First published January 2021 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
*IMPORTANT NOTE: These interviews and the following introductory paragraphs were written and conducted toward the end of 2020, when Vietnam’s pandemic response had so far proved highly successful, with the total number of Covid-19 cases below 2,000 and deaths around 40. In May, 2021, the fourth (and by far the worst) wave of the pandemic took hold in Vietnam and the situation became very serious. At the time of latest update (August 2021) cases numbered above 300,000 and deaths over 7,500. When reading this article and these interviews, please bear the context in mind.
Toward the end of 2020, I decided to conduct a series of long-form interviews with people in Vietnam focusing on their experiences and opinions of the pandemic, and how their lives have changed as a result of Covid-19.Vietnam’s pandemic response has so far been extremely successful. So much so that, on the surface at least, things appear to be almost as they were in pre-Covid times: the cities are busy, transportation is running, businesses are operating, people are out and about working and at leisure. The country is open, functioning, and lively. Borders are still closed and international flights are extremely limited, but if you were to arrive in Vietnam today – or at any other time since the end of the nationwide lock-down in late April, 2020 – there would be little evidence of the global pandemic that continues to bring much of the rest of the world to a standstill. However, you need only scratch the surface to discover the long, slow, grinding impact the pandemic has had on people’s lives in Vietnam. We have all been affected in one way or another, and we are all coping.
THE PANDEMIC SESSIONS
The people I interviewed for these Pandemic Sessions are all within my general age group and social circle. I realize this limits the scope of the interviews somewhat, but as much as I might like to include a broader range of people, when I entertained the idea of doing so it seemed dishonest and opportunistic. However, I’ve done my best to choose candidates for these interviews with different experiences and attitudes to the pandemic, as well as different nationalities and genders. I hope these interviews reveal how people have responded to the pandemic in different ways: how they’ve been affected, how their lives have changed, and how their approaches to handling it vary. Needless to say, I’m most grateful to Thao Phan, Gydion Kummer, Seamus Gough, and My Hoang for agreeing to be interviewed and for spending their time to respond to my questions. Depending on how these Pandemic Sessions are received, I plan to conduct several more groups of interviews in the near future.
About the Pandemic Sessions:
The interviews on this page were conducted during the final weeks of 2020. I asked each person the same set of 10 questions, and I gave everyone the choice of answering either in-person, over recorded conference call, or in writing: whichever format they felt most comfortable with. In addition, every person interviewed was given the choice of whether or not to have their full name and photos included in the article. All the interviews were written and published with their permission. In some cases, the full answers have been edited down to avoid repetition or tangents that are less relevant to the focus of the questions. But I have not changed the meaning of anything anyone said in their responses to my questions, and all interviewees were provided with the final draft for approval before publishing. I have presented the interviews on this page in the order in which they were conducted: 1: Thao Phan 2: Gydion Kummer 3: Seamus Gough 4: My Hoang
One of the things that surprised me when conducting these interviews and talking to people in general, was how often the pandemic has been a catalyst for positive changes in people’s lives. There’s also a possible subtext in the answers which suggests significant differences in how people have responded to the last 12 months based on nationality and culture, age and gender. But I leave readers to come to their own conclusions about that. Finally, although revealed in the interviews themselves, it’s worth mentioning that Seamus Gough and My Hoang were a couple living in different parts of the country at the beginning of the pandemic, but husband and wife living together by the end of the year.
List of Questions: 1–10
As mentioned above, I asked the same set of 10 questions to every person I interviewed for the Pandemic Sessions. Below is a list of all 10 questions. I deliberately expanded the questions so that the people I interviewed would have a clear idea of the kind of information I was interested in finding out, and I encouraged each person to riff as much as they liked on every question:
#1. Can you give an overview of your ‘pre-Covid’ life, at the end of 2019? For example, what was your occupation, your lifestyle; how was your social life, your leisure activities; were you financially stable; how much did you travel, either domestically or internationally? Did you have any major plans for the near future, i.e., 2020? In other words, can you give a brief synopsis of your life at the close of the decade, all those long months ago in December 2019?
#2. As news of the virus started to come out of China at the dawn of the decade, did you feel it was a big deal – a threat to your lifestyle and others around you – or did you think it was more of a regional issue: mainly a concern for China? Can you remember when you really started to take Covid-19 seriously: when did you realize the significance of the virus and that it was going to affect pretty much everyone in some way or another?
#3. In late January, the virus broke in Vietnam. Throughout February, various social- and physical-distancing rules and regulations were implemented, and, by mid-March, we were on the cusp of a nationwide lock-down. How (if at all) did this affect your personal and professional life. Was your job secure? Were you financially secure? Were you able to stay in contact with close family and friends, whether in Vietnam or abroad? Were you able to continue your leisure activities and hobbies? Did you have to adapt in any of these areas in order to cope with the ‘new normal’? If so, how?
#4. How did you feel about the implementation of the rules and regulations for distancing and lock-down? Did you feel they were appropriate and necessary responses to the situation – measures that needed to be taken – or did you think the risk of the virus was exaggerated? Did you feel a loss of individual freedom and personal liberty, and did you feel the government interfered too much with your privacy: for example, taking your personal details for contact-tracing wherever you went; regularly receiving text messages on your personal phone from the Ministry of Health? Did you resent any of the regulations? Did you question them or did you follow them immediately? Did you wear a mask? If so, where? Did you feel there were any ulterior motives for the enforcement of lock-down?
#5. Did/do you trust the Vietnamese media and government statements about Covid-19 – particularly with regard to statistics – or did/do you doubt them? In general, do you believe what you read and hear in the Vietnamese news media and what the government says? Do you follow regulations regardless of whether you think they’re necessary or not, or do you take these issues on a case by case basis?
#6. Where did you spend lock-down, how long was it, and what did you do to fill your time? Did you follow the lock-down rules? Do you know anyone that didn’t? Did you feel safe during ‘pandemic season’ in Vietnam, or do you think you would have been or felt safer somewhere else?
