Escaping summer heat is pipe dream for the poor in Hanoi

By Long Nguyen   June 9, 2020 | 11:28 pm PT
Escaping summer heat is pipe dream for the poor in Hanoi
Women cover up while driving on Hanoi's Cau Giay Street on June 9, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Thanh Hue.
As the longest heat wave in decades scorches Hanoi, poorer people are bearing the brunt.

Tran Quang Anh, 19, woke up five times Monday night covered in sweat. The university student and his friends cannot afford an air conditioner in their rented studio in Cau Giay District. Instead, he sleeps on the floor next to a bucket of water.

"That is all I can do to cool the oven-like room down. The heat is exhausting and it makes our life miserable," he says.

Temperatures in Hanoi reached 40 degrees Celsius on Monday, according to the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting. The heat wave is forecast to linger until June 13 and may become the longest to have hit northern Vietnam since 1993.

While many people are equipped to escape the heat, poorer residents of the city are sweaty, depressed and tired.

Life can be harsh for those living in cramped houses with no air conditioners, little ventilation and an unreliable power supply.

"We wear cotton clothes at home and clean the floor all day, hoping it would help us feel better," Nguyen Hoang Hoa, 42, who lives in an alley of Phuc Xa Street, says. "But it is too hot; I cannot sleep at night."

The three members of her family try to leave their cramped house early in the morning and only return after dusk.

"My child cannot sleep, and we sweat all the time, I was thinking about buying an air conditioner, but I was afraid it would hurt my wallet when the electricity bills arrive."

Hoa is a fruit seller at Dong Xuan Market.

Last weekend she sent her seven-year-old son to a friend’s house, which has air conditioners. "We are too poor to get rid of [the heat]."

Many low-income people are sleepless at night with sweat since electricity supply is erratic. Le Thi Tuyet, 45, in Long Bien District, recalls last Wednesday night when the power went out at 2 a.m. and her family had to lie down in the balcony until morning because it was too oppressive indoors.

"But we kept sweating, so I used a hand fan to provide some relief to my children." She buys a huge slab of ice and puts in her apartment every day hoping to lower the temperature inside.

‘My fruit is rotting’

While experts warn against direct exposure to sunlight between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., people like drivers and street vendors have no choice but to venture out to earn a living.

"No one comes out during these hours, so I have no passengers," Nguyen Van Thuan, 39, a motorbike taxi driver in Long Bien District, says.

Starting at 6 a.m., he now extends his working hours to 10 p.m. hoping people would venture out in the evening.

"I do not go home for lunch because it is too hot. I normally find shade under a tree and sleep, covering myself in layers of clothes." He earns around VND200,000 ($8.6) these days, or just half his normal income.

A street vendor under the baking sun in Hanoi on June 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

A street vendor under the baking sun in Hanoi on June 8, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Chinh.

The heat is taking a toll on all kinds of businesses.

Nguyen Thi Yen, 53, a fruit seller on a pavement on Ngo Gia Tu Street, says most of her patrons, who are white-collar workers "sitting in heaven with air conditioners," rarely venture out to buy fruits or snacks these days.

"I sit here and see my fruits rot," in the heat, she laments. She closes her stall during lunch time, which used to be rush hour for her as people would come and buy her fruits after eating lunch.

There are some people who do not even have the luxury of keeping out of the sun like Thuan and Yen do.

Nguyen Hoang Kien, 22, a worker at a construction site on Kim Ma Street, says he and his colleagues have to work under the sun since they have to meet the owners’ deadlines.

"We drink more water and have a two-hour break for lunch instead of one after two people suffered from heatstroke last month." He wears two long-sleeved shirts, a mask and sunglasses as he works on the four-story house, whose owners want to move in by September.

Not staying cool

Nguyen Van Huong, head of the weather forecasting department at the National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, says the heat wave is caused by low pressure from the west and the Foehn wind, a type of dry, warm wind that blows down the leeward side of a mountain range.

Heat waves usually last up to a week in northern Vietnam, and so the current one may be the longest to have hit the region since 1993.

Cities tend to be hotter than rural areas due to factors like population density, pollution from industrial activities and the presence of buildings and machinery that produce heat.

Last year the Global Climate Risk Index published by German environmental think tank Germanwatch ranked Vietnam sixth among countries and territories hit hardest by extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018.

In a report this week scientists at Yale and Columbia universities in the U.S. ranked the country 155th in climate change mitigation.

For a student like Quang Anh, who has come to Hanoi from a province to study, the only options are to linger as long as possible at his university or sit in an air-conditioned coffee shop or mall, which sometimes makes him struggle to focus on his studies.

"But at least those places help me survive the hot summer days, which give me sleepless nights of sweat and exhaustion. Summer is not a dream time for me."

As he describes his summer woes, he wipes the floor of his studio and puts a slab of ice in a bucket in front of a fan.

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