Hail to England! Part 1.

“It will be fun!” he said…
At the end of last year Bob Gregory (formerly the Managing Director of Samuel Gawith) was nagging me to get my ass over to England. Why? Well, because even in his old age and slightly demented state he was organising the British Pipe Smoking Championship (BPSC). Together with English pipe-maker Ian Walker. “Come here, it will be fun, fine pipes, good tobacco, good food, good drinks, lots of girls and you know the sun always shines here!” Bob exclaimed. I had my doubts about some of his words, but then I heard that my old chap, Sergeant Matron of the Kearvaig Pipe Club (KPC), also was coming. And even better, on his way from Scotland to the South he could pick me up at Manchester airport and drive us to the quaint town of Middlewich (already baptised “Middlebitch”, by Matron). The heart and home of the BPSC. So I said “yes”, I will come. Being as organised as he is, Matron also took care of lodgings. We were staying at the local Travelodge.

Sadly going by Spitfire wasn’t possible, I had to do it with Sleasyjet..

Too early..
At freaking 05:30AM my alarm clock went off on Friday May 10th. Ughhh…. What do normal people do at this time?? I asked myself while groggily walking to the bathroom. After a hot shower I felt a bit better and was looking forward to the trip and thought like: Ha! The quest for the ultimate pipe smoking price on the scarred fields of Middlewich finally begins! I will have to conquer the great metal beast on the flat lands, fly with the iron bird over the deepest seas to the ancient kingdom, slay many fuming dragons, but in the end the virgin leaf will be mine! So I got on the train, the most nerve wrecking part of the journey. Will it be on time or not? Will it have a delay or not? You never know in The Netherlands.. Thankfully it was on time and with a sigh of relief I entered Schiphol Airport.

They took me knife!
Sadly the relief only lasted until I got to customs, where my luggage was checked. Being a pipe smoker, you always get picked out because the x-ray folks think you are carrying illegal items. In this case, my cigar cutter and pocket knife. After I explained to the customs woman how a cigar cutter works by nearly slicing off the tip of her finger she took my knife. I know the rules, the blade can be no longer than 6cm. But she held it against some card for measurements and said she had to confiscate it because it was 0.5cm too long… What?? “Normally you don’t have an issue with something being half a centimetre too long..” I muttered to the woman. At which point I was taken away for a thorough strip search by a big man called Bubba.. No, only kidding, but I lost my knife! Grumpily I entered the plane. Fortunately the flight went well (except for that there should be a place in hell for parents who bring their little crying children along) and when I saw my old friend Matron with open arms waiting for me at Manchester Airport all was forgotten.

My Smoking Shop
After paying a hefty parking fee of £20(!!!) we went on our way to Preston, in the opposite direction of Middlewich. Because I arrived early and we couldn’t go into the Travelodge yet, Matron proposed a visit to the famous My Smoking Shop in Preston. By all means, fine by me! When we arrived and went in we expected the shop to be a bit bigger. Nonetheless we were impressed, mostly by the array of British made tobaccos. I swear Matron was getting a hard one by seeing all the smoke-able goodies before him. Sadly, very sadly they didn’t have much J.F. Germain offerings. I was hoping to score some Rich Dark Flake, but apparently My Smoking Shop only had 2 Germain deliveries in the past 12 months. Both without Rich Dark Flake.. Bummer! So I went for some mouthwatering Gawith & Hoggarth Westmoreland Slices, Dark Flake and the excellent Irish Brown Twist. Also I needed a new knife to cut my tobacco. The nice lady behind the counter came up with a good looking Joseph Rodgers 3 in 1 Gentleman’s Smokers Knife. Made from genuine Sheffield steel, Rodgers (founded in 1724) still produces the finest quality knives, ensuring excellence in every aspect of production, from materials to craftsmanship. I immediately loved it so bought it.

“It will only be a small walk there…”
I tested out my new smokers knife at the nearby terrace of a cafe. Worked like a charm! I had an alcohol-free beer while Matron was drinking something I didn’t know: an orange juice – soda mix. Typical English I guess. I tried it, loved it and had many more during the whole trip. After a delightful smoke we drove to Middlewich and checked into the Travelodge. It was nearing dinner time and Matron thought it was a good idea to eat some proper fish & chips at The King’s Lock Inn, the venue for the pipe smoking championship. “It will only be a small walk there.” Matron said. Famous last words.. He got lost (and the freaking internet didn’t work..) and when we asked a local man for directions he had a big laugh at us twits and said we were some miles away.. Thankfully in the end we got there and it didn’t disappoint.

Fish & chips with mashed peas

“Try it, it will be nice.”
The King’s Lock is a nice rustic old pub alongside a canal suited for narrowboats. In front is a field with some wooden benches where we sat down. At the back the tents for the pipe smoking championship were already erected. Opposite the pub at the other side of the canal is the best fish & chips shop of Middlewich (according to many): Kings Lock Fish & Chips. Which was underlined by the long row before the door. Matron asked me what I wanted and I answered: fish & chips as British as possible. When he came back he had some food-boxes and other things with him. For me he had gotten fried haddock with chips (fries) mixed with mashed peas and salt and vinegar on top. For himself he had fries with a curry sauce. But before delving into the main course he had an appetiser for me: a pickled egg. A peeled hard-boiled egg with a bit of a sour smell. “Try it, it will be nice.” the bastard said. I took a big bite and…. UGHHHH!!!! It was so sour all my facial muscles contracted, to the great amusement of Matron. Apparently it is something you eat after a night of hard drinking. From my experience I think you will go from drunk to sober in a split second. Of course I didn’t give in and ate the whole damned thing. Afterwards the fish & chips (despite looking like someone’s stomach contents) tasted heavenly. Great Britain had redeemed itself from the foul junk fish & chips in Jedburgh.

“Sorry, he comes from the Netherlands, he doesn’t know better.”
Saturday May 11th was the date of the BPSC. It started at 11 o’clock so Matron and I had plenty of time for a good breakfast. You have to lay a good foundation for a day of smoking right? On Google Maps we found a nice looking place called “Drinks & Bites at 35“. Matron went for the obligatory beans on toast. Beans in the morning?? No thank you.. I ordered “Eggs at 35”; scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, cream cheese and 2 slices of toast. I was keen to try the famous black pudding so added one of those. The lady at the counter looked weird at the request, so Matron responded with “Sorry, he comes from the Netherlands, he doesn’t know better.” The meal was utterly, utterly delicious. Every aspect prepared to perfection. To top it off I had a slice of home made lemon drizzle cake.. *guttural sound of pure pleasure* Best cake ever!

The BPSC venue
Matron dropped me off at the The King’s Lock and went back to the hotel because I (stupidly) didn’t bring my pipe bag. The venue was in essence a field with tents and benches. Upon entering I was immediately warmly greeted by Bob Gregory. We hugged and both were very pleased to see each other. “Come, I’ll introduce you to everyone. Here now lads, this is Arno, The Dutch Pipe Smoker, all the way from The Netherlands!” Bob exclaimed to a group of mostly young pipe smokers with dashing matching shirts. It turned out to be the Yorkshire Pipe Club. I had barely shaken everyone’s hands before Bob dragged me along to the big tent, where all the exhibitors, pipe-makers, tobacco-sellers were. Where it went something like this: “Arno, this is…..” *shake hands* *bit of small talk* “Let’s go!” “Arno, this is…..” *shake hands* *bit of small talk* “Let’s go!” etc. I snapped some pictures and promised to return later. Finally Bob dropped me off at the Yorkshire Pipe Club table. What a lovely bunch they are! Very passionate and knowledgeable. I spoke a lot with founder & chairman Dan about the current smoking regulations in both Great Britain and The Netherlands. It was quite a shock for him to hear the current bleak situation in my home country where tobacco is even more expensive than in the United Kingdom. I also shook hands with president Jim Boyle, who I know, but didn’t recognise.. Sorry Jim! And chaps, if you read this and ever need help when visiting The Netherlands or Belgium, let me know!

