Thursday, June 11, 2009

Respite from the Heat

Hanoi's been suffering a heat wave - actually normal for this time of year - that has pushed temperatures close to 100° F. In this kind of weather, the first step out the door feels like a sudden dunk into a warm gelatinous pool. This is the kind of heat you wear; after five minutes the lightest clothing is a sweat-soaked rug. So tonight, as soon as the clouds move in and the rains crack open the evening sky, I do what countless other Hanoians without air conditioning do, and step outside to take my first easy breath in days.

The angle of the wind permits me shelter on my balcony, so I sit down to enjoy the rain-whipped breeze. Low-hanging clouds veil the unfinished Vincom Towers, their scaffolding giving them the appearance of matchsticks piled twenty stories high. In the sky hangs a diffused three-quarters moon, its feathered edges blending into the fog. All around, the dark and angled roofs of the houses paint a portrait of a city in silhouette.

The patter of raindrops provides a soft counterpoint to the distant and nearby sounds of the town. Voices dully murmur from a nearby TV, a child calls out, a rusty gate creaks open. There's the rumble of a scooter, its tires slushing through puddles, echoing up the alley walls. Noises in this city don't have a white-noise roar; every radio, engine, and horn makes a distinct sound. Hanoi is a comedic clash of tambourines, glockenspiels, and kazoos, rather than an orchestra playing in concert. Tonight this clash is muted, dampened by the rain.

If Hong Kong erupts and Bangkok oozes, Hanoi just sort of squirts. Life squeezes out between narrow gaps: fruit vendors between motorbikes, bicycles between vendors, pedestrians between bicycles. There's a constant jockeying for position, and somehow, always just enough room to get by. Even from the vantage point of the fifth-story balcony of an appropriately-narrow tube house, there's the sense of small-city life shoving itself through crannies and cracks. I could probably jump across the alley from my balcony to the nearest roof; I wouldn't even need a running start. Hanoi is life writ small.

The hot weather feels like another constraining force, pushing Hanoi's inhabitants together. As a new Hanoian, I get to partake in the sense of belonging that comes from the city's shared hardship. This evening, at a sandwich stand, I heard an old woman complaining of the heat to anyone who would hear her. Noticing that I understood her, the old woman offered me the same cavil, "Nóng quá!" as she fanned herself with her hand. Yes, Grandmother, I replied, it's very hot - and the woman and I both smiled. I wonder if this woman ever imagined, during the Christmas bombings of 1972, that 30-some-odd-years later, she and an American would be commiserating over heat while he waited for his sandwich, and they both waited for rain. 

Back on my balcony, the rain stops, the wind dies down, and instantly the heat returns. I've been in Asia five weeks now, and this sticky night, with its brief respite from the hot weather, is my one-month anniversary in Hanoi.

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