#7. We’re nearing the end of 2020, almost a year since the virus first broke in Vietnam, and the nation currently has some of the most impressive statistics for handling Covid-19 anywhere in the world. Does this surprise you? How do you feel about the Vietnamese government’s (and the Vietnamese people’s) response to the pandemic? Do you feel the government and people responded sensibly, admirably or was there room for improvement? Why do you think the government’s ‘Covid-19 awareness campaign’ – implemented through information billboards, text messages, TV commercials etc. – was so effective and the population so willing to go along with it, when so many similar campaigns for other serious issues, such as litter, the environment, and road safety, appear to be ineffective and largely ignored? Do you think other countries could learn from Vietnam’s pandemic response? If you feel Vietnam has done well, why do you think this is, when so many other countries – wealthier countries – got it so wrong? What are the cornerstones of Vietnam’s success: is it down to government policies, manpower, culture, communities, religion? Do you feel a sense of pride associated with Vietnam’s successful pandemic response?
#8. We’re now approaching the end of what will surely be forever known as the ‘Year of Corona’. As you look back, is there anything you feel you’ve learned from this difficult and largely unexpected year? Is there anything in your thinking, your outlook on life or on Vietnam, that has fundamentally changed or shifted this year? Is there anything you’re particularly proud of this year – either personally or in a wider context? Is there anything you regret, wish you’d done differently, or wish the people or government had done differently? Do you think anyone one, any thing, or any nation is to blame for the virus? And, looking ahead, how do you feel the continuing pandemic will shape your life – professional and personal – and the nation of Vietnam in 2021: Covid +1? Are you optimistic or pessimistic?
#9. Despite Covid-19, climate change and its effects on the environment are likely to be the defining issues of our lifetime. In 2020, the environment has taken a back seat while the world concerns itself with overcoming the coronavirus. Do you think the pandemic has impacted or changed our view of the environment in any way? Do you think the global response to the pandemic is encouraging for our prospects of handling climate change – globally, but also specifically within Vietnam’s borders?
#10. Finally, if you could go back in time to December 2019 and choose where you would spend your ‘Year of Corona’, would you change your location and why? Lastly, if there is anything else you would like to say or express on the subject of the pandemic in Vietnam, please feel free to do so.
Interview Session 1 | Thao Phan (33, Vietnamese)
“By the end of 2019, I had been working two jobs: one was a freelance job as a sports coach and the other was a full-time job as a manager of a newly established dance school. Life was busy, but somehow I enjoyed handling more than one job at a time. Besides, the income was very decent. With the new position as a manager of the dance school, I had an opportunity to work with colleagues and students from different nationalities and from all walks of life. It was a very interesting and promising position that I thought I could commit myself to for a long time if the business went well.
I didn’t have much free time to travel in the year of 2019, but I planned to travel to Quang Binh (a north-central province of Vietnam) to visit a friend in April 2020, and another plan to travel to Ireland to reunite with one of my best friends and make a road trip in a van along the coast of Ireland in summer time of 2020. But, of course, I couldn’t make it to Ireland due to the pandemic. However, I was able to do the trip to Quang Binh in early May when the country reopened after the lock-down.”
“I didn’t think the coronavirus was a big threat to my life personally or to many other people’s lives worldwide. Around the end of January 2020, when I first learned about the very first two cases of the father and son travelling from Wuhan to Vietnam, I was aware that the virus can transfer from one person to another. However, as they were soon released from Cho Ray Hospital (in Ho Chi Minh City), there was not much for me to worry about the danger of this virus: I thought it was just another flu virus. Even after another 14 cases were confirmed mostly in a village in Vinh Phuc (northern Vietnam) and were successfully contained, I still thought that we were safe. Local people, including myself, only took the coronavirus seriously when the 17th case was confirmed after contacting many other people. I thought it was too late then to trace all the people involved. I could feel the panicking of people around me. It was the beginning of March.”
“Both my jobs involved having contact with many people, thus, the virus really affected my professional life. My private coaching classes were all cancelled by two international schools where I had taught for more than 3 years. From early March, I started to see less students coming to the dance classes and then the national lock-down happened which resulted in the closure of the business. As my boss was stuck in America, I had to handle the business closure on his behalf and it wasn’t easy since we had just started the business with lots of investment.
I lost all my jobs at once, but luckily my savings were sufficient to secure my living for a couple of months. The most annoying thing for me was that I used to have a busy schedule and was happy to have things planned out, then all of sudden, I had to stay at home in a small apartment in Saigon trying to find ways to keep myself productive as time went by during the month of April (the lock-down period). I could travel back to my hometown (outside Ho Chi Minh City) and spend time with my family but I was afraid that I could be a spreader. I wanted to meet my close friends but again they were also worried for their family members. So in the end, I could only communicate with loved ones via phone calls and other means of communication via social media.”
“I have never seen the Vietnamese government react to something as fast and transparently as the way they reacted to the coronavirus. Soon after the very first cases were confirmed in Vietnam, a Facebook page, Thông Tin Chính Phủ (Government Information), was introduced to the community to give official information related to coronavirus. At first, I was skeptical but after checking several sources of information, I trusted the news from the page. Since then, I have only followed updates from this page.
I might not agree or trust our government on certain things, but during the time of the pandemic, I think they did the very best things that they could possibly do to save the people in the country. Appropriate actions were taken and information was updated promptly. Personally, I think contact-tracing and taking personal data for the safety of other people are needed in dealing with this pandemic and I don’t see it as a loss of personal freedom.”
“As stated above (in my answer to Question 4), I was skeptical of the government and media at first but then, after checking several sources of information, I trusted the news provided on the Government Information Facebook page. I did follow the regulations and necessary instructions to make sure I was safe and so were the other people around me.”
“I mostly stayed in my little apartment in Saigon. I did follow the lock-down rules. The people I knew also did. Of course, sometimes here and there when I walked down the street I still saw people who didn’t wear a mask or there were still groups of more than 2 people who got together in the park where I jogged in the morning.
