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I am a Bansko local since 2001 - when Bansko was a place like out of a fairy tale. A lot has changed since then - but the magic still exists!

Farm Life Part 2

I need to force myself to conclude the village holiday as otherwise I will be swamped with new experiences and never find the time for it.

So far you have seen some details of the farm and the way of life there. The village itself was another quite different experience. It reminded me much of Bansko in 2000/2001 when I was the first foreigner there. The village Bao Thap is not on any map and no foreigner has ever been there 🙂 Which made me a quite colourful figure, walking the tiny roads and passages. Being as huge as I am in comparison to Vietnamese people, sweating away with my “assistant” walking next to me, fanning me with his hand-held fan. I felt a little embarrassed but soon got used to being like a medieval Mandarin 🙂

Wherever we went we made slow progress. Because everybody wanted to invite me to his house to have a cup of green tea with them. So, they could claim that they had had a “foreigner” at their house! A lot of prestige. De facto, my own farmers for sure were elevated to a very special rank in the community.  At some places I got away with a cup of tea at others I had to sample the local spirits. Here is a picture of one of the local business people who boasted with his friends (wherever I met him afterwards) that we drank his best liquor together and now are “first friends” 🙂

Of course, I was also invited to the local school where the kids had a great time facing a real life foreigner for the first time in their life.

To conclude with the food business (no conclusion ever, really :)) : breakfast was the only time we ventured out. Here is one of the specialities: A duck egg with a duck embryo inside. Absolutely delicious – and not even any feathers 🙂

…followed by a rice soup with some sweet-water crab-meat 🙂

…these are the “beasts” used for the soup:

…or a noodle soup with snails (yummy!)…

I guess, I could carry on a long time just with describing the “outside”  things of life and then much more with the intrinsics of real Vietnamese life. And maybe I will one day. But for now I stick to the surface like a “regular tourist”. As I have to “sweat out” my food poisoning to be able to travel tomorrow morning.

I will try to just post a few pictures for you with short descriptions – and eventually, I will go more into depth.

…local sausage production – much like in Germany in the old days…

I uploaded a lot of photos but cannot see them now 🙁 Looks like I am hopeless with blogs. – like with many other things. Getting derelict. If you can find those photos here ( I even put some comments on all of them) – wonderful. If you can’t you may be just as useless/hopeless as I am! I probably should have set this whole thing up when still in Bansko. Now it’s too late! No time! Life is waiting!

 

 

 

Bloody bad luck!

The day started out quite nicely – until I decided to have an early lunch at a pleasant garden restaurant “Hanoi Gardens” around the corner from my hotel. Very upmarket, entirely for tourists. I had something simple: fried noodles with seafood. Two and a half hours later the cramps in the stomach set in, together with a serious diarrhoea. I got a thermometer from the hotel and my temperature is at around 39 C. I am sweating and freezing and my brain is like mash.

Tomorrow I am supposed to travel long, long distance. How can I possibly do that when I need a toilet every 5 minutes?! Well, I am applying Frank’s brute force method at the moment – a bottle of Bacardi and Coke, wrapped up in blankets and sweating my soul out. If this does not help I will have to cancel tomorrows travelling and start one day later. That will cost me only 120$ and we might catch up on the timeline by skipping one or the other target. But being a strong farmer from Bansko I just might turn things around in time. With sweat dropping all over on the floor at the moment.

If you ever come to Hanoi, please, do not go to the “Hanoi Garden” restaurant 🙂 I had no problem whatsoever so far, neither with street food nor farmer’s fare. But this place did it for me – and very quickly in addition.

Well, back to bed now and see how things turn out later tonight.

By the way, I found a liquor shop much in the vicinity – and they have an amazing variety of Western booz. A bottle of Bacardi (0.75 l) sells at 15 Leva/DM, cheaper than even in Bulgaria…and it even tastes like the real stuff…

Gotta go…

 

Farm Life in Vietnam

I am just back to Hanoi from a few very memorable days on a farm in the village Bao Thap, Bac Ninh province.

As I mentioned before someone who has a friend that has a friend organised this for me. He also had found me a young lad to travel with me to be my interpreter and assistant – or so I thought.

Here is my first impression of the village. The rice harvest is in full swing and the smell of drying rice straw fills the air.Passage was sometimes difficult as people were drying their rice on the streets, using every spare area.

When we found “our” farm the welcoming committee was already waiting 🙂

Three generations of women running the place, as the husband works abroad in Laos and comes home only every other month for a week or two.

