Thursday, September 17, 2009

Autumnal Changes

Here in Hanoi, the first rush of autumn has hit the air. Evenings are cool enough to sleep under a sheet, and the first step out the door no longer feels like a dunk in a warm oily pool. The summer rains are still among us, but now the air is gentle and cool, and every day the chance of a typhoon lessens. In two or three months, we will be wearing jackets at night, and the days will never go above 20° C. (68° F.). The sticky summer can safely be said to be behind us.

For me, Vietnam's seasonal changes are an abstraction, something I read about before packing my bags. I have yet to experience these seasons first-hand, and so am looking forward to my first turn around the calendric wheel. For Hanoians, of course, the seasons are as familiar as a lover's breath. I'm enjoying watching my Vietnamese friends begin to buzz about the months to come. There's a palpable euphoria in the air, a sense of anticipation and appreciation of the reward they are about to receive for having endured yet another summer.

I arrived at the start of the hot season, and four months later, as the air cools, my mind is gradually coming to terms with the fact that everything I've been doing - learning the language, changing work roles, and developing intimacies - is laying the groundwork for a VERY extended stay. When discussing plans, the phrase, "a year or two" slips easily off the tongue, but summer's transition into autumn drives home the passage of time, and the prospect of more Vietnamese seasons to come. This is a period of psychological adjustment.

It is striking how daily routines that seemed so foreign only a few month ago - eating soup for breakfast, walking through a swarm of motorbikes - are now as normal as bringing in the morning mail. I barely notice the conical-hatted women anymore, carrying wooden yokes with fruit-laden baskets on either end. I walk right through markets selling pig's feet, river crabs, and rivers of white noodles, showing as little interest in my surroundings as a New York City commuter reading the Times on the morning train. The exotic has become familiar, and I know from experience how foreign everything I once called familiar will appear, when I see it again.

Expat living begets meditations on many things, among them, the idea of home. The transition to Vietnam has been as smooth as any transition I've ever made. Neighborhood, community, friendship, it's all here, and I feel Hanoi stands to give me as much as I want to give to Hanoi. But it takes several turns of the seasons for a place to become a home. This is not a complaint, merely an observation. I like it here - I like the people, the food, the sense of history - and at the personal level I'm content. What more does a person need?

In North Vietnam, the prevailing winds in autumn blow from north to south, following the curve of the mountains that form the eastern tip of the Himalayas. These winds are cooled in the heights of the Tibetan Plateau, before they rush through Kunming and southern Yunnan down into the Red River Delta. In October and November, the days are cool and dry; in December, the sky dons a gray cloak and a persistent drizzle, which the locals call "rain dust," appears. From March to May the heat begins to oppress, and than again come the summer rains. These are the cycles of Hanoi's seasons, which I have learned through study. Some people hold this knowledge in their bones.


  1. I too have grappled with that idea of home, and what it becomes when you go and you live so far from where you began. Is it really something that is inside you, the sense of home, does it feel like that? I have often thought that must be it, but I have never been able to catch hold of that feeling in myself.

    I envy you a little, and one or two other ex-pats I have known, you are so free.

    Although I am working on getting the dual citizenship that it seems like I may be entitled to, I sense I am staying put.

    So I live a bit vicariously through you and another friend. I always enjoy reading your blog, Hal. You take me to places, in my mind (especially that place written of in your last entry, which I cannot spell at the moment!) that I might never go to, or maybe I will be inspired to try to get there. Thank you for that. And don't ever stop writing.

    Good wishes to you...


  2. "Ubi bene, ibi patria"... Latin for "where you feel well (at ease), that is home."

  3. It took me over seven years to be "at place" and be at home. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. This post reads more like a love letter. So sweet!

    Thanks for sharing.