Pandemic Season in Vietnam: Pre-Covid, Lock-Down, Post-Virus

First published July 2020 | Written by Vietnam Coracle

INTRODUCTION | ARTICLE | MAP | RELATED POSTS

In Vietnam, the period of time we’re currently living through, during which the world struggles to contain Covid-19, is known as mùa dịch: ‘pandemic season’. Like most people, my life, work, family and friends have been affected by mùa dịch. And, like most people, the ‘pandemic season’ has caused me to reflect on many different things. This page is an attempt to organize my thoughts, experiences, and emotions during mùa dịch into a personal narrative covering much of the last six months. For me, ‘pandemic season’ in Vietnam can be divided into three phases: ‘Pre-Covid’, ‘Lock-Down’, and ‘Post-Virus’. I’ve chosen to write about this now because, in Vietnam, it feels like we’re already well into the ‘Post-Virus’ phase. Almost everything is back to ‘Pre-Covid’ ways: the only exceptions being international flights and tourism. A country of nearly 100 million people which shares a border with China (where the outbreak first occurred), Vietnam is currently a world leader in containing the virus and caring for those who’ve been infected. At the time of writing (July 9, 2020), there were just 369 reported cases, 347 of which had recovered, zero deaths, and no community transmissions for nearly three months. In late January, when the virus broke in Vietnam, few observers would have predicted a record like this. Needless to say, I feel very fortunate to have spent ‘pandemic season’ here.

Pandemic Season in Vietnam: the 'Covid Trilogy'

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PANDEMIC SEASON IN VIETNAM


Preface: This page is my account of what it’s been like to live through mùa dịch (‘pandemic season’) in Vietnam: part travelogue, part personal narrative, and part analysis of Vietnam’s strategy to contain Covid-19. I don’t claim to have any expert knowledge on the subject of coronavirus, nor am I suggesting that my ‘pandemic season’ experience has been especially unique. Indeed, there’s no doubting my comparatively fortunate and secure circumstances during this unstable period. But I hope that, for readers outside Vietnam, this account may shed some light on how the country has been dealing with the virus; and, for readers inside Vietnam, it may be interesting to hear someone else’s experience and interpretation of events that are already familiar to you. This is a long-form piece of writing, including illustrations and a map. (Please also read my Disclaimer & Disclosure.)

Structure: This is a three-part narrative: a ‘Covid trilogy’. Part 1 (Pre-Covid) is already published below and focuses on the lead-up to the virus, the initial phase of the Covid outbreak in Vietnam, and the weeks before a nationwide lock-down came into effect. Part 2 (Lock-Down) and Part 3 (Post-Virus) will be published over the next few weeks.

It’s Not Over: Mùa dịch (‘pandemic season’) seems particularly apt, as it suggests recurrence and the possibility that this virus may return, or even become part of an annual cycle. Conversely, by using the definite article – ‘the pandemic’ – the implication is of a finite period with a defined beginning and end: a one-off event, after which it will all be over and everything will go back to normal. By writing this ‘Covid trilogy’, I’m not suggesting the pandemic is over in Vietnam: mùa dịch may return, as is the nature of ‘seasons’. I’m not complacent and neither, I hope, is anyone else.

CONTENTS:

MAP:

My ‘Pandemic Season’ in Vietnam

View in a LARGER MAP


*Disclaimer & Disclosure: This is not a piece of journalism. Rather, it’s a personal recollection & an attempt to tell a story based on my experience over the past few months. In this account, I am most concerned with the narrative & my own emotional & intellectual response to, opinions of, and reflections on, the events in Vietnam since January 2020. I am less concerned with exact figures & dates. If you wish to fact-check anything in this piece, it’s easily done with a simple Google search, such as, ‘When was Vietnam’s first confirmed Covid-19 case?’ or ‘On which date did mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals commence?’ etc. I have no affiliation with the Vietnamese government nor do I belong to any other political group in Vietnam or abroad. The opinions & ideas expressed in this article are my own & I have not received payment of any kind. Much has now been written about Vietnam’s response to the virus (both positive & negative) in the domestic & international press, most of which is available online for free. I’d encourage anyone who’s interest is sparked by anything written on this page, to read more on the subject. My account is only one perspective.


