I know that I said that my next post would be about my new motorbike… but something came up, so I thought we could take a little break from our scheduled programming for some live reporting. It was another Tuesday night in Hanoi. I was having drinks with a few friends at a nearby place that we like to go to. The place has a roof that looks out over the lake and the city. We were talking about religion and I was in the middle explaining my views and impressions of Buddhism when out of the corner of my eye I saw something. It caused me to stop mid-sentence, jump out of my chair and run over to railing yelling ‘guys, get up and look at this right now!’
Over the treetops and buildings there were flames and plums of smoke billowing upwards. The longer we watched the larger the flames became. Eventually there began to be what appeared to be explosions. We could hear the noise, even from as far away as we were. It sounded like fireworks. Every time we heard the sound the smoky columns would be illuminated in the night sky for a moment. We stood at the railing in horror discussing what we thought might be happening over there. The prevailing theory among us was that an old wooden Pagoda in that area had caught fire. We had been watching for maybe 10 minutes until I couldn’t stand it anymore. I had to be there, at least in the name of journalism. My friends however, understandably, did not feel the same way. So I went alone.
I ran down the small French staircase and outside. I hopped on my motorbike and sped off down the darkened streets. I had no idea how I was going to find my way over to the blaze through Hanoi’s maze-like streets but once I was driving I realized that the smoke was visible from almost anywhere. I followed the smoke that plumed upwards over the narrow streets until I arrived at the scene of the fire. It took me less than I minute to get there through the dark vacant alleys. I turned a corner and felt a rush of adrenaline as I saw the monstrous flames up close. This was without a doubt the biggest fire I have ever seen in person.
Upon arrival, I did what any rational person would do: I parked my motorbike just way too close to the fire and ran off into the crowd. I would have to run past a line of police to reacquire and relocate my bike within 20 minutes as the situation escalated. The crowd formed on 2 sides of the blaze. One group of people stood with their back to the lake and the other stood in the middle of the large road that passed the burning building. The structure appeared to be something like a warehouse. On the side of the building the words were still legible ‘Luxury Bar.’ Ashes rained down onto my head as I stood there, in awe at the enormity of this disaster.
The flames were easily 4 stories high. The crowd backed up as the blaze grew hotter. Nobody could stand to be within 100 meters of the blaze except for the firefighters, whom I was very impressed with. There were at least 10 giant fire trucks at the scene, with more showing up all the time. Firefighters ran back and forth screaming at each other. They scaled a very steep concrete slope down to the lake to pump water up into their hoses. Fire hoses seemed to be a mere formality though with a fire of this size; their firehoses looked like squirt guns in comparison. The scene was controlled by a few different varieties of heavily armed police officers but they were not nearly as passionate about crowd control as a small group of shirtless, tattooed Vietnamese men who ran around scolding anybody with a camera out. It seemed to me that they must have had some sort of personal connection to the fire.
Below is some video footage I grabbed with my phone as I stood in the crowd.
When I returned home my roommate told me that 10 people had already been confirmed dead. That however, has yet to be verified.