Perhaps “The Piped Peter” is a good bothy name for him?

Peter our saviour
Matron had also arrived and slowly we got ready for the main event. Only, we had a small problem.. We were there as the KPC but teams needed a minimum of 3 persons. No worries, Bob had the solution in the form of Peter the pipe smoker who would join our exalted ranks. We immediately hit it off with Peter who was quite nervous since it was his first pipe smoking championship. Join the club lad, it is also our first time! We are all virgins here! He was present with his charming multilingual wife girlfriend who even could speak a little bit of Dutch! “I really hope I don’t go out first..” Peter muttered. Almost famous last words!

Stay tuned for part 2 and find out about the championship results, a nicotine overdose, English girls, an ancient cathedral and a possible terrorist attack.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Post-2015 Samuel Gawith, Bob Gregory’s Story

Bob and me at the InterTabac

Most of you will know the name “Bob Gregory”. For those of you who don’t, this chap was the Managing Director of Samuel Gawith, the legendary English tobacco manufacturer. I got to know Bob at one of the InterTabac fairs I visited, because of his involvement in creating the KPC (Kearvaig Pipe Club, of which I am a member) Bothy Flake (which sadly has just fallen of the Gawith & Hoggarth price list..). Bob is a real British gentleman with a wicked sense of humour, so we pretty much hit it off right off the bat. Later Bob got involved in the creation of Flatlander Flake, made for the Dutch/Belgian Pipe Smokers Forum. And then you get to know someone. He didn’t have to make or create anything with me/for the forum. But he went out his way to accomplish it. Sadly for us, some time after the merge of Samuel Gawith/Gawith & Hoggarth he decided to retire and leave the company.

Rachel Gawith, from her Instagram page

I already knew Bob’s split from the company wasn’t particularly amicable. But in public he kept his mouth shut. Lately I was web-surfing on the PipesMagazine.com forum when I came across a topic with a post (#76) from user “gawithhoggarth”. In real life Rachel Gawith, Social Media Manager of Gawith & Hoggarth and involved in their HR & Health and Safety. What I read made my blood boil, such blatant lies were made! On top of that came the disrespect for the former management (Bob) and their clients (us pipesmokers). So I decided to engage. We had a couple of discussions but in the end I called a truce. She’s like an ostrich, constant putting down her head in the sand. You can’t communicate with someone like that.

When Bob knew about the thread he read it and was absolutely fuming. So for the first time he decided to publicly unveil the story about why the business of Samuel Gawith was sold to Gawith & Hoggarth in May 2015. He send me a long email which I could publish. I suggest that you, the reader, first look at the topic on the PipesMagazine.com forum and then read Bob’s mail below.

Dear Arno,

Recently, I have been reading some very inaccurate things about what happened to Samuel Gawith in 2015. Well Arno, here I am to put things straight with the true story of why we sold the Business of Samuel Gawith. Remember I was there and it was me that was solely in charge of this sale, so there can be no argument about the truth.

First, I have read that prior to the sale of the Samuel Gawith business the company was bankrupt! Nothing could be further from the truth! We ended our 223 year history in a very healthy state with an excellent bank balance, no debts to anyone and a very full order book.

I have also read that there was no involvement of a Gawith or Gawith descendant involved in the business during the latter years. Wrong! One of the directors was a relative of the Samuel Gawith clan and is, today, still very much alive.

It has also been said that the then owner of the company lost interest. Well, nothing could be further from the truth. His sole interest was to retire in the knowledge that the business and brands of Samuel Gawith continued and continued under a British company. We rejected an offer from a well known European manufacturer. An overseas company would have, no doubt, used the opportunity to own a well known brand only to do nothing with it or for it.

I took over the role of Managing Director in 2009 after the then Managing Director had the good fortune to win the National Lottery and decided to retire early. A number of significant changes took place under my management, including that of concentrating on gaining a solid export market. Samuel Gawith was of course trading within the UK market but not as well as Gawith & Hoggarth. This due to the fact that earlier management decisions had been taken to lose the sales force and to entrust the sales to an external company. This was not  a priority for them so the arrangement did not bear fruit.

Pretty quickly we had some important markets to supply, USA, Germany and Switzerland were the first markets to start trading. By the time of 2015 we were trading with in excess of 35 overseas markets from Japan and Australia in the East, to the US and Argentina in the West which provided about 80% of the revenue. In the meantime costs had been seriously reduced, extra staff were producing volumes of finished product as never before seen. This prompted the thought that we would be needing new machinery, extra staff and a larger factory to cope with demand for our tobacco and snuff products.

In the meantime I had reached and gone past a retirement date and the owner was in his late 70’s and wanted an easier retirement. Our search for a successor was not going well as we had already employed two potentials to run the business. But for legal reasons which cannot be commented on, they did not stay with the company. The decision was taken by the Board of Directors that the future for Samuel Gawith was in a suitable UK based stable.

I approached the then Managing Director of Gawith & Hoggarth as to the possibility of a merging of the two companies, in order to safeguard the future of the Samuel Gawith business. I did not know any of the Gawith family and they did not know me, whereas I had had a good business relationship with their Managing Director. Terms were agreed between the two of us and, alas, my dreams of a retirement (I was 70) was dashed as part of the deal was that some of the Samuel Gawith staff and me would transfer over to continue the production within the larger Gawith & Hoggarth factory.

This happened in May of 2015 and staff, some machinery and the order book, worth some £200K (remember, we were “bankrupt”..) moved and continued to produce Samuel Gawith tobaccos and snuff as it had done since 1792. All markets were informed of this change and not one market was inconvenienced by this.

The original Samuel Gawith machinery. Part of this was moved to the Gawith & Hoggarth factory and the major part of the machinery was offered to various trusts and museums in the Kendal area. The only offer we had was from a local museum, who wanted all of the machinery but also the factory. They wanted this for nothing.. The machinery was sent to a good “tobacco” friend of ours in the Netherlands. Today, it has been completely refurbished and stands in pride of place as part of their heritage museum (edit Arno: the Othmar brewery in Ootmarsum). The factory was sold to a local printer.

In 2018 the then Managing Director was “moved” and things immediately began to change. The methods of production that had stood the brand in good stead for over 200 years and bred success, was called into question and declared “wrong”!

It was intimated that I attended major trade functions, but as we were “bankrupt” I had a stand in the corridors as opposed to the main halls. For instance, I attended the Dortmund InterTabac fair from 2004 through to 2018 and very successfully set up our stand in Hall 4 stand B14. So to claim that we were in a corridor is so stupid and ignorant of the author! I’m sure that if any checks were made my claim of H4B14 would be substantiated. But of course Arno, you were there! (edit Arno: Yes I was, multiple times)Anyway, by the time 2019 came I had had enough of arguing with people who had little or no knowledge, so I decided to call it a day and retire. So finally that day came.

I shall also comment on the tobacco tins, the condition of which seemed to have been lain at the “previous managements“ feet. In 2017/2018 it became known that Glud and Marstrand, a tin manufacturer, was about to end production of the well known “square tin”. This was because overall the main producers were using the round tin. Our production machines were set up for the square tin and Samuel Gawith were known and recognised for their well decorated tins. I persuaded the Glud and Marstrand company to do a further 120,000 tin run to keep us going, until my talks with other manufacturers could resolve a situation.

