Living the Grand Life

Saturday Evening Delight. The highlight of the week. To dress up and go out to a fancy restaurant! That’s what we did tonight.

The name of the restaurant: “Van Beo”. Location on 198 Thai Ha street, basically on the other side of town from Truc Bach. The best duck restaurant in town.

Saturday traffic at 6pm heavy as always. There is hardly any difference all week round. My, as always, not happy with me as the driver. Of course, I am not Hanoian but I believe I am doing not so bad for a foreigner. But not good enough for her.  I should avoid each and every manhole cover. Which I still can’t manage when I am squeezed in between bikes left and right and cannot swerve. I have already slowed down and am now driving an average of 30 kmh. Still too fast. Well, I guess, she will always be afraid as a passenger. What can I do?

“Van Beo” is the nickname of the owner: Fat Van. Here you see Van presiding over her delicacies. The ladies are laughing because My is just telling them some supposedly funny stories about me…

I am coming to this place now for the third year – and quality has always been constant. They do only duck – and they are always very busy for lunch and dinner. People usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes here – then the next clients are seated. A huge turnover! I am sure Van makes more money with her duck restaurant than many a good chef in Europe.

The Ambiente (the walls are in this “contemporary” green that was much up-to-date in Asia 25 years ago 🙂 )

The “bar”:

My starter: duck blood in duck broth with bamboo…

Duck meat with vegetables on top:

And finally “Bun Ngan”, duck soup with rice vermicelli and bamboo, the standard dish for most of the people who come here:

On the way out I was a I little tempted to go for duck feet as desert.

But I was already stuffed like a Christmas pudding.

At home now I still feel pleasantly bloated with all that duck business.

No food tomorrow! For sure 😉




Crabby Deliberations

How to kill a crab humanely? I guess it depends on where you come from and on your social background whether you have an answer to my question.

Funny question, really. The combination of “killing” and “humanely” somehow does not sound right – if you are not an American politic.

Nonetheless, if I want to reach my goal (eating it) I have to deal with killing the crab.

As a Bavarian mountain yokel I came into touch with crabs relatively late in my life. And the then going method was to stuff them alive into a big pot with boiling water. Alas, that’s yesterday and considered cruel nowadays. But most people still do it this way.

This won’t work for me, however: my goal is to eat the crab RAW so boiling it is out of the question. I do have my own method but out of curiosity I googled this subject. Well, different people have indeed different methods – but I did not see any where the crab is instantly dead.

So, I will do it my way. As I have next to nothing in terms of instruments (not even gloves) my little Swiss pocket knife will have to help out. How “humane”  the killing will be I will be able to tell you only afterwords. But you might not even be interested in reading that 😉

I brought some dried wasabi from Japan and some good soy sauce – but I am not so sure if I want any distracting flavours when I rip the crab apart. A little sake on the side would be nice, however…

Breakfast surprise

Today I will be alone till evening. Poor me. My left in the morning to visit her sister in law and for some other tasks. Not without cooking me lunch at 6.30 am!

After she left I put on my Japanese house dress and had some coffee in peace. When, all of a sudden, My popped back in. You should know that we have an elevator (operated with a key card) that stops right in the middle of the apartment. That nearly gave me a heart attack. She grinned from ear to ear and said she had to come back because she had found something for me that I should get immediately.

In the kitchen she showed me two big crabs that she had found at the market. She began getting them ready for me to eat immediately. I had trouble stopping her and telling her that I wanted to have at least one of them raw. As a Vietnamese she does not fancy such exotic habits, in fact believes they are dangerous for your health. At least I was able to “rescue” one of the two beauties.

The other went into a pot with a little water, ginger and lemongrass and was dead and steamed within 2-3 minutes.

Both crabs were about 1/2 kg each – and expensive (bigger ones cost more per kg): 320,000 Dong per KG (12.20€ or about 24 Leva)

Not so bad for breakfast 🙂

This is the poor baby robbed of its legs and claws with part of its juice on the plate (the bigger part I have already sucked out. Not everybody likes the specific taste of the

internal crab liquid…but I do 🙂

It was like a fight with the beast! I was so greedy and lecherous that I managed to get my little finger in the nutcracker when I applied it to the legs/claws…:(

That was the fate of crab number one – and my breakfast surprise. I am a lucky man indeed…

How charitable is Bulgaria?