As it turned out none of these ladies had ever spoken to a foreigner. And neither had my “interpreter” as he was not able to pronounce his limited vocabulary in any understandable way. This made the flow of communication a very cumbersome and frustrating task – a challenging exercise in patience and tolerance which brought me so much closer to my Zen goals 🙂

This is part of the yard with freshly harvested rice spread out for drying.

…and here the “storage” for part of our lunch/dinner ingredients…The family was extremely friendly and despite that they were all watching me curiously I had the impression they accepted me as an exotic part of their house and behaved their normal way. That was, of course, exactly what I had wanted.

There was a big bed in every room but not a strict “sleeping order”. Especially the kids slept in one bed today and the next evening in another bed with the granny. They asked me to choose any bed I liked and (being afraid that my snoring might ruin their nights) I chose the only room in the house with a door! Everything else was open and you could hear the faintest sounds from the whole house. Here is my suite:

Did I mention that beds, of course, did not have any mattresses?

The other part of my bedroom:

Kitchen and hearth were in the outhouse. Here’s the kitchen with the landlady preparing some fresh chicken:

And here everything gets cooked:

Breakfast was somewhat flexible as the women went out to the fields at 5 am and had their breakfast at 4.30 am. And the boss came back later especially to cook me breakfast. So, I decided that we would have breakfast at one of the food stalls (as they have them even in villages) and she not to bother.

Lunch and dinner had their fixed times (12 am and 6 pm) and the whole family got together. Every member had his specific tasks in preparing the meals and setting the “table”, like chopping the many greens always present.The “table” – a mat on the floor where we all sat around the central plate, so everyone could reach everything with his chopsticks.

I could start a very lengthy descriptions of the huge variety of different things that we had for lunch and dinner but I am a little pressed for time and, as you know, I always get carried away when I talk about food. There was always a minimum of 4 or 5 dishes, some home-grown veggie varieties (fried, steamed, pickled etc) and various meats.

OK, I was not sure if I should post this for you tender souls but, wtf, you might be curious, so here is our dog dish:

The meat is sliced and fried. You roll a piece in a green leaf, dip the wrap in the “muddy” sauce in the bowl and munch it while nibbling on a piece of lemon grass (that’s the local way – elsewhere they use different methods). What you see to the front of the plate is a kind of black pudding (karvavitsa) with chopped dog meat, blood, soy beans and spices. Quite good, once you get the hang of it. The dog meat itself was not impressive (also because they had used the “cheaper cuts”) and would not order it in any restaurant. Just for you to know that I am a decent person after all 🙂

In the small glasses you see some rice liquor, in which a gecko had been sitting for a rather extended period of time. It’s only for men (women don’t drink in Vietnam) and is supposed to give them “special strength”. Futile for me as I had no opportunity to test this 🙂

Now I should come to the fun part – the exploring of the village and the amazing interactions with the people. But I have to leave now to get some things organised. I wonder when I will be able to write the remainder as tomorrow morning I will be picked up at 7.30 am by my personal driver and my guide with whom I will venture out on a 10 day trip to explore the mountains of Northern Vietnam. And I have no clue now when I will have internet again. Please, bear with me…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last Day in Hanoi

This first week in Hanoi went by quickly. On the other hand it left me so many impressions that it feels like I have been here for a much longer time.

Tomorrow I will be heading to a little village where I will be staying at a rice farm where I will be integrated into the family till Saturday. That should be an interesting and rather down to earth experience. Somehow, I do not believe to have internet there, hehe, so don’t expect any posts from me.

For the time after that I had booked an excursion into the Northern mountain ranges. However, after meeting the organiser Mr. Huy again today I was not impressed by the route he had planned. In addition he seemed a bit greedy without wanting to put in too much effort for my taste. So I am planning to go a travel company tomorrow morning that had left a good impression on me and whose suggested travel route fits my ideas much better. The plan is to hire a driver with a car and a guide. I will re-negotiate prices with them and if we find an agreement I will change my plans. That would be a 10 day trip then with the chance to have internet from time to time. So, no telling when I will be online again.