Also we found another 10,000 tins in the UK and, very kindly, Kohlhase & Kopp sent us a further 5000 tins. This quantity gave us good breathing space. But of course I was in trouble for having such high stocks! Lucky I did! In late 2018 we got samples from a Chinese maker which were exact replicas of the original tin. They sealed well (I still have some of their samples, still properly sealed) and did not buckle. They certainly did not need cardboard inserts or plastic over wraps in order to pretend to be sealed. These sealed! Before I left all details were given to the new people for them to act upon. When I left Samuel Gawith tobaccos were still being packed in Glud and Marstrand tins and were properly sealed. So to blame previous management…!

Despite all, cheers all and “Laing mae y’lum reek“ or in Blighty speak “May your smoke continue to rise“.

Flowing Vietnam part 2.

For part 1 see here.

Traffic at our Saigon hotel

Traffic in general
At first sight traffic in Vietnam seems crazily chaotic. Scooters, motorbikes, cars, bicycles, busses, pedestrians all mixed together on one road. Traffic lights.. Well, there is a shirt sold in Vietnam which says: Green light: go! Orange light: go! Red light: go! Which is kind of the truth. However, I came to appreciate the dangerously looking vehicle masses. First reason is that the max permitted speed on almost all roads is just 60 km/h. If it is a double track, two-way street without a median, one-way road with one lane for motorbike 50 km/h or even less. Things are going so slow that a crushing collision is almost ruled out. The second reason is that everyone takes each other into account. No arguments, no fights. If you see someone driving through a red light, riding the wrong side of the road, wanting to cross etc. No problem! Just avoid them. My God, in The Netherlands bloody fights would have broken out between drivers. When crossing a road by foot, don’t be afraid. Go slow, stick out your hand and keep on walking, don’t stop. Everyone will avoid you. Vietnamese traffic is fluid, it flows like water through a meandering river. It may not go fast, but you’ll get there.

Scooters
The favourite way of transport in Vietnam is the scooter. Small, handy and for the locals there are almost no limitations for what you can carry on them. Loads of living ducks, big screen TV’s, building materials, no problem! For me a scooter in such a country means ultimate freedom. On our Bali trip some years ago I rode one for 3 weeks and enjoyed the hell out of it. However, in cities like Saigon and Hanoi it is just way too busy for a pretty inexperienced driver. Luckily, after some research, I downloaded the Grab app. Ideal! You can order a taxi car or even better, a taxi scooter. You enter in the app (which sees where you are located) where you want to go, you get a price which you can accept or not, pay online by creditcard and in no time a scooter shows up. No hassle, no scams. You get a helmet from the driver, climb on the back and off you go. To feel the cooling wind, being manoeuvred expertly through the busy traffic, have fun, cracking jokes with the drivers; an experience I recommend.

My hired scooter in Sapa

Hiring a scooter
In the less crowded places it is much more fun to hire your own scooter. More freedom to move around and see the actual local life. However, I don’t have a motorbike drivers license, but I did get my international normal driving license. Which allows me to ride on scooters up to 50cc. But in Vietnam they’re not difficult about riding more cc’s. In Hoi An I had the idea to rent one to ride to Mỹ Sơn with. At Hoi An Bike Rental the process was very easy. Contact went through WhatsApp, all I had to do was send a copy of my passport. They advised against 50cc, too light, so I got a 110cc one. 15 minutes later a guy arrived at the hotel with my fully filled-up scooter. He had some helmets which I could fit and explained how the vehicle worked. Cost per day: $7.95. The next morning just before the group left for Mỹ Sơn I spoke with our Vietnamese travel leader. Said that I rented a scooter and wanted to go to Mỹ Sơn on it, just following the bus. I have never seen an Asian person turning white before, but he did. “Nononono! Nononono! Vietnamese traffic, crazy! Dangerous!” In the end he and Ellen convinced me to go by bus with the rest of the group. But I had to sign a release form so that he would not be responsible for me with later scooter travels. And in hindsight I was glad I went with the group, because the only (heavy!) rain we had at our holiday was during that trip. The renting process in Sapa was a little bit different. Here I went to the rental place itself and had to leave my ID, which is normal practice. I got it back safe and sound and the owner even gave me a ride back to the hotel.

Fresh!

The Vietnamese national dish and springrolls
Vietnam definitely is a foodie’s wet dream. Just look at YouTube where many vloggers almost literally drool over the countries’ divine dishes. For me it wasn’t until I moved to Olst that I came into contact with Vietnamese cuisine. In nearby Deventer is an excellent restaurant which serves it. Immediately I absolutely LOVED it. The keyword is fresh. Fresh herbs, fresh meat, fresh fish, fresh vegetables. That combined with exotic spices and the omnipresent fish-sauce, mouth watering! And it is mostly not spicy, unlike for example Thai food. The national dish, phở, is a simple yet remarkable culinary soup creation. It consists of a flavourful broth, fresh rice noodles, a selection of herbs and typically includes chicken or (long cooked) beef. However, the true magic lies in its ability to transcend its individual components. It is fragrant, delicious and harmoniously balanced. But beware, throughout the country phở differs. Which is fun to explore. Often I took some fresh springrolls with my phở. Little tastebombs filled with herbs, meat or shrimp. Rolled up in ricepaper they can be eaten cold or fried and come with a dipping sauce. Which can consist of fish sauce, lime, garlic, sugar and chillies. Also here, many, many varieties.

Balut

Bánh mì, cao lầu and duck embryos
Then also there is the omnipresent bánh mì. A short baguette (vive La France!), split lengthwise and filled with all kinds of savoury ingredients. A tasty fusion of bread, meats and vegetables. Some cities have their own local dishes. For example Hoi An has cao lầu. It showcases a medley of essential ingredients, including rice noodles, meat, greens, bean sprouts, and herbs. Complemented by a modest serving of broth. The choice of meat revolves around pork, which can be either tender shreds or succulent slices. Or, alternatively, shrimp. At a streetfood tour in Saigon I absolutely wanted to try a balut. A unique delicacy that involves a fertilised bird egg, typically a duck, carefully incubated for approximately 14 to 21 days, varying by local traditions. Following incubation, the egg is gently steamed and served. The fascinating (and for some horrifying) aspect of this culinary experience lies in consuming the contents directly from the shell. The partially-developed embryo within the egg possesses bones that are tender enough to be chewed and swallowed whole. Adding to the distinct texture and flavour of this extraordinary dish. Despite some of the group gagging at the sight of me eating a balut, I actually enjoyed it. Tasted like chicken-liver with an eggy taste. But all of these dishes are not even the tip of the Vietnamese cuisine ice berg. Don’t be afraid and just explore all the streetfood sellers and restaurants. Follow the golden rule: if it is busy, eat! If no one’s there, avoid!

