Hanoi has two seasons: winter and summer, and as Hanoians we complain about both of them. We aren’t given the luxury to adjust to the extreme climate. It’s either HOT or COLD. I would say we have a total of two (maybe three) weeks of “autumn” or “spring” and these days are my favorite. The sunshine is out but the temperature is moderate and the humidity level isn’t high. We can walk around in lightweight clothes without feeling like a hairdryer is being blown into our faces.
Winter starts showing its grey, cold, damp, rainy self in November and doesn’t really leave until the end of March, and the whole time we lament over how dismal it is, we yearn for the summer to appear. When it does, we’re grateful (albeit a bit baffled by seeing the world in color again) we rush towards our local pool and excitedly discuss the joys of being in a bathing suit again. We meet on rooftop bars and have picnics because it’s “fun again.” However, this quickly subsides when the blackouts occur, or when we are drenched in sweat after a two minute walk to the supermarket. We begin to speak of this practically nonexistent autumn in wistful tones. We love this city but we hate the weather. So which is worse? Summer or winter? For some it’s obvious, some people detest the heat or the cold, so will obviously opt for the latter, but for others, like me, it’s a toss up of pros and cons…some of which I’ve listed
Tet: Tet is a magical time of year, not just because we get a week off of work. Sure, the traffic is worse than usual and prices rise, but the vibe and energy around Tet is contagious. People are stressed out like they are around every holiday season but there is an excitement, a joy that is palpable. Not to mention the celebrations themselves are something to be experienced.
Great hair/make up days: This is pretty self explanatory. You can style yourself. It’s possible to wear make up in the winter, because it will stay put, unless it’s raining. Also, bad hair days are few and far between. The frizz isn’t as prevalent.
More motivation at work: When it’s dark and gloomy out, the last thing I want to do is be outside…so while getting out of bed (or showering in the freezing cold) IS a challenge, once I’m at work it’s super easy to stay focused. There aren’t as many distractions, I’m not wishing I could leave to go for a stroll outside or lay poolside.
People are around: Aside from the obvious trips during Tet and Christmas time, the expats in Hanoi tend to stick around during the winter. There are more dinner/house parties, and a great chance that your friends will be around when you want to go out. Sure, there may be the occasional weekend away, but not like the summer, when people are leaving (either for good or for vacation)
Arrivals: People seem to arrive in the winter, new people, fun people. While the transience of the city can be, at times, exhausting, the expatriates are part of what makes it the place that we love so much, and when new batches come in, it’s something to look forward to. (Better arriving than leaving)
Weather: When people from other parts of the world look at the temperature they say things like, “It’s not that bad.” But that’s because those people are not here experiencing it. It’s a whole new kind of cold. The kind of cold where you can’t get warm. It’s damp, humid, and most places lack heating and aren’t properly ventilated. It’s more cold inside than out. Furthermore, most of us use a motorbike to drive around which only makes it worse. Sure, we’re not in the freezing degrees, but frankly I prefer a blizzard in NYC over the winter in Hanoi. Also, it’s gray and when it rains, it's a freezing rain.
Laundry: Dryers are not par for the course, and a lot of us have to hang our clothes to dry. In this weather, the clothes take ages to dry and also have a weird, musty smell. Luckily dry cleaning is relatively inexpensive.
1. Get a hot water bottle. Avoid an electric blanket (though that’s a different story entirely)
2. Drink lots of tea
3. Gloves, hats, and scarves
4. House parties
5. Two good coats: one for rain and one for cold
6. Escape to the warmth for a weekend or two
Sunshine: I’m one of those people who likes the bright sun. I can even handle cold weather if the sun is out. I just don’t like gray. In Hanoi, the summer means sunshine (or pouring with rain) but for the most part, the city is shining with sun rays. I think it puts everyone in a better mood.
