Winter wonders

The cold descending upon Vietnam’s north also announces the arrival of a certain charm

By Joe A on November 15,2018 11:10 AM

Winter wonders

Photos Viet Tuan

Don’t get me wrong, winter is not without its inconveniences, but its charms are far more numerable and noteworthy, assuming one has moderately prepared oneself

Winter is the most formidable season in the hearts and minds of many people. There is countless lore referring to the inevitable march toward the cruel, icy clutch of the dark months. The Norse saw the end of the world as being hailed by three consecutive winters and even in modern times we refer to one possible apocalyptic scenario as “Nuclear Winter”. The Russians call their winter season “General Winter”, because its harshness has spelled doom for invading armies for centuries. Even as you read this you might be recalling the popular TV show Game of Thrones and its famous warning that “Winter is coming,” but as an expat in Hanoi it is hardly a warning and when I hear these words I can only think: “Finally!”

Comparing a Hanoian winter to other parts of the world would be entirely unfair as it basically resembles a mild autumn in European or American terms. I intend to compare it to the other seasons in Hanoi and show why winter here really is the “Most wonderful time of the year”. Don’t get me wrong, winter is not without its inconveniences, but its charms are far more numerable and noteworthy, assuming one has moderately prepared oneself.

I understand that talk of the weather is the last dying breath of a boring conversation, but when discussing the seasons it’s unavoidable, so let’s “spring” through this section then I’ll fall back into more interesting topics. If I were to give you the choice between high humidity and heat, high heat and constant rain, heavy rain punctuated by storms and floods, or slightly cool temperatures with little precipitation I’m willing to bet you’d choose the last option. Winter is the only season that gives respite from the heat and even though it comes with some infrequent showers it’s really nothing compared to the summer and autumn monsoons or the horrendously humid spring which has been aptly labeled Mildew March. (Just to clarify, all of these seasons have good aspects as well, in fact the good qualities outweigh the bad, but there isn’t any time of year where the weather is particularly favorable. Like the old saying goes: Nothing is certain except death, taxes, and complaining about the weather.)

The temperature never really gets so low that the cold is a major factor, but with the level of humidity in this country it can give you a surprising chill. Just remember to layer up your clothes if you want to avoid the sniffles. This means adding the necessary warm trousers, scarf, gloves, and additional sweater, and for men it’s also a time to shine by looking dapper in stylish winter wear.

Winter wonders

There is one caveat to the temperature that makes the cold frighteningly chilling and that is the motorbike culture. If you stick to buses, taxis, and foot travel then the winter won’t present anything unexpected from the drop in temperature, but when you climb on your Honda and start weaving through traffic at 45 km/h you’ve got a whole different beast coming your way. Prepare for this by getting yourself a great, outer layer to break the wind ... which I believe are called “wind breakers”.

The next big shift in the winter season is the change in food choices. In the western world it can be easy to get spoiled by the constant availability of any food you may happen to wish for. Any fruit I knew in the summer I could find in the winter. There are no seasons when Walmart can’t pull resources from all across America, but in Vietnam you may not see your favorite produce for months. The summer seems to offer more tropical tasting fruit. They’ll be juicier and softer, sometimes almost with a consistency of jelly, like lychee or rambutan. The winter offers fruit that are less sweet but still just as tasty, especially when chopped up in a salad and mixed with yogurt. You can see these fruit on the five-fruit tray during the Tet holiday, including bananas, grapefruit, and oranges.

One of the most fabulous aspects of Vietnamese culinary perfection is the prevalence of savory soups. These bowls of heavenly bliss come piping hot and if eaten in the warmer months get the added condiment of a slow drip of sweat from your forehead. This means that three quarters of the year I miss out on slurping my soup as steam fills my face. When November rolls around, however, I get to once again warm my belly and my soul with all the “pho” and “bun” dishes I can fit in my ever-enlarging gullet. Winter is the time for feeding; I can worry about my beach body when spring gets here.

Aside from the weather and food there are a few other things winter offers that makes it a fun season. This is a great time of year for travel around the country. As long as you keep those warm clothes handy you can see the mountainous regions of the north. From April to October there is a big fear of mountain downpours causing landslides. These landslides can be devastating to the rural communities who build their homes on the sides of hills and even subsist off rice grown from terraces that step up the steep cliffs. By the time the rain stops and the temperature drops, the roads will be repaired and there is no worry about snow melting high up in the Tibetan Plateau, where many of the country’s rivers have their source, until the end of March.

The last thing about winter that always catches me off guard is something that I imagine no one could ever experience in the west and it’s a bit embarrassing. In Vietnam beside every toilet is a convenient water spray gun. Much of the plumbing isn’t equipped to handle the impact of toilet paper so this “bum gun” is used to clean up while taking a load off the sewers. In the winter when this burst of water hits you, however, it has come straight from pipes that have been sitting outside in the cool air, so it’s the equivalent of putting a refreshing piece of mint gum in your mouth, only the experience is in the other end. Who needs a morning coffee when you get one of those every day?

This winter is my third in Vietnam and I’m happy to know it’s here again. The summers are always trying, but I made it out fine and my feet are finally dry so I’m ready to step into winter. I can’t wait to dress in my warmest clothes. I’m so excited to get on my motorbike and drive somewhere beautiful. I highly anticipate heating myself up with a traditional meal. And hopefully I won’t have to freeze my buns off too many times.

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