For lunch, surprise, surprise, I had not the regular Pho soup – but Bun Cha (grilled pork patties and bacon, that come in a broth, with an extra dipping bowl of a sauce with fish sauce, sliced green papaya and carrots and other stuff, a huge plate of various greens and, of course, an enormous plate with rice vermicelli). It took me nearly superhuman powers to devour this all – but I have always been a strong character :)))

After that I really needed a rest – but instead went touring the colourful streets and eventually bought my first “souvenir” in Vietnam. A silk sleeping bag. I paid 6 Leva/DM for it after some negotiations and it might come in handy on the farm or at guest houses in the mountains. I also bought some postcards which are surprisingly difficult to find here in Hanoi. I guess I will have the time to write them when I’m on the farm, maybe when waiting for my rice-breakfast, -lunch or -dinner to be ready 🙂

And I paid a last visit to that nice café. Here is the innocuous entrance to it:

You walk through several narrow corridors

…before you reach a courtyard where it all starts

After climbing several winding and other stairs you are nearly there

…finally the destination is in sight!

and the rewards at hand:

You order your things already downstairs in the courtyard when entering as the sourly looking waitress comes only once 🙂 You also pay there when you leave. To a certain degree I understand this system as it is truly a challenge to carry everything all the way along narrow winding and other stairs with uneven steps…

After the meeting with tour guide Mr. Huy at my hotel I had the necessary shower and before I knew it it was time for dinner again…

Tonight Uncle Frank decided to give himself a treat and for the first time I had a relaxed dinner in a peaceful up-market garden restaurant close by. It was a pleasant change from all the noise and beeping on the streets.

I chose some not so standard items from the menu like a jelly-fish salad which was pleasantly well balanced between sweet, sour, salty and spicy, just as it should be. The jelly-fish was not as glibbery as expected, in fact its texture complemented the crunchier parts (like peanuts and carrot strips) excellently.

Initially I had wanted to order some soft-shell crabs but I decided to have “Salt simmered fat and lean pork” as another starter first. Where do you see such a thing on the menu elsewhere? 🙂

Instead of boring rice as a side-dish I ordered fried “Morning Glory” with garlic (I never can resist ordering it when I see it for the first time on a menu after a long abstinence. I simply adore it).

As you can see, the portions were not so small and sadly I had no space left for any seafood. Well, there will still be ample opportunity.

Together with the three Tiger beers, the tax and the service fee I forked out about 28 Leva.

Now I am digesting in my room and ready to hand command over to Morpheus.

Chúc ngủ ngon,
những người bạn thân yêu của tôi!

First Weekend in Hanoi – part 2

The day started out rather badly – I had to get up. For the first time in Hanoi I was really desperate for another two hours of sleep, minimum. But the other day I had agreed to come to the private home of the chef of the Hungarian Embassy for a “Nem” session. At 9.30 am! How could I have possibly agreed on such a time for cooking and eating?! Well, sometimes one tends to forget the consequences of promises light-mindedly given when carried away by having a good time…but yours truly never backs out.

Therefore, Vietnamese breakfast at 8 am to get the chillies and the caffeine into the system, beauty arrangements later. The latter took longer than anticipated (fortunately that has not turned into a trend yet) and I left the Hanoi Fawlty Towers a little late. At the last moment I remembered to take the box of my favourite Swiss chocolates (that I had acquired for myself in Germany to console myself in difficult moments on my trip) to have a respectable present.

Despite my clear suggestions the manager on duty called me a taxi (most likely from a friend’s company) that charged 50% more than the “good” cabs. But I found this out only once I was already inside the car and the driver speeded away and turned on the meter…

The taxi took me to a bustling living quarter in the North on Huynh Thuc Khang street. Very lively, the main street and many of the small side streets lined with cafés, restaurants and small food stalls and (already at this early hour of the day) lots of predominantly young people. Haven’t come across such a thing in Europe yet.

The only small problem was that, erring around,  I could not find the exact address – which most likely nobody had expected from such a clumsy long-nose anyway. Because when I called the host on her mobile to confess my incompetence she was down on the street in no time to greet me and lead me to (what I believe) is a typical standard Hanoi apartment.

This is the living area with, clockwise, storage, entertainment centre, freezer, office, guest bed and sleeping zone…the mat in front of the bed represents the dining area…

Here the kitchen – with all utensils to create some amazing dishes (while most of the Europeans can’t cook anything reasonable despite being equipped with all the hightech gear deemed necessary to create something edible from pre-processed food). Not to forget the laundry facility under the sink and the Bulgarian style bathroom (spotlessly clean!)  to the left. Some stuff already prepared for the nems.