Like last year at the same time, today was a big charitable event in Hanoi, the Annual Charity Bazaar held by the Hanoi International Women’s Club. They raise about 100,000$ with this (quite an amount for Vietnam) and support three or four good causes with it.

Every year (nearly) ALL foreign embassies in Hanoi participate with a “country table” where they sell food from their country and distribute information/brochures. Even countries like Moldova or Albania were represented! The only country that was missing was Bulgaria!

Last year I wrote something like: “It  pisses me off that “our” country not only does not give a shit about others but that it does not even want to be a member of the international community here. Appalling and disgusting! I feel compelled to pay a visit to the yokels at the Bulgarian embassy next week and ask them for the reason why we did not participate. Of course, after you see the state of the embassy here and meet its staff you stop being surprised by anything.” I also complained to some people I know in the ministry.

When I contacted the IWC-organisers some weeks ago to see what the situation was this year, they told me that this year theBulgarian embassy would participate with a stall. Whether my moaning and groaning had anything to do with this I don’t know but in any case I was shocked in a very positive way.

So, when I went to the Charity Bazaar today one of my first tasks was to visit the Bulgarian stall.

It is really a huge event and covers the vast grounds of the United Nations International School. It would be wonderful if we could organise something like that in Sofia. Of course, it is privately organised. Here by The Hanoian International Womens Club. We do have such an animal in Sofia but there it is all very low key, “Kaffeekränzchen”-like and no women really want to get involved on a bigger scale.

Here we are: Bulgaria – sandwiched between Brunei and Angola 🙂

The stall surpassed all my expectations! They had made musaka, meat balls, meat skewers. There was even sirene and kashkaval cheese and Bulgarian red wine! Also some kind of banitsa. I was speechless!

Everything was grilled on the spot. And some “Bulgarian rose” products were on sale – and a little exhibition of our “Martenitsi” and their purpose…wonderful! I am proud of our people at the embassy! There were even some who speak English!

Here is the consul and vice consul. I had visited them already last year at the embassy, shortly after they took up their posts in Hanoi (and luckily before the charity event, otherwise we probably would not talk any more). They look quite Bulgarian, don’t they? 🙂 – But maybe so do I nowadays 🙁

And our ambassador Evgeni (who cannot afford a Vietnamese hairdresser with his Bulgarian salary – I have recommended mine to him :))

So, for me this was a great event! One of these rare occasions when I can be 100% proud of and contempt with my Bulgarian fellows, without reservations. My thanks and respects! This gives me new hope again.

May this be the beginning of a new era in the way Bulgaria shows itself to the outside world!

Beer Garden Life in Hanoi

Life is full of difficult choices. Mine today was to go to the beer garden at lunch and have a relaxed afternoon or go to the beer garden in late afternoon and stay for dinner. Not easy!

In the end we went for lunch (at 11.30 am), with the secret idea in the back of my head that one might always go there again in the evening – as it is more or less around the corner.

The motorbikes in front tell you that we were not the first (there were lots more motorbikes inside).

One corner of the place looks like this:

The difference to the other “Bia Hoi” beer places is that this here is the only one with real tables and real chairs which makes it more comfortable for Westerners like me to sit and relax. There is even a roof – which means you do not have to care about rain! A dangerous place!

The draft beer is being served in 0.25 l glasses. In our place it is a bit more expensive than elsewhere: 9,000 Dong a glass (0.68 Leva  or 0.35€). Whatever else you order you always eat boiled peanuts with the beer…

Today it was a little vegetarian selection – as it is the first day of the new lunar month and people do not eat much meat then.

Morning glory with garlic and chillies, a potage with bean sprouts, tomato, lotus, various other veggies and clams (only very small ones) – and a plate with fried tofu.

Believe me it took quite a few beers to wash it all down as there also was some rice in addition.

To give you an idea of how much garlic they use in Hanoi, here is a picture of the garlic left over after the morning glory was eaten (and all the garlic in between the stems and leaves):

The sofa helped digest the light fare and now I am ready for dinner and watching Vietnam beat Indonesia in football…happy times!

Will my everday life now be ruled by drab monotony?

