Creative non-fiction / March 2012 (Issue 16)

Flood Season

by Chris Galvin Nguyen

Mornings in Việt Nam in the rainy season, I must remember to push the mattress up on its side when I get up, before doing anything else. If not, it becomes heavier and heavier with moisture, the pungent stink of mildew pinching my nose at night.

In the rainy season, everything I do is a strategy for coping with the damp chill and the water. I didn't grow up here. The water infiltrates my consciousness. I learn to accept it, like the others around me, to see it as a minor disruption.

In the rainy season, I must remember to keep my showers to a few minutes, no matter how good it feels to have the water pounding my back, soothing away the chill. The water slowly seeps through the cement between the shower stall and bedroom, impregnates the wall, a sheen of tiny droplets over my bed. Another thing to remember: never leave the pillows propped up against the wall.

In the rainy season, I mustn't boil water for tea or cook anything that produces too much steam, adding to the weight of moisture hanging in the air. The excess humidity settles; a visible mist upon the clothes hanging in my closet, turning them into a new life form, furry and spotted. Every surface a wick for moisture. More lessons: always leave shoes open and spread out. There's no point drying clothes over a pot of embers—they'll be damp again before I fold them away.

In the rainy season, I am thankful that my home is in this neighbourhood, this alley, so much higher than the main road. While the rich sleep in their attics, or on their roofs, the swirling, muddy water laps at my door sill, but doesn't enter.

I grab my umbrella and head out for breakfast. I push open the waterlogged left panel of my carved wooden door. My umbrella mushrooms out with a snap and a dull whomp, displacing water-filled air. Rain sheets down from our red tiled roof.

My nephew, radiant in his purple rain poncho, a canary yellow motorcycle helmet pushed down over the hood, stands under the eaves, rain rat-a-tat-tatting down from the roof onto the helmet. A duet with the drumming rain on my umbrella. Pausing a moment in the ankle-deep water, we listen to the call-and-response rhythm we make together. He laughs a great belly-laugh and roars off on his motorbike, the water a tall rooster-tail behind him.

Looking at the world from under my rose-coloured umbrella, I wade down the alley with its gold walls, under grey skies and green leaves. The lane falls to meet the road. The water rises to my knees, threatens my jeans, rolled up thigh-high. Each step an eternity, pushing against the flow, my toes seeking the edge of the sidewalk. Stepping out into the main road triggers a memory from the year before: this corner is where the pavement dips into a pothole, where I twisted an ankle under the murky water.

I can't see my feet, or even my knees. The Perfume River, not knowing its boundaries, or refusing to have any, overflows the banks, invades the road and climbs the steps of shops and homes.

In the rainy season, instead of my usual coffee and soup on the bank of the river, I head for the very back of a restaurant I never set foot in during good weather. The tables near the front are prone to the fine mist that kicks up from the water-skimmed entrance, pummelled by the onslaught of rain. I'm lucky to find an empty seat. Waiting for breakfast, I watch the river swelling over the road, up the three steps and into the crowded restaurant.

Inhaling the aroma of bitter coffee, I watch boys swimming and casting their fishing lines, shouting and laughing in the river that used to be the road. A group of teens cycles past, four abreast, wearing purple and pink ponchos. Laughing, pushing at the pedals, they move in slow motion, tires submerged. One of them struggles but cannot avoid a branch drifting into his path.

Across from the restaurant, several tourists raise their cameras to snap souvenirs of a small girl hugging her wiry dog on the roof of her home. Down the road the water is higher; another dog stands on the hood of a taxi, barking at the water as it rises, lapping over the hood.

Awaiting my food, I peer through the breakfast bustle to watch the tourists point their cameras at the rising river and the falling rain. They laugh and curse and squeal as the water soaks their pant legs, rolled up to their crotches, giving them a bowlegged gait as they enter the restaurant in squelching shoes.

The waiter brings my eggs and beef, sizzling on a cast iron plate. He tells me the water is climbing the flood markers on the pillars under the Trường Tiền Bridge—he thinks the level might reach the high point of 2006 when Typhoon Xangsane almost raised the river high enough to slick the paved surface, or maybe even that of 1999, the worst flood in more than a century.

In Thuận An, the beach town east of Huế, someone's been swept away in the swirling undertow. The waiter's not surprised. Some years, the flooding is frequent but mild. Other years, people lose homes, fields of rice and vegetables. Even when it isn't flood season, certain streets are best avoided during heavy rainfall.

I was away during Typhoon Xangsane. My husband sent photos: a huge tree, horizontal, roots poking skyward in front of the Đông Ba Market; roofs swept away by streets-turned-rivers; boats drifting level with the names on street signs; ancient trees in the citadel ripped out of the ground by the wind.

I flew into Phú Bài Airport a month later and took the bus into the city, expecting destruction everywhere. I was surprised to find nothing out of place or unusual. The only clue that something elemental had occurred was the brackets and wires supporting frangipani and other trees around the city. The water stain murals on interior walls were a little higher than normal. The waiter nods when I tell him this.

After breakfast, I venture out of the shelter of the restaurant and back into the flood, the chill soaking into my bones. Bits of flotsam—a plastic water bottle, a piece of someone's front door—bob against me as I struggle against the current until I reach my alley. I wonder if this is the year the water will rise up my walls.

In the flood season, when the rain finally stops, women squat selling fish and vegetables on patches of sidewalk as they reappear. For three days, the water recedes, leaving mud and debris coating the city in its wake. City workers in blue overalls with "T.P. Huế" in tall white letters across their backs drag fire hoses across the pavers of the Royal Citadel and along the wide avenues. It takes another few days to wash the city clean.


It's flood season in Việt Nam, and we are in Canada. We watch the news, browse photos on the web, call family and friends in Huế.

"Oh yes, still raining. Everyone's fine, but the Lê's are sleeping on their roof. No, no deaths in the city, just a few in the countryside and near the beach."

As usual, autumn brings the rainy season. As usual, I wonder if this is the year the water will climb the walls inside our house.

My husband phones his mother: "It's raining? Flooding already, huh? How high? What? Oooh! Really? You have enough to eat?"

He breaks out laughing and turns to me: "They've been eating instant noodles for three days now."

Nonchalant. Laughing. I think: he's used to it, he grew up with it. But the next day, he wires them money for food, money to help the relatives stranded in the village.

In the rainy season, when we are there, it's bothersome but ordinary. When we are away, we wonder how the people can stand it, how they'll make it through. We wire them money, even though those in the village won't receive it until after the flood recedes. We wire it anyway and watch the news. We wonder if this is the year the water will enter our house in the alley.

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