When all preparations were finished and the “Nems” finally frying away  (and the chatting still in full swing) the better of three hours had passed! And we were well into the third freshly pressed fruit juice. This gave me the opportunity for a few snapshots of some typical modern Hanoi backyards

Suffice it to say that the “Nem”s were phenomenal, the thin sauce perfectly balanced, all the greens very tangy, the beer with the right temperature and the company entertaining and enlightening.

A marvellous day that brought me new insights into the Vietnamese way of thinking and perceiving things. Lucky me!

To finish the day off I had a stroll through the area and a pop at some “Bia Hoi” at one of the local beer halls…

…before the final “Pho” soup of the day!

This was the best Pho I have had so far in Hanoi. A contender for a top tier place in the range of Asian (but not so authentic) soups I create myself. The locals, however, looked at me incredulously when I started adding chillies to the concoction (what you see was only the first badge :)) Few Vietnamese would go for that heat 🙂

The taxi ride back home was relaxing (we managed to avoid a good dozen of near-miss accidents).

Now I have to retire as I need to catch up on some sleep and it’s 12:30 am here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

First Weekend in Hanoi – part 1

After idling last night away in front of the laptop I had a slow start with a late noodle soup and enough chillies to get my brain in motion.

I was waiting for my friend An’s family to call and to meet them. But they did not call. Well, maybe one of these days then. This gave me the leisure to read more about Northwest Vietnam where I m planning to go next week.

At noon I was picked up by my voluntary  guide and her girlfriend and we went for lunch and chatting to a posh French place.

I had something like deep fried minced crab-meat-balls with loads of greens and rice spaghetti plus a bowl of a twangy sauce to dip everything in. We also ran into a famous Vietnamese TV show host. They called her the “Oprah Winfrey of Vietnam” 🙂 I don’t know her but the girls urged me to talk to the woman and ask her if she would mind to have her picture taken with them 🙂 Women! Anyway, the lady obliged and we had an interesting conversation in English about Vietnamese culture afterwards. Can’t remember her name, though 🙂

After that they commanded me to the “National Cinema” to watch some 4D nonsense. I like the “National Cinema”, though, with Ho Chi Minh on the front facade 🙂 Four floors – but the toilets on three floors out of order. Like in real socialism…

The pampering took no end as they then took me to a spa, where they left me stranded as they had to go home to tend to their families 🙂 The massage was excellent, even better than the last one. I felt a little ashamed that I could not pay for it as my guide seems to have membership cards to all spas in Hanoi and it just went on her account.

“Swan Spa” was just the place for me. Very fitting, isn’t it? 🙂 As nearly always in this part of Asia, they had neither sandals nor massage clothes that would fit me 🙁 So I had to lie in my own boxers for the treatment. In principle a no-no. Anyway, nobody saw me and the girl and she did her best to kneed this big elephant in front of her. And she did a bloody good job. Especially, she gave me such a brilliant head massage like I rarely had it. Afterwards she was seemingly much more exhausted than me and I think she will not be able to take on another client this weekend 🙂

The massage people called me a taxi afterwards and instructed the driver where to take me. By that time it was already dark. It’s a little bit like in Bulgaria: there are a few reliable taxi companies (like our OK Supertrans) and a lot of crooks. As usual so far, communications between me and the driver consisted of smiling at each other – from my side in particular every time when we had just avoided another accident…

Back at my Ritz I awed and moaned with pleasure on my bed with one or two Cuba Libres. At my age these massages give you such a pleasant body feeling later, no pains in any part of your body – just pure harmony of body and mind. Something you cannot really experience when you are young(er) as your body is in good shape then and you really do not pay that much attention to it…

I studied my various guides where I could go for dinner in the vicinity as tonight I did not really feel like another “Pho”. I discovered that there is a restaurant specialising on eels just around the corner and decided to give it a try. So, I strolled off enjoying the atmosphere on my little street.

Here is a shop selling “Durian”, that very controversial fruit. When I started out with durian it was like with Guinness: I did not like it at the beginning. It’s an acquired taste. But once you get the hang of it…! And it’s STRONG. In Thailand for example you are not allowed to take the fruits onto public transport because of their smell that might annoy people. Let’s say it’s like a stinky French cheese 🙂 I adore it. In the middle of the picture you see all the emptied durian shells and on the tray on the stool on the left the meat (sorry, it’s not focused but I did not want to use a flash not to raise curiosity). A unique and awesome taste.