Pandemic Season in Vietnam: the 'Covid Trilogy'

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PART 1: Pre-Covid

Waiting to greet my parents outside the arrivals hall at Tan Son Nhat Airport, I felt anxious. It was a sun-filled morning in mid-February and my parents were due to arrive in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) to visit me. We only see each other once or twice a year, so there’s a certain amount of emotional apprehension whenever I meet my parents off the plane. But this was different: this was a collective nervousness and uncertainty, shared by everyone else on that bare, modern, bright and hushed arrivals concourse. At that time, no one in the arrivals hall knew if they had just flown into a dangerous situation, any more than the people directly above, in the departures hall, knew if they were flying away from one. But popular opinion at that time would have concluded that those in the departure hall heading west would likely be safest. The virus had yet to take hold in Europe and America, and, even though Vietnam appeared to have it under control, the coronavirus was still broadly viewed as an Asian epidemic.

Morning in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

At the airport, my parents and I climbed into a taxi, then drove through the early morning traffic and exhaust-haze toward the high-rises of downtown District 1. In the decade since I’ve been living in Vietnam, my parents make the journey from the U.K at least once a year, usually around December-March, when the weather back home is cold, damp and dark, but in southern Vietnam it’s warm, dry and sunny. My parents had come prepared: bringing with them a supply of masks and handwash. Back then, the U.K was starting to panic-buy products such as these. Vietnam, on the other hand, had already gone through the panic-buying stage. After a brief period of scarcity, the government – quickly realizing the need for more masks and handwash – increased supplies, and both were now readily available in most pharmacies, and also provided for free in many public places and businesses, such as hotels, restaurants, and cafes.

Skyline of Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The city was busy as we ploughed through the lava-flow of cars and motorbikes in the morning rush hour. By mid-February, Vietnam had been dealing with coronavirus for almost a month, and it was very much in the public consciousness. There had been a handful of cases, but, when my parents arrived, the country was on a clean-streak, during which no new cases were reported for some two weeks. It seemed possible that Vietnam had nipped the virus in the bud.

Life went on. Some travel restrictions were in place, some land borders were closed, temperature checks were common before entering buildings, shops and businesses, and there was a general awareness of the virus – its symptoms, how it spreads, and how to contain it – disseminated largely through public information billboards, banners, announcements and articles. Most notably, each new case since the first domestic patient was announced in late January, was reported in detail on every national news platform. We all knew exactly when and where the latest case was confirmed and the patient’s movements leading up to their testing positive. But, on the surface at least, things were quite normal. Unless you worked in education, as I do, teaching English at a language centre in Saigon. Most public schools had already been closed for weeks, since the end of the Tet Lunar New Year holiday in late January. The language centres, however, hedged their bets, waiting to see how things panned out. The centre where I teach remained open for one week after the Tet holidays, but was now closed indefinitely.

Local alleyway, Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

In the taxi, my parents and I headed straight to Bach Dang Pier to catch the mid-morning ferry to Vung Tau, a city by the sea, 90 minutes southeast of Saigon. By now, a high percentage of people were wearing masks in public, both inside or outside. But, despite widespread public information campaigns, not everyone followed the government advice or paid much attention to precautions. Two examples were public gatherings and sneezing.

Vietnam is one of the world’s great drinking and dining cultures. There’s an emphasis on communality and sharing when eating and drinking: the more the merrier. The same is true of other leisure activities, such as going to the beach. In February, large gatherings like these showed little sign of decreasing. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a kind of sneezing epidemic in Vietnam, especially in urban or industrial centres. I assume this has something to do with deteriorating air quality in Vietnam’s built-up areas (I too have sneezing fits occasionally since moving to Saigon). Whatever the cause, until very recently there appeared to be little etiquette surrounding the sneeze, which was rarely stifled or covered up in public. Manners, of course, differ from culture to culture, and it was only with the rising awareness that a potentially deadly new virus could easily be spread through tiny particles of spittle, that I began to wince every time I heard or saw a sneeze, particularly when no attempt was made to cover it up.

The government advice on masks, however, was generally heeded, even though it was not yet rigorously enforced. At this early stage, the rules were neither strictly imposed by the authorities nor strictly adhered to by the public (myself included). Information was widespread, but official presence was not. As is so often the case in Vietnam, people were largely left to decide for themselves which rules to follow and which to ignore.

