Couchfish Day 89: Fire!

Couchfish Day 89: Fire!


This is an old story, more suited to my Friday afternoon entries on mishaps and mayhem, but I figured as I’m in Hanoi, why not?

On one of my early trips to Hanoi, in 1995 I think, I spent some time visiting spots like Tam Dao, Ninh Binh and Cuc Phuong. Between the visits I’d just hang out in Hanoi, mostly in the Old Quarter.

The Old Quarter then still had a bunch of places to stay, but a fraction of how many there are today. They were generally crappier, with cramped double rooms and dingy dorms being the norm. The entire area was more local and less tourist zoo.

Street side dining, Hanoi. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Sometimes the sleeping arrangements were unusual.

At one spot, a French speaking older Vietnamese man had double beds on the ground, first and second floors. The place was kind of open plan, with the beds separated by curtains. He slept on the ground floor in the same kind of arrangement. It was odd, but it was cheap.

I stayed there at least three times. Not due to the social sleeping arrangements‚ but rather because the owner was a character. He would have been in his seventies and he’d hold court on his front steps, telling tales of the War period in French. The only French word I knew was baguette, but Franco travellers would translate.

Food will always come to you in Hanoi. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It might sound a bit boring, but one of the real joys (at least for me) of Hanoi was sitting around doing exactly nothing. Bahasa Indonesia has a word “nongkrong”. It sort of means hanging out with good friends and shooting the breeze but sort of doing nothing—for hours on end. I don’t know if there is a Vietnamese equivalent, I’d not been to Indonesia at the time, but I reckon we were nongkronging.

The mornings were for coffee and cigarettes listening to the host. Most would filter off at lunch to eat, or often food would come to us. There was a tiny, filthy, kitchen out back from where sometimes food would emerge. Free. Sated, the beers would start, then dinner, then more beers.

As was the norm, when he’d had enough, around 11pm, the owner would call it a night and tell everyone to go to bed. His shopfront had heavy metal shutters on the ground floor which he’d drag closed and padlock from the inside. If you were locked out, there was a hole you could reach through and ring a bell and he’d let you in. Anything after about midnight made him unhappy.

None of these are the fire brigade’s number. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The last time I stayed there, it was about 3am in the morning when I was woken up by a smashing sound from downstairs. It was a little smoky and I could hear people yelling downstairs, trying to open the metal doors.

I roused the others on my floor from their comatose sleep, and we made our way down. The first floor had an atrium–like set–up that looked down onto the ground floor. None of the lights were working. I couldn’t see the fire, but there was a fire somewhere and we were locked inside. As far as I knew there was only one way out.

Because it was dark, it was difficult to tell what was going on. The stairs up from the ground floor, were near the kitchen, at the rear of the shopfront. People were still trying to open the steel shutters and I could hear the old guy yelling in French. It was bedlam.

Keys can be useful. At Hoa Lu. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The old guy came upstairs and headed into the bathroom. There was a large bucket for water in there and we tried to drag it down the stairs. As we started down, someone slipped and everything went flying. I can’t remember what it was—a garbage bin perhaps—but water went everywhere, and the owner kicked the bin downstairs.

Everyone was coughing, and torch beams flying around made it feel, for a second, like a god–awful night club.

Then I heard running water, more yelling from the owner, and the sound of water getting splashed all over the joint. Someone was retching, most were down on their haunches. Still the owner and a traveller were in the kitchen going batshit with the water.

What we needed, was water. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

They got the fire under control, and the owner came out, took a key off a nail on the wall and pried open the shutters. The blast of fresh air was like a wave of life washing over us. A gathered crowd out front cheered.

A traveller had been let in at around 2am. He had loitered in the kitchen for a bit, where he had another beer and smoked. When done, he threw his last cigarette butt into the garbage bin. The fire started there. The butt lit some other trash, and all the smoke was from what was burning in the bin. If the fire had escaped the bin, we all would have probably died.

Am sure a few offerings were made the next day. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

Come daylight, account was taken of the damage, and, in the scheme of things it wasn’t too bad. The nearby laundry–lady made a killing washing everyone’s clothes and the linen.

Ever since that night, if I’ve stayed at a place with metal shutters that are locked up at night, I’ve always asked for a key. No key—no stay.

Tomorrow: Unsightseeing in Hanoi

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