I don’t know how you feel about your everyday life when you come back from a holiday. For me this was a nearly forgotten feeling as I have not been on a holiday in a very long time 😉

After all these exotic, even amazing impressions and experiences in Japan I have to adapt to my regular Vietnamese life again…

Don’t get me wrong, my life in Ha Noi is not bad and I am not complaining. It’s just that now that I am living the third autumn here my “passionate love” is gradually being replaced by a tender intimateness. A normal process like in most relationships.

What I do not like about such cases, however, is that one is establishing routines. And gets more and more used to one’s environment and a bit blind for the beauty and joy around. In other words: everything becomes taken-for-granted.

That’s why I have arranged to live in three “parallel universes”: in Bansko (where my core is), in Munich (where my cultural needs are being satisfied) and in Ha Noi (where buzzing life and good food turn me on). For my young age I am a rather experienced contemporary and my hunger and lust for learning and new things is still huge. In fact, this is (of course) what keeps my spirit young.

Some people see me as a hedonistic male chauvinist pig (maybe representatives of the female branch) – but that is utter nonsense. I consider myself a Bonvivant. Someone who makes the best out of every situation and lives happily all the time. I am at peace with the world and with myself 🙂 That makes me also independent. As I have said many times: I do not know anyone who has a better life than me and I would not want to switch position with anyone even for a minute.

But back to the important matters.

The first dinner back in Ha Noi was very simple: pumpkin flowers with garlic and a little fried tofu…

– and – as a surprise to make me happy – three little crabs (one is being kept warm still).

When we were in Japan I just could not fork out the money for their crabs. Look at this here and the prices. The ones that have about the size of yesterdays Hanoi crabs cost 4,000 Yen! A piece! 54 Leva or 27€. My paid 120,000 Dong (9 Leva or 4,50€) for 3 live ones!!! Do you understand now why I just could not eat crab in Japan?!

Life is much simpler here than in Japan. Instead of this marvellous variety of breakfast items and feast for the taste buds (which takes you maybe two hours to prepare) we have only one or two things. Today it was hột vịt lộn – the standard breakfast egg.

It is a fertilized duck egg, hatched for usually 19 days. Boiled. You eat it with ginger strips and green leaves. Much “eggier” than our chicken egg business in Europe…

Now that I am well fed I will venture out to get some tickets for the European Music Festival that will start on Saturday in Hanoi and last for about 10 days. Mainly jazz.

Oh, yesterday I got some bad news: there is no Havana Club in Hanoi these days. The sole importer has given up on it, they say, as no one bought it! I just  have to leave for Japan for a few weeks and the bloody market collapses. Just my luck!

Is it really already over?

Back in my “everyday” environment in Hanoi. A different world from Japan.

Saying good-bye was made easier by a last ramen noodle soup at the Haneda airport:

The flight was excellent (5 hours and something) – considering that we did not fly with Malaysia Airlines…but renowned Vietnam Airlines 🙂

What I was looking forward to were the higher temperatures in Ha Noi. Japan was quite “fresh” and I was wearing socks all the time.

To my unpleasant surprise it has become quite cold here as well and the next task today will be to “upgrade” from the summer “blanket” to something that keeps us warm during the night. Hopefully it is only a short aberration.

The first task this morning was shopping for today’s food at the market before 7am – as long as there was still a wide choice of stuff.

And a little “banh cuon” for breakfast – bought in front of the house on the street )

The next few days will be chilling and “digesting” the last 18 days in Japan. And getting used to Vietnamese cuisine again after the all so different Japanese fare. I suppose, I will master this challenge…oh, and getting a new supply of Havana Club is also high on the agenda.

Mission Japan

“Mission Japan” accomplished, I should say. It was most inspiring. And it accentuated and corrected the visions and impressions that I had built up over the last thirty-five years.

The tour was maybe typical – but with a twist. Tokyo, of course, the unique place. Then, culture shock, Tanakawa, the quaint mountain town with the old spirit, Kanazawa, the seaport and trade center, buzzling but not so touristy. Kyoto, the pearl, the heritage treasure. Full with Japanese and other tourists but bursting with charm. Kinosaki, with very few foreigners, but every bed in town booked out completely between November and April. Loads of hot mineral springs, 7 public bathes and many private. The number 1 spa centre in Japan. Finally Nagoya – not one single tourist. Toyota city they call it because this is where the world’s biggest car manufacturer started in the weaving business and still has its headquarters. Great fun on a Sunday morning at the Nagoya Castle at a Japanese “Volksfest” with only local groups dancing and performing! And now back to Tokyo.