Most of the shops in my street are “live-in” shops. To the front is the shop and the family lives in the back part…

Here is a hair-dresser’s, just closed, where the three ladies cook their dinner on the table. To my surprise they were singing traditional Vietnamese songs while cooking and the “main chef” sitting on the table as well. They were obviously quite happy. Most likely they live somewhere in the dark part of the building.

A hundred yards further I arrived at my destination: “Mien Luon”, the eel restaurant. “Mien” means glass noodles and “luon” is eel. And in fact they were serving most of their eel dishes with glass noodles.

As the place was quite busy, the rather decisive manager(?) squeezed me onto a small table with a Vietnamese lady and her daughter. Lucky me, because the teenage daughter spoke good English and the mother was charming and together they advised me what spices and herbs to use with which dishes… My first dish was minced eel with loads of greens and cucumber. I had to order some chillies in addition. It was quite tasty but I could not detect the taste of eel. That disappointed me since I am a keen eel lover and one of my greatest joys as a fisherman in Germany or France is to have it raw as “sashimi” only shortly after I caught it…:(

My second dish was “fried eel with glass noodles”. It came with a bowl of dipping sauce/soup – to which I added vinegar with garlic and, guess what: chillies. The eel was cut in strips and had been marinated and then dried before being fried. Again, no eel taste 🙁 After that I decided to give up and ordered no more…ungrateful, long-nosed foreigner that I am…So far, Vietnamese food cannot replace Thai cuisine for me. I hope this will change when I will be in the countryside.

But life is not all about food – and the Vietnamese people are so incredibly caring, respectful and helpful that being here is a great privilege and pleasure. They are all tough cookies – but most of them with a very good heart 🙂

I did not leave the restaurant disappointed (after all it was not the wrong food – just wrong expectations) but satisfied and with a new facebook friend (the daughter at my table) 🙂

Right next to the resto were some local lads having their Saturday evening together. Not a restaurant, just camping on the street but cooking and drinking and smoking bong – and enjoying themselves…lovely!

Just a few steps further a “sugar cane bar” – with cocktails and juices from freshly squeezed sugar canes…wonderful – but not exactly what I needed at that moment.

And here a very exotic restaurant (in Vietnamese terms) a “Berlin Döner-Kebap” shop!!! Hallo Christoph und Annika! Berlin is everywhere!

The price was balcked out, So, I suppose, it was “flexible” – depending on the appearance of the client…The staff were just having dinner. Surprisingly none of them ate any kebap :)))

I finally settled next to a little “café” for a beer, squeezing myself onto the only free chair around, in front of a hotel…immediately striking up a very entertaining conversation with Mr Choi, the guy next to me. A Korean, working in Hanoi for a few months teaching the Vietnamese about heavy machinery construction. He spoke German and English and we became friends quickly. Also with two guys working at the hotel. Maybe it helped that the hotel manager was giving a party for the staff and valued guests and they were all plastered from Vietnamese rice “vodka”…:)

Now I am comfortably back in my room and I even managed to send out the night guard to buy me some cold coke as my supplies were depleted and my little 24h shop next door had closed at 10 pm…obviously the Vietnamese have learned from us, their Bulgarian socialist brothers :)))

Have to lie down now – to enjoy the after-massage body feeling as long as it is still there. Tomorrow will be another tough weekend-day…

 

Small Progress

No sightseeing today! Hard work instead. After a late”Pho” noodle-soup breakfast at 10 am some internet research in my room and then a leisurely stroll through the narrow roads of the old quarter to find the three tour operators I wanted to get in touch with.

In Hanoi there are probably the most tailors in Asia offering hand-made suits to order within 24 hours. Here is a typical sewing “factory”…

Discussing my ideas with the three different tour agents destroyed my illusions that Vietnam is a cheap place! I am planning a trip to Northwest Vietnam next week. My first idea of a ten day organised tour turned out at more than 2000$! Plan B was to rent a car with a driver and a guide. This “cheap” option would cost me “only 1300$ – hotels, food etc not included. So  I am going for plan C 🙂 My Bulgarian/Vietnamese friend An Fam had put me in touch with a cousin in Hanoi who in turn hooked me up with a travel guide. This gentleman, Mr. Huy, only asks me for 400,000 Dong for himself and 1,700,000 Dong for the driver with the car a day. Plus food and lodging for them. That’s about 155 Leva/DM  base plus expenses. In either case a no-win situation.