Outdoor Activities: Rooftop bars, picnics, outdoor concerts, drives around West Lake are all enjoyable and typical activities during the summer in Hanoi. In the day time, it can be rather stifling in the heat, but at night it can be lovely. During the day, many of us relish our time at Thanh Loi pool and evenings at bia hois are standard….and excursions such as boat cruises and swan boats. Also, take some time to enjoy the lotus flowers on Tay Ho. Summer also means: outdoor barbecues, electronic picnic and the CAMA Festival.
Laundry: Unless a rain storm strikes (which is, of course, common) it’s much easier to do laundry. Clothes dry within hours and aren’t plagued with the aforementioned smell. That being said, I still want a dryer.
Vacation: Summer vacation doesn’t end when we graduate, it’s still very much something of the present. Whether it be a weekend away, a motorbike trip, or a few weeks in a different country, summer means travel, and traveling is one of the best parts of living in Southeast Asia.
Juice: Is there anything more delicious than sugarcane or coconut juice? I think not.
Health: In the winter, due to the conditions listed above, someone is always sick…the flu, a terrible cold, and on a personal level it’s when my psoriasis flares up. In the summer, however, aside from heat stroke and dehydration (drink lots of fluids!) the illness level is down.
Ugliness: I’ve spoken of this before but once, again, it is very difficult to be attractive in Hanoi during the summer months. Hair is either caked to your face in a sweaty mess, or a frizzy disaster. Makeup melts off (not an appealing look) and bodies are constantly slick with sweat. It’s not a time to look your best. However, on a positive note, it’s a good time to shed the excess weight that winter inevitably brings.
Lack of motivation: Who wants to be stuck inside an office when it’s beautiful outside? I don’t. I’d much rather be out and about, or by the pool reading a book and sipping on a mojito, but this isn’t possible during business days. In the winter, I often stay past my 5:30 end of day time but in the summer I’m watching the clock…this distracted behavior doesn’t only apply to work life but also social life. It’s hard to leave an air conditioned cocoon when it’s a zillion humid degrees outside and working out? Forget it. Not happening. (But as I said above, we eat less...)
People leave: Summer is bittersweet in that it’s a time for goodbyes. Though people come during all parts of the year, the summer brings the most. People often start graduate school or new jobs in the fall so June and July are filled with going away parties to those we’ve gotten close to.
Blackouts: It is a frequent occurrence during the Hanoi summer for the electricity to be shut off. The power will go out. Maybe it’ll be for a few minutes but it could be for hours My longest blackout was for 18 hours, though I think case is pretty extreme. If it’s the former, it’s manageable, but when it’s for extended periods of time, especially at night or when you’re sleeping, it’s hot, it’s uncomfortable…and if you’re like me who never knows where my keys/phone etc are… it’s inconvenient.
Typhoons and Floods: It’ll be my third summer in Hanoi and both summers before there were cases of severe flooding and at least one typhoon. Being from Florida (hurricane central) I found the typhoons to be a joke but the flooding is not. Luckily, my area is not prone to it, but many people will have to deal with crazy roads, having to abandon their motorbikes or empty out their ground floor of knee high water. Not fun, not to mention the water is filthy!
1. Carry baby wipes. They are refreshing and make you feel less gross
2. Always have a beverage on hand.
3. Sunscreen and mosquito repellant. Wear them.
4. Light clothing both in texture and color. You’ll sweat, and that lovely turquoise or coral outfit isn’t as cute with wet patches all over it.
5. Go outside. Plan fun things with your friends, go for drives.
6. For blackouts: I’d recommend investing in a chargeable fan with a light. They can be found at: Nguyen Kim round the corner from Hoan Kiem. Cost is approx 1m VND (thanks Steve “@ourman” for the tip)
7. Carry a raincoat with you. The skies can-and will-at any given time open up and come crashing down on you. Usually around 5pm.
The truth is, Hanoi is a great city to be in, whatever the season may be. It's not perfect and I'm sure we'll always have a "grass is always greener" mentality when it comes to weather options...it'll always be too much or too little, never just right (except those few glorious weeks I mentioned) but we know despite our complaining, that we love it here.
*Thanks AH, EL, and SJ