I wanted to see as many aspects as possible in the short time. Big city, traditional country, spa tourism and non-touristic everyday Japanese life…

I also achieved my three main goals. As always I did not buy any souvenirs (or presents, I am afraid), only “practical” things absolutely necessary for a decent life:

Number 1: a handmade Japanese knife. A “gyutu” – a chef’s knife. Like women they need a lot of care. Unlike women their blade has a sharp edge only on one side. This makes for a more perfect cut.

Number 2: some extra-special hand selected konbu (kelp/seaweed) that you can only dream of in Europe. To make soups (dashi) and (where the quality of the konbu is even more important) certain other dishes like tsukudani.

Number 3: what I call “the truffles of Japan”. At least what their price suggests. It took me research and talks to various vendors to get to the source of this marvellous delight that, again, I can only dream of in Europe. I attach a picture.

This is dried Bonito (a fish from the tuna family). In fact, it is smoked and air dried and hard as old wood. You “shave” off flakes – which are not only the basis for any good Japanese dashi soup – but also wonderful as a seasoning for many dishes. This beauty contains an awful lot of natural taste enhancer and is one of the big “umami” providers. The price of this “truffle” depends on the origin of the fish and the reputation of the “affineur”. Good stuff like the one on the photo catches prices of more than 1,200$ per kg.



Travelling in General

Over the years, as you grow in experience and your situation in life progresses the reasons for travelling change. Also the destinations. And the way of travelling.

When I think back many years, holiday travelling started with friends and tents. The cheapest way of transportation, the cheapest tin food and alcohol and near a beach. Time was not yet an issue. Money was.

Then, when I started my first business at 23 and had a lot of work and had no time for a holiday for 5 years. I did travel, yes. But on business. Every two weeks to Zurich for one night to meet clients, trips to Chicago to meet business associates from the CBOE to enhance networks an ties – but it was always quick, quick, quick since my office in Germany always held a huge work load for me that could not be delegated.

My holiday trips started when I changed my life, got rid of my three companies and became a lowly stockbroker at Merrill Lynch’s. The first time in my working life that I had a private life. That I could leave the office and NOT think of work any more. Of course, during the time I was at my desk there was no time for breaks and lunch and such nonsense.

It all fell into place when I returned from New York and worked in Frankfurt. As a “privileged” member of the Merrill Lynch family I had three weeks holiday a year (not just two as my colleagues in NY).

During the coming years I did not get to know a lot of the world as my dream destination was France. The Provence and Cote d’Azur to be precise. And that’s where we went several times a year. My girl-friend and later wife and I. We always rented a holiday apartment and spent our time at the beach and in the kitchen. Or fishing in a river. Me. With a rod and a couple of bottles of rosé. In the wilderness. Wonderful beyond description.

Cooking, drinking, nature/wilderness were my balance to the somewhat stressful (what a modern word – I never considered my work “stressful” – I just had to be able and willing all then time) broker life. And that’s what my holidays looked like in those days.

When I made the “ranks” and Merrill Lynch decided in 1984 that I was the right man to market our, back then ambitious, enterprise to Europe I accepted the call and relocated to the capital of the Dark British Empire.

My holiday habits also changed somewhat. Not the destination – it was still France – but the apartment rental, the fishing and the cooking stopped. Fancy hotels and even fancier restaurants were the norm then. But for a few days only – not for long holidays. No time for that as a “company politician”.

I did not like my job much because, for the first time in my life, I had a boss. He (in fact a “she”) was in New York in charge of International Marketing and despite that her husband was an actual brain surgeon we got along rather well. It was not only that, really. It was more that I hated to be a politician. Because that’s what everyone in the upper management of an international corporation is and has to be. I have always been the “rough” one. Saying what I think and doing what I say! My word is my bond…and so on. Dinosaur stuff! I abhorred this “sliming ” here and “kicking” there business of the corporate world.

So, eventually I took my hat. Merrill offered me as a farewell to be the manager of any of our International offices, my choice. Idiots. I would have been their slave then. No, I went back into the field and became an anonymous broker again (as we say in German: Schütze 13, hinter Strauch 14). I chose Stuttgart in Germany, where a year before I had opened a new office for Merrill Lynch. A brilliant, marvellous decision – like all the others I have made since then I never regretted for a second to have given up my corporate career. But, of course, before handing in my resignation I had already established “a hobby” with a friend and colleague, a Wall Street guru from NY and we had been making money hand over fist

The best years of my life! In Stuttgart. Not the most popular or well known place in Germany. But a marvel. I love the people there! Always grumpy. Never contempt – unless they get the very best there is – and at a very good price. My kind of people! And a higher density of first class restaurants there than in any other part of Germany and the other countries (apart from some places in France).

