A month or so ago I put up a photo on my instagram story of myself wearing a pollution mask. A few people from home messaged and asked why I needed one, did I wear it all the time and so on. Pollution in Hanoi is a big deal, and is something I didn’t really consider before relocating here. I think it’s important to share the good and the bad, so anyone considering moving here has a better understanding. So here we go: what is the pollution like here, and do you need to wear a mask in Hanoi? Get ready… it’s a big’un.
First of all, I’ll go into a little bit of background to Hanoi’s seasons. The weather here is often divided into two main seasons, even though really we witness all four.
Rainy season (Summer)
This usually lasts from April to late September. During these months the weather is hot and humid, with feels like temperatures often above 40 degrees and humidity at 90% or higher. It’s sweaty and sticky, and you won’t want to be out and about away from air con units for too long. The rains fall in what are usually short but heavy downpours, often late afternoon. They’re welcome, as they usually mean a cooler and less humid period will follow, though probably only for a few hours.
Dry season (Winter)
Dry season (Winter) brings with it much cooler temperatures, normally from October to March, but these shoulder months can fluctuate a lot and you’re left very unsure of what to wear! Temperatures drop to high teens and into the 20s, with lows in January falling to around 12 degrees. I don’t know whether it’s because I get used to the summer heat, but temperatures in the teens here feel far cooler than they did in the UK. I guess it’s all relative.
‘Spring’ and ‘Autumn’ obviously come between these seasons. Though different to the UK, these are my favourite times of year. Pleasant temperatures are usually paired with blue skies. It’s dry, and I can walk around in jeans and a tee without worrying about being too hot. October and March are often considered the best times to visit Hanoi for these reasons.
What’s that got to do with the pollution in Hanoi?
The problem with the Winter in Hanoi is that it gets very polluted. In January and February, fine dust pollution increases massively. I’m no scientist, so there’s more technical info here, but from my experience last winter, the early months of the year are grey and bleak. February last year was really difficult for me, mentally, and I honestly think a lot of that was due to the pollution levels. I’m already planning how to overcome that this year, hopefully with some weekend breaks in the countryside where there’s fresher air.
Why is the pollution in Hanoi so bad?
As the above linked article states, during December-March, there is a strong northeast wind. Due to temperatures and upper air masses (out of my depth a bit here!!), the dust can’t diffuse. Other reasons I’ve heard of and observed, in these months but also more generally, include:
- Culturally, there is a lot of burning in Hanoi, including many small, managed fires at the side of the road all around the city. Some of this is to clear waste and some of it is spiritual (obviously different things are being burned!). During late Jan/early Feb, it’s Tet – the Lunar New Year celebration – and at this time, spiritual burning and offerings increase
- In Hanoi, the motorbike is king. The city has around 8 million people, and over 5 million motorbikes and half a million cars. The ease of driving and pulling up right outside your destination means I’ve seen people use their motorbike to travel a distance they could walk in less than 5 minutes. Hanoi isn’t an easy city to walk around – cafe seats, motorbikes and street sellers often fill the pavements, so why not ride instead? The only public transport currently is buses, though a new metro line is almost complete. Again, around Tet, the roads get even busier as locals visit the temples or pagodas daily to pray
- Hanoi is developing at a rapid rate, economically. With this – because of this – there are SO many buildings going up all the time, with the dust obviously impacting the air quality further
During the rainy season, air pollution in Hanoi improves. Downpours essentially clean the air as the raindrops attract pollutant particles like soot and sulphates. Every cloud has a silver lining, hey!
That’s not to say the air is perfectly healthy in the summer, but it certainly improves, making a nice change from the winter months.
How bad are we talking?
We measure pollution using the air quality index (AQI). As a way to compare, in London the AQI is usually classed in the ‘moderate’ category (AQI between 50-100). In New York, it’s mostly ‘good’ (below 50). In Hanoi, it’s more varied, but anything above 100 is considered ‘unhealthy for sensitive groups’ and above 150 is ‘unhealthy’ for everyone! Below is the table showing the months leading up to November 2019, taken from here (I don’t know why some month’s data is missing!)
In 2019, there have been some days where Hanoi has been the #1 ranked city globally for pollution. Friends who have either visited or lived in Beijing and Shanghai have said the pollution seems worse in Hanoi, though obviously that’s anecdotal.
The concern now is what January and February 2020 will be like. This Autumn, pollution rates have been much higher than in previous years, with several days seeing an AQI in the ‘unhealthy’ range of 150-200. Predictions from Hanoi’s Weatherdude (every expat’s weather forecast source) estimate AQI readings of 300-400 in early 2020, in the ‘hazardous’ range. I really hope it doesn’t get that bad.
I’m going to give my own personal experience here. There may be long term health implications, but hopefully if I’m only here for a couple of years, it won’t impact me hugely. There are people living in this who don’t have the privileges I have of being able to go away for weekends and working somewhere with management that takes this very seriously.
- I’m so much more aware of pollution. I check the AQI pretty much daily and this will sometimes impact whether I go outside. As someone has lived close to green fields for much of my life, that’s difficult for me. I teach, and working with 7-9 year olds who are aware of pollution and telling me we can’t go outside for playtime is a sad state of affairs
- My skin gets bad. I’ve always had pretty clear skin, but the pollution makes me break out. I’m using The Body Shop to help
- I get headaches. On days where the pollution is really bad, even just a few minutes outside will make me feel unwell
- I worry, a lot, about long term impacts. When we discuss how much longer we want to stay in Hanoi/Asia, pollution is a factor.
How to cope with it
For anyone trying to live with the pollution in Hanoi, or anywhere else with poor air quality, here are a few ideas:
Wear a good quality mask
They’re a bit sweaty, not the comfiest, and don’t exactly look great, but they can really help. I don’t wear mine everyday, but I will if the pollution is bad. You can tell from just a few minutes with/without one that it does make a difference. I currently use an airphin,. It’s good if you’re just out for a short time, but you can get much better ones. I’d advise doing your own research to find one suitable for your needs.
Use an air purifier
We have these at work and they improve the air quality inside. We now need to get one for our flat. I’ll make recommendations once I’ve tested one or two!
Stay inside if it’s really bad
If you can avoid going out when it’s really high, do. Embrace that time to read a book, play a game, cook something tasty but time-consuming. Practise some self-care.
This article is in no way trying to advise against either visiting or moving to Hanoi. There are so many great things about this city, and I’ll be sharing many more positives on my blog. But, I think it’s important to know the facts, and I know before I moved out I was reading blogs about living in the city. Hopefully this is useful to somebody!
Read more about living and travelling Hanoi here.
Read more about the realties of expat life here.
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