Egg coffee

Drinks
Not only the food is world class in Vietnam, the drinks also. The first morning in Saigon I groggily stumbled towards the coffee can at the hotel’s breakfast buffet. Poured some into a mug, sat down and took a sip. Wowwww!!! What the… As if the coffee-Gods pissed all over my tongue. It was delicate yet strong, soft instead of harsh and bitter, a gentle exotic woman quietly waking you up instead of a blaring alarm-clock. I think I never drunk as much of the invigorating black liquid as on this holiday. Hell, I even took some ground coffee home! Ok, Vietnam is nr. 2 on the list of countries that produce the most coffee and they know damn well what to do with it. There are many varieties throughout the country, hot and cold. In Hanoi we had some divine egg-coffee. It is made by whisking an egg yolk together with sugar (or honey) and sweetened condensed milk for approximately 10 minutes, until it transforms into a light and creamy fluff resembling meringue. This delightful mixture is then carefully drizzled over a steaming cup of espresso. To maintain its warmth, the cup can be placed in a bowl of hot water. But my nr. 1 coffee I had in Hoi An. There I indulged in the exquisite taste of iced coconut coffee. Where rich Vietnamese coffee is gracefully poured over a refreshing icy coconut slush, infused with a delicate sweetness and an abundance of coconut flavour and fragrance. At that point I was seriously contemplating to stay in Vietnam and never go home again. But it’s not all coffee. I can’t tell you about alcohol because I don’t drink that any more. However, I can tell you about all the fresh fruit drinks. Yup, fresh, not from a carton or bottle. Fresh fruit made into icy spectacular drinks which make you groan in pleasure on hot days.

Massages
If you ever want to have your body kneaded by exotic ladies for little money, go to Vietnam. Big business there, plenty of choice. Everywhere you look in almost any town: Massage & Spa. Of course some of you pervs will think: happy ending! Well, that is certainly not happening in most massage salons. But they are out there, like the spa in our Saigon hotel. One of the guys of our Belgian gay couple wanted to let his muscles loosened up there. At one point during the massage the woman started feeling up his balls and tried to jerk him off. He fled the room with only a tiny towel before his private parts while leaving behind the masseuse, screaming for money. We wanted to wait until we got to Sapa for a massage. After doing some research we ended up there at Eden Massage & Spa. The salon itself was clean and tidy, we had to leave our slippers at the door immediately. A cup of herbal-tea was offered while we made a choice from the massage-menu. No hassle with vague prices and such. We opted for a herbal bath and then a 1-hour herbal massage. The wooden bath was (very) hot and the herbs used intoxicating. When we got out and dried ourselves 2 (tiny) masseuses stood ready for us at the massage table. “How the hell are they going to massage us?” I wondered. Well, they simply jump on the tables and then work your body. The masseuses were very professional. They knew how to find and manipulate the muscles, knots and joints into (sometimes agonising) detail. Other than that, mine also “read” my body well. Harder when it should be harder, softer when it should be softer. Here the herbs used were also almost transcending. Slowly I drifted away in an exotic daydream of pain and pleasure. 

The Vietnamese people
The Vietnamese are a very friendly and polite bunch with a good sense of humour. Just like their traffic they never really stop, they seem to just flow through life, keep going. They are as tough as leather. What I have seen them do in extreme heat, *pheww..* Now I totally get why the great and mighty USA couldn’t win the war and why it would be a bad idea for China to invade Vietnam. In that case the last thing many Chinese soldiers will see is a scrawny Vietnamese coming from the bushes, slashing their throats. The Vietnamese are very proud of their country. Sure, things can be better, but they are working on it. When we crossed a bridge in the bus our travel leader, chest puffed out, told us it was the first bridge engineered and build by Vietnamese. They are also very thankful. When you buy something locally (always buy local, don’t buy at chain stores!) you very often get rewarding big smiles and thank you’s. The same at restaurants and street food places. Although many times they hardly or even not speak English, getting across what you want is pretty easy. Ok, Google Translate helps. Sometimes they are a bit shy to approach a foreigner in a local restaurant. Several times when I came in a place crowded by only Vietnamese, I saw the staff nervously looking at each other who would help the strange bald white man. But when they do they are so kind. I had my first hot pot at a local restaurant in Hanoi. With a bit of help from Google Translate I was able to get across that it was my first time and I had no idea what to precisely do. So for the rest of the meal one of the waitresses prepared the food for me and gestured which sauces to use, which combinations to make etc. Of course I gave her a good tip.

Pipe smoking in Vietnam
Before the journey I contacted a Vietnamese pipe-smoker I have on my Instagram, Trần. When visiting a foreign land I always try to seek out local brothers of the briar. Smoke a pipe together, have a chat, have a drink. That way you experience a country in a whole different way. Trần lives in Hanoi and already gave me some tips and info. Sadly, when the time was there for us to meet he got covid.. He was ok but a meeting, no. Also, during my trip I got a comment on my blog from another Vietnamese pipe smoker, who was reading my blog posts and loved the articles. His name is Phuc and lives near Saigon. Unfortunately I already had been there so a meeting was impossible. But he kindly provided me with a lot of information. Being a pipe smoker in Vietnam you have the best of Europe and the USA at your disposal. Pipe brands like Savinelli, Chacom, Big Ben and Vauen. Tobacco brands like GL Pease, Cornell & Diehl, Samuel Gawith, Rattray’s, Captain Black, MacBaren, Peterson and W.O. Larsen. These are available at specialised shops like Khói Lửa, Khói store and High Collection. Pricewise, a tin like Samuel Gawith’s Full Virginia Flake will cost you 450,000 VND, which is around $19. Blends such as GL Pease Chelsea Morning will set you back at 350,000 VND, roughly $15. For Vietnamese standards very expensive.

Bamboo bongs on the right

Thuốc lào
In Vietnam, smoking is incredibly widespread. With around 50% of men and 5% of women, totalling an estimated 18 million people, using tobacco. It is deeply intertwined with Vietnamese culture, where the old act of exchanging cigarettes still serves as a customary form of greeting. And it is dirt cheap, 1 pack of Marlboro is only $1.28. But Vietnam has its own famous, or better, infamous tobacco. Amidst the vibrant streets of Hanoi’s heart, where small street-side cafes line the pavement, one can easily glimpse clusters of middle-aged individuals, both men and women, drinking bitter green tea. Their animated conversations about life fill the air, interwoven with wisps of smoke that escape from a grand bamboo pipe. They are smoking Thuốc lào, which literally means “drug from Laos”. And drugs it is, because this is not our familiar Nicotiana Tabacum, but its ancient very potent brother: Nicotiana Rustica. Those leaves have a nicotine content as high as 9%, whereas Nicotiana Tabacum leaves contain about 1 to 3% of vitamin N. Well known brands are Hạt Đỗ and Hàng Gà. Thuốc lào offers two consumption methods: smoking or chewing. When opting for smoking, individuals commonly employ a bamboo pipe for their enjoyment.

Woman smoking a Dieu Cay. She said she was only 53, so this is what too much Thuốc lào does to you..

The different bamboo pipes
Mainly there are 3 different bamboo pipes for the use of Thuốc lào. The Dieu Cay is a popular choice for smoking. It features a small bowl-shaped hole where tobacco is placed. One end is sealed, holding a small amount of water, while the other end remains open for smoking. It offers convenience, flavour and to many an enticing sound. Its affordability has made it a favourite among common workers and farmers in their daily lives. The Dieu Bat consists of a ceramic bowl for water and a small straight stem, crafted from a 50 cm bamboo tube. Tobacco is placed in a hole above the bowl, lit, and the smoke is inhaled, savoured and released. Adorned with intricate patterns, the bowl of the Dieu Bat finds favour among the royal and Mandarin classes. Due to its size, it is primarily used at home. The Dieu Ong is a 30 cm long masterpiece, crafted from precious wood, animal bones or even ivory. Adorned with intricate carvings, it features a silver hoop, handles, and rim, adding to its opulence. This exquisite piece is popular in rich families.