So, I decided to shorten the trip to 6 days. Instead, I will spend 4 days on a country farm in the Northern mountains with a friend of Huy’s at 7.50 Leva/DM a day. Which will be a lot of fun, I guess. I must not forget to buy a few bottles of Vietnamese rakia before going there.

Another hairy point is the visit to the world famous Halong Bay in the North. This is obviously one of the absolute musts. And huge tourist business. You cruise in the bay for 1-1/2 days on one of the 100eds of tourist boats and the cheapest option is 225$! This forced me to get an additional blood pressure pill out of my box 🙁 I can’t see how to avoid it, however. Probably I will have to eat noodle soup for the rest of my stay.

In general terms: Hanoi is the most expensive place in this part of Asia. Luxury for a poor Bansko farmer like me. Even the staple Vietnamese small dish, the Pho soup is on average 3 Leva in the cheapest street joint. I can get Shkembe Chorba in Sofia for much less than that. In a restaurant with real chairs and tables…but, of course, I am comparing apples with pears. I am not complaining at all – just my Bulgarian moaning 🙂

After my sobering visits to the travel people I decided I needed a to get in the mood again and to contemplate my options. So I bought a map of Hanoi and set out to find the street where they sell “Bia Hoi” (“Bia” is Vietnamese for beer, “Hoi” means gas – and bia hoi is a freshly brewed lager with only about 3% alcohol).

The map vendor, of course, had not only grossly overcharged me (I paid 10,000 Dong for the map) but also slipped me the Vietnamese version, not the one in English…no problem, however, after having been here for more than three days now my Vietnamese reading skills have become phenomenal and I found the area eventually 😉

Sitting on a plastic chair the size of a small footrest (which, to my surprise, did not even crumble under my not-so-Vietnamese weight) I stretched my feet far onto the street from the minuscule pavement, ordered a Bia Hoi and started to contemplate. And more contemplation and Bia Hoi…and so on. It was difficult to focus as I also had to watch the passing street life! All the Vietnamese and all the foreign tourists. And the attacks of the local vendors on the tourists. A study in global psychology! And, no complaints now, I paid 5,000 Dong per beer (about 0.40 Leva/DM) while the “tourists” next to me had to fork out 7,000 🙂 Seems, I have already started to blend in 🙂 Overcharging foreigners, by the way, is more the rule in Hanoi than the exception…reminded me of certain places in Bansko 🙂

Then I headed back to my hotel for a shower and a change of clothes. And, thanks to my new map, I took only one wrong turn. After answering some emails and selling a home insurance to a prospering Bansko apartment owner (always the successful businessman) I set out again for an early dinner and to walk along the central lake.

One of the most interesting times of the day here (like in most other places in this part of Asia) is the time between 5 and 6 pm. After 5 pm it becomes a little like twilight for about on hour while the rush hour is in full swing and thousands and thousands of motorbikes swoosh by. Then at 6 pm someone pulls the plug and it gets dark within seconds. An atmosphere difficult to describe and that you cannot find anywhere else on the planet (at least not in places I have been to). On my way I passed by an elementary school where hoards of parents were waiting with their scooters to pick up their off-springs.

…just a small glimpse of parents waiting for their children…in the other direction even much more waited…not only the streets but also all the pavements were blocked…

Dinner was, not surprisingly, another Pho noodle soup. I am REALLY blending in ;))) As it took me only about six or seven years to start looking like a Bulgarian, maybe 10 years in Hanoi will make me look like a Vietnamese ?!

After that I found the most impressive, romantic no-name café that I have ever been to. What led me into this backyard and up three winding stairs I cannot tell you (the intuition of the predator?) but I ended up on the most intriguing roof terrace facing the lake. Sadly, the battery of my camera was empty by then – so I have to go back there soon to shoot some pictures just for my own memories. I sat there for two hours watching, sipping on my Vietnamese coffee and chatting up unsuspecting locals…getting an invitation for a private “Nem” cooking course from the chef of the Hungarian embassy for Sunday noon 🙂 Of course, I will make it obvious that I don’t even know what these nems look like.

