Vietnamese abroad boil as heat wave cooks Southeast Asia

By Linh Le, Hoang Nguyen   May 4, 2023 | 03:00 pm PT
Long’s shirt has soaked through with sweat after standing outside for a just a few minutes waiting for his motorcycle taxi driver in Bangkok.

Long said it had been a very long time since he’d experienced that kind of heat.

The sun is already high in the sky when the 27-year-old account specialist at a Bangkok media agency leaves for work at around 7:30 a.m. every morning.

Walking from his house to the SkyTrain station about 300 meters away feels like torture. There’s no shade from trees, only the concrete jungle of downtown Bangkok making things worse by absorbing the heat and blasting it back at pedestrians.

To minimize his exposure to the heat and the sunlight, Long goes to work early in the morning and only leaves his office after the sun sets.

But it’s impossible to completely avoid the heat that’s swept over Thailand and neighboring countries.

"Every time the SkyTrain stops at platforms and opens its doors for people to get on and off, I feel like I’m standing between the worlds of the hot and the cold weather," Long said.

He’s been spending a lot more money on sunscreen in Thailand than he used to in Vietnam, and he said dust levels in Bangkok have worsened since the heat wave began attacking the city.

"My coworkers and acquaintances say they’ve encountered breathing problems caused by the dust [since the start of the heat wave]," he said.

Long is one of many Vietnamese abroad facing the severe Southeast Asian heat wave in the countries.

According to CNN, temperatures in Thailand reached over 45 degrees Celsius for the first time in history around 10 days ago. The northwest Thai city of Tak recorded a temperature of 45.4 degrees Celsius, while other regions in the country have been in the upper 30s to low 40s since last month.

These days when Tien, 29, who works for a media company in Bangkok, goes to work early in the morning, he already feels tired due to the sweltering heat in the Thai capital city.

Tien said the hot weather begin in late March and there have been several days in which the temperature reached 40 degrees Celsius. The scorching weather usually lasts from early morning until 4-5 p.m.

"During lunch break, me and my colleagues often order food to the office instead of going out for lunch because it’s too hot outside," Tien said. "I’m hesitant to be on the street in this sizzling weather."

Other countries, including Malaysia and Indonesia, have been hit by unusually high temperatures as well.

Mai, 27, an office worker in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, came across a news report warning about an upcoming heat wave while watching local TV earlier this month.

Since then, the weather has become hotter. The whole of Malaysia is now experiencing hotter weather, with certain regions reaching between 35 and 37 degrees Celsius for at least three days in a row.

"I saw people coming to the local clinic due to heat exhaustion," Mai said. "A couple of days ago, I almost had a similar experience. After spending two hours outside my house, of which one was even shopping indoors, I felt dehydrated and experienced symptoms of heat exhaustion."

She said the fact that she has to constantly move between the hot air outdoors and the cold air-conditioned temperatures indoors may be a reason why she’s been frequently catching colds since moving to Kuala Lumpur a year ago.

She observed that Malaysians tackled this risk by only going out after the sun completely sets, or when it rains. "I didn't have to do so when I was in Vietnam," she said.

Earlier this week, a 19-month-old child was believed to have died from heatstroke in Kota Baru, Kelantan, northern Malaysia. Ahmad Faris Fazli Mohd Nasir, the child’s father, said his daughter Nur Imani began coughing a week ago and had been vomiting, The Strait Times reported.

People sit in the shade as temperatures hit a record 45.4 degrees Celsius (113.7 Fahrenheit) in Bangkok, Thailand, April 21, 2023. Photo by REUTERS/Chalinee Thirasupa

People sit in the shade as temperatures hit a record 45.4 degrees Celsius (113.7 Fahrenheit) in Bangkok, Thailand, April 21, 2023. Photo by Reuters/Chalinee Thirasupa

Tien said Thai authorities warned residents across large swathes of the country, including Bangkok, to avoid going outdoors due to extreme heat.

"At the moment, the temperature in Bangkok stays around 37-38 degrees Celsius, sometimes it can go up to 40 degrees Celsius," he added.

He’s currently working hybrid, only going to the office a few times a week and working from home the rest of the time. But the more he stays at home, the higher his electric bill gets.

"In this weather, I can’t survive at home without turning on air conditioning," Tien said.

Le, a 27-year-old office worker in Jakarta, Indonesia, had also noticed her colleagues and friends discussing a potential heat wave, which they said might cause the temperatures in the country to rise to between 32 and 36 degrees Celsius, an unusually high average.

Although these figures were not as high as in other Southeast Asian countries, Indonesians are more concerned about the effect of the ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun.

Le said The Meteorology, Climatology and Geophysics Agency (BMKG) of Indonesia has predicted that the UV index of sunlight in most areas in Indonesia is currently in the high and extremely dangerous category.

"Local authorities warned citizens to put on sunscreen before going out," she told VnExpress. "I was actually reluctant to wear sunscreen when I was in Vietnam. However, since experiencing the high temperatures here, I started to take up the habit."

However, the rainy season is about to begin in Thailand, which has given people hope that the heat wave will soon come to an end, reported The Guardian.

In the meantime, people have been adapting to endure the heat while waiting for the cooler weather.

"I think after familiarizing myself with things at work and getting used to neighborhoods in Bangkok, I’ll buy a motorbike," said Long. "I hope the hot weather will be more bearable getting around with a private vehicle."

Le also wants to change her means of transport.

She’s planning to travel by cars instead of motorbikes if the heat continues, and she’ll always be carrying her portable UV-protection kit which consists of a hat, sunscreen, a long-sleeved shirt, and a bottle of water.

Tien is also adjusting his daily routine to deal with the heat. "I will do what work I can finish at home in the morning. For other things that needs to be done outdoors, I’ll do them in the late afternoon or evening, when the sun has already set," he said.

"The rainy season is coming so I hope it helps a bit with cooling down the heat. Nonetheless, the weather is normally often hot in Bangkok anyway, so I think I’ll get used to this heat wave one way or another."

Since moving to Kuala Lumpur from Hanoi, Vietnam one year ago, Mai has established a new habit of bringing an umbrella, a bottle of water, and sunscreen with her every time she goes out. She hopes this will help protect her throughout the heat wave and the rest of her time in Malaysia.

"[But even after the heat wave ends] It will always be hot in Malaysia anyway," she said.

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