Floating on the streets
Summer rain seems to be something wonderful and highly expected by the tropical residents in hot days. However, in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the rain season often brings flood and turns life up-side-down, haunting people with the dreaded images of stuck vehicles and street fishermen.
Indeed, rowing boat and catching fish are usually the scenes one expects to find on nearby Red river, not the streets of old time Hanoi. Yet such unimaginable happens more often than one may think. The stuff that seemingly comes out of a disoriented dream turns out to be a common sight in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City every rainy season.
It would be nothing to rave about if the cities are ripped by some big super storms once in a while, but indeed the simple daily tide or just 30-minute of pouring rain will do the trick. What is going on really makes local people worried about their daily lives, which get totally messed up whenever rain and especially hurricanes come.
Ho Chi Minh City, the economic powerhouse and the most modern and dynamic city of Vietnam, seems powerless in the face of the daily tide which simply turns many streets into vast ponds. There are about 100 spots in the city that get flooded easily and frequently when it rains and many others are severely affected by high tide. Heavy rains make the situation in areas which have already been affected by tide far worse. Some areas like Thanh Da (Binh Thanh district) or Ba Bo (Thu Duc district) can go a meter down under and the water only recedes couple days later. Transportation and trading in many areas are effectively frozen, many houses flooded, furniture broken down, and people are locked up in their own house.
A familiar scene also played out in Hanoi. The historic week-long heavy rain in November of 2008 became an unforgettable memory for each and everyone living in the capital at that time. Most of the streets were deep under, and some major ones like Nguyen Trai, Thai Ha and Thai Thinh basically morphed into some big rivers (see Hanoi street map). The daily life of city's residents was turned upside down when they could not go to work, contact to the outside world was cut off and there was no electricity nor enough food. To top off the horror, unprocessed waste from the city sewage system overflowed and brought a handful of diseases. Some locals were injured and many died from electric shock or falling into unseen open drainage holes on streets. Recently, just at the end of July 2011, a downpour lasting for a mere 30 minutes in the urban area also managed to flood many streets in the city. The pouring rain sharply reminded Hanoians about the historic flood of 2008, which itself was unprecedented, and seemed to warn locals of the upcoming rain season.
However, with the typical Vietnamese optimism, residents in flooded area confront the floods in their unique ways. Many Hanoians, especially youngsters were rather happy to join in once-in-a-lifetime activities like rowing boat or catching fish on "street rivers". Romance-loving couples stood in the heavy rain with a tiny umbrella to contemplate the never-before-seen image of the Sword Lake overflowing. New services, like selling food and fresh vegetable to the door of stranded homes on boat or cleaning up after sprouted and brought a round sum for many poor laborers.
Ironically, the historic flood of 2008 became an inspiration for the parody song titled “Lut tu nga tu duong pho” (Flooded allover), which was performed in the 2009 "Year End Gathering" show, a popular and beloved once-every-year in Vietnam. The song instantly gained much popularity thanks to its humorous and sarcastic lyrics combined with the happy melody of the original song. The number of views of “Lut tu nga tu duong pho” on YouTube rose to nearly half a million, and Vietnamese children learnt by heart the song, only to sing it joyfully with every flood. Sarcasm proved the humorous and optimistic spirit of Vietnamese well in the face of hardship.
After the historic flood, Hanoians seem to pay more attention to weather forecast, and develop a habit of storing food before each storm or projected rain. However, the locals are sometimes overcautious and create hassle for themselves. Right after the news breaks of any upcoming storm or major rain, fresh vegetable and meat are quickly sold out in wet markets the very next morning. Due to the huge demand for storage, prices of these fresh goods often rise 30% on average, in worse cases even double. Despite absurdly high prices, shoppers still try to get up early and race to buy some rather large amount of food. In supermarkets, stalls of instant noodle and frozen canned foods quickly empty only after a few hours. It should be noted that not all rain can cripple the city and sometimes the people themselves cause the rush of food, not the flood. But to some extent, the floods bring new experiences for urban residents and make them somehow more sympathetic with poor people in the central of Vietnam who have to cope every year.
Tourists who are fortunate enough to be in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh during times like this get to taste a bitter yet unique flavor of the city's life. One can either make a nightmare of it, or try to have the most fun out of the experience. Latter is more recommended!
Travelers should watch the local weather forecast program frequently to prepare raincoat, change the route, transportation means or even change schedule and for the ones stuck in the city, to store needed amount of food. Avoid the flooded areas at all cost, due to the risk of sinkholes and electric shock, but if one happens to somehow be immersing in water on a street river, ask the local families for shelter. It is also very difficult to catch a taxi or bus at that time, because no vehicle will stop in the middle of the “river” to pick up or drop off a guest and risk getting itself stuck too. If you are riding a motorbike on a flooded street, just keep riding and do not stop, or water may get sucked in the exhaust pipe and stop the engine. And pedestrians do not blame drivers for splashing them with sewage water or not picking up. It happens in times like this!
The normal practice is that during the long-lasting heavy rain and storms, the electricity will be cut off, and people will paddle on the streets. Tourists are more than welcomed to join the friendly locals for a tour of boat sight-seeing or help catching fish. At the very least, one can always take some nice photos to keep of the memorable trip. That can prove fun to play like a child all over again!
With climate change, and rising sea level are global issues, millions-dollar projects to upgrade the drainage system are still only on paper, while guidance and policy of officials seem passive and ineffective, local people in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city still have to try their best with the usual optimism to face with the next rain seasons. As the rain does not stop locals from loving life as it is, a foreigner may learn the best lesson of the culture too.