I had always wanted to work on my balcony garden and redo my kitchen, so I spent my lock-down time and some extra time later working on that project. I was grateful enough to still be able to walk down the street, go jogging in the morning, and go shopping for food during the time of lock-down. If I was somewhere else, I wouldn’t be able to do all of that.”
“Our government was very fast in responding to the coronavirus, even when most people were not aware of the danger of it. I wasn’t surprised that Vietnam became one of the most successful countries in handling Covid-19. As appropriate measures were taken and information was delivered promptly and correctly, the government has gained trust from its people and thus people followed the rules and regulations.
Another factor that I think made Vietnam succeed in responding to the pandemic is our culture of collectiveness; the sense of community rather than individuality. Similar to how Vietnamese people went through the wars, they see the pandemic as a matter of life and death (the fatal numbers are real and increasing every day worldwide) and it could happen to their family members, to their friends and people around them. Therefore, they took it more seriously than other issues related to environmental pollution, road safety, etc.”
“The pandemic has made us look back and re-evaluate what really is important in our lives; what are the basics of what we need to live during the lock-down. For me, the time I spent with both my grandmas (who were ill) when they needed me the most was valuable and I was glad that I was able to take care of them when I still had that chance.
During the lock-down and my period of unemployment, I had time to invest in my interests of learning new languages, wood-working and gardening. I felt like my time was well-spent even though my opportunities to travel were limited. I found joy in working on an outdoor kitchen and garden that I renovated from wooden pallets during this time (this project made me proud and made my friends envious!).
I view the pandemic like any other world disaster; there’s no specific country to blame for it. It happened to teach us a lesson, to give us another alarm call of the consequences of our activities toward nature and the environment. This pandemic will be over, it’s just a matter of time and perhaps the world will never be back to normal as it was pre-Covid. But the ‘new normal’ will still be something to look forward to.”
“While I was spending my whole month of lock-down in Saigon, I could feel the change in the air when there were not many vehicles on the roads and not many flights operating. The air was cleaner and I read online that many wild animals started to re-appear in the ocean, in the forest and even in some urban areas. The pandemic has definitely changed our view of the environment in many ways and perhaps it has helped many of us realize how we’ve been treating our environment and how it could have been better if we had adjusted our way of living.
Our excessive consumption and our greed for exotic stuff have put the environment and nature in the worst condition ever and eventually puts us in danger (this pandemic is just one of example). While I am writing this answer, many provinces in Central Vietnam are suffering heavily from tropical storms and typhoons which are causing flooding, food and water shortages, and deaths. Many people are convinced that if we had not cut down trees and exploited the forest land excessively, the consequence of the rains would not have been as bad as what we are witnessing now.
After Covid-19, I have noticed a trend of people coming back to gardening or starting gardening as a way to cope with the lock-down or temporary unemployment, and also because they see the benefit of growing their own food in case of food crisis (as happened during the pandemic). Now, understanding the importance of the forest in terms of flood prevention, more trekking group tours have initiated the idea of combining trekking and planting trees in the forest. I believe that people have become more aware of their actions toward the environment after this pandemic and all the other disasters that have happened in 2020. So hopefully the world can be greener and better after all of these are over.”
“If I could go back in time to December 2019, I would still choose to be in Vietnam, to be close to my family, especially to my grandmas. My paternal grandma passed away in July, 2020. I was glad that actually being unemployed during this time enabled me to have more time taking care of both grandmas when they were in the hospital at the same time but in different locations. If I had been somewhere else, I would not have had the ease of travelling between my hometown and Saigon to do so.”
Interview Session 2 | Gydion Kummer (32, Brazil)
“When Covid-19 hit at the beginning of 2020, I had been living in Vietnam for three and a half years. I’m originally from Brazil. I always wanted to travel, but when I finished university I didn’t have money, but I figured I could work abroad instead, teaching English. I got a job in Turkey. It was a great experience and after a year I was looking for my next adventure. Vietnam came up in my search for a new location as a great place to go. It had all the conditions I was looking for. It was really unknown to me and I always wanted to explore somewhere different. So, after Turkey I came to Vietnam. My life here has been working as an English teacher at government schools and travelling a lot, because teaching here gives me a lot of flexibility in how I organize my life. I could work for a term or a few months, then travel for a month or two in Asia or Europe, then return to Vietnam and find a new job quite easily. It’s been like this for the three years I’ve been in Vietnam. My job and lifestyle felt stable. My income was stable. Teaching positions were not hard to get. I had good qualifications and felt confident and stable in the market.
I didn’t have long-term plans for the future, but I was starting to think about, and look for, a change of profession. I knew teaching wasn’t going to be my long-term career. Even travelling was my way of exploring more opportunities and looking for new career paths. When Covid-19 became a big concern, it was during one of my trips out of Vietnam. It was January, during the Lunar New Year, and I was on vacation in Thailand.”
“The first time I remember hearing about Covid-19 was during a Jiu-Jitsu class in Saigon. Someone on the mat was concerned about it and asked me if I’d heard of it, which I hadn’t. He said it was similar to SARS. But I hadn’t heard of that either – that’s had unaware I was. I definitely didn’t pay much attention. In general, I don’t follow the news, especially about health issues. Even after more news of the virus started to come out, I didn’t pay much attention. I went travelling to Thailand. I didn’t even consider that the virus might close borders or affect my plans. When I was in Thailand, in January, things started to escalate. People were starting to buy hand sanitizer and shops were running out. I still didn’t take it that seriously. When I got back to Saigon, the first major regulation happened: schools were closed for another two weeks after the Lunar New Year holiday. But, even then, I just thought: great, another two weeks of holiday. Then the government postponed schools opening for another two weeks. Amazing! More holiday. It was only when they postponed it for the third time, that I began to realize – I think everyone began to realize – that this wasn’t going to be a short-term thing: it was going to be long-term.
