Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Monsoon Morning

Shortly before 5:00 AM, I am awakened by a deafening sound. For a moment, I think that all the rice in Vietnam is rolling down the chute of a grain silo and straight onto my roof. Then I realize the rains are back, and as I lie in bed enveloped by the sound, I can already see in my mind's eye the calf-deep water gathering in the streets, the newspapers and fruit-peels rushing down the alleyways, and the thin plastic bags floating like multicolored lillies in stagnant pools. 

The Asian monsoon is unlike any rain on earth. Not even the Caribbean can compete. Caribbean hurricanes, like Caribbean people, let out all their emotions. They come at you with tremendous fanfare, blustering and yelling and brandishing a switch, and threatening to take you out to the woodshed. Their power is unquestionable, but the build-up is so long, you usually have time to get yourself to high ground or otherwise protect yourself before they hit. And then they spank you, and leave.

The Asian monsoon is just relentless, completely indifferent to human affairs. Nature has a job to do and sets out to do it: powerblasting the earth. You don't get the sense that humankind is being punished; we're all just irrelevant. And the monsoon doesn't just spank you and leave, it stays for months, putting you through the blast, rinse, and spin cycles over and over. You, your street, your whole damn city are all just so much silt to be washed through the delta, and out to sea. 

Life continues through the monsoon, and so, at 7:00 AM I prepare to head off to work. A river outside my front door forces a slight change of attire. I take off my shoes and socks, roll up the hems of my trousers, put on my flip-flops and splash down. The morning market on Van Ho 3 street is going on despite the rain. A couple of people are pushing bicycles laden with cheap plastic goods through the swamp. For some reason, the bok choy looks particularly green and crisp today. Up the alley there's a man shoveling sand in front of a building that's been undergoing repairs for several weeks. The wet sand makes the whole endeavor look like a grander version of a sand-castle being built on the shore, waiting for the tide to wash it away.
What impresses me about Hanoians is their insouciance about the deluge. Wrapped in plastic baggies like yesterday's sandwiches, they go about their daily routines, while the rain goes ahead and blasts the paint off the walls. It's at these times that you see the brilliant simplicity of the nón, the ubiquitous conical hat made of latanier leaves, that is as much a symbol of Vietnam as the red banner with the yellow star. Water gains no toe-hold; it just slides off: a model of perfect engineering, adapted to the environment which begat it.

I squirt out the alley and onto the main drag where motorbikes are cutting deep wakes through the surf. Traffic is moving down Đại Cồ Việt Street. Water slicks my glasses: I watch the whole scene as though through a layer of mottled glass. In contrast to the normal routine, there are only a few intrepid food vendors out on the street, stringing up various combinations of plastic and rope in an effort to protect their stands. I marvel at their ingenuity, and the plain gumption they show.
I'm splashing to work in my flip-flops and watching the morning unfold, when I pass a man in a doorway - gaunt, wearing a white tank-top and sporting a thin fu-manchu beard. He is holding a camera in his hand, as obviously intrigued by the interplay of nature and human activity as am I. We catch each other's eyes and smile. That's the thing about the monsoon: it doesn't seem to put people in a terribly bad mood. I've heard Asians say it's their favorite time of year: the dust is down, the air is cooler. Like so many of life's routines, it is what you make of it.


  1. Hey Hal,

    I just recently started following your blog. I enjoyed your breakdown of the Vietnamese language and really liked your choice of words and imagery regarding the monsoon. Keep it up and look forward to your next post.

    Scott Tung Vu
    San Jose, CA

  2. Thanks, Scott. I appreciate your kind words.

    All the best,