world! And (we) Bulgarians are the laughing stock of all other nations!

Of course, both of them could not answer my questions (I think she was actually the consul and he her assistant). So they referred me to the website of the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry. Haha. But. of course, it is not their fault. In fact, when our conversation became more “intimate” they advised me to be careful as the seceretary next door understood Bulgarian…

The embassy is in very bad shape. The buildings are typical socialist times. But never repaired or maintained since then. The place looks worse than Lyulin (please excuse me if you should live there, I have not been there in 7 years and probably it looks much better now).

But, of course, nowadays Vietnamese are not interested in Bulgaria any more. So, the embassy has no business.  Plevneliev, our president, was here a few weeks ago – but the only people who noticed that were the Bulgarians, not the Vietnamese. I will tell the embassy people to put up some pictures of the visit.

But it won’t happen. Why? Because there is no money! And no care! A powerful combination!

All the Bulgarian embassy staff (8 people?) live on the embassy compound. Judging from the looks there must be space for much, much more. But probably only a small part is usable (maintained). The Bulgarians are paid “government salaries” …and are lucky that they have their apartment for free and that living costs here are about the same as in BG…

And the people who work here, in fact, they all came to Hanoi only after GERB lost the rule in BG, are on their last assignment before pension. For four years. Holy moly!

Anyway, despite this all I have decided to invite the two visa people for Vietnamese dinner these days. The woman told me that she misses Bulgarian tripe soup. I will try to make them feel better :) Who knows what dalaveri can be made in the future ;)

 

 

 

 

Vietnamese Driving Lesson Nr. 1

When you join the traffic on a street on your motorbike – no matter if you come from a small side street or you just started it and come off the board-walk: don’t give a shit about what’s going on around you, just let go and move. Very important: don’t look around and don’t move your head! This way the other traffic participants will know that you are an experienced driver and will make room for you :) )

When you are driving and see such an “experienced driver” popping up from left or right you either hit the brakes or swerve (depending on the other bikes next to you). When you swerve you do it preferably to the side where the rider came from – to end up behind him.

If you judge that it’s not a desperate moron (but someone with a loved one he/she does not want to lose) you can also play it hard and show your superiority by just honking your horn and continuing straight. But that’s for the VERY experienced judges of other people (like me :P ) as it is a very close call. One misjudgement and you are in the hospital…

 

 

Life after the typhoon…

The approaching taiphoon Haiyan, that caused so many deaths in the Philippines , was the main topic on Vietnamese television all weekend. Hectic preparations included evacuating more than 90,000 people in the areas where the typhoon was expected to make landfall.

In the end it changed its course and hit the coast even North of Hanoi. No big damages. Thank god. But a good show of the capabilities of the Vietnamese people and their discipline!

It rained quite heavily in Hanoi all night – and I have been ordered to stay at home all day and not leave the house :) Let’s see if I will manage to be a good boy. In any case it is a welcome weather break and I will use the time to do some travel organisation (buy plane tickets, rent cars, book hotels etc.).

After the typhoon passed, temperatures have dropped dramatically. When I look down on the street I see people wearing  heavy sweaters. It must be as cold as 20 C! Goodness! I am not prepared for this. Will I survive? Watch out for further reports from the front-line…

Weekend again…

Some Western people cannot refrain from asking me:” what are you doing all day long in Hanoi?” And I always find it rather difficult to explain to them that I simply “live”, absorb the Vietnamese way of life without any daily plan or goal. In German you call it “in den Tag hineinleben” (something like: “to live the moment”). It seems that this attitude is not entirely “politically correct” in our countries :) ) But it makes me much aware of what is going on around me and I become part of the “flow” – which is my own personal way of learning about and trying to understand this different culture. And I am quite pleased. With the method as well as with the results :)

Yesterday I moved up in the hierarchy. From the second floor to an apartment on the 7th floor in the same building. For my last month here. A little more fresh air and distance to street life. I like it.

Moving my stuff up all these floors by elevator made me thirsty, of course. So, bia hoi again? Well…:) At 6pm, a visiting angel delivered two freshly roasted “Laughing Doves” (a small pigeon species that we don’t have in Europe – and if we would it would be protected) – and some real French baguette.

Simple fingerfood at its very best…a great base for the bia hoi afterwards…

…and, of course, you can’t just have the beer. You need some “meze” with it. My local joint offers a huge variety of typical “side dishes” shared by a bunch of friends. From the usual chicken, pork, beef and veal to goat, squid, land- and sea-turtles, crab and other for us not so common delights.

As a “down to earth” man (and with 1-1/2 laughing doves and a half-baguette in my  stomach) I settled for simple goat with lemon grass and chillies.