Now that I was a “fresh father” and money was not an issue and my Bordeaux collection flourished only time was a restraint for travelling. That’s when I got my pilot license. To make the max out of my limited time. Fly to the Cote d’Azur for a weekend – or wherever else in Europe you wanted to go. Another change in travel habits.

As my job was very people intense my dream holiday still was the wilderness – way from the people. This is what we all want, am I right? A holiday that is different from our everyday life. I had to deal with loads of people – so I wanted peace – the wilderness. My personal dream back then (1986-1987) was to go to Canada with some friends, hire a plane, take tents guns and fishing rods and fly into the wilderness along the rivers and lakes!

It never materialised. And you know why? Because my friends either had the money to do it but no time – or they had the time but not the money.

Something that you will find a basic law of life: People who have time don’t have money or vice versa. I managed to break these rules – by pulling out of the race. So, now, I have neither time nor money…

Goodness, what started here as a short “description” of the changes of travelling in the course of one’s life is turning into an essay that no one will read. I will go to a shop near our hotel now to buy more “Kirin Beer – Brewed for good Times” and my My will hopefully continue to sleep without waking up. When I am back I will tell you why YOU should structure your holidays differently to get the max out of them!!! Or so.

Hotter than hell – but better!

There are no fast trains to Kinosaki. The local train you catch in Fuchikiyama is full of (during the week elderly) people who all want to enjoy the hot mineral springs in Kinosaki. There are seven public bathes and many ryokan (Japanese inns) with onsen bathes (hot mineral water). Onsen is a national cult in Japan. They are crazy about this as they also are very health conscious.

Here in Kinosaki all people do is walk around trying out the different public bathes, eat and rest! We too. Because, frankly, there is nothing else to do here. We are out of luck with the weather. It’s drizzling all the time. Otherwise we could do a little hiking.

The shops in Kinosaki are full – not only with souvenirs and tourists but also with crab. Everywhere crab.

I was really looking forward to that. In November crab season started at the North Japanese sea here. What I had not taken into account was that I am already very privileged living in Hanoi where we buy my crabs alive – at a fraction of the price that they cost here. OK, we do not have the long-legged spider-crabs in Hanoi – but the rest are more than good enough for me. Why spend so much money when soon I can have as much as I want…

What I had instead was the “usual” combination:

a little sake

…and a “hint” of sashimi:

Oh, people do not just wander around the little town. They are all dressed up in their Yukata, the traditional light cotton kimono. You receive it upon arrival at your inn. Our landlord pleaded that we should wear it, and only it, all day long – at home in the inn, when going to a public bath or even in restaurants and bars. Last night we could not do it as it was bloody cold outside with a strong cold wind and My was shivering enough without the light Yukata.

I must look particularly funny as they did not have geta (the local wooden sandals) in a size that would fit my duck feet. Surprisingly they found a kimono big enough to wrap it around my sumptuous body. Maybe I look like a sumo wrestling trainee with German Birkenstock shoes.

Yesterday I had to take the first public bath alone as my My, with her completely different Vietnamese background, had never been naked in a public space before and was afraid of the experience of doing “a great wrong”. So, we managed last night to arrange for a private bath in our inn – as a starter for My and I explained to her how everything would work – as men and women are separate and I could not be with here to support her. This morning, when we took our first public bath at 7.30am in preparation for breakfast she was brave enough to face the challenge.  I believe from now on things will be much easier…

Especially after such a breakfast in our room:

As expected, there is no internet in our ryokan and I won’t be walking around town in a kimono with a laptop under my arm to find a Wifi spot.

It is 2.30pm and I have just come back from another round of hot bath soaking. Now it’s sipping an Asahi beer and relax until we go to the bath again around six pm before going for dinner…sometimes life is tough and you have to be strong…

These lines were written two days ago. Yesterday we have left Kinosaki and after a stop-over in Nagoya, the Toyota city, arrived back in Tokyo tonight.