Preparing a bowl of phở noodles in Saigon, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

At Bach Dang Pier, we bought our tickets to Vung Tau and carried our luggage to the gangway. It was only 10:00am, but the sun was already high and the day was hot. Before boarding the boat, each passenger had their temperature checked. Mum, who’s 75 and had just disembarked from a 13-hour non-stop flight from the UK – taking her from mid-winter in the northern hemisphere to dry season in the tropics, and without having had much sleep – had a slightly high temperature. She was politely asked to step aside and told to wait a few minutes while the other passengers, all of whom were wearing masks, boarded. Mum’s temperature was checked again. Everything was fine. We boarded the ferry and it pulled away from the pier, drifting out onto the thick brown swell of the Saigon River under a blue sky.

*

During the final days of 2019 (before the virus broke in Vietnam) and the first few weeks of 2020 (the early stages of mùa dịch – ‘pandemic season’), I’d been travelling a lot in the southern provinces, camping in particular. From late December until mid-February, I travelled during the short Christmas and Solar New Year break, then the long Tet Lunar New Year holiday, and finally during the initial phase of mùa dịch, a period of unexpected time-off for students, teachers and other workers involved in education, that was essentially treated as an extension of the Tet holiday and became known, briefly among some English teachers in Saigon, as the ‘virus vacation’. (This was, of course, before government advice against non-essential travel, and the onset of travel restrictions and travel bans).

December through March in the southern provinces is ideal camping weather: blue skies and starry nights; dry and sunny in the daytime, cool and fresh at nighttime. I camped in the pine forests of the Central Highlands, along the Cai Valley, by the La Nga River, and I’d seen in the New Year sleeping out on Nui Dinh Mountain in the grounds of a Buddhist temple with a friend, watching the fireworks in Saigon, some 60km away, on the horizon at midnight. We had no idea what 2020 was about to unveil.

Camping in the Central Highlands, Vietnam

Looking back now at December 2019, it feels to me (as I’m sure it does to many people) like a different era: Pre-Covid. The months between then and now have been filled with events very few of us could have predicted or were contemplating prior to January 2020. The things that occupy our thoughts, dictate our lives, our actions, and even form our morality today, were almost completely absent from most people’s minds at the end of 2019. Indeed, even the vocabulary we use on a daily basis now – ‘social distancing’, ‘contact tracing’, ‘lock-down’, ‘Covid’ – had to be learned by most of the world at the dawn of the new decade: the lexicon of a pandemic – a whole new glossary to be absorbed before we could begin to communicate what was happening, let alone understand it or come up with ways to deal with it.

When I look at my Vietnamese language notes from the first months of 2020, it tells the progression of events in single words with their English translations: vi-rút – virus, khẩu trang – mask, thông tin giả – fake news, dịch bệnh – epidemic, cách ly – quarantine, theo dõi người tiếp xúc – contact tracing, gĩan cách xã hội – social distancing, hỗ trợ – support, đại dịch – pandemic, cách ly xã hội – lock-down, mùa dịch – ‘pandemic season’. Most of these Vietnamese words were new to me: in over 10 years of living in Vietnam and trying to study the language, I’d never previously needed to learn them. Now, I saw and heard the words every day. ‘Mask’ was one I had tried to learn in the Pre-Covid era, but it never stuck in my mind. Now, however, I doubt it’ll ever be dislodged from my memory.

Last sunset of 2019, Nui Dinh Mountain, Vietnam

Having spent so much of my time during December, January and February outdoors, camping in the countryside and away from major urban centres, I was perhaps less conscious of the escalating situation in China and the wider region than, for example, my friends in Saigon. Although I followed various online news platforms on my laptop and phone, the situation still seemed remote from my personal context. It was only when I returned to Saigon in mid-February, riding in via noticeably muted industrial suburbs, that I began to feel the rising tension of the nation.

The closer I got to the city, the more I could sense the looming fear. When I stopped for gas, an American friend of mine, who’s based in Saigon but was currently on a business trip in the U.K, called to ask my opinion of the situation in Vietnam: should he return there as scheduled, or wait it out in the U.K? I didn’t know how to respond. I was unprepared for the nervousness of the city. I stopped at multiple pharmacies and stores by the roadside on my approach to Saigon in order to buy masks and hand sanitizer. All of them were out of stock.

Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) at night, Vietnam

The next day, I went into my English language centre to teach. Public schools had already closed nationwide, but my centre remained open, albeit with many precautionary measures in place. I enjoy teaching and I’m very fond of my students, all of whom are aged between 6-12 years. The first 10 minutes of each class was a safety announcement presented by the Vietnamese teaching assistant accompanied by a safety video: how to wash your hands properly; how, where and when to wear a mask; how to avoid unnecessary physical contact; how to cover your cough or sneeze with your arm.

