by Nguyen My Ha
January is usually the coldest month of the year in northern Viet Nam. Weather forecasts repeatedly informed us about a heavy cold front sweeping through the northern mountainous provinces.
Last week it snowed in Sa Pa, killing some cattle. Along the roads leading up to Sa Pa, locals sold buffalo and cow meat from those that died of the cold.
Theoretically, Viet Nam is a tropical country, but the 1,500m-high mountainous regions are totally different from the lowlands. In the past 5 years, the mountains have seen snow almost every year.
If you're used to seeing people from other countries enjoying the first winter snow or celebrating winter holidays, you'd be shocked and disturbed to see Vietnamese children walking barefoot on the snow.
Last year Viet Nam News ran a powerful picture of a young man in Sa Pa walking barefoot on snow. It went viral, and encouraged charity groups from Ha Noi to collect warm clothes, blankets and footwear to donate to snow-covered areas.
Some of my friends have been very active in this social work. They have raised funds for rice, books, pens, warm clothes and footwear for mountainous provinces. They do this in their own time, with their own money. And the charity network has grown year after year.
"A proud Mong man would never wear these clothes," reads the Facebook status of an artist, commenting on the donated items. "The Mong men and women, they prefer to wear their own clothes or the clothes sold in their markets. For some of the donations, they would politely say 'thank you', but they would use the clothes to keep their cattle warm."
I have never gone on one of these charity trips, but I have donated money. I have not seen any mountain-dwelling people tuck away warm clothing donated by people from the lowlands. But I've noticed that the men and women have a special type of plastic sandals that allow them to walk a long way, traversing mountainous areas. During a mountain market fair, all the women I saw were wearing the same plastic sandals.
The snow also gave young people who have never seen it the chance to experience something new and spectacular without having to take an expensive trip abroad. For Fansipan Mountain climbers, the snow brought in an unusual touch of chill to their journeys.
Cold in the city
When it snows or temperatures plummet in a country where intense cold is rare, it's hard for the country to cope. Expats and Vietnamese who have spent time living abroad all have the same thought when winter comes: Why are there no indoor heating systems in the country?
When it's cold outside, it's cold inside. There's never any need to take your coat off if you go into a house or apartment without heating.
"We went to Tam Dao last week and it was biting cold," exclaimed a British man who has been living in Viet Nam for a few years and is engaged to a Vietnamese woman.
Though the temperature does not drop very low - down to about 10 degrees Celcius - it feels much colder in Viet Nam because of the wind, humidity and lack of indoor heating.
When the temperature drops below 10 degrees, primary school students have to stay at home.
It's especially difficult for music or art students, who have to use their hands extensively to practice and work.
Many music students found it very helpful when Le Hung Phong, an experienced guitar player, said: "I know it's really difficult to practise during cold days with your cold fingers. Do you know what works?"
He then went on to recall an experience he had when still a student at the music and arts college. His teachers used to turn on an electric stove to warm the students' hands. Some kept their hands under their armpits or under their laps, but the warmth wouldn't last.
"Here's another trick," Phong said. "Move your whole arms, not just your hand, backward or forward, like you warm up before swimming, for at least 10 minutes. Your whole arms will get warm - and of course your fingers."
Phong said his grandfather taught him that when he was a child, because his grandfather didn't want him to shrink and loose his confidence because of the cold.
It reminds me of another incident, when a Vietnamese pianist student said his classmates in Poland would not tell him where to buy hand warmer in winter. Handwarmers are just one of many accessories a music student has to have during the snowing winter in Europe.
Now that this suggestion and tip goes publicly on the internet, music students, and not just them, any students can swing their arms to warm up themselves before their writing classes at school.
And, last but not least, the will to try to learn or play music, or do any other things in life, must come from inside out, mustn't it? The source of energy coming out from a human body can override even the most unwanted circumstances, and that would be a preferable attitude to life. — VNS