Thuốc lào tobacco

Smoking and chewing Thuốc lào
To indulge in Thuốc lào in true Vietnamese style, all you need is a bamboo pipe, a ball of the tobacco and fire. Find a local drink stall on any street, order a cup of green tea, and prepare for the experience. Pack the tobacco ball into the pipe, ignite it, wait briefly, blow out the ash and take a deep inhale while sipping tea. As the smoke escapes your mouth, you’ll feel a blissful “phe” sensation (Vietnamese slang for getting high). Compare it to the “first cigarette in the morning”, but much stronger. Just be cautious not to get too carried away and ask someone nearby to sit behind you in case you keel over. You can laugh now, but these things happen with unsuspecting tourists, see this video. In addition to smoking, Thuốc lào can be chewed. Place a pinch of dry tobacco in your mouth, keeping it between your teeth and cheeks. Occasionally chew the tobacco to release its flavours, but avoid swallowing it! Although chewing Thuốc lào may not provide the same intense high as smoking, it offers a unique and worthwhile experience (or just the opposite), worth trying at least once.

Back home
Of course I had to bring some Thuốc lào home. Our Vietnamese travel leader (a smoker himself) knew where to get it and he would buy me some. So on a evening in our hotel room in Hanoi there was a soft knock on the door. I opened it and there stood Binh, with a plastic bag. “Ia hava the stuff, 25,000 VND pleasa.” It sounded like some shady drug (from Laos) transaction. I gave him 30,000 VND for his troubles. In the bag were 5 small carton packs of (I think) 25 gr each. I didn’t trouble myself with opening one and put them in my travel bag. Once settled back home on a evening that Ellen wasn’t there, I had a copious meal and poured in some soda, I tore open one of the cartons. Inside what was what I can best describe as a sample bag filled with very finely cut tobacco. When I opened the bag I was greeted by a strong, earthy, rustic odour. Certainly not your slightly perfumed black cavendish. I got my old relatively small Dunhill “Duke Street” pipe and filled it carefully with the Thuốc lào. After a quick prayer to the tobacco Gods I lit up. I expected it to awful, vile and nasty, but to my surprise I quite enjoyed the taste. Like a natural, heavy, bold Kentucky, burley with a little herby twist. Only burning-wise it was a total disaster. I would not keep burning. After a relight I could manage just about 2 or 3 puffs before it went out again. Later I tried different ways of packing the pipe, no result. The nicotine was just manageable. I didn’t smoke it over my lungs and I was prepared. But I can imagine very well that a non-smoking tourist who hasn’t eaten yet, can get knocked down by inhaling the Thuốc lào smoke. Anyway, all by all it was a good experience. Just like Vietnam itself. Cảm ơn!

Dan Pipe Says Goodbye!

Oh no!
As some of you know I have a soft spot in my latakia-black heart for German tobacco manufacturer DTM and their selling company Dan Pipe. I visited the factory and antique shop many times over the years. Whenever owner Heiko Behrens was available he would give me a tour through the building, I would chat with (former) masterblender Andreas Mund and hang out in the store with walking pipe/tobacco encyclopedia Michael Apitz. I also always went directly to their stand at the Inter Tabac Fair for a cup of coffee, smoke and some small talk. So you can imagine my horror when I recently read this on the Dan Pipe website:

Dan Pipe says goodbye!
Dear customers and friends of Dan Pipe Dr. Behrens KG, In the 51st year of our company, significant changes are coming our way. Starting from May 30, 2023, we will cease our shipping operations. We will, of course, fulfil orders placed until that day, as long as the requested items are available in the short term. In the future, you will be redirected from our online shop to the website www.cigarre24.de, if the respective item is available there. Cigarre24.de is the online shop of the long-established tobacco specialist Oliver Fries from the neighbouring city of Geesthacht, who has been running a well-assorted speciality store there for many years in a prime location on the pedestrian zone. We have had a longstanding business relationship with Mr. Fries and hold him in high regard. Most of the items from our online shop will be available for ordering there, and you will also be able to purchase many items directly from the retail store “Zigarren Fries” at Bergedorfer Str. 46, 21502 Geesthacht.

Many of our customers are familiar with our particularly cozy retail store at Hafenstraße 30, 21481 Lauenburg and have enjoyed browsing through our incredibly extensive range of pipes in the past. However, the retail store will close its doors in the future, so please take advantage of the time until July 31, 2023, to benefit from the excellent advice provided by Mr. Michael Apitz. You can still view your previous online orders in your customer area on the Dan Pipe website. However, ordering through Dan Pipe is no longer possible. You will find links on many of our product pages with the destination www.cigarre24.de. Please note that you will need to register as a new customer there, as we will naturally not disclose our customer data.

We would be delighted if you continued to remain loyal to the products of DTM – Dan Tobacco Manufacturing GmbH and placed your trust in Mr. Oliver Fries and his team in the future. We would like to express our heartfelt thanks to all our customers and business partners. Thank you very much for the trust, praise, and recognition we have received over the years. We wish the “Zigarren Fries” team all the best, much success, and hope that you, dear customers, will become as good and longstanding partners to the “Zigarren Fries” team with their online shop www.cigarre24.de as you have been to us.

Best regards,
The entire team of Dan Pipe Dr. Behrens KG

R.I.P. Heiko Behrens
On top of that, just a day later, I saw the news that good old Heiko passed away. With him, the industry has lost a pipe specialist, tobacco expert, employer, entrepreneur who stood up for his industry, musician, culture enthusiast, philanthropist, family man and husband. Personally I loved Heiko. He was such a sweet and generous guy. When I first came to Dan Pipe together with good friend Ed for the creation of the forum tobaccos and met him, I called him “sir”. I was raised well and he was a big name in the industry. He immediately countered with “Please call me Heiko, everyone does.”, and took us out for lunch on his expense. That time and every time after when we walked through the factory, he asked if I knew a blend that was lying around there. If I said “no” he would give it to me. And books and even more tobacco. The last time I saw him, just before covid hit, he already was very fragile. So his death did not fully surprise me.

One last visit
When I read all this I immediately decided to pay one last visit to the Dan Pipe shop, the least I could do. I booked a hotel-room in Lauenburg (it is too far away for me to go back and forth in 1 day) and went on my way. After a pleasant ride without Stau (traffic jams) I arrived at the old former grain malting house of DTM. Built of red brick into the steep slope of the Elbe river banks more than 100 years ago with a construction solid like an ancient castle. In the shop Michael Apitz was not back yet, it was around lunchtime. I chatted with another employee when I felt some hands on my shoulders: Der Michael! First of all, I offered my condolences on the loss of Heiko. “You know, I am not religious, but the death of Heiko and the news of the impending closure of the store are very coincidental.” Michael said.

Track & Trace
Being a curious man I asked why the brick and mortar store and webshop were going to be closed. “First of all this plan has been known to us for half a year. It is only now that we decided to bring out the news. The reason? (Anti) tobacco legislation; track & trace and other upcoming regulations.” Michael sighed. “Sorry? Track & trace, like in, what’s on packages?” I asked. “Nono, track & trace on tobacco itself.” Back home I did some research on the subject: Tobacco tracking and tracing involves the identification of the origin and subsequent monitoring of a tobacco product until it is sold. Each product is assigned a secure and distinct ID, enabling its traceability from the manufacturing stage to the point of tax payment. In the event that these products find their way into the illicit market, their path can be retraced to determine the source of the issue and their original place of manufacture. And this not national legislation, it is European Union legislation! To understand this for the Americans who read this, kind of see Europe as the USA and the countries as states.