Standing in the classroom, listening to the safety talk and video, watching my wide-eyed students – each one of them wearing a mask – absorbing the information, miming the correct handwashing technique, occasionally exclaiming “con sợ” (“I’m scared”), the reality of the situation hit me and I had to choke back tears before I was able to begin teaching my class. The language centre closed the next day. I didn’t teach again until May. For me, mùa dịch had begun in earnest. My parents arrived a few days later.

*

The ferry to Vung Tau sped downstream on the Saigon River, leaving the city behind and dodging giant container ships in its path, until eventually shooting out at the estuary and blazing across a brief section of open sea, before swerving into port. In Vung Tau (currently one of the most pleasant and well-kept cities in Vietnam), my parents were struck by the presence of public noticeboards about the virus. These could be seen on streetsides, in parks, on official buildings, in businesses and cafes. Indeed, there was a large one facing our hotel. These government billboards explained how to prevent contracting and spreading the virus and what to do if you showed any symptoms.

The Saigon to Vung Tau fast boat ferry, Vietnam

Mum and Dad had come straight from London where, although the virus was by now big news, there was little visible evidence of government action: nothing to reassure citizens that the virus was being taken seriously by the people in charge of the nation. In Vietnam, by contrast, the government-led ‘Covid awareness campaign’ was everywhere and, in most cases, perfectly judged. On the one hand, the notices were highly informative, including contact details for further support or emergencies. On the other hand, they were light-hearted, approachable, and almost child-like and cartoonish in some cases; they weren’t scary, alarmist, or ‘boring’.

As we explored Vung Tau together – walking the tree-lined backstreets and seafront boulevards – it was impossible not to compare Vietnam’s response to the virus with the U.K’s. Another visually-arresting branch of the government campaign was the invocation of the wartime spirit, which, in Vietnam it would seem, is a part of the national psyche that, although rarely observable in day-to-day life, is nonetheless ever-present just below the surface. In public places, such as squares and parks, stylized, colourful, ‘propaganda-style’ posters exclaimed ‘Let’s fight & defeat the virus together!’ or ‘To stay at home is to love your country!’ This encouraged citizens to associate a sense of national pride with how successfully (or not) the country ‘fought’ the virus.

Vietnamese 'Covid awareness campaign' poster, Vietnam

The awareness campaign also tapped into a deeply cultural sense of social responsibility – especially toward children and the elderly – that I would think has its roots in Confucianism and Buddhism, both of which have played major roles in Vietnamese life and society for two thousand years. Simple, printed banners all over the city drove home the concept that every good citizen should act according to the information at hand, because that was the văn minh (civilized) thing to do.

In Vung Tau, every shop, cafe, or restaurant that my parents and I entered was playing a familiar tune. Now fairly well-known around the world, a government-sponsored Covid song (‘Ghen Cô Vy‘ – ‘Jealous Covid’) was released and went viral. Its catchy melody included many of the messages of the national campaign. But the real genius was in the dance associated with the song that included, among many other dance moves, techniques for washing your hands. Synchronized dancing is a massive youth trend in Vietnam and the wider region, and the ‘Covid dance’ (known as the ‘handwashing dance’ – vũ điệu rửa tay) was perfect for sharing online via TikTok and other social media channels, which meant its reach was astonishing.

*The official Covid song & animation (Ghen Cô Vy):


Watch on YouTube

*One example of many viral performances of the ‘Handwashing Dance’ (vũ điệu rửa tay):


Watch on YouTube

One evening in Vung Tau, as my parents and I were sitting on a balcony with a drink watching the sun set over the sea, I received a text message from the government’s Ministry of Health. Since February, as the virus escalated, everybody residing in Vietnam received these messages on a regular basis. Just like the other public awareness tools, the tone of the messages wasn’t overbearing, overly authoritative, intrusive, patronizing or commanding: this wasn’t Big Brother. Rather, one got the impression of a fatherly figure: benevolent, caring and kind. The information was practical and useful, and the tone was one of collective responsibility and pulling together: keeping yourself safe, of course, but also your fellow citizens.

Included in the messages were quick and easy ways to donate to the nation’s Covid relief efforts, which I and many of my expatriate friends immediately did: it seemed the obvious thing to do. My initial reaction on receiving text messages direct from a branch of government was not one of suspicion (‘How does the government know my number? What about my privacy?’); it was one of gratitude and a sense that the most powerful body in the nation was taking the situation seriously. In all these approaches, the government got the balance and tone just right. This was a subtle, smart, innovative, considered, and intelligent campaign. And, so far, it seemed to be working.

