Letters from Vietnam: Hanoi, or Venice?

Downtown Hanoi – on a Bad Day
Photos: Craig Mackintosh

I wasn’t supposed to be writing about this. Actually, I’m not even supposed to be here.

This visit to Hanoi was meant to be just an overnight stopover – passing through from the far north, after my trip to visit the Hmong people (watch out for a post on that). This morning we headed off from the hotel, aiming to get back to my base further south, in the Ha Tinh province of central Vietnam – but, despite noble attempts, we failed to leave the city.

It seems that the forces of modern consumerism have conspired against us. For today at least, we’re trapped.

One of the consequences of climate change is weather extremes – dry places becoming drier, and wet places getting even wetter. In this region, in the north of Vietnam, the wet season ends at the end of September. At least, this used to be the case. Today is November 1 – and it’s been raining pretty much since I arrived in early October.

Locals who have lived in Hanoi for more than fifty years say they have never seen it as bad as this. I’ve seen my share of flooding around the world, and I don’t think I’ve experienced such a deluge either. The city has pretty much ground to a halt. A huge number of shops and homes are full of water, the roads are in complete disarray. Even the developers of Vietnam’s largest supermarket will be seriously rethinking its positioning – as we drove by it looked like it had a good foot or two of water on the floor.

People were even fishing in the streets:

Fishing in the streets

Banana trees are up to their eyeballs in it…

About to be hit by the ‘Hanoi Tsunami’

The ‘Hanoi Tsunami’ strikes again…

Another night of rain and I suspect the internet cafe I’m typing this in will have the next-door lake as a guest as well. There is only two metres (in distance – not height) between the threshold and the waterline now – and the rain has begun again. Behind me, the staff are watching adverts of beautiful Vietnamese people, with sparkling white teeth and glistening black hair, brandishing the latest consumer equipment. First is a hairbrush that seems to have broken into whole new hair-care territory – and then we jump to the alluring spectacle of a shiny new, tiny Kia car, with two ecstatically happy parents taking their little tike to some undisclosed, but surely amazing destination.

Like many cities in developing countries, Hanoi is growing. New roads and buildings are taking over the landscape, and everywhere we seal over the soil and flora, the land is less able to absorb the consequences of our folly.

Driving around, trying to find an exit out of the city, the realities of survival hit us. We stocked up on food, water, and fuel – and considered how cities can become vulnerable so quickly. Serviced from the countryside, when the outside can’t get access, a city can quickly become a very ugly place to be. Amongst other things, besides soil, what else do you think it is that’s making that water dirty?

Trash pollutes the streets in this flood – and sewerage likely does too

Back at our base in central Vietnam – the rain may come down in ropes, rather than drops, but we have food to harvest, and a terrain that’s been designed according to permaculture principles. I’m looking forward to getting back there. Somehow….

Waiting for the bus, that won’t come…



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