Tobacco Products Directive (TPD)
So sooner or later every EU country will have to deal with this. And not only with track & trace, with all kinds of anti-tobacco regulations! Also with the prohibition of internet sales of tobacco and related products. In Germany it isn’t that far YET, but here in The Netherlands it is (we always try to be the best boy in the EU class). If I for example I want to buy some pipe tobacco, I can’t do it online any more. I have to drive to a tobacco shop and buy it there. Last years many of those specialist shops closed down due to all the strict regulations. In other words, if I want to buy some (heavily taxed) pipe tobacco I have to drive 32 km to get to the nearest shop. And this because of TPD. The Tobacco Products Directive (2014/40/EU) was implemented on May 19, 2014, and became effective in European Union countries on May 20, 2016. This Directive establishes regulations concerning the production, packaging, and sale of tobacco and associated items. Such items encompass cigarettes, roll-your-own tobacco, pipe tobacco, cigars, cigarillos, smokeless tobacco, electronic cigarettes, and herbal products intended for smoking.

Tobacco-free generation
But it goes even further. Now the EU has a goal to have a “Tobacco-free Generation” by 2040. Which is set in Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. A noble plan in itself, but they say tobacco is known as “the single largest avoidable health risk in the EU”, with 27% of all cancers attributed to its use. And they are also coming for your alcohol, see point 3.3., “Reducing harmful alcohol consumption”. Beware! To make matters even worse (It can’t be worse! Yes it can..), there are a whole lot of nutcases who want to achieve a tobacco-free environment and the first European tobacco-free generation, not by 2040, but by 2030. A so called “European Citizens’ Initiative”. Well, if you look on their website you see about every European anti-smoke organisation there is. What annoys me the most is that pipe tobacco and cigars on the one side and cigarettes and roll-your-own on the other side, are measured by the same standards. More or less. In Germany they have made a clear distinction. Pipe tobacco tins look reasonably normal, the tax isn’t enormous. Here everything is lumped together. I would love to show you how a Dutch pipe tobacco tin looks like nowadays, but due to the new legislation tobacco shops are not allowed to show pictures of products. Also we aren’t allowed to smoke indoors anywhere, except for your own home. No smoking lounges, no cigar bars, nothing. So it doesn’t matter if I only smoke 1 or 2 pipes/cigars per week to de-stress, not inhaling the smoke. It’s tobacco! Bad!

Michael Apitz and me

Dankeschön!
You can imagine the extra costs and work this all brings for pipe tobacco manufacturers. All packaging has to be updated, loads of extra administration etc. For bigger corporations like MacBaren and the Scandinavian Tobacco Group it is pretty annoying, but they will survive. Smaller companies like Dan Pipe are struggling. So they have to make ugly but necessary business decisions to survive. Like closing the brick and mortar store and webshop. Don’t worry, the factory will still be making tobacco. But poor Michael has been cut down to only 1 day work per week. He’s taking it like a man, but deep inside.. After an afternoon of chatting, trying out some blends and buying a whole lot of stuff it was time to leave. Michael and I did not shake hands, but hugged each other, knowing an era has almost ended. When saying goodbye we both got misty-eyed. I thank Dan Pipe / DTM very, very much for all the years I visited their shop, factory and Inter Tabac Fair stand. I wish them all the best in the future, I hope they will survive. And if you, dear reader, want to make a last visit to the shop, hurry up!

Flowing Vietnam part 1.

WTF??? Is he back?
“What? A new post of the Dutch Pipe Smoker? I thought that bastard quit, leaving us stranded in a sea of pipes and tobacco!” No, I have not returned to monthly satisfy your aching souls and nicotine lusty bodies with tales of smoking the noble weed again. Sorry. I just felt like telling something about my latest holiday, to Vietnam. Writing stuff down helps me put things in perspective. So I won’t suddenly become some fancy travel blog. You can rest assured.

Our route through Vietnam

Why Vietnam?
After the covid years my charming girlfriend Ellen wanted to go on a holiday to somewhere far away. To be honest, I was a bit hesitant. After all the not too pleasant years, about which you can read here, I didn’t know how I would react to a long journey to an unknown country. But I like to grasp the nettle. Be fluid with things. I have a fondness for Asia and for me there were 2 options: Japan or Vietnam. As an experiment I decided to try group travel. Then you don’t have to think, you just have to show up and everything’s arranged and done for you. I didn’t feel like doing the work to arrange everything myself. Since 3 weeks to Vietnam was almost half as cheap as 3 weeks Japan, we choose the former.

View from our Saigon hotel room

Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
After a gruelling long flight with a delay in Istanbul we arrived at the airport of Saigon. Yes, I use the old city name, I like the old world ring of it. In the plane we already met some of our fellow travellers. A good mix of Dutch folks and Belgians. When we got through customs, bought a Vietnamese SIM-card and pulled millions of the local currency (Dong) out of an ATM (first time being a millionaire, whohoo!) we met our local travel leader/guide Binh. A young, small, friendly Vietnamese guy. We walked outside the airport and *boom!* the incredible heat hit us. In The Netherlands it was about 11°C when we left. In Saigon it was about 32°C, in the evening.. Let’s say the sweat was not dripping of me, it was gushing from me. Quickly we were driven to our hotel, the Riverside Hotel Saigon, which had a central location. Our view from the room was very good. We looked out on the Saigon river and busy street.

At the Hotel Continental

The Quiet American
Before the journey and old friend of mine talked about the author Graham Greene and his famous book The Quiet American. I am very much ashamed, but I had never heard of this writer before.. Apparently Graham Greene spent a few years living in Saigon. In many ways The Quiet American is his homage to this vibrant city. He mentions locations in his book like Le Rue Catinat (now Duong Dong Khoi), The Majestic Hotel and Hotel Continental. My friend wanted me to visit the latter, so being the good chap that I am I went there. The Continental almost looks out of place in a rapidly modernising city. It has a nice colonial old world feel to it. There was no terrace to speak of outside, but inside there was a magnificent inner courtyard. I was early to beat the heat, breakfast was still being served for the guests. I wasn’t one of them, so I asked a waiter for a coffee, fresh orange juice and if I could smoke my pipe there. Yes, yes, no.. D*mn.. I put my open pipe bag on the table and just imagined the elements being together.

At the front of the boat

Mekong Delta
The Mekong Delta is the region in southwestern Vietnam where the Mekong River approaches and empties into the sea through a network of channels. During the Vietnam War the Delta region saw savage fighting between the Viet Cong guerrillas and the USA. And that was precisely the image I had in my head from watching all kinds of Vietnam war movies. When we got to the river we embarked on a wooden boat. Soon all we could hear was the “papapapapapa” of the engine and I got visions of American soldiers sitting in a such a vessel, looking out for enemies.

Trying to play the đàn bầu

Where The Doors got some inspiration from
Along the way we made some stops. Mostly tourist traps, except for one. We docked at an island where we were given some fresh fruit and a performance of local music was staged. Being a guitar player I wanted to try one of the instruments, a so called đàn bầu. It only has one string, a tremolo like on a guitar and you make the notes by creating artificial harmonics with the palm of your hand. Pretty clumsy. They had some tiny tea cups so I grabbed one and used it as a slide, to the amusement of the đàn bầu player. Perhaps she will use it in later performances as a party trick. After that I joined the group of Vietnamese musicians. I already saw they had a Fender Stratocaster guitar and amp (which they didn’t use at our performance). Beer was consumed in large quantities and immediately I got one pressed into my hand. I don’t drink alcohol any more but felt obliged to at least take a sip. One guy grabbed the Stratocaster and I asked if they knew blues or rock and roll. Nope, only Vietnamese music. Which they then played. I almost fell off my chair because it sounded exactly like the guitar in The End from The Doors. Eastern vibes with with a kind of whoozy mellowing effect underneath it. Back in the boat I enjoyed the view while listening to the famous song. 