Tomorrow I will meet the relatives of my friend An Fam from Sofia. And my driver/guide also has plans for me for the afternoon. So it should be a relaxed all-Vietnamese weekend! Life seems to be a song even here…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exploring deeper into Ha Noi…

During the night it rained quite heavily. Therefore it was extremely humid after the sun came out…and most of the day I was sweating like a pig. Something you should not do in Vietnam as the locals consider this uncultivated and give you the feeling that they are staring at you without looking at you…

The first pearls of sweat appeared on my forehead already at breakfast. I had “Pho”, the traditional Vietnamese rice-noodle soup with beef. While this soup is rather mild as most of the Vietnamese don’t like it hot, you also get a little plate with chillies and tiny limes at the side for the freaks. And, of course, I can’t resist the chillies…and had to behave like a “Tai” (which in Vietnam does not mean you are from Thailand, but depicts ethnic minorities with foreign origin).

What makes me feel much at home here is that in many places you also get a bowl/cup with garlic floating in vinegar on the table. Just like a for a  Bulgarian shkembe chorba! Wonderful!

Anyway, I see quite a few parallels between Vietnam and Bulgaria. One is the condition of the pavements in the capital. Much like Sofia. You always walk with your head modestly bent down – to watch your steps.

Each street in the old part of Hanoi is traditionally occupied by one profession. My street seems to be the street of butchers as nearly every little shop is selling meat in the morning.

Directly opposite the hotel is a fancy shoe-maker. Here you can see his raw workpieces from  which he creates his collection. Maybe I should be brave tomorrow and ask him for prices…

…the “Gucchi” of Hanoi…

Then I went sightseeing to Van Mieu, the first university in Vietnam (1076), also called “Temple if Literature”. Here is the “heart” of it, the temple of Konfucius, where students to this very day burn incense sticks to improve their results 🙂

…the master himself.

As it appears, exams seem to have been much tougher in the good old days. Their records have been chiselled in stone slabs on display in the yards. The exams lasted 35 days and in 1733 for example only 8 out of 3000 candidates passed them. Maybe we should think about such structures in our modern universities 😉

Afterwards it was a visit to the “Ethnological Museum”, by far the most popular one in Hanoi. To spare you too many details let me tell you that the only thing I found there bigger and older than me was this tree:

Lunch was at the Hoa Sua restaurant next to the museum where the waiters and cooks are trainees from orphanages and underprivileged families.This “good cause dining” made it easier for me to sacrifice myself 🙂

As I had learned already in my first year of Latin at school: “plenus venter non studet libenter” I decided that the cultural program for the day was concluded.

A massage session at the “Magic Spa” seemed the better way to go. Here I am waiting to be picked up by my masseur.

To my surprise the Vietnamese massages are not like the Thai. It was pretty much the same as my good old masseuse at Pirin Lodge practises! Just as good. The little lady had enormously strong hands and fingers and I still feel perfectly well, physically.

After a break at the hotel it was out and about again.First to a street cafe in the centre…

…a street cafe in the centre…lots of noise and action…

While I was having a Ha Noi beer there I started wondering where to have dinner. Across the street this guerilla-cooking chef caught my eye. She was frying fish on the street between motorbikes…as I was not sure if she cooked it for herself or family I decided to stroll on and ended up having a simple eel soup at a street stall.

A long walk along the West Lake, the biggest in Hanoi, watching people fishing with nets and loads of young people camping and eating and drinking, concluded the day.

I am now finishing my bottle of Havana Club in peace with the world and have decided to start first planning steps tomorrow for travelling around the North of Vietnam next week. If nothing else comes in between. So far I am not in a hurry to leave…

 

 

Hello, Uncle Ho!

This morning my personal guide, driver and bodyguard picked me up at my hotel

My inspired voluntary guide to Hanoi…

and we weaved through traffic so I could say hello to my host in Vietnam: Uncle Ho.

Unfortunately, I could not look him in the eye as his mausoleum is under refurbishment (something they seem to do every October).

The Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

At least I paid hommage to his museum. Here are Uncle Frank and Uncle Ho…

I also listened to a personal performance of  Northern Vietnamese folk songs. Very interesting instruments and very harmonious melodies. Fortunately it was only instrumental as I might have had difficulties with the text.

So much culture and quite some walking made us hungry and a little snack was inevitable:

…some specialities from mid Viet Nam. With a lot of dried shrimp in the dishes…

Time to go back to the hotel for a typical Vietnamese “beauty nap”.

 

After that and some leisurely studying of Hanoi’s history I ventured out again on my own to explore the unique streets of the old quarter. Unfortunately, these people here are setting up traps everywhere for unsuspecting victims like me – and rather soon I had to stop and mingle with the locals to nibble on some snails. Not a bad snack with a drink.

