Every evening over the past week, Hoa and her husband took their 10-year-old daughter to the department store, which is two kilometres away from their house, to enjoy “free air-conditioning.”
Going to department stores to avoid the hot weather has become the 36-year-old woman’s family ritual. On sunny days, their house in a cluster of rentals in Quyen District, Hai Phong, absorbs the heat from outside, making it unbearably hot.
Hoa tried several ways of reducing the heat in her house, from pouring water onto the floor, to wiping the walls with a wet cloth, to opening every door and window. None seemed to work. The three-member family thus began seeking air-conditioned places outside the home to avoid sitting at home sweating and being uncomfortable.
Both Hoa and her husband work at factories. Their accumulated monthly income is VND14 million (around $596), which is just enough to pay for their costs of living.
Hoa once contemplated buying an air-conditioner, but even the one with the lowest power consumption would make her family’s monthly electric bill increase by VND400,000.
“With that amount of money, I can buy enough food for my family to eat for eight days,” she said.
“It’s better to find another solution to survive. The hot season lasts only a few months each year anyway.”
Living in a dormitory without air-conditioning makes Thanh Tung, of Thanh Xuan District, Hanoi, scared every time the hot season approaches. Over the last two years, the 20-year-old student tried wiping the walls in his dormitory room with a wet cloth and turning the fan on.
However, this year’s hot weather is so severe that those solutions don’t work anymore.
Tung has to stay in his university library from day till night. On weekends, he chooses to “travel” on buses until the sun goes down.
Even people with air-conditioners in their houses are struggling with high electrical bills. A lot of them spend time at public air-conditioned spaces to avoid paying too much.
The 25-year-old Minh Hoa’s electrical bill rose to VND 1.6 million this April, three times higher than that in other months. To save money, since the beginning of May, she spends most of her tine at cafés.
Hoa says if she turns on the air-conditioner the whole day, she will have to pay an average of VND1.8 million a month on electricity, of which VND1.3 million is from the air-conditioner. Meanwhile, if she goes to convenience stores or cafés to work through the night, she spends at most VND 900,000 a month.
“Being able to save around VND1 million a month while still sitting in a cool-aired room sounds attractive,” she said.
According to the National Center for Hydrometeorology Forecasting, higher-than-average heat waves have hit the north western and northern central regions of Vietnam. On May 6, the Hoi Xuan weather station in Thanh Hoa recorded temperatures of 44.1 degrees Celsius, which was record high nationwide. High temperatures are projected from now through August, and experts say that new records will be set.
As many people come to cafés and department stores as a way to deal with the heat, various businesses of this type have seen their number of customers increasing.
Dam Manh Tuan, operational director of the north office of Aeon Vietnam, confirms that the number of people visiting Aeon department stores surges on hot days. Food and beverage products, including coffee, juices, yoghurt and ice creams, are among the most-consumed.
“We added more tables and chairs for visitors to sit,” Tuan says.
“We have also extended our operational hours to 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. These operational hours will be applied until the hot season ends.”
Hoang Ngoc Tung, owner of a café chain in Hanoi, said the number of customers, mostly students and employees, has risen between 10 and 20% at his cafes. Their stay durations have also grown longer, mainly during the day.
Staff at a convenience store in Ba Dinh district, Hanoi, have observed a similar trend. According to them, the number of people bringing textbooks and laptops to the store has escalated on hot days.
“Our second floor, on which there is tens of tables and chairs, is always full between 9 a.m. and 12 a.m.,” the staff said.
“Many even asked to stay through the night, but we refused.”
However, experts have also pointed out the possible negative effects of people gathering at places like department stores and cafés to avoid the heat.
“This could disturb public spaces and bring no profits to cafés, who have to pay the bills themselves,” said Dr. Do Minh Cuong, former professor at the University of Economics and Business under Vietnam National University.
Tung agrees that these customers could affect his cafés’ revenues and profits. But he does not have any plans to refuse them service or charge additional fees.
“They have no other choice in this scorching heat, so I take the profits I have made since launching the brand as compensation for current losses,” he said.
“This is a way to make customers loyal to my brand as well.”
According to Cuong, such solutions are temporary and not sustainable. Authorities should issue new policies and build public heat-avoidance space, he said. Such places are about to be launched in eight Hanoi districts, where self-employed workers and those who have to travel on roads a lot will gather.
In the long term, the government should research the establishment of parks and community spaces for people with low incomes.
“If the government can do this, then people will not have to worry about avoiding the heat in the summer anymore,” Cuong said.
Hoa plans to maintain the “ritual” of her family visiting department stores until she has enough money saved to install an air-conditioner.
“I know this is just a temporary solution, but at the moment, we don’t have any other solution,” she said.