Cold snap

January day Lake Hoan Kiem
January day on the shore of Lake Hoan Kiem

Hanoians are chilling out in north Vietnam’s short, but bitterly cold, winter. In January the temperature rarely got above 12 or 13 degrees, and due to the moisture in the air the cold seeped right into the bones.

In the mountains north of Hanoi many thousands of cattle and buffalo died in mid-January as the temperature dropped to record lows.

The traditional peach blossom branches and potted cumquat trees that decorate homes and offices during Tet, the lunar new year celebration, in late January, doubled or tripled in price from last year. Trees just weren’t blossoming in time.

It’s not like a European or North American winter, of course, but most people don’t have heating in their homes, which are built for the heat that prevails for the rest of the year.

There have been reports of deaths due to carbon monoxide poisoning when people took coal braziers inside and close the doors.

In homes, shops and restaurants across Hanoi residents, shop assistants, customers, waiters and diners pile on jackets, coats and scarves to keep warm. On the coldest days hndreds of schools, also unheated, closed their doors .

My office is heated, but not enough to keep my hand warm as I work on the computer. So I went off to a shop known to foreigners as “the Russian shop” in search of fingerless gloves I could wear while typing.

The Russian shop is so called, apparently, because it was the only shop in town selling western-size clothes, imported from Russia, in the days of the US trade embargo (which ended in 1994). Now it sells brand-name leisure jackets and coats made in Vietnam for export to the west.

I could barely shoehorn myself into the small shop, jam-packed with clothing piled high on benches and stuffed on racks, all being picked over by Vietnamese and foreigners who had lost all sense of personal space. The shelves with hats and gloves were near the door, and, as fortune would have it I found a warm pair of woollen fingerless gloves (shopping’s often a lucky dip in Hanoi), and beat my retreat.

Hanoi’s busy footpaths have a Dickensian feel at any time as people eat huddled over small tables sitting on even smaller stools, street sweepers wield their brush brooms, shopkeepers’ wares spill out onto the pavement, and craftsmen practice their trades in the narrow strip between the fronts of homes and shops and the road. Now small fires, fuelled by scavenged scraps of wood, also dot the streetscape.

And out on the crowded roads it seems like every second motorbike is driven by a man with one hand nestled warmly in his pocket.

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