WET, WET, WET: HOI AN’S RAINY SEASON
So there you are, stranded under some old town shop front awning, wondering whether the downpour is ever going to cease. It’s Hoi An’s Rainy Season. Every minute a smiling peddler (where do they keep coming from?) approaches you with the aim of selling a ‘raincoat’ – a thin plastic poncho that bears the semblance of a life size condom.
You give in to the sale, spending a hefty 20,000 VND on your new gaily coloured cagoule and step out into the rain. Surprisingly the synthetic sheath proves to be an effective shield against the sheets of water showering from the sky. Suddenly the day is not so grim. “Singing in the rain” starts playing in your head (or the ‘Glee’ mash-up version at least) and you meander down the main street towards the river.
When you reach the intersection at Nguyen Thai Hoc (where many of Hoi An’s famous restaurants are located), the roadways are flooded. But there are a number of charming little sampans (local boats) bobbing up and down on the corners, operated by cheerful skippers with betel-nut stained teeth and weathered skin. You decide to take a tour of the old town in one – and it ends up being one of the most unique experiences you’ve had in Vietnam’s favorite heritage town.
Perhaps I am romanticizing about the wet season a bit, but there is a definitive poetry about the seasons – in all parts of the world – and a healthy dosage of water is certainly prescribed to Hoi An every year from October through to December. Personally, I love the cycle of the seasons and enjoy the rhythm of the rain when it comes. Rainy season and ‘winter’ is a time of hibernation. Every local prepares for it. The rain is seen as cleansing; both literally and metaphorically. And when winter is over Vietnam celebrates Spring with the new year or ‘Tet’ – where houses are cleaned, redecorated and painted a-fresh and new clothes are bought for the year.
If you’re visiting Hoi An during the wet season you may be lucky enough to experience the flood of the old town. I say ‘lucky’ because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to view some of the sights by boat! While most of Bach Dang Street (the street right on the river) remains fairly flooded throughout November and early December, the flood into Nguyen Thai Hoc street only comes for a few days in the month, usually in tandem with the moon tide. During big storms or rainy seasons, riverside restaurants have experienced floods of over three meters. That’s why almost all have a second floor – they prepare for the flood and move their belongings upstairs.
According to Ba (referring to an elderly woman in Vietnamese) Dang Lai, a 75-year-old local who has been transporting people for years by boat, the worst years in recent times were 1992 and 2005, 2007 and the typhoon floods of 2009. As the tide came up very quickly, many locals didn’t have time to move to higher ground, causing a lot of damage to properties, injury and sickness. In general though, people are acutely aware of the tide movements and prime themselves accordingly. For those needing transport throughout the old town this Ba charges between 20,000VND-50,000VND per person, according to where they need to go. She has taken many tourists before, whom she says have a fascination with both her sampan and rowing technique.
‘Many visitors like to take the boat; it is a very novel experience for them, especially as this type of boat is not seen in their country. It can be hard to navigate a boat through the old town – it is not like a river, there can be many objects that obstruct the boat and I have to be very careful. My knowledge helps me avoid areas which I know could be dangerous. Sometimes tourists try to paddle the boat – they watch me and then try – but find it too difficult. The experience is fun for both me and them!’
Ba Dang Yai also mentioned a piece of folklore passed down from her ancestors that predicts whether the season will be a bad one. This is my best explanation of the translation I received: ‘If you see a sprig of bamboo form on the interior of a bamboo trunk then the weather will be good, but if it grows on the outside, then the flood will be dangerous.’ So look into the bamboo, peeps.
Besides the floods, the rain – in between the torrential showdowns – gives the old town a refreshing look. Verdant green moss grows on the antiquated Chinese rooftops, framing them nicely against a grey sky. Also, the weather is cooler, meaning it is more pleasant to walk around and explore the various old quarter attractions that you might overlook in summer (due to pure heat exhaustion).
For locals in the countryside, the rain is revered. A good measure of rain enriches the soil and Hoi An is known for its alluvial fields – for growing both rice and herbs (such as the ancient Tra Que herb village). Of course there are dangers in the fields which the co-operatives tend to rather practically. For example, rats run riot in the wet and snakes can wash down from the mountains. I learned from a group of Vietnamese English students that the co-operatives pay them to collect rats (who eat the rice and other vegetables as well as spread disease) and snakes – snakes can fetch 60,000VND per kilo. So you might see gangs of young Viet lads moving about the fields with garbage bags and nets to search, kill and collect. These collection squads pool the money with other groups and then have one massive party at the end of the season – whoop whoop!
Originally published in Live Hoi An Magazine.
Revised and Updated February 2018