*

As Vietnam’s clean-streak continued, my parents and I relaxed into our time together. We enjoyed Vung Tau for a week or so before moving on, due southwest, to the Mekong Delta. We travelled slowly between several cities on the river’s big, muddy banks, before taking the ferry from Ha Tien, near the Cambodian border, across the sea to Phu Quoc Island, where we were to spend the final days of our trip. Over the course of these weeks, I returned to Saigon on weekends to play tennis matches (my school was still closed, so I had no teaching work) and then rode back out of the city on my motorbike on Sunday evenings to meet up with my parents again.

Fishing boat of the Mekong River, Vietnam

While I was in Saigon, there was hardly any discernible change in the mood or activity of the city, which was also true of most of the places we visited in the Delta. Although, by Vietnamese standards, the cities were somewhat muffled and operating at perhaps 75% of their usual capacity, nonetheless, shops, restaurants and hotels were open, transportation was operating: everything continued pretty much as normal. But, everywhere we went, people wore masks, people washed their hands with sanitizer and carried it with them about their person, pharmacies were open day and night, and the ‘Covid awareness campaign’ – in all its forms – was a constant presence.

Traffic on the streets in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

Meanwhile, things were escalating in Europe. Italy was in a bad way and the U.K was beginning to pay the price for its nonchalant approach. It was around this time that my Vietnamese friends started sending me screenshots of social media posts and text messages written by Vietnamese students studying abroad in Europe, who longed to come home to Vietnam and were astonished by Europe’s casual handling of the virus. The messages struck a scared, desperate and despairing tone: people who had gone to doctors in the U.K with Covid symptoms, only to be told to go home and wait it out, then come back in a week if they didn’t get any better; people who wanted to return to Vietnam, but couldn’t afford the air-fare and feared being stuck in a foreign country that was mishandling the pandemic while their own country had it under control. My Vietnamese friends wanted to know: ‘Is this really true? Is this what it’s like in the U.K?’ I didn’t know how to answer.

Mekong River, Vietnam

In Vietnam, this was the beginning of a fundamental change in many people’s attitude, both to the virus (which had previously been seen as a ‘Chinese virus’ but was now shifting in the public consciousness to be seen as a ‘Western virus’) and to the concept of the West in general, which was held in high regard – idolized to a certain extent – for its economic power, standard of living, industrial development and infrastructure. This illusion began to crumble as the virus shifted from east to west, and the latter appeared to mismanage it in a way that was unthinkable to many people in Vietnam. How could a nation sit by as children (still at school is some European countries) and the elderly (the most vulnerable age group and the most deserving of our respect) were exposed to a life-threatening virus? How could this be allowed to happen, especially in countries as wealthy and ‘developed’ as those in Western Europe? How could a government, a nation accept this?

In Vietnam, the reaction to the unfolding catastrophe in Europe was, at first, quiet disbelief. But soon it threatened to become anger and outrage, as events transpired that led many in Vietnam to view the negligence and lack of discipline in Europe as a direct threat to the health and security of the Vietnamese people. Vietnam was about to experience its second wave (although the first had hardly been more than a trickle), and it arrived by plane from Europe.

*

Vietnam’s clean-streak ended as a slew of international arrivals on flights, usually from Europe, entered the country and later tested positive for the virus. These new cases had apparently arrived in Vietnam without having undergone any testing from their points of departure: no temperature checks before boarding the plane, no wearing of masks in terminals or onboard aircraft; passengers weren’t even asked if they displayed any symptoms prior to travel. This burst the bubble and it seemed the cases were now bound to grow exponentially in Vietnam, as each day new patients were announced and the country’s fear became tangible. In particular, a fear of foreign tourists, because who knew whether they had flown into Vietnam on one of the ‘Covid flights’? Who knew if they had been taking the necessary precautions that people in Vietnam had already been doing for two months? Who knew if they had arrived from a country, such as the U.K, where the government didn’t appear to be on top of the situation?

A quarantined street, Vietnam

For my parents and I, enjoying a comfortable stay at Bamboo Cottages on Phu Quoc Island (which still had no confirmed Covid cases), this made the last week together one of growing concern and nervousness. It started to become clear that, at some point, Vietnam (and possibly the rest of the world) would have to close its borders and cease all international flights. My parents, both in their mid-seventies, needed to make a decision that would essentially determine where they would be during what would become known as ‘lock-down’.