The springrolls I helped to make

Homestay
One of the things I most enjoy when on holiday are the locals. Immersing yourself in another culture. We ended the Mekong Delta trip at a local home-stay. In this case a large farmhouse with some side buildings. We were greeted by children who, of course, got all the attention they wanted from those white big folks. Dinner was being prepared by the whole family and we could help with that. Since I was the only one who could handle long chopsticks my task was to put freshly made spring-rolls in hot oil. The food that came out of that kitchen was delicious! Well made and pleasing for the eye. At night I imagined us sleeping with 8 persons on thin mats in a crappy building. Much to my surprise we were being led to a string of craft-fully build small wooden houses. Each with several rooms in it. Ellen and I had our own room and it was pretty d*mn luxurious, with a bathroom that was better than the one in our Saigon hotel. We slept like babies and awoke fresh the next morning, ready for the journey back to the big city.

Durga, the slayer of the buffalo-demon, above the entrance

Nha Trang
After another night in Saigon we took a plane to the coastal city of Nha Trang. This holiday we flew twice with Vietnam Airlines and from me they get two thumbs up. Modern, clean planes with lots of leg space. For me Nha Trang did not have a great vibe. I’m not really a coastal guy, lots of Russians and Chinese (who still have the tendency to rasp en spit on the ground, yuck!), just not my place. The hotel room we had was very luxurious with a HUGE bed. Sadly we were located on the wrong side, the other side had a stunning sea view. Oh well… Luckily the city boasted Po Nagar, the Cham towers, as an attraction. A beautiful ancient temple with a lovely rocky garden around it where you can quietly sit and enjoy the surroundings. 

The restaurant car

The sleeper train
The journey from Nha Trang to Hoi An was by sleeper train. Since our group was so large we almost had a wagon for ourselves. It was divided in 4 person cabins with a sink and toilet at the end. We ended up sharing the compartment with the Belgian gay couple of the group. Which was hilarious because one of them suffered from germophobia (fear of germs, uncleanliness etc.). I immediately smelled my pillow and bed cover and it was clear they weren’t clean to say the least. I could smell the acrid odour of sweat. And told my germophobic gay roommate so. We all had to laugh at his response of pulling a disgusted face while muttering yuckyuckyuck. Everything that was cleanable he wiped off with disinfection liquid (“You know how many times I am going to touch this tonight??”), much to our amusement. The train also had a restaurant car but we were told by our travel leader to NOT eat there. Unless you wanted a case of severe diarrhoea. But we could drink there! When passing through the train we realised our smelly cabins were actually quite luxurious. I saw compartments half the size of us with 6 Vietnamese crammed in it.. The restaurant car really had an old communist vibe. Wooden uncomfortable benches and run by a feisty old Vietnamese lady, who sometimes kicked the drunken men there. No smoking signs were all around but luckily completely ignored.

Hoi An

Arriving in Hoi An
During the wobbly night in the sleeper train I woke up because I really had to take a leak. The toilet… I encountered some shitty (pun intended) latrines in my past travels, but this one ranked up high. For some reason it couldn’t flush, so urine was sloshing around in the bowl. But when you have to go, you have to go. And I really had to go, which resulted in the urine level getting higher and higher. In itself not so bad, but the shaky train made the vile liquid in the toilet almost spill over my feet. I think some quick little prayers saved me. I felt really bad for the one after me.. Early in the morning the train arrived in Hoi An. We could not go to the hotel there yet, so we visited the old town centre (a UNESCO World Heritage Site). Very beautiful with old (colonial) houses but also very touristic. We went to the Cantonese Assembly Hall, saw the famous Japanese Bridge and took a look inside Tan Ky Old House. Despite the visitor crowds some non-touristic market streets were easy to find where the locals were buying and selling all kinds of food and wares. In the evening when the temperature goes down Hoi An is particularly mesmerising. Colourful lanterns light up in the streets and on the boats and you can stroll through the small yet vibrant streets. Also have some dinner along the river, have a drink in one of the many local cafes and enjoy the easy-going vibe.

Mỹ Sơn
Nono, not My Son; Mỹ Sơn. It is one of the most important Hindu temple complexes in Southeast Asia. You know, Borobudur in Indonesia, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and Mỹ Sơn in Vietnam. That kind of significance. Early in the morning we went there to beat the crowds and heat. Well, we did not conquer the heat, it almost defeated us! Full on tropical warmth. We had to be careful where we walked, paths only. This because sadly many historical buildings were destroyed during the Vietnam War, when the United States aircraft bombed the region and left many undetonated explosives in the ground. Apart from that it was a marvellous experience. There was a route to follow and we had a local guide who told us all about the ancient buildings and ruins. At the last location on the way we could see the massive tourist crowds coming in like tidal waves crashing into the old temples. After a quite enjoyable dance and music tourist show (because of the presence of a lot of cooling fans and pretty Vietnamese girls) we went to the exit. We had to leave in small electric busses but the waiting line seemed to go on forever. I am ashamed to tell this but we Dutch are not good in waiting in lines. One man of our group sneakily guided us to the front and when the next bus came he and we (also the Belgians!) ran for it. Leaving behind pissed off other tourists. Sorry! 

Beautiful lady at the Thien Mu Pagoda

Hot Hue
Next stop was the old imperial city of Hue. I was really looking forward to visiting all the old royal stuff, but the heat totally beat me down. There was a heatwave with perceived temperatures soaring up to a hellish 43°C! We sailed a bit on the Perfume River, visited the official symbol of the city, the Thien Mu Pagoda and went to some tombs of past emperors. At the last location I was getting whoozy from the heat. Couldn’t stand on my legs properly any more. Near the entrance of the tomb complex was a small cafe. I can’t remember exactly how I got there, but when the woman running it saw me she immediately sat me down on a chair, put a cooling fan in my face and placed a bottle of cold water before me. Kám-un (thank you)! The next morning Ellen went away at 8 am to visit the Imperial City. A bit further in the street of our hotel was a small shop, ran by an elderly lady, where I decided to buy some water. You can’t drink the tap-water in Vietnam so you always had to buy bottles. Almost beside her was a coffee shop and I fancied a cup of invigorating dark liquid. I sat there, in the shade, a fan blowing nearby, doing nothing and the sweat just gushed out of me. Soon I got a text message from Ellen that she was coming back to the hotel. Even for my fit, tough girlfriend the heat was too much. Oh, apparently women from Hue are very wanted by Vietnamese men. Our travel leader told us why in his thick Vietnamese accent: “When youa hava been out with friends, hada too much too drinka and coma homa, woman from South, beat you! Woman from North, beat you! But woman from Hue, she comfort you, put you in bed. Next morning, shea will ask whya you drink you so much? Not good for you!”

Border with China

A quick visit to Hanoi and on the way to Sapa
After another comfortable flight with Vietnam Airlines we arrived in the cooler (but still hot) Hanoi. The capital and second-largest city of Vietnam. Where I didn’t particularly liked Saigon, Hanoi immediately for me had good vibes. Hard to put a finger on it. Perhaps the well-preserved French colonial architecture, good food/drinks and relaxed people? Sadly already the next morning we had to go to the mountainous area of Sapa. Well, “sadly”, after all the busy cities I was ready for some beautiful, peaceful nature. The road took us near the border of China and since it was only a small detour, we went there. The Vietnamese are a bit afraid of their huge neighbour and I can see why. Upon seeing the actual border with the bridge, gate and construction works I got visions from Mordor; images of industrial environmental degradation.