From then on, it affected me completely, because I couldn’t make any money: the schools were closed and my classes didn’t transition online. I didn’t teach again for several months. I was running out of money – especially after my trip to Thailand. I was definitely slow to react at first, and now it seemed like the situation was beyond my control.”
“I used to say that schools are the most stable business ever, because every year there are going to be more students, and the schools are run by the state, so what are the chances your workplace is going to close down? But then, that’s exactly what happened: the entire public school system was shut down. By mid-March I realized my job was no longer secure. I couldn’t rely on teaching anymore. I was counting on my partner to help me financially with rent and expenses. It was at this time that I came across an advertisement on YouTube for an online training course in digital marketing. I enrolled; partly out of desperation, but also with a feeling that this was my call: I had been looking for something different to do for sometime. Now, I had no more excuses not to do it. Even just to enroll into the program, I needed to borrow money from my girlfriend. I had never thought of marketing as a career before – in fact, I probably had negative impression of it. But I worked hard on the course, learned some new skills, and, within a month and a half I was earning money from this new business, which I’m now doing full-time, even after schools have opened again. So, in trying to adapt to a desperate situation in my professional life, I ended up finding a new profession and getting exactly what I wanted and needed. Sometimes I wonder if I had seen the advertisement before the pandemic, would I have reacted. It was because of Coivd-19 that I took action and jumped at the opportunity. It makes me wonder how many other things I don’t do because I’m not desperate enough.
Socially, I was OK. Contact with my family back in Brazil remained the same: we’ve had a ‘virtual’ relationship – via various social media – ever since I’ve been abroad. As for my friends in Vietnam, it was fairly normal at first, but by March people started to stay home and self-quarantine, and lock-down regulations became more strict. I stayed home and stayed apart from my girlfriend for weeks, even though we live in the same part of the same city. As for leisure activities, I used to go out for runs, but now I couldn’t, as the streets and the parks where I used to run were now closed. My gym and Jiu-Jitsu class all closed, too. So I stayed home. Luckily, I had a nice house with lots of light and space and some outside areas.”
“In the beginning, none of the government’s measures seems to be too strong or extreme. But when schools were closed this was a major move and, at the time, it seemed excessive, especially because the cases in Vietnam were still very low. It seemed disproportionate to the risk. The school closures and all the public information campaigns seemed more like a show – like the government were making it clear that they were doing something – but I didn’t necessarily think that all of the actions made sense as preventative measures, such as wearing a mask and using hand sanitizer. However, I still thought it was valid and it raised awareness. Apart from the schools closing, the regulations didn’t affect my life much. I went along with the regulations: I thought, even though some of them don’t make much sense to me, it’s important to participate.
With regards to the government tracing our movements, it didn’t feel like an intrusion or anything unusual. Living in Vietnam, I’ve always assumed that as a foreigner there’s always been some kind of surveillance on me; it’s just not something that concerns me. When the virus hit Vietnam, it seemed natural that the government would trace us and send messages to our personal phones. None of this disturbed me. Also, the rules weren’t really enforced: they said ‘stay home’, but nobody really did; they said ‘wear a mask’, but a lot of people didn’t. I liked that approach: it was light.
At first, I thought the whole thing would be quite short-lived – I mean, how long can you keep schools closed and businesses shut: what about the economy? But because it was gradual, I didn’t feel any resistance or anger, even though my livelihood – teaching – had been completely taken away with the closure of the schools when there were still only a handful of Covid-19 cases in the entire country. Perhaps, if the government had come out immediately and said schools will be closed for the year, I might have felt some resentment. But it didn’t happen like that: no one, including the government, knew how everything was going to unfold. However, I suppose, if this had happened to me in my own country, I might have felt different, more involved, more repressed. But, in Vietnam, I didn’t speculate too much. I just thought it was going to temporary and the jobs are going to come back. So I never felt angry or anything, I just took things as they came. And when I found another path (the marketing course and business), I was detached and it didn’t matter anymore. I was trying to make money online using my new marketing skills, so the restrictions could last as long as they had to: it didn’t matter.”
“In general, I don’t really follow the Vietnamese media, nor is it something I want to follow. I’m skeptical of national news outlets as they’re heavily controlled by the state. But with regards to Covid-19 I didn’t think they were lying or manipulating statistics. In Vietnam, the country is very free – in the sense that everyone has a smartphone and internet and social media and Google – and news spreads very quickly: quicker than the government can possibly keep up with. So if the news was lying and the hospitals were full of sick and dead people, I think we would have known: people would take pictures and it would spread on social media. I think there was a little bit of propaganda, but I don’t think it makes sense to think that the media were completely manipulating things or lying to the public. If anything, I think if they withheld any information, it was because the full story hadn’t happened yet: some information has to be kept within the government, because it’s not going to useful to report it to the people yet. And that’s fine. I don’t think that’s specific to Vietnam or China or anywhere else: all governments have similar prerogatives when it comes to keeping or releasing information to the public. So, for the most part I trusted the media during the pandemic, because it’s very hard to control a narrative in Vietnam that’s untrue: news will spread regardless via social media.
My approach to following regulations was: if they didn’t make sense to me, I didn’t follow them unless this was going to affect anyone else. For example, if I think that wearing a mask all the time is not that important, then I probably won’t wear one all the time – in general, I think people have a decent sense of what’s good for them. However, I think part of following the regulations is to reinforce a social contract: that we’re all in this together, doing the same thing. For example, I’d wear a mask outside in public so as not to provoke any animosity from other people on the street who were wearing a mask. I’m happy to participate in wearing a mask so as not to cause dissonance, conflict and disharmony just to prove a point. Even if the details of the regulations didn’t make sense to me, the concept of everyone working together, following the same rules, reinforcing that social contract of harmony – that made sense to me. What’s more important, making a point that what you think about the rules is right, or everybody being in harmony? The shared narrative that wearing a mask is good, is much more important than what I personally think about the effectiveness of wearing one.”
