Tag Archives: street life

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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Step by step

Hanoi footpath

Walking in Hanoi is rarely a stroll in the park. Footpaths are uneven and crowded with shops’ wares, food stalls surrounded by patrons sitting on small plastic stools, residents who treat the pavement as an extension of their cramped homes, tradesmen who treat it as extensions of their workshops, and of course rows of parked bikes. Pedestrians alternate between patches of clear footpath and the road, where they stick as close to the kerb as possible in order to avoid the traffic.

I have found one spot in Hanoi where the footpaths are clear. It’s on the perimeter of the Citadel, the military area north east of the city centre. The streets of the Citadel itself are closed to the public and the streets along its borders are open, but clear of parked bikes and street stalls. Around here I can manage a 15 or 20 minute walk without once needing to look down at my feet to check for obstacles. Bliss.

Most other walkers I see in Hanoi are foreigners like me trying to cling to their western habit of a daily constitutional, come what may. Either that or they are local people who must walk in order to make a living, such as fruit sellers and the women who go door to door buying household rubbish to resell to recycling businesses. It seems that most Vietnamese people who have a choice stick to motorbikes for even short trips.
 
 However some Vietnamese people do walk for exercise, even though the locations where they can do so easily are relatively few. Walkers step out in the early morning around the city’s many lakes, or stop on the lake shore for stationary exercises. There are also the parks, although these seem to be more popular with badminton players, who set up nets all over the place in the hour or so after the working day has ended. 
 
 I also saw, early one evening, people using the lawn in front of the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum for exercise. This area is called Ba Dinh Square, and it’s where, in 1945, Ho Chi Minh delivered the speech in which he declared the independence of Vietnam. 

The lawn is beautifully maintained by a team of gardeners in conical straw hats and signs in English and Vietnamese warn passers-by not to walk on it. However it is criss-crossed by a grid of footpaths, along which strode dozens of serious walkers charging up and down, like swimmers doing laps.

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