Bamboo Cottages, Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

There were two options available to my parents: change their return flight and stay in limbo in Vietnam, so far with a good Covid record but currently in the grip of a flare-up (not to mention the financial extras this would entail, and the uncertainty of visa renewals and if/when they’d be able to get back home again); or return to the U.K on their scheduled flight, where the situation was already out of control and cases far outnumbered those in Vietnam, but where they had access to a house in the countryside, hospitals and medical treatment on the NHS (National Health Service).

The last few days of my parents’ visits are always difficult, because of the looming prospect of another goodbye. On this occasion, the uncertainty of whether they would stay in Vietnam or return to the U.K and the current instability of most of Europe, made it all the more tense. After days of emails and phone calls, Mum and Dad decided to keep their return flight to London as the cost of changing their tickets was too high to justify. As it turned out, my parents’ flight back to the U.K was just a week before all international flights in and out of the country ceased and Vietnam effectively became a nation in isolation.

My parents on Phu Quoc Island, Vietnam

We spent the last day or two alternately trying not to contemplate the journey too much while also devising protective strategies for the flight. Even in normal circumstances, air-travel – especially long-haul – is a catalyst for catching illness. What’s more, almost all the new cases in Vietnam over the past week were unsuspecting passengers cooped up in airline cabins for hours, breathing recirculated air with an unknown Covid patient onboard. We read-up on the advice online, such as how to disinfect an airline seat and video screen, and how to effectively use a mask and hand sanitizer.

My parents left our resort on Phu Quoc Island on a lovely evening, as the sun was setting over the Gulf of Thailand. They were on a flight back to Saigon, and then direct to London. I walked them to the minivan that would take them to the airport. We said goodbye. But I found it difficult to look my parents in the eyes. None of us knew when it would be possible to see each other again. We still don’t. No one does.

*

I left the island the next day. Back on the mainland, in Ha Tien, everything had changed since I was last there, less than two weeks earlier. It was quiet. Tense. Hotels were open but empty. Markets, shops and cafes were doing business. The boats were running. But there was a stillness – unheard of in most typical Vietnamese towns and cities, which usually throb with activity and commerce. Noticing a change in mood, I started to document my street food meals, sensing that this daily pleasure – affordable, ubiquitous, life-affirming and full of colour – might not be available much longer if a lock-down was to be enforced, which now seemed increasingly likely.

Street food in Ha Tien, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

The next morning, a new Covid case was announced in the online news sites: a foreign man on Phu Quoc, who’d been on the island for a week during the same time my parents and I were there. Fortunately, because the government’s contact tracing was so thorough and the details made public immediately, I was able to read about the man’s movements on the island – where he stayed, where he ate, where he travelled, whom he came in contact with – and deduce from this information that neither I nor my parents were ever in proximity to him, having stayed in, and travelled to, completely different parts of Phu Quoc. Nonetheless, this was as close as I’d been to a reported case of the virus.

I felt I had to return to Saigon before lock-down was announced. I rode my motorbike down narrow paved lanes and dirt roads, and along dykes above irrigation channels bisecting an endless patchwork of rice fields, between Ha Tien and Can Tho. I heard from my parents, who’d arrived safely back in London and were now planning to leave the city as soon as they could for the countryside in Wales, because they too were anticipating a lock-down and preferred not to be in London for it. From Can Tho, I continued on back-roads, interrupted by several ferries across branches of the Mekong River, to Saigon. The moment I re-entered the city, for the first time in three weeks, I knew that this was not the place I wanted to spend lock-down.

Dyke roads & rice paddies, Mekong Delta, Vietnam

Saigon appeared ghastly to me: choked with exhaust fumes, dirt, traffic, and people. If the virus was going to take hold anywhere, I felt, it was here. I’d been lucky enough to have spent the previous weeks in quieter, greener, cleaner, more rural parts of the country, and in the time since I was last in Saigon, there had been a lot more talk about physical distancing and self-isolation. Surely this was a hopeless concept in a place like Saigon. Even in my own home, which I share with three friends, it was ludicrous to contemplate physical distancing in an enclosed house with four tenants in the middle of a city of 8 million people. Saigon had already reported individual cases and clusters since the second wave had hit. Whole neighbourhoods and entire apartment blocks were quarantined. There was a sense that the virus was closing in.

Traffic in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam

The next morning, I paid my landlady three months rent in advance and rode out of the city again, this time with my tent, full camping gear, and food supplies. This may seem paranoid and absurd now, but at that time we really didn’t know what was going to happen in Vietnam, or the rest of the world for that matter: would lock-down commence? how strict would it be? how long would it last? would food run out? would looting take place? would the virus spread throughout Vietnam? would hospitals become overrun? No one knew. I only knew that I wanted to be anywhere but Saigon. As much as I love the city, it’s not the place I wanted to wait out a pandemic of unknown proportions.

I headed, initially, for Vung Tau, where I knew there was, at least, the ocean, the hills, the horizon, cleaner air, no reported Covid cases, and easy access to empty stretches of coastline or sparsely populated highlands: the kinds of places that one could effectively practice physical distancing and self-isolation. For me, this turned out to be a good move.

Bai Truoc Beach, Vung Tau, Vietnam

[Back to Contents]


PART 2: Lock-Down

To be published….

[Back to Contents]


PART 3: Post-Virus

To be published….


*Disclaimer & Disclosure: This is not a piece of journalism. Rather, it’s a personal recollection & an attempt to tell a story based on my experience over the past few months. In this account, I am most concerned with the narrative & my own emotional & intellectual response to, opinions of, and reflections on, the events in Vietnam since January 2020. I am less concerned with exact figures & dates. If you wish to fact-check anything in this piece, it’s easily done with a simple Google search, such as, ‘When was Vietnam’s first confirmed Covid-19 case?’ or ‘On which date did mandatory quarantine for all international arrivals commence?’ etc. I have no affiliation with the Vietnamese government nor do I belong to any other political group in Vietnam or abroad. The opinions & ideas expressed in this article are my own & I have not received payment of any kind. Much has now been written about Vietnam’s response to the virus (both positive & negative) in the domestic & international press, most of which is available online for free. I’d encourage anyone who’s interest is sparked by anything written on this page, to read more on the subject. My account is only one perspective.

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16 Responses to Pandemic Season in Vietnam: Pre-Covid, Lock-Down, Post-Virus

  1. Chris says:

    Fantastic article, Tom. My partner’s parents flew into the country to visit us from America on March 15th and we can relate to many of the experiences and feelings that you write about here. I look forward to the next two sections, and possibly a fourth chapter about the “second wave” which we are now all managing.

    But the way, my partner and I met you couple of months ago at our favorite vegetarian restaurant in Da Kao called San May. You were meeting with one of the developers who helps with your site and I asked if “you were the Vietnam Coracle guy?” At the time, you mentioned that I could reach out and that I should introduce myself, but I never did. Sorry about that. If the offer still stands to share a drink or a meal together sometime, I would really like to! I hope you are doing okay, and that this second wave that we find ourselves in, doesn’t have as much of a disruption on your work and travel life as the last. We are certainly lucky to have had nearly 100 days of relative normalcy, compared to the rest of the craziness going on in the (primarily) Western world.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Chris,

      Thank you, and I hope that you, your partner and respective families are healthy and safe.

      Yes, I remember meeting you both at San May – I was back there last week as it happens.

      I’m out of the city this week but back in Saigon after that. Send me an email and we can arrange a meet: [email protected]

      Tom

  2. Jake says:

    The point you make about the disillusion Vietnamese people feel towards the West because of the disorganised response to the pandemic is very worrying to me. I have felt for a few years now that the relative rise of many countries in Asia and the stagnation or even decline of many Western countries was bound to lead to this eventually and the pandemic might prove to be the catalyst for a big change. It could make living and travelling in Asia much more difficult for Westerners as we are collectively seen as less desirable guests and immigration rules are tightened up and people become less welcoming.

    • Tom says:

      Hi Jake,

      Yes, I think there is bound to be a shift in perceptions of the West in Asia. It’s a very complex situation and I think will be one of the defining aspects of this century.