“I spent the whole of lock-down in my house in Ho Chi Minh City. The more strict period of lock-down lasted for three weeks or so. I think I followed most of the rules, but because I stayed at home, there weren’t many rules to follow. I wasn’t in personal contact with anyone or interacting with other people. But I definitely knew people who were way more relaxed about following the rules: they would wear masks more often than me, but they would also go out and meet people and drink and have dinners and socialize almost as normal.
I did feel safe – definitely in regards to the virus and health-wise. I never felt stronger: I used lock-down to work out, to be in the sun on my balcony, to eat well, to take care of myself. I can’t imagine feeling safer anywhere else. Southern Vietnam is pretty hot, so as far as we knew that was a good condition for the virus not to spread. It didn’t feel like the country was in any kind of crisis at all. It felt more like a staycation than anything else.
For me, the situation was the perfect opportunity to put my head and work online: going through my training program that I had enrolled in. I was learning a lot of new things, and then I started working online and getting financial results. I had the time, a good WiFi connection, and I needed the money badly, so I just worked on my laptop a lot – it wasn’t very good for my eyes, but it’s what I needed to do. I had a very strict routine: I cooked for myself, woke up at the same time every day, made sure I got eight hours sleep each night. It was a healthy and productive time. I was busy. All the conditions were conducive to making this change is my professional life, including the pressure: my teaching job had disappeared due to the pandemic, so I’d better find another job that’s crisis-proof and location independent.
For a week or two, I got a bit scared. I had discussions with my partner about what we would do if one of our friends tested positive for the virus, and then contact-tracing led the government to come after us. I felt concerned this could happen, and I didn’t like the prospect of being forced into quarantine. This made me a little apprehensive for a time – just for a week or so – because I knew one friend of mine who was taken with his girlfriend into forced quarantine. It felt like things were closing in on us; we were getting closer to the virus. Once or twice, officials came to visit our house: that was pretty damn scary – when I uniformed government official rings the doorbell to your home. I thought that could be the moment when they say, “OK, you’re all going into quarantine. Pack your things and let’s go.” That was at the peak of the pandemic, but other than that I had no worries whatsoever. Also, we had a really nice landlady, who reduced our rent dramatically, and helped us throughout this period.”
“Yes, it’s undeniable that Vietnam did everything very well here during the pandemic. But I can’t be sure exactly how and why: was it the government, or the people, or maybe the virus here was weaker than elsewhere, or was it the heat, or a combination of all those things? It’s really hard to tell, because nothing really extreme happened: the government’s regulations weren’t super strong, the people’s behaviour wasn’t super compliant. I just hope that when people from outside look at this success, they don’t think: “Of course, it’s a Communist country where rules are strongly enforced and people just blindly do whatever the government tells them to.” It’s not like that at all.
It was supposed to be bad here: Vietnam is next to China; there’s huge trade with China; and cross-border tourism with China: you’d expect Vietnam to be one of the worst affected countries. Nor does it have particularly good infrastructure or hospitals and public health: it wouldn’t be able to absorb many cases of the virus. Vietnam is such a social country, and everything happens in the streets, I would expect the virus to spread really fast here. Conditions were ripe for a huge calamity. But it didn’t happen.
When I think about it, the government did play a big role and acted strongly: they closed down whole towns and regions in parts of the north, and they acted early and effectively. The measures they took worked, but I’m sure if you were in one of the places in the north that were entirely closed off for many weeks, that would have been quite bad – that’s a terrifying scenario for me: to be cut off and not be able to come and go as you please. But it was so far away from me in the south, in Saigon. Or being forced into a 14-day quarantine the moment you entered the country: that’s quite strong, quite extreme. So the government acted strongly when they needed to – closing down whole villages or apartment buildings when new cases we discovered – but at a national level the enforcement felt light.”
“It’s fascinating that we’re living through this time and we’re conscious about how much of a transformative and historical year this has been. It seems clear that what’s happened this year will change all our lives and is of global importance. However, I am optimistic. My thinking is that whenever you lose something, you gain something else. The pandemic has been one of those things. Maybe we’ll never travel as freely or as cheaply as we used to, for example, but something else positive will take its place.
In my personal case, the ‘Year of Corona’ marked a shift in my life; I changed what I needed to change. Even before Covid, I knew I was looking for something else, and when coronavirus made my normal way of life impossible – when the schools closed – I had to look harder for that something else. And I found it. So Covid was a catalyst for a shift in my life that I’m actually pretty happy about. It makes me think: why didn’t I make this change before?
I do take some pride in the fact that I took the opportunity and changed the course of my professional life this year. For me they will always be linked: Covid and my new job. And perhaps one wouldn’t have happened without the other.
Things change and then you adapt – it’s not always worse or better. It’s the same on a global scale: huge pressures lead to huge transformations. Like what’s happening already with our professional lives: we’re all working remotely – that’s a fantastic thing. It makes you think about all that useless time we spent commuting and travelling before, when there was no need; how much time and resources we spent just to go somewhere and sit at a desk far from our house and do exactly what we could be doing at home. It’s so obvious now that it seems outrageous that we were doing this before.
Although I’m optimistic, the borders are still closed and we don’t know what’s going to happen: we don’t know what we’ve lost yet. Sometimes, if I let my mind go to the darkest place, I might start thinking that I won’t ever be able to return to my country again or see my family. This is very unlikely, but it’s really hard to tell. It’s probably going to be alright. We don’t know. Maybe this is just the beginning of something bigger.
This pandemic has proved that something can just come out of the blue and reshape everything. It makes you think – you know those old cliches: don’t rely on the future, don’t take things for granted, act now, take more risks. Our generation isn’t used to this, right? We’ve lived through such a smooth period in history, of peace and stability. And now going through this is a wake-up call. I like that. Having all these unknowns is kind of exciting, too.
There’s definitely no country to blame for the virus. It doesn’t matter at all where it came from – unless you think everything is a conspiracy; but this is absurd. It makes no sense.”
