For an American living in southern Vietnam, there’s no end to the strange, the incongruous, and the bizarre. Most of it, you learn to deal with, sometimes even embrace. And some of it, no matter how commonplace, you do not.
Road rules, for example. They’re quite literally a foreign concept here – as, often, are roads. Or, forget dog meat, how about a nice bowl of fried cockroaches? Finding a pair of men’s shoes in a 12M can be vexing beyond all reason in a land of miniature people, where four-and-a-half foot women are commonplace, and the typical man’s waist-size clocks in around 28 inches. And what is one to make of a country without a single Starbucks or McDonald’s (let alone an Apple Store)?
But the slipperiest concept by far – more than the food or the culture or seeing a pirated, lushly boxed “Official Acandemy Awards Winners Picture Slumdog Millonaire” for sale by street vendors the morning after the Academy Awards – is living in a place where winter never comes. It sounds like the title of sad children’s book, doesn’t it? The Place Where Winter Never Comes. But it’s all too true. While most of the rest of the Northern Hemisphere is freezing its ass off, I’m dealing with temperatures in the mid-90s. In March 2008 I rode a bicycle to work in Japan through a foot of snow. A year later, I’m riding a bicycle to the office wearing shorts and a T-shirt so I don’t arrive in my work clothes drenched in sweat.
Of these two less-than-perfect scenarios, you might think a South Carolina native might be more comfortable with the second one, the one I’m presently living. That may be true for other other spawn of the South, I don’t know. For my part, I’ll take a foot of snow over sweltering heat just about any day of the year. But especially in March.
It’s not just that spring, such as it is here, lies just around the corner. The temperature in Ho Chi Minh City has been as steady as a crack gunslinger’s shooting hand since, well, this time last year, setting up a nice little home for itself between the 89 and 94 lines. The only difference between winter here and, say, high summer, is that summer is wetter. The same is true of spring, only more so. There are two seasons in this part of Southeast Asia: wet season and dry season, corresponding roughly to the seasons known in other parts of the world as spring and summer, fall and winter. “Hot” is applicable 365 days a year.
Unfortunately, I’m not a hot-weather person. Other people I know here – Canadians and Swedes, for example – claim to be living a life of climatic bliss. No winter at all? Ever? Sign me up, they said, and never looked back. But I’m a perspirer. If there were an honest living to be made in perspiring, I’d have my life’s work cut out for me. I’d have gone pro straight out of high school. The pleasantest winter I ever spent was last year’s, trundling to work every day through snow above my ankles, freezing my way into sleep every night in a house with a single space heater, watching my breath curl into frost above my head as I drifted off into single-digit dreams.
As Ho Chi Minh City staggers from dry season into wet season, the rest of the known world – including you, probably, wherever you are – will be emerging from the refrigerated depths of winter into the vivid, unrestrained exuberance of spring. There, you’ll exult in the rebirth of the world, awash in color and the symphony of life new and reawoken. Here, I will still be hot. But I will be hot and wet. As Adrian Cronauer said, that’s great if you’re with a lady, but it’s no good if you’re in the jungle.