By mid-November, as my home town of Melbourne headed into a long-awaited summer, here in Hanoi it was the turning point for more temperate weather. It was getting cool enough to sleep without the air conditioner or the fan running, and covered by a sheet.
It was a long, hot and sticky summer, but now in the north of Vietnam the short, cold and misty winter has started.
It’s welcome, after several months when the temperature rarely dropped below the high 20s and humidity hovered between 80 and 90 per cent. Now most nights a quilt is necessary, and it’s time to shop for Christmas presents and wrapping paper.
In Hanoi similar businesses cluster together along the same streets. There are TV streets, toy streets, musical instrument streets, plumbing supplies streets and coffee bean streets.
The commercial heart of Hanoi, in English the Old Quarter, is called the 36 Streets by Vietnamese, and each street is named after what was originally sold there. One street, Hang Chieu, is Mat Street, but these days the shops that line it sell decorations and other items for different festivals throughout the year. Right now it could be called Christmas Decoration Street.
At this time of year, Christmas wrapping paper, red and white Father Christmas costumes, silver and golden bells, plastic fir trees, glittery snowflakes, red and green paper lanterns and tinsel galore all spill out from the narrow open shop fronts and onto Hang Chieu.
No religious imagery though. Christmas in Hanoi is largely a secular celebration (although in total about 10 per cent of Vietnamese are Christians). For westerners a particularly incongruous sight in Hanoi last year was the huge Christmas tree outside Vincom Towers, one of the handful of shopping malls that have sprung up in Hanoi the past few years (but hopefully that will never replace the traditional shopping streets). This tree was constructed entirely of green Heineken beer bottles.
For my Christmas shopping I will avoid those of the 36 Streets that these days should be renamed Souvenir Streets, filled as they are with cheap lacquer bowls, T-shirts and chopstick sets.
Instead I will head for businesses that put Vietnam’s cultural heritage and handicrafts on display.
The 54 Traditions Gallery at 30 Hang Bun Street, just north of the Old Quarter, sells art, textiles, antiques and everyday artefacts created and used by Vietnam’s 53 minority people, as well as the majority Kinh people (www.54traditions.com.vn).
Craft Link, at 43 Van Mieu Street, is a fair-trade charity that is creating new markets for traditional artisans, selling beautiful crafts produced in villages across Vietnam.
Vietnam Quilts, at 13 Hang Bac Street, is also a fair-trade charity, selling hand-quilted bedspreads and other products made by women in remote villages in Cambodia and in Vietnam (www.vietnam-quilts.org).
Then it’s off to Hang Chieu to buy wrapping paper and ribbon.
By the next time I visit Hang Chieu Street the Christmas trimmings will have been replaced by the sparkling gold and red decorations for Tet, the big new year festival in February. Then it will be time to celebrate the Year of the Cat.