“At first, Covid and the environment seem to be unrelated. And any impact that one has on the other will be indirect. But Covid showed us that when we really need to, we can change, and we do adapt. Look at all the inaction with regards to the climate over the years, compared to the action we’ve taken against the pandemic: vaccines, lock-downs, closing borders and travel. But we acted on Covid because we saw it as an immediate emergency. I don’t think many people perceive climate change in the same, and until we do perhaps we won’t act with the same urgency.
It’s strange because the way we’re working remotely now and not commuting, not travelling, is much more sustainable and more environmentally friendly, even if it’s just for the pandemic. But we can’t go back to the way we were, the way we used to live. Because now we have no excuse: we know we can work from home, we know we don’t need all that air travel – now the travel industry is adapting to promote domestic travel and local tourism, and it’s working. Change needed to happen in these respects before the pandemic anyway, and now Covid has been the catalyst for that change. And Biden has been elected President so that’s likely to be better for the environment, too.”
“Well, I definitely wouldn’t want to be in North America or Europe. Not just because the virus is bad there, but because of the polarization and the animosity: the pandemic has become so political there.
I don’t know if there’s any other country that’s better than Vietnam during the pandemic, but I feel safe here and the country is super friendly to foreigners. Things here are positive and growing, and everything just keeps progressing. Vietnam is also a nice place to be and a beautiful country to travel – that’s something I’ve been doing more of now: travelling domestically, going out and discovering more of the country where I’m based, now that international travel isn’t possible.
People say this so much that it’s almost nauseating: “We’re so lucky to be in Vietnam.” But we really are lucky to be here now. I mean, in Vietnam life just goes on. Not a lot of concerns about Covid-19 anymore. It’s hard to think of a better to place to be. And, for me, now I’m location independent, I’m looking forward to taking my motorbike and exploring more of the country in the next few months. That’s an exciting prospect for 2021.”
Interview Session 3 | Seamus Gough (32, Irish)
“I was managing a hostel in Phong Nha, in Quang Binh Province (Central Vietnam). I’d been doing that job for about six and half years. I was financially stable. Very much so. I’d been doing the same job for years and had saved up a fair bit of money. I was in a good place: I’d paid 3 years’ rent on my house in Phong Nha – up until 2021.
For social life and activities I’d jump on my motorbike, have a ride around Phong Nha National Park, and catch up with some friends in Phong Nha village. It’s a pretty quiet place socially. I met my girlfriend (who’s now my wife) last August, so I was flying down to Saigon about once a month to meet her.
I used to make as many trips as I could whenever I got time off. I went to Singapore last September for the Formula 1 race; and I made various road trips around the country on my motorbike. My plans for 2020 included visiting my folks back home in Ireland – I normally try to head back every couple of years. The last time I was there was the summer of 2018.”
“It was around early January that I started thinking this virus is a bit more serious. I remember living back in Europe during the SARS outbreak in 2003, and I thought Covid would be something like that. But even in January I was still making motorbike trips to the Mekong Delta and a couple of other places. And at that time nobody was really wearing masks – at least not like it is now when everybody is a lot more conscientious.
I think it was in the run-up to Tet (Lunar New Year) around late January that I remember a father and son being hospitalized somewhere in Saigon with Covid-19 – it was at that time that I started taking the virus more seriously. But even then I wouldn’t have thought it would become the global pandemic that it has become today.
I know people in Vietnam who were here during SARS, nearly 20 years ago: they thought it would be like that – the government would close some businesses and tourism for a short time but then everything would open up again. I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be this bad. This pandemic is a once in a century event.”
“Well, I lost my job. The hostel I had been working at for over 6 years closed. I was given a two month holiday for January and February 2020, because my work permit, business visa and temporary residence card were due to be renewed and I’d handed all my documents in to be processed. So I went back to Saigon to be with my girlfriend. But then I got a phone call in early February saying they couldn’t afford to keep me on at the hostel or renew any of my documents because the business wasn’t making enough money. They hadn’t reopened the hostel after the Tet Lunar New Year holidays and the prospect for tourism wasn’t good because of Covid. So I was stranded without a job or a visa. Ultimately, the hostel never reopened: it closed down completely.
Luckily, I was able to get a tourist visa so I could stay in the country and I was financially secure because I had enough money saved up to tie me over. But obviously I had to be careful because at that time I’d been off work and living in Saigon for nearly 2 months, which is much more expensive than life in Phong Nha. And I’d been living relatively lavishly because I wanted to make the most of the big city before I returned to my job at the hostel in the countryside. I’d also just bought a new motorbike and lots of safety gear, and then made lots of road trips out of the city. I did all of this because I thought my job was secure and, come February, I would be back at the hostel, back in Phong Nha, and back to my normal lifestyle of the last 6 years. Of course, no one can forecast the future, but if I’d know what was going to happen, I wouldn’t have spent all that money in the early part of 2020.
I stayed in contact with my folks back in Ireland. Obviously, it didn’t spread to Europe until a bit later, but Vietnam contained the virus very well. Some friends of mine, for whatever reason, flew back to Australia or the United States or wherever they were from at the beginning of the pandemic, and I remember thinking at the time why would you leave Vietnam which was a safe haven compared to many other countries. My parents are in their mid-sixties – in the higher risk age group – as well as various aunts and uncles. They weren’t going out at all; having all their shopping dropped off at their front door: they were locked in their house for 7 or 8 weeks. Whereas, by February, Vietnam had more or less got the virus under control and things were starting to return to a somewhat normal way of life again.
We went 20-something days without a single case in Vietnam. At that point I travelled back up from Saigon to Central Vietnam to try to find work – I asked around in Hoi An and Danang. But most places said normally they’d love to take me on because of the experience I have, but in that moment there was too much uncertainty about what was going to happen. Eventually, I met Stanely, who runs 7 Bridges Brewing Company in Danang, and he offered me some part-time work at an event the next week. In the meantime, I went back up to Phong Nha, for the first time in 2 or 3 months, to pack my bags and move down to Danang.