…snacking snails – a popular and social treat…

What can I say? My steps led me inevitably (maybe subconsciously?) to Tong Duy Tan Street, filled with all kinds of “cosy and classy” street restaurants.

As you know I can resist anything but temptation, so I could not just pass by there. In addition I am on a fact finding mission – which requires sacrifices.

And I had just a little boiled pigeon with mushrooms and lotus nuts…:)

“Boiled pigeon”

…and one or two bottles of a different local beer: Bia Ha Noi – so far the best for me. And the cheapest (about 1.15 Leva per bottle)

Now I am having an early evening in to study my guide books because tomorrow will be a long day stuffed to the brim with culture – or so.

 

 

Welcome to Hanoi

First impressions:

The Vietnam Airlines plane from Bangkok to Hanoi was much more modern than I had anticipated somehow. An Airbus 321 (German technology :)). It was nearly fully booked but the check-in staff had decided to award me a whole row of seats to myself. To which of my respectable features this was due I do not know.

When approaching Hanoi nothing could be seen from the air. A dense haze everywhere.

When I got off the plane it was not only humidity that hit me but also those fumes of pollution that keep you from inhaling deeply, like you had them let’s say on King’s Road in London in the eighties. Not a good sign.

After entering the terminal I was looking for the special “agent” that I had booked and paid for in advance to get me through immigration and my visa sorted without having to queue. No sign of the man! Blimey! Fortunately, yours truly is quite experienced with all kinds of formalities and bribing at all kinds of boarders and bureaucratic entities around the globe and I managed to sort myself in nearly zero time. I just had wanted a no-hassle, easy start. Tomorrow I will have to go and find the people to get my 20$ back.

The good thing was that at least my driver was waiting after customs. On the way to the car I managed to pull some “Dongs” out of an ATM and buy a Vietnamese SIM card. The rural landscape between the airport and Hanoi was quite scenic. A little jungle-like with all the wetland and weird huge plants. Unfortunately too much haze for taking pictures. And scooters everywhere! Most of the drivers wearing face-masks.

My own young driver was constantly talking on two phones while texting on a third one between honking the horn at the myriads of motor-bikers and swerving from lane to lane…it was a great lesson for my future driving here :)))

He even knew the way to the old part of town and he called my hotel (in an inaccessible side street) so the porter came to the main street to meet us and pick up my luggage. The sad (but to be expected) part was that my driver did not have the 4$ change he owed me. Good for him as I did not have the nerve for making a fuzz and sending him to get the change, bad for me.

I had originally booked a different hotel. Unfortunately, I had checked the Tripadvisor website afterwards and found another place with a much higher rating at the same price. So, I had changed reservations – and paid for my new hotel in full for a whole week. Now, the staff in my hotel “Hotel Charming, Hanoi” is really very charming. Can’t complain at all. But my room is a tiny little whole – with only a fake window. No daylight!
As everything is paid for a week I will have to endure it. At least the internet is working…

My suite…

…my office…

This is my little side street, very atmospheric.

To the left is the entrance to my hotel…

Loads of small shops – and people actually living in them…

…this shop is right next to my hotel…they are not only selling produce but also ready cooked stuff and spice mixtures…

My first reconnaissance tour brought me to the Hoan Kiem lake, the heart of the old town. As it was already close to 6 pm it had become dark already.

 

Very pleasant to walk along the lake, watch people, sit at the shore and meditate…

People were exercising (like in a gym) or practising Tai Chi or aerobics or were just sitting, watching, talking, meditating – a great place to have in your capital…

I found a pub/restaurant at the lakeside and had my first Vietnamese beer, a “Truc Bach”, 3 Leva for a small bottle. Too much malt, not my thing, but one has to try…Well, I made it back to the hotel at 7.30 pm, to shower and change my sweat trenched shirt…and then went to discover Hanoi at night and for my first “Pho”, THE Vietnamese noodle soup. Alas, I forgot to take my camera with me. Maybe fortunately, because this allowed me to focus on the people. And they are very open and communicative. I made some contacts already and will be picked up tomorrow morning by a teacher with a scooter who will show me Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum and the ethnological museum next to it.

The first day here ended well, I saw loads of mainland China tourists and I am now sitting “in my office” drinking Havana Club (bought at the Bangkok duty free) with coke and ice that the night guard fetched from a more luxurious neighbouring hotel. I sense that there will be nice things to come to me here in Vietnam :)))