Under the sun

People have different ways of coping when the inevitable heatwave arrives.

By Le Diem on July 11,2017 11:02 AM

Under the sun

Photo: Viet Tuan

It was Saturday and the normally busy streets of Hanoi were almost empty. It wasn’t the first days of Tet (lunar new year), when people return to their hometown and leave the city semi-deserted. Nor was it some sort of zombie apocalypse. It was just the year’s first heatwave, with all and sundry trying to escape from the sweltering conditions.

Temperatures during Vietnam’s summer usually stay around 33-35C (92-95F). Lasting nearly a week, the season’s first heatwave in the north hit in early June, with temperatures hovering around 40C (104F). Hanoi and the north saw temperatures at their highest since 1971, sometimes going as high as 42C (108F) and 48C (118F) on the surface of some roads. The asphalt on some of the capital’s new roads melted. Instant noodles put into cool water and left in direct sunlight were ready to eat after 30 minutes.

Though uncomfortable, some do indeed like it hot. Growing up in Austria, where winters are long and cold, Thomas Farthofer, a freelance ghost writer, said: ‘I returned from Vienna in April, where it was snowing. So I like the sun here. I just adapt my daily routine a bit to avoid being outside around noon.’

Vietnamese, however, stay indoors - not just around noon and not just in a heatwave. With motorbikes being the most popular form of transport, going out anywhere at any time means being exposed to the blazing sun. ‘I try not to go out during the day,’ said Ngoc Mai, an office worker in Hanoi. ‘Even at 7pm, you still feel like a piece of meat on a BBQ, with heat coming off the roads and the effect of so many concrete buildings.’

A lot of foreigners feel likewise, hiding indoors to survive the heat. Coming from temperate climes, most find the heat of Asia difficult to handle. Jerome Boulo, a teacher from France, said he and his kids have been in Vietnam for five years but still have a ‘natural sauna’ from sweating all the time in summer if they’re not sitting under an air conditioner. Like most other expats, he stays indoors if he can.

Similarly, Malcom Duckett, the director of an event organising company from Australia, said his life and work change during the summer. He gets up earlier, at 5am instead of 7am, to go to work before the sun is high and then stays in the office until 7 or 8pm. Despite being an outdoors person, he eats at home more, instead of enjoying Vietnamese street food, like at other times. He also spends less time playing sport or hanging out with friends. If he does go out, it’s only to the swimming pool or somewhere nearby with air conditioning. ‘Sometimes I feel like a prisoner,’ he said. ‘But as soon as I step outside I’d rather be back in the cool “prison”.’

The expats also agree that summer increases their expenses, as their electricity bill is 6-7 times higher. But they accept it, because they know that they are luckier than most in having an air conditioner at home.

It’s incredibly difficult and unpleasant to remain indoors at home if you don’t have an air conditioner. In Hanoi and nearby urban areas, which are far from the coast, there is little in the way of breeze to take the edge off the heat and high humidity. Inside, with four walls of concrete, opening the windows makes no difference on 38-40C days and fans just blow hot wind.

Without an air conditioner, Mai and her family can’t sleep at home. A few years ago, they didn’t think one was necessary, but there are more concrete buildings these days and heatwaves have increased in incidence and temperature. She had planned to install an air conditioner this summer, but didn’t expect the first heatwave to hit so early in the year. When she contacted a store about having one installed, she was told to wait as demand was so high. Instead, she and her family fled to a hotel.

But not many can afford to simply flee to a hotel. Millions of people, such as students and low-income earners, struggle to get by in their cheap, small rental houses during the summer. Necessity is the mother of invention, though, and many ideas have been brainstormed and tested over the years to deal with the summer.

Water is poured on both the outside and inside of the house many times a day. Trung Hieu, a student at the Vietnam University of Commerce, and his roomates put a basin of water in front of the fan, but the effect is negligible during a heatwave. Hand-made air conditioners have also been created. A big bag of ice is tied to a fan, which does actually offer a cool breeze. But the respite is only 15 or 20 minutes, then the ice melts. Buying a new bag adds up, however, and going out to buy it becomes an irritation.

For those who have no choice but to go outside, some preparation is needed. It’s not strange to see nearly every motorbike rider dressed in a similar way during summer. Perhaps nowhere else do so many people wear a ‘suncoat’, or ao chong nang, when going outside. The coats first appeared a few years ago and were only worn by women to protect their skin, as lighter skin is preferred. Now, though, men and kids also don an ao chong nang before going out in summer, while some men just wear long gloves that reach up to their shirt sleeves.

With a face mask, sunglasses, and ao chong nang, people are transformed into something resembling a Ninja. Joining the Ninja community with a thin coat for men, Jerome said it’s a good idea to wear a long-sleeved shirt during summer in Vietnam. ‘The sun here is so strong in the summer - it’s not good for your skin,’ he said. ‘I had some friends come and visit from Europe and they were keen to work on their tan. But all they got was severe sunburn.’

Off their bikes, most people try to avoid the sun by walking in the shade of buildings or trees. And while on their bike, shady spots are very much sought after when the traffic lights turn red, even if they’re quite a distance from the intersection. So much so that the rush for a shady spot sometimes causes accidents, as people stop when those behind them aren’t expecting it. In order to prevent accidents, a law was introduced about stopping in the wrong place, with fines of VND300,000-500,000 ($15-25). The heat, though, makes most people take the risk, even though they’re reducing their exposure by all of 30 seconds or a minute.

While the number of customers in shops falls as the temperatures rise, those in cafés with air conditioners boom. Hieu said he’s sometimes gone to a couple of cafés and not been able to find a seat.

With average monthly incomes at $200-300, however, spending every day in air conditioned cafés and parting with VND30,000-50,000 ($1.3-2.2) for a drink is too expensive for many. So the crowds at cinemas and shopping malls increases remarkably on sweltering days, though few plan on seeing a film or buying anything. Window shopping, walking around, or just sitting down become popular pastimes. Then, at sunset, many head to lakes or rivers and cool off.

Teaching his son how to swim in West Lake, Hoang Tuan, who lives nearby, said the breeze and the cool water is the perfect way for them to wash away the sweat of a long day. ‘Swimming pools are usually overcrowded in summer,’ he said. ‘And it’s not cheap if you go every day, when it costs VND80,000-150,000 ($3.5-7) a time. So why not come here, where it’s free and there’s a nice view to be had?’. He seemed unconcerned about hygiene problems or the other hazards lakes present.

Eventually, though, everyone must return home. Many find it too hot to sleep, so have to get out, heading to bridges, where there’s cool grass, or even pedestrian tunnels, where they can find some sleep and perhaps dream of a cool house with air conditioning.

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