HANOI – Summer here this year was an overnight sensation. It arrived early – in May, springtime. After months of dreary, mostly cool weather, the sun just showed up one day and made the sky blue, the light bright and air hot and damp.
And, to my surprise, the Vietnam summer is starting to grow on me.
Well, let me qualify that. Truth is, I started writing these words in the air-conditioned comfort of a hotel lobby, or else I might be running the AC at home and thus running up the electric bill. Weather.com just told me that it was 39 degrees Celsius – or 102 Fahrenheit – outside. Not only that, but it “feels like 117” because of the humidity. Some days it’s gotten up to 42 – a brutal, convection-oven heat coming down from the sun and up off the asphalt. If I park my motorbike in the sun, I’ll soon feel the heat on my butt. So why not hang out in the lobby of a big hotel where the AC would be running anyway?
So it’s not that I actually enjoy sweltering in the spring, but rather I’m learning to deal with it, how to stop complaining and seek the upside of the tropical effects. Truth is I tend to be one of those people who prefer conditions cool and dry, with a nice breeze dropping the leaves from the trees. Fall is my favorite season. Back home in the U.S., we sometimes refer to autumn as “football weather” – meaning American football, because that’s when the playing season starts. Of this much I am certain: American football would never plan to stage its Super Bowl in the blistering summer heat of Qatar. What were the planners of the 2022 World Cup thinking?
But back to Hanoi. Why aren’t I feeling the summertime blues? For starters, the long drab semi-wintry weather was getting kind of old. The bright clarity has been a visual treat, the colors coming alive, and the details so much sharper. I can step outside and see how the weather has brought more people out to Tay Ho – West Lake – to try windsurfing and paddle surfing in the sun-dappled water. Not far from our rented home, an artist set up his easel near one of the lotus ponds to capture the beauty of certain shade tree that rises near the entrance of a café and reaches over the waters.
The lotus leaves, like vivid green by elephant ears, seemed to sprout the same day the hot sunlight arrives. On gray days, I barely noticed their progress. And then… pow!
Sometimes, yes, it’s just too darn hot, the air still and steamy, and so people avoid the outdoors. While hardy bicyclists and still joggers labor in the heat, I motor by with a shirt partly unbuttoned, my personal fan. Later the summery light carries a vibrant charm as the sun arcs toward the horizon and makes a fiery exit. And here and there is the distinctive sound track: the buzzing, clattering din of the cicadas.
And the Hanoi nights, easing from too hot to sultry, become inviting, even festive. Hanoians come out and revel in the dark warmth. Along the paved banks of Tay Ho out come the woven mats and colorful lanterns. Families, friends and lovers come out to escape the enclosed heat of their homes and find comfort in the night of this seasonal urban oasis.
Thousands are out strolling around Hoan Kiem or other lakes, or gathering at places like Lenin Square, where the footballers, badminton players and skateboarders find themselves crowded by toddlers driving little electric cars brought by entrepreneurs. These are among the charms of Hanoi that tourists rarely experience. The other night, I encountered another: a group of Hanoi boys who turned a new, well-paved but lightly traveled street into an asphalt soccer pitch, using flip-flops for goals. Driving through I felt a bit guilty interrupting the game, but also grateful to witness their fun.
But, of course, the weather here can be volatile and dramatic – and that’s been growing on me as well.
On one recent steamy afternoon, I stepped outside with plans for a 20-minute motorbike ride to pick up my daughter at her friend’s house. But now, in one direction, the sky had become a dark, forbidding gray. So much for the motorbike. The taxi was a good call; forgetting the umbrella was not. We were drenched en route from the curb to our front door.
Then came the lightning and thunder that lasted deep into the night. The next morning broke cool and pleasant, with a gentle breeze that drifted a couple of hours.
And then, suddenly, it was summer again – and hot, hot, hot.