Typhoons Vs. Monsoons, Hanoi Vs. Southeast Asia

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So here’s something I never needed to know the difference between before moving to Asia: monsoons and typhoons.

Both big-ass storms, right? I must have learned what they were at some point, in some half-assed curriculum from some out-dated textbook during my laudable California public school education. But seeing as though this knowledge had zero relevance in my life, I conveniently siphoned it off to the mental slush pile along with all the other useless shit that had no impact on my life, such as Civil War dates, the metric system and the geography Midwestern states.

Well I’ll be damned if suddenly some things from that slush pile are not now extremely relevant, with extremely immediate impacts on my life (NOT Civil War dates or Midwestern geography). One, the metric system. Do you know how tall you are in centimeters? I didn’t for the longest time, despite it being an easy conversion for which there’s now an app. I also know how much I weigh in kilos (NOT telling) and how far my morning jog is in kilometers.

The other thing I now know the difference between is a monsoon and a typhoon. Cambodia has monsoons. A monsoon season, in fact, which they’re now in the middle of: big daily rains where it’s like the heavens have unleashed, like someone slashed a cut in the sky and a million silver coins come thundering down, plodding on your tin roof like they may as well be metal. They’re pretty predictable, usually striking some time in the afternoon, so that you can structure your day around them. It’s almost kind of nice, as long as you’re not stuck in it—an hour or two, like dusk or dawn, a way to divvy up the day and mark the passage of time. Like a really long, wet cigarette break.

Monsoons come like this: clear mornings and bright skies. Slowly over the course of the day the clouds thicken, the humidity gathers; you feel the heat press down like a big invisible hand. At around 3 or 4, you see these dark-ass clouds march in, like horsemen of the fucking Apocalypse. The branches start flailing, trying to snap themselves off their trunks and look for shelter; the wind becomes a living thing with a high, howling voice. And just when it feels unbearable, all this tension about to burst, like being inside a big-ass bubble—boom, snap, pow, the pressure pops and the skies open up and it does its thing for a few hours and then it stops, leaving everything flooded and blinking-eyed and with a pleasant little evening breeze that almost makes it all worth it.

I was just starting to get the hang of it, the rhythm of it, when it was up and time to move to Hanoi. Hanoi is tricky cause it’s secretly not Southeast Asia. It’s not Northern Asia either—it’s own little pocket of Something Else, Chinese and French influences toppled on top of its own defiant culture that I can’t quite classify yet but love the hell out of.

The people here don’t really look Southeast Asian; they’re lighter skinned, got none of the trace Khmer brown. They don’t play that smiley, welcoming, submissive thing that often gets associated with Southeast Asians. (How many times during my arrival did I get yelled by motorbike drivers for not knowing my way around the city?)

They’ve got a coffee culture to rival Italy or shit, even the Bay Area. The French brought it over, but the Northern Vietnamese high-jacked it and turned it into their own strangely unique, immensely caffeinated, sugary and DELICIOUS concoction. I mean, who the hell else in the world puts yogurt in their coffee? But then you taste it and the question changes to why the hell has no one else thought to put yogurt in coffee?

And another huge friggin difference is that there’s seasons in Hanoi—real seasons!—with a proper summer and an even more proper winter that I’m totally and completely dreading.

During the summer months, it rains a lot here. Like Cambodia. Cool, I’d thought, I’ve been living where it rains; I’ve at least got this part down.

Well, no. Like everything else, I’ve been surprised by how different Hanoi really is from the rest of Southeast Asia. And I’ll be goddamned if even the way it rains isn’t yet another example.

So, in case you missed the unit in school or tuned it out (which you’ll probably do again unless you suddenly find yourself in Hanoi; don’t say I didn’t warn you…), typhoons are completely different monsoons. Technically speaking (okay, I Googled it), monsoons have to do with wind patterns, while typhoons are storms that rip through the Pacific and the land fringing it. Instead of everyday, they occur once every few days or every weeks. The basic rhythm is that same, the slow build up of pressure and heat, but the tempo is stretched out, elongated, and it varies, skats like a goddamned jazz singer and while I can appreciate the unprediactability and ingenuity, I’m often left in a plastic poncho with my sandals in my hands, wading down my flooded alley wondering what the hell happened.

Wading home

The biggest difference for me is the way the pre-storm pressure gathers. Monsoons feel like something pressing down on you, while typhoons feel more like a thickness, like the air literally gets thick with charged particles, buzzing around like mosquitoes and damn near humming as loud. You can feel this kind of electricity, moving down your spine, and you swear everyone else can feel it too, the way they zip around when a big storm is about to hit—“like pouring water into an ant hill,” a friend says.

I don’t remember it ever drizzling in Cambodia either, but here the rain will strike and recede, drizzle for a bit then start up again. Sometimes I’ll think it’s over but it’ll just keep going; other times I’ll put my poncho on and be sweating under the sheath of plastic like a jack ass. (Hanoi seems to get a private kick out of making a jack ass out of me, and I’m only too happy to oblige.)