The event I was hired to work on was to help out at 7 Bridges while the United States aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, moored in Danang in early March, carrying thousands of ‘thirsty’ sailors. We were sat in the 7 Bridges bar on the night the aircraft carrier came ashore when everybody’s phone started going off. This was the moment that a new Covid-19 case was discovered who’d flown in on a commercial flight from Europe, thus breaking Vietnam’s clean streak of no cases. Parts of Hanoi were quarantined and through contact-tracing it was discovered that two tourists on the same flight had travelled on to Danang and visited 7 Bridges, among other places. They both ended up testing positive for Covid-19. We had to shut the bar immediately and all the sailors were told to get back on the aircraft carrier. I knew then that I was going to be quarantined for two weeks: I basically had the choice of spending it in my tiny guesthouse room or in the taproom at 7 Bridges. So I ended up getting locked in the pub for two weeks with three other members of staff. Although it was a bit of joke me being stuck in a pub for quarantine, every morning I’d wake up in the bar and check the news and see the numbers of cases going up and up in Vietnam but mostly in Europe and America. Things were getting worse….and I was in the pub.”
“When the rules started to get stricter, I went back up to Phong Nha and my girlfriend came up from Saigon too and we spent the lock-down together there. When the rules came into effect, we understood them, but compared to Saigon, people in Phong Nha were more lax with them. When my girlfriend arrived on the last train from Saigon (before all transportation was cancelled), my landlady told us we needed to go to the local hospital to get our temperatures checked and then spend 14 days in self-isolation in my house. And that was all fine by us. But at home we were looking out the window everyday and there were kids riding up and down the streets on bicycles with no masks, women playing volleyball in the middle of the road, stuff like that: there seemed to be no social-distancing at all. While we were self-isolating, no one came to check on us or take our temperatures – it was very different to when I was in quarantine in the taproom at 7 Bridges before, when we’d have our temperatures taken twice a day.
After self-isolating it was already the middle of the lock-down period (April, 2020). We went down to the local market in the morning and it was in full swing: no masks, people chatting to each other – my girlfriend said it was so much different from Saigon. It seemed like nobody was taking it seriously. But it varied a lot from place to place, even within the small area of Phong Nha. For example, I remember going out to Cu Nam village, and everyone there was so paranoid. And in Bong Lai Valley (a popular tourist attraction just a few kilometres from Phong Nha), there were a few travellers still knocking about who’d essentially got stuck and chosen to ride out the lock-down in Phong Nha; but you’d hear stories about them going on bicycle rides through the valley and people coming out shouting abuse at them, throwing rocks, throwing mud: essentially chasing them out of Bong Lai Valley. But in Phong Nha village itself, there was none of that. In Phong Nha you’d hardly know there was a pandemic going on, but in Cu Nam and Bong Lai, just a few minutes away by road, people were full of fear and very paranoid.
From my point of view, having lived in Vietnam and Cambodia for 10 years, the rules and restrictions and so-called intrusions on personal privacy and liberties, didn’t really bother me. If this was a way of controlling the virus and finding out who’d been in contact with each new case that was fine by me – I mean, the only way for contact-tracing to be effective is if you’re honest about your personal movements and interactions: if you hide anything, it doesn’t work. I remember waking up every morning and checking the news to find out where the new cases had been discovered. Quang Tri Province had quite a lot of Covid cases, but by some miracle it never really told hold in Quang Binh Province, where Phong Nha is: so everyday I would tune it to find out what was happening. No, I didn’t resent any of the regulations. I did wear masks when necessary, but because I was in the countryside and rarely in contact with anyone else except my girlfriend, it wasn’t such a big thing as it was in the towns and cities.”
“In terms of trusting the media during the pandemic: more or less, yes. There were bits that I read here and there that I raised an eyebrow to, but in general, yes I trusted the news. With regards to statistics, again, yes I believed them. It was a bit surprising that until the second big wave (in Danang in July/August 2020) there weren’t any reported deaths from Covid-19. I remember before then people were asking me if I really believed there had been no deaths. But when the outbreak started in Danang and deaths started to be announced, it seemed to prove that the previous statistics were true: why would they suddenly decide to announce Covid-19 deaths now and not before? That wouldn’t make any sense.
Following the rules? Yes, I did. I think for foreigners living in Vietnam you have to remember you’re guests here. I hate the term ‘expat’ with a passion: to me, I’m a foreigner here, a guest in this country. If I went to Australia, for example, I’d be a guest there and I’d follow whatever the rules are in that country. Or if my girlfriend, who’s Vietnamese, came over to visit my folks back in Ireland, she’d follow the rules there. It’s a matter of wherever you are, regardless of how you feel about the rules in that place, you need to follow them. And that’s what I did during the pandemic here in Vietnam.”
“Because I relocated halfway through 2020, from Phong Nha to Hoi An, I experienced two lock-downs: the first was the nationwide lock-down (in April), which I spent in Phong Nha; the second was the citywide lock-down in Danang/Hoi An (in July and August). The first one there was a lot of Netflix, playing the PlayStation, reading, and hanging out with my girlfriend. But as it started to ease up a little bit, we began to venture out to the market and around the village.
The second lock-down was very different for me, because I actually ended up working during that period. I relocated to Hoi An to work for the new 7 Bridges bar there. We opened on July 10, but were then told to shut down again on July 28 because of the new Covid-19 outbreak. But we continued to do take-away and delivery only. So myself and three others ran everything from the kitchen to the delivery service, working from noon or 4pm until about 9pm every day. We’d be out running food and drink deliveries every day in Hoi An. We had masks on, gloves on, we laid our deliveries on the ground outside so that we had very limited contact with customers. But sometimes I’d turn up at people’s houses and they’d come down to collect the food without a mask on, so I’d have to ask them either put one on or I’d have to just leave the food in their yard along with their change. We had to be very careful during that period: none of us wanted to catch the virus and then spread it around.
It was strange because, although many business in Danang and Hoi An had to close during the lock-down, delivery services thrived. Sometimes when I went to delivery food and drink to a big apartment block or residential zone there would be a long queue of motorbike delivery people waiting outside. But they were all just lined up together, close to each other, no masks on, chatting. There didn’t seem to be any physical-distancing among the delivery people.