      Tom

  3. Thomas Barkemeier says:

    Hi Tom,
    This is another wonderful example of why I love your blog. Your love for Vietnam and its people shines through every sentence and you really care for them. Most of all – you never-ever put yourself first as the vast majority of travel blogs do.
    I first travelled to Vietnam in 1992 and have been back about 20 times since than as a study tour guide and travel writer. Just like you I love the country and its people. I often wondered what make the country so appealing to me (since 1979 I’ve travelled extensively between India and Vietnam, having published 10 guide books). Sure there is the beautiful countryside, enchanting cities, great food, beaches, colorful street life, tropical weather – I love all of that. But if I have to name only one ‘thing’ that impresses me the most than it must be the Vietnamese themselves. Disciplined and hard working yet joyful and loving life, spiritual yet practical, individually minded yet socially conscious, proud of their own heritage and history yet open minded for outside ideas and people – to me that’s what makes life in Vietnam so appealing. And I think it is exactly these characteristics why the country has been so successful in handling the Covid 19 pandemic. The ‘Jealous Covid Song’ is a wonderful showcase of this mentality.
    You sharply pointed out of how their own success of handling the crisis and at the same time the failure of many western countries to contain the pandemic is yet another example of how ’the tide is turning’. We are witnessing the rise of Asia and the decline of the West. It started at least 25 years ago but now it is all apparent. I hope and believe that Vietnam and its people will be one of the leading countries in this historic change – they fully deserve it.
    So,rry I got carried away. I really just wanted to thank you for your wonderful blog. I am checking every other day for a new article of yours. Great work from an obviously very likeable person.
    Thank you and stay safe!

    • Tom says:

      Hi Thomas,

      Thank you for your comment.

      I agree: I think there are huge geopolitical and cultural changes ahead that have their roots in the past quarter century or more. The relationship between ‘East’ and ‘West’ has never been more important, and we would all do well to try our best to understand each other. It seems to me that many people in Asia have a much better and deeper understanding of ‘Western’ culture and attitudes than we in the west have of ‘Asian’ culture and attitudes. This needs to change if we’ve any chance of avoiding serious misunderstandings in the near future.

      Best,

      Tom

  4. Helena Spector says:

    Hi, Tom —

    What a wonderful article!

    It’s beautifully written, informative, and a real pleasure to read.

    Back home in Alaska, as always loving summer here and at the same time, this year, missing planning the annual fall trip to Vietnam (for which your “Coracle” often gives great suggestions!), I was much moved by your account of your folks’ visit.

    BRAVO, and best wishes as you roll out the other two parts of this article!
    Helena Spector

    • Tom says:

      Thank you, Helena.

      I’m sorry that you’ll not be able to go on your trip to Vietnam this year, but I hope it won’t be long before travel to Vietnam will be possible again.

      Best,

      Tom

  5. Brent says:

    Hi Tom,

    Do you know how many Covid-19 tests were and are being done in Vietnam? It’s been suggested (on an Australian blog) that Vietnam’s small number of cases may reflect small number of tests, with the implication being that the virus may be more widespread in your communities than being reported. Is testing available for anyone who feels they may have the virus and has testing been extensive throughout the country?

    Cheers and all the best,
    Brent & family

    • Tom says:

      Hi Brent,

      I don’t have the exact number off-hand but I’m sure a little bit of digging on googĺe would produce it.

      I’m familiar with this suggestion and no doubt Vietnam’s testing is lower than regional neighbours such as Taiwan or South Korea. But in Vietnam, if you display symptons you are tested, if you’re in a quarantined area you are tested, and if you arrive in the country you are tested. And for nearly 3 months now the only confirmed cases have been those returning to Vietnam from abroad – all of whom must got into 14-day quarantine and all of whom are tested.

      I’m pretty sure the ‘lack of testing’ theory has been debated and debunked in the media already – again, I think you’d find some good articles on that if you search around.

      I hope this helps & I hope you’re well,

      Tom

  6. Peter says:

    Hi Tom,
    Great write up. Interesting to read this as a retrospective. Particularly striking are the contrasts you point out between vn and west.
    Peter

    • Tom says:

      Thanks, Peter.

      Yes, the different approaches to the pandemic of east and west has been fascinating, and so too have the different attitudes of the citenzry of east and west to the ‘new normal’.

      I hope you’re well.

      Tom

  7. Erik says:

    Having travelled myself in Vietnam last March, I can relate to a lot of this. We left HCM on the 23rd of March. Being in that city as basically the only tourist, it was a surreal ending to our fantastic trip.
    Nice and honest write-up Tom, looking forward to part 2!

  8. Rui Zhang says:

    The time your parents left Vietnam was exactly the time we arrived in Vietnam. I could fully understand your emotions coz we have the same. I hope your parents are doing well back to UK. We were fortunate to stay in Vietnam for two months during the escalation of the pandemic in Europe and North America. Stay safe and take care!

    • Tom says:

      Hi Rui,
      My parents are fine, thanks. And I’m happy to hear you were able to stay in Vietnam for the escalation period.
      Best,
      Tom

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