So I’m still working on getting the timing and rhythm of this whole thing down. I’ll probably have it just about figured out by the time the season ends and the cold sets in. In the meantime I stare out of my bedroom window at the sliver of sky between the buildings and try to ascertain what in the hell the weather is gonna go. For the sport of it, I take a guess and invariably I’m wrong. Which is secretly another thing I love about this place—that it’s not so easy to figure out.

So I try to never leave the house without a poncho and not get too bummed when I’ve gotta slosh through the flood water to get in my front door.

Cause you’ve gotta hand it to Hanoi—it’s a city that’ll keep you humble.

Home sweet home

9 Responses to “Typhoons Vs. Monsoons, Hanoi Vs. Southeast Asia”

  1. 1 Steve Jackson August 13, 2012 at 3:29 pm

    Don’t fear the winter – I may be in a minority but I love it. Here’s what’s good about it…

    Coffee – this is where the Italian stuff comes into it’s own. Suddenly you can drink capuccinos, lattes by the gallon without sweating. In fact you need them just to keep warm. Hot chocolate too if that’s your thing. Tea by the gallon.

    Also hot whiskies – whisky, lemon, honey – get warm, fall asleep, sleep for 12 hours.

    You get your legs back. You can walk – again, you have to walk to keep warm. The sudden freedom you have in moving around makes you manic. I’ve got in and it’s been so cold I’ve had to go out and lap Hoan Kiem a couple of times to warm up.

    Clothes – you get to be entirely comfortable in jeans again. The first day of putting a hoody on is wonderful. Wooly hats and scarves – brilliant. Hanoi is the best scarf wearing city I’ve ever lived in.

    Sleeping with the windows open and no air con or fan is wonderful.

    Of course like most seasons it outstays its welcome and before long it turns to damp drizzlyness but just for a while it’s wonderful. You just get so much energy. You have to keep moving to stay warm.

    That said – last year wasn’t very cold at all, just damp, the year before was the coldest I’ve known it. More on winters here:

    • 2 laurenquinn August 13, 2012 at 3:33 pm

      I recently de-molded my jeans (kind of) and am extremely stoked to put on my hoodie for the first time in over a year. But shit, I’ve been in weather this hot since I got to SE Asia almost a year ago—it’s gonna be brutal!!! But thanks for the tips. 🙂

  2. 3 Erin August 13, 2012 at 3:58 pm

    I kind of like monsoons, the little baby versions that we get every day in Florida. But now I’m very glad I don’t live in Hanoi with you, not sure I could deal with the typhoons.

  3. 4 Kavi @ Lab to Fab! August 13, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    Very informative post! I’ve never been to Cambodia, but experienced a massive downpour my very first day in Hanoi!

  4. 5 liz August 14, 2012 at 1:55 am

    you’re writing is fabulous! love how your words flow, how you describe things, and how you bring pictures to my mind. thank you for sharing your gift! and i am most definitely intrigued by the east, and reading of your experiences only heightens my interest. 🙂

  5. 6 Snudis August 14, 2012 at 5:45 am

    Hi, I’m a recent convert to travel, having recently been to Cambodia and loved it. The weather was one of the things that you notice with all your senses, and your blog captured a lot of how I experienced the theatre of the environment, and the things you notice as you move around. One thing that really struck me about the seasonal weather in Cambodia was how it affected the water table and river flow.
    “The flow of Tonlé Sap River changes its direction twice a year. It flows north for almost six months and then south for rest of the months.
    Another unusual thing about the river is that the portion which forms the lake amazingly shrinks and expands with the change of seasons.
    The lake is small most of the year, its around one meter deep with an area of 2,700 square km but during monsoon season, because of heavy amount of rains the Mekong river reverses its flow towards lake due to which its area is increased to 16,000 square km and depth up to 9 meters.”

  6. 7 Steph Lloyd August 14, 2012 at 7:11 am

    That last photo is baller.

  7. 8 denisediscovers August 14, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Well, the things you learn! I had no idea what the difference between a typhoon and a monsoon was either, but you’ve explained it so well, I can imagine the experience.

  8. 9 shaun darragh August 30, 2012 at 4:45 am

    As I understand it, monsoon is a season as opposed to a typhoon, which is merely another word for hurricanes, which are single weather events, though they too are most common at certain seaons. The monsoon is associated with a directional shifting of winds and depending upon location, may not bring the heavy rains that Southeast Asia typically sees.

    I lived in Seoul for seven years. One monsoon season we had really heavy rains which flooded parts of the city. But during another monsoon season, we had relatively little rain. Still, the humidity and heat were such to make it miserable just to walk a city block. Had the same experience during my last trip to Hong Kong, which was in August 2007.

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Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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