Mercury rising

So, here’s the thing.  Talk of the town of late has been about the weather.  There is no escaping it, Saigon has well and truly planted it’s size tens into the hot season, and us ex-pats love to discuss the weather.

In a year’s worth of rambling on this blog I have probably not given enough airtime to the subject of temperatures out here, aside from a rather revealing post about running in the heat.  Nor am I necessarily going to labour any points right now.

However, preparing as we are for a visit back to England soon, in time for what is described as being “the UK’s coldest May on record” I did think it timely to catch on Radio 4 yesterday morning the following weather announcement that, “across parts of the UK the rain will ‘clear’ this afternoon…to become heavy showers” – which I guess just means it is going to continue raining, but there will be more of it.

On the surface, not optimal conditions to return to (although, as I type this, monsoon style weather is descending on Saigon this evening) however, I would be lying if I said that, whilst we are back on soggy British soil next month, both Lou and I aren’t in fact going to relish the experience of being able to get up from a chair and not leave our own personal puddles of shame behind us on the seat!

Nor will we miss the experience of being sat or stood outside for less than three minutes, pulse rate at an even 60 bpm, only to then witness the rather horrific sight of our clothing being clad in sweat and stuck to, well, unfortunate areas of the body – for those interested, a practical technique Vietnamese men use in such situations, is to roll up their tops and walk around, belly out, in order to cool down…strangely enough, I’ve so far only ever opted out of deploying this as a strategy, but, never say never…

As much as I love taking my daughter to school in the mornings, I won’t miss the often excruciating act of trying to exit our apartment with her in tow.  I’ll typically find myself stationed by the front door (where the air-conditioning doesn’t quite reach) as last minute items get stowed away in the school-bag, and I wait for Florence – who resolutely refuses assistance in such matters – to buckle her sandals (which takes about two minutes per foot) fending off as I do the marauding Martha, whose latest trick is to use me as a human climbing frame.

As well manicured as I might have been, stepping out from the bedroom just moments before, you can bet your life I will still manage to morph into an overheated shambles by the time I actually leave our building.  The consolation being that I tend to bump into other similarly displaced Dads in the elevator, and we get to exchange nods in empathy of each other’s furrowed brows and crimson faces (although, if truth be told, at this stage I am usually in an ascending elevator, doubling back having realised I’ve left my wallet/keys/phone behind.)

The lack of seasons here in Saigon can be monotonous.  There are no doubt more detailed analyses you could find on this should you wish.  Essentially, though, these are the basic facts with which to arm yourself: Saigon is always hot (think “oven”); sometimes it rains a lot as well (think “steam room”); and then other times, basically December and January, it is slightly less hot and humid (think “still 30 degrees, and you’d be well chuffed with this if you were headed to the beach on the French coast in August”).

That said, regular blue skies, loafing about in shorts at weekends, and getting out of the shower and not being made to shiver on cold bathroom tiles, is not, let’s face it, the hardest hand to be dealt.  Furthermore, living in air-conditioned apartments, working in air-conditioned offices, going to air-conditioned restaurants, we don’t have too much about which to grumble when it comes to temperature over here.

When taking in the daily scenes around us, it also becomes abundantly clear that the vast majority of local Vietnamese live without the luxury of air conditioning, and for many hundreds of thousands here in Saigon, people are simply working around the clock, seven days a week, to support their livelihoods.  Hairdressing salons stay open until midnight, taxi drivers sleep in their cabs overnight in case of picking up a fare.

This is a photo of a local food outlet by the CARE office, which sells grilled bananas, wrapped in sticky rice and bamboo leaves, and eaten with coconut milk.  They are divine to eat.

Local street vendors cooking in 40 degree heat

This enterprising stall is hugely popular and, aside from during Tet when the whole country grinds to a halt, I have never known it to close.  I stood next to the grill for twenty seconds to take the photo and it was like a furnace.  For the record, the vendor on the right in the white hat happens to also be eight months pregnant.

Anyway.  My point would be that there is little basis for too much whinging about the weather in Saigon.  And besides, it could be worse.  Even during the days when the heat in Saigon gets so bad you actually have to stick your head in the freezer (I have done this) at least, readers, we are not living in Hanoi.

If pushed, most people here will concede that because Hanoi has more obvious divisions between its seasons, there are some “nice” weeks to be had up there, in between summer and winter, when there is a good balance of warmth and breeze.  But, on the whole (and not that I want to kick start an argument with our friends up north) when asked more casually, any Saigon resident will confirm categorically that the weather in Hanoi is either “awful” or “terrible”.

Which is mainly linked to what people like to refer to as Hanoi’s “extremes”.

For example, it officially gets “very cold” in Hanoi.  There isn’t any such comparable time of year in Saigon – not even one lone day.  Even during Christmas and New Year here we needed suncream and hats.  Very cold, by Hanoi standards, is still not very cold as the Brits know it, either.  Lowest temperatures during a Hanoi winter might, for example, at worst, be into the single digits.

It turns out, though, that anything below about 25 degrees is sufficient enough to plummet the average Vietnamese body temperature into a near death-like state.

Colleagues of mine will often arrive back from a trip to our Hanoi office declaring “Hanoi is so cold these days, I couldn’t cope” and they will then remain wrapped up in sweaters and hats for days after, coaxing their bodies back from the brink.

We went to Hanoi in November and it was glorious.  I have also been in June, and it was not.  The summer extremes pushing thermometres up and over the 40 degrees mark.  Outdoors, it is hard to achieve much in such conditions, but of course life does go on and adjustments are made.

At a networking event last night I heard from one local businessman that footfall in his chain of shops (in Saigon and Hanoi) drops significantly during summer months.  The heat, and the monsoon rains, conspiring to keep customers away.

As with many industries here – tourism, for one – it is also during these months, the harvest season, that many people head back out to the countryside to earn valuable income, returing to the cities in time for (ever so slightly) balmier days, and renewed numbers of shoppers and tourists.

Whatever your trade, whatever your situation, sunshine and humidity are very much part and parcel of life in Saigon.  In many ways, the hustle and bustle of the place is fuelled by the temperature, despite some of the underlying effects and predicaments it creates for the people living here.

We will well appreciate lower mercury levels and a lack of perspiration during our travels up and down the UK next month, although, if I were a betting man, I’d wager we may just miss those rays more than we might care to think.

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