…and the inevitable boiled peanuts. The meat: juicy, tasty, heavenly with the beer! The life of a king!

Later a long session on the balcony (with cuba libre, as I found a new bottle of Bacardi when moving), taking in Hanoi’s night sky:

In the morning pleasantly sleepy and not in the mood to follow through on last night’s idea to go to a breakfast place by motorbike where they would serve rice congee with pork blood. Instead, idling around till 11am and all of a sudden hungry! What now? as by that time most breakfast places were closed.

So, a rushed exit to find a bite somewhere…

After passing several outfits that were already closed (11.10am), and others where I had eaten already in the past we found a restaurant with soups.

The most difficult question now was: “bunh” or “pho”. To the European eye there is no difference between them – but here it is nearly a philosophical question. In both soups the noodles are made of rice (the “bunh” is more vermicelli like, the “pho” noodles are like Italian linguini). So, everyone ordered his own choice.

On the right hand side you see a “bunh ga” – chicken soup. To the left my “pho bo”, beef noodle soup. According to my company “pho” is more suitable for winter when it’s cold. It showed me that I still have to learn a lot as both the soups had about the same temperature :) )

Of course, “my” soup was more suitable for winter as it would warm you up from inside. As always, I pepped it up with chillies, garlic, vinegar and lime:

By the time I was through half my bowl I was sweating like a pig but moaning with pleasure…The life of a “king”? – Nonsense. The life of a god! :) )

The rest of the day spent at home, trying not to waste all the calories again immediately… :) Tomorrow I will make up for it and venture out – for sure ;)

If weather permits. A hurricane coming from the Philippines is supposed to hit Vietnam further north than expected and it will bring rain and cold temperatures. I hope not before Monday :) Seems to be serious, as they are evacuating 90,000 People today!

Colonial Dinner

Old fashioned Hanoi food! Western stuff. Bourgoisie, left over from the colonial times. This was the idea when I went to

“Beefsteak Grandfather Loi” or in Vietnamese: Bittet Ong Loi

The restaurant is in the centre of Hanoi and it took a lot of motorbike navigation through small and busy one-way-streets just to get to Hang Buom street. And there, at number 51, the restaurant is securely tucked away in the remote part of one of those incredibly long and narrow old houses and you have to find your way through “tunnels”, past living quarters whose only window faces the sunless corridors of the house.

Until you reach the lighted island of cosiness and conviviality that you were looking for. Maybe that’s why I did not see any foreigners there. They would not expect such an establishment behind seemingly endless, deterring corridors ?

I love how they use every available space in such houses. Here also: the inevitable gallery for resting and sleeping, like a home in the pub :)

The menu very small! Three soups, two meat dishes, several crab dishes. Bread. Soda and beer conclude the menu…makes your choice real easy.

I started with a fish soup (with “croutons”, therefore “French”):

As the soup portion was rather modest I continued with roasted pigeon:

The pigeon had great taste as it was roasted without a lot of spices and it took quite a few paper napkins to clean my fingers and face afterwards :) One interesting Vietnamese thing when you get something grilled in restaurants: salt and black pepper on a small plate, maybe chillies (if they are on the table, you mix such a plate yourself). You stir it and press a small lime over it. This you use for dipping your grilled meat! Very recommendable!

As even the biggest pigeon cannot do much more for me than to wet my appetite I had to conclude dinner with the “signature dish”: “Bittek”, the beef with French fries in kind of an ognion sauce:

I should say, this dinner brought back very old memories of the South of France in the seventies, of simple restaurants at the side of the “departmental” road, of “relais routiers”…of old fashioned simple and cheap French restaurant cooking as it certainly does not exist any more nowadays.

Under this aspect, dinner at Ong Loi was a big pleasure for me and as it was quite busy with Vietnamese clients I assume it will continue to exist for quite a while still.

Here is a view into the open kitchen on my way out:

Hanoi Nightlife – Bia Hoi

“Bia Hoi” pubs are the urban Vietnamese version of Bavarian beergardens :) Bia Hoi is a light lager, easy to drink and easy to pay (between 0.25€ and 0.35€ per glass, depending on location).

The Bia Hoi joints spring to life on the sidewalks of the streets when it gets dark and people come home from work. The perfect place to meet friends for a chat, a beer and a snack.

I have three such places just around the corner from my apartment.

Here is my favourite:

What I find very attractive is that you have absolutely no problem going out with your friends, leaving your pyjamas on :)

While the men are happy, the women clean and cook at home, I assume. Because you will see women very rarely in these pubs. Especially in Hanoi. In Saigon it’s a different story…