Sapa
Through a long and winding road we reached the mountainous town of Sapa. Which lies at the heart of a deep valley. Embraced by breathtaking rice terraces that continue to be cultivated to this day, just as they have been for centuries. The scenic backdrop of this place is truly awesome. Intriguing ribbons of road guide your gaze towards the valley below, where rivers flow vigorously amidst the rice fields. While lush green mountains extend into the distance, seemingly endless. Towering above the town, the ragged ridge line is adorned by the majestic Mount Fansipan, the highest peak in the region. You can imagine my hopes were high for a hotel with a stunning mountain view. Well, through the endless fogs we could see only glimpses of the ancient giants. The construction works opposite our accommodation were very clear though.

Born to be wild
I was tired of constantly travelling with the group. It was like being in a cocoon with fellow Dutch folks led by the travel leader. “Now we go there, now we stop there, now we do this, now we do that..” Arghh!!! I wanted to break free, do some things on my own. So I rented a scooter in Sapa at a place I found on Google. Nice folks, they knew I needed a bit more cc to drag my fat body up the mountains. I had no idea where to go but I did know I wanted to see some stunning nature, local Vietnamese and no tourists. I picked a small village on Google Maps about 25 km from Sapa and began my little adventure. It felt so good to be free! At the top of a mountain I stopped for some coffee, while enjoying the view. Then went all the way down to the rice fields. But oofff… Bad roads! Constantly I was avoiding potholes or looking for the best route over mangled asphalt. My shoulders and ass were killing me. Despite that it was totally worth it! The views! Unbelievably stunning! I halted many times to just enjoy the beautiful scenery. This is holiday for me, exploring local nature and life. When I rode through small villages the children waved, laughed at me or just stood looking dumbfounded at that big white Westerner. At a rice field I was stopped by a local lady who tried to sell me home-made stuff. She was trying so hard that I ended up buying a nicely embroidered bag (of course after a bit of haggling). She was so happy I got a small cloth wallet for free.

Halong Bay
Then it was time for what I hoped was going to be the highlight of the holiday: the unmatched beauty of Halong Bay. It showcases a breathtaking array of limestone rocks and isles, with thousands of unique shapes and sizes. We rode there from Sapa to go on a boat on which we were also going to spend the night. I was imagining it a bit more romantic then in real life, because dozens of other boats also left the harbour to go to the ancient rocks at the same time. Instead of fabulous views we mostly saw, smelled (diesel) and heard (loud music) vessels around us. Which for me pretty much killed the vibe. However, I felt positive about our ship, it looked good, friendly crew and our cabins had a decent bed, shower and toilet. The rest of the group went to visit a nearby rock and cave, I opted to stay on our boat, enjoying a pipe and a book. A good choice since the group, when they got back, complained those places were overrun by other tourists. Dinner, made by the crew, was tasty and the evening became even better when I found an acoustic guitar on the ship. While I mangled the strings the instrument’s owner, one of the crew members, came forward. We chatted friendly, I showed him some chords, then gave him back his guitar. He was only playing for 1 month (“Learning.. Youtube!”) but man, the guy was good! He played me some Vietnamese songs and sang at the same time. What I did not manage he managed, soon some of the group’s ladies were swooning away.

Back to Hanoi and home
The next morning, going to the harbour again, the same routine happened as on the way to Halong Bay. All ships went back at the same time. Uhrrr… Hanoi felt welcoming once more when we got there. Next morning Ellen and I went to the Temple of Literature. An almost 1000 year graciously old building, dedicated to Confucius, sages and scholars. For some reason there were loads and loads of children present, whole school-classes, neatly dressed with their teachers and parents. Perhaps it was the last day of the school-year? Graduations? Anyway, we had so much fun there with the kids! Me, being the clumsy, big white tourist gave lots of high-fives, fist-bumps, waved and walked deliberately into objects. Much to the amusement of the children. Their smiles, hello’s, curiosity; absolutely priceless. It was an excellent ending to our holiday, because that same evening we flew back home. Although we almost missed our plane at Hanoi airport. A system malfunction combined with 5 (!) passport checks is not very handy.. 

Please find part 2 here, which is about crazy Vietnamese traffic, duck embryos, happy endings and drugs from Laos.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Last Post

Yes, this is the last post, dear reader. As you undoubtedly have noticed I am hardly posting anything any more. Not that I quit pipe-smoking, oh no! The truth is this: After my severe burn-out some years ago I find it extremely difficult to write for this blog. I think because one of the reasons I went overboard was pushing myself to write a blog every month / 2 months. Many evenings spent thinking, researching, writing, photoshopping beside a hectic full-time day-job and busy weekends was too much. Then I got unemployed, depressed, addicted to alcohol (the beer on the left is alcohol-free) and to a lesser degree addicted to medication. Up to the point I wanted to throw myself before a train. As you have noticed it did not came to that. I underwent psychotherapy, found the correct medication, kicked the addictive medication, kicked alcohol, found a new nice job and am a much more positive person these days. I am very grateful for what I have right now and try to live in the “now” as much as possible.

But this all means I had to make some tough decisions. The blog was draining me in the end, while a hobby is supposed to give you energy. Making music has always been my love, but it had been pushed to the background for a lot of years. Last year I re-discovered my passion for it and now I play guitar daily and try to write and record songs. For this I have set up a musical project, VanGore, which includes me on guitar and musicians from all over the world on the other instruments/vocals. Long live the internet.

Picture from Wuustwezel meeting 2022

Because of this I no longer have the time or energy to write for this blog. Besides, I think I have told all I wanted to tell. Of course there are always meetings, new tobaccos and new pipe smoking products. But to be able to write a good blog you have to be on top of that. Scavenge sites, books and forums for information. And I don’t want to do that any more. I took pride in the fact that I always wanted the best information for my readers, and I refuse to write half-hearted, unsatisfactory blogposts. But I’ll always be a pipe smoker in heart and soul.

One of the last things I want to tell you is that Dutch pipe maker Gubbels is doing fine. They made the last annual Dutch Pipesmokers Forum pipe and besides being a beauty (see the first picture), it smokes excellent! I picked it up myself at the new factory. After the bankruptcy of several parts of their company they pulled through and found a new, better and cheaper location. Gone is the big machine that could produce many pipes per day. Gone are the contracts with pipe-selling sites like Al Pascia. They couldn’t make pipes for the prices they wanted any more. What is left is an enormous stock of vintage raw unfinished pipes, a true treasure.

Lounge at the Gubbels factory

Elbert (Gubbels) doesn’t have to worry about money any more, because now he gets his income from making pipe-cleaners for al kinds of markets. In fact, he even can’t keep up with demand, which is a good sign. So he can think of and create new pipes peacefully with the help of some employees. Soon there will be a CNC machine, so they are no longer dependant on old stock. Visitors are very welcome to visit the new factory, walk around and smoke a pipe in the beautiful lounge while enjoying a glass of whisky or wine. Perhaps in the future you can even create your own pipe there!

I want to thank my readers for all these years. I had a blast writing the blogs and afterwards reading your comments and reactions. I did it all for you. I also want to thank all the people in the industry that helped me. Like Brian Levine, Per Jensen, Bob Gregory, Hans Wiedemann, Greg Pease, the Dan Pipe people, Elbert Gubbels, Martin Romijn and many, many others that aren’t in the industry but found the time to share their knowledge with me. And don’t worry, I am not taking the blog offline and I will still respond to comments and questions.

Sincerely yours,
Arno