I did feel safe in Vietnam during the pandemic. And I was very cautious. Last October/November I had bird flu. I remember how bad that was, and I didn’t want to go through something like that again. I think I also felt safer in the countryside than in the big cities. Would I want to be anywhere else during the pandemic? No. Pure and simple. Vietnam’s population is over 90 million and it’s very densely populated. If there was a serious outbreak like in the UK or the US or Brazil, it’s unlikely Vietnam’s medical infrastructure could cope. So I had confidence that the government would do their very best to make sure the virus remained under control.”
“I wasn’t surprised that Vietnam controlled the virus, but I was surprised at how well they controlled it. Here in Vietnam, we’re all used to propaganda messages being blasted out through loud speakers. But you have a lot of freedom in Vietnam. On certain issues you’re not allowed to speak out, but the Vietnamese people always seem to know exactly what’s going on. I think that the memory of the SARS outbreak here helped people to understand and respond to the Covid-19 pandemic effectively. In both cases the government responded sensibly.
I don’t think the government could have done much better. But the second lock-down was caused by people illegally entering the country – being smuggled in and avoiding quarantine. These irresponsible actions from the people who did that or provided aid for people to do it, ruined the second half of 2020 for many people and many businesses, especially in Central Vietnam where I am. Even today, places like Danang and Hoi An still have a stigma attached to them because of the July/August outbreak – people think there’s still Covid here.
The government awareness campaign through billboards, text messages, songs was effective: it worked; people listened to it. By the time of the lock-down, people in Vietnam had seen the images of hospitals in Italy, India, the UK, the US with doctors, nurses in tears, having breakdowns because they couldn’t cope. No one wanted that to happen over here. When Vietnamese returned to Vietnam from overseas, people would ask them, is it really that bad over there in Germany, or Spain, or the the Czech Republic? And the answer would be yes, it is. That’s the reason so many Vietnamese living overseas decided to come back to Vietnam during the pandemic: they simply felt safer here.
In terms of why similar campaigns for traffic safety and the environment haven’t been so effective, I just think that people don’t really see those as an immediate threat to their lives, even though, in reality, they are.
Yes, other countries could learn from Vietnam’s handling of the pandemic. I mean, when you have someone like Trump, the so-called Leader of the Free World, saying things like don’t wear masks, it’s just like the common cold, it’s a ‘Chinese virus’ – of course things are going to get messed up. They just didn’t take it seriously. Vietnam took it seriously from the beginning and that’s the reason we’re in a good place. I do think if other countries had acted in the same way, we wouldn’t be in the same dire situation globally that we are today.
Ultimately, it was probably a mixture of many elements that led to Vietnam’s successful pandemic response. Vietnam is a rapidly changing nation with a very young population. But when people saw the government taking it seriously, they did too: across all generations. The older generation in Vietnam are more used to hard times and following government advice, but the younger generation here aren’t so much. But there saw how bad this virus was – from social media and being online – and they could see the sense in the government’s response. People weren’t demonstrating in the streets demanding to have their personal freedoms. In Vietnam, you got the sense that most people understood the danger and understood the need for restrictions and regulations. But the government led the way: they were serious from the get-go, and therefore the population would were serious about it too.”
“I’m more optimistic. Just yesterday (December 7, 2020), the first Covid-19 vaccine was given to a person in the UK. Obviously, it will take a long time before enough people are immunized, but things are more hopeful for 2021.
This year has changed many things in my life. Because of the pandemic my professional life and my personal life have been transformed. If the virus hadn’t hit, I wouldn’t be living and working in Hoi An now and I probably wouldn’t have gotten married. This means that, for me, the Year of Covid will always be the year I got married: the two are forever linked. My wife and I never cared about whether or not we got married: that wasn’t important to us; all we needed to know is that we love each other. But because of the pandemic I lost my job and was back on a tourist visa with no idea how much longer I would be able to stay in the country without a job, and no idea how I’d find another job in the hospitality and service industry at a time like this, and if I had to leave Vietnam, I had no idea how long it would be before borders reopened and I would be allowed to re-enter the country again. All these events forced our hand and made marriage a viable option as a way of securing my legal right to live and work in Vietnam. Obviously neither of us wanted a ‘marriage of convenience’; we wanted to get married for the right reasons. But we already knew we loved each other and wanted to spend our lives together, so in the end marriage just made sense. There’s no doubt that the pandemic has been a catalyst for change in my life, and most of it has turned out to be positive.”
“I remember during the height of the pandemic the price of oil went way down: there was too much of it because no one was driving, no one was flying, businesses and factories were closed. That was a strange phenomenon.
I work next to a beach and everyday I see people dumping plastic items on the sand, even though there’s a giant sign in English and Vietnamese saying ‘Don’t litter’. People just ignore it. Last year’s storms were huge. The long beach between Hoi An and Danang was destroyed by coastal erosion: it’s a ruin. Every year it gets worse. And when the rains inland swell the rivers and burst their banks and flood the towns and cities, like last year, all the garbage that gets swept up along the way ends up in the sea and then gets washed up on the beach: the amount of Styrofoam, plastic, light-bulbs, and other non-perishable garbage in the ocean is horrific. Several fatal landslides last year were caused by deforestation: there’s nothing left to keep the topsoil in place. All these things are due to climate change and how we treat the environment, but still very little seems to change.
The problem with single-use plastic has got worse this year, because everyone is getting their food and shopping delivered, which comes in plastic wrappings and bags with plastic cutlery, even though some places, like 7 Bridges where I work, have made an effort not to use single-use packaging. I don’t really see it getting better any time soon, not until New York is flooded or London is hit by several unprecedented storms.”
“I think I’d choose Vietnam. Perhaps if I was in a way better financial position, I’d choose to spend the pandemic on some remote island. But Vietnam has done such a good job, why would I want to be anywhