Hoi An: Fury Road
posted by Katie on Jul 20, 2019
As our flight from Tokyo began its descent into Da Nang, the pilot made a jolly-voiced weather announcement over the intercom: “Current temperature in Da Nang: 40 degrees,” he breezed.
Several passengers gasped. A baby growled. The silent ladies seated across the aisle from us started clucking their tongues and shaking their heads in distress.
Goddamn America’s resistance to the metric system. I knew 40ºC was bad because I’d never heard of a Celsius number so high before. I am familiar with Celsius numbers in the 20’s. I know mid to late twenties is a blissfully warm San Francisco day. Anything after that was likely Dubai/Mumbai/Bye-bye sanity terrain.
The moment we landed, I googled “40 Celsius to Fahrenheit” on my phone. The answer? 104º. Immediately, I could feel the pores on my nose dilate in anticipation.
I sweat. Mostly on my face. Mostly after a brisk walk. Sometimes out of nervousness. Say, when I’m talking to someone whose stare lingers abnormally long on my face, as though they’re waiting to see if I’ll break out in a sweat, as I’m known to do. Then, yes, I’ll sweat then too. So, in other words, I sweat all the time, both in dreaded anticipation of sweating and then in self-loathing humiliation afterwards.
Imagine, then, my sweat production upon arrival in Hoi An, located a mere 523 miles south of the Tropic of (skin) Cancer, and also during an unprecedented 40º+ heatwave.
The scenes of sweat after our arrival to Hoi An are aplenty:
- The young Vietnamese real estate agent (torturously wearing jeans, a long-sleeved button-down shirt and a jean jacket!!!) looking at the colony of sweat beads on my nose and not my eyes when talking to me.
- The bike rides around town with Matt where I follow his dark, sweat-soaked back like a google map pin, leading us to the nearest café so we can commandeer the largest possible electric fan and drink the coldest, iciest beverage on the menu (usually a blended fruit smoothie, sometimes a coconut cream iced coffee), surrounded by equally desperate-looking tourists doing exactly the same.
- Remy’s first words to me after every bike ride: “Mama, are you sweaty?” And my reply each time: “Yes Remy. Mama is very sweaty.”
I could have never predicted that I would find parallels with summer in Hoi An and my childhood winters in Minnesota. But both places experience extreme temperatures, to the point of retreating into the home to cocoon oneself from the terror outside.
Before leaving the house, I put on sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat, and jacket—layering my body from the blistering sun, just like I once did against Minnesota’s cold. Once outside, it’s a race to get on the motorbike or the electric bike (it’s essentially a motorized grocery cart with a child’s seat for Remy. I don’t even pedal. I just sit there and move down the road like a retired Vietnam Vet in Walmart) as fast as possible, before the discomfort and then discombobulation sets in and I can’t get my fingers to maneuver the handlebars correctly without slipping on the shower of schvitz that is spontaneously pouring out of every living cell of my skin.
Everyday, from 12 to 2, sometimes until 3pm, the streets of Hoi An become nearly empty. Matt and I made the mistake of biking home after a late, air-conditioned lunch last week. The hot bursts of mid-day air blowing in my face, combined with the abandoned storefronts, made me feel like I was riding through the deserted landscape of Mad Max: Fury Road.
I realize this is an extreme comparison: a hot summer afternoon in Hoi An with the dystopian collapse of civilization a lá Mad Max. But I can’t tell you how much my mind thinks about air conditioning (as in: does this restaurant/café/business have it; how soon will it kick in once I turn it on at home? How come more places in Hoi An don’t have it? I know it’s bad, so why can’t I stop desiring it?)
I also think a lot about water, (as in: wanting to douse myself with it repeatedly; drinking it—the filtered variety—with ice, making sure I’ve made enough ice so I can enjoy that cold, filtered variety drink; what exactly is in the non-filtered, straight-from-the-tap variety anyways?)
Cool air and clean water. They are in short supply here in Hoi An. Early on, my greatest struggles in living in Hoi An had to do with seeking both, in abundance, all for myself, Matt, and Remy. And this is when I knew how far down the industrialized world food chain I’d moved. Forget the rivulets of sweat streaming down my face. My pidgin Vietnamese. My grossly outsized calves compared to the women here. The greatest difference between me and the local Vietnamese is my desire for first world climate comforts, including constantly seeking shelter in cool, air-conditioned spaces and taking two, sometimes three showers a day. This, more than anything else, is how I know I’m American. In my mind, Fury Road is the path of waste and destruction I’ve been on all along, without even knowing it.
Arriving to Vietnam during a bye-bye-sanity heatwave has only amplified the disparity between wealthy and poor, industrialized and not, me VS. them. Every evening, our Vietnamese neighbors down the street eat dinner on the floor, with their front doors open wide, staring at us as we ride by (Matt and I have discussed this a number of times: How do they do that? Aren’t they hot? What about the mosquitoes?!?)
My very existence requires more and wastes more than my Vietnamese neighbors. It’s an uncomfortable truth that I am ashamed to admit. Will I get used to the heat? The mosquitoes? The sweat forming en masse across my face the moment I step out the door? I can’t be sure. In the meantime, I know I’ll continue to sweat here, enduring this constant, public humiliation because it’s the price I pay for being an American in this hot, hot, so very hot country, a country that is handling the heat, and all the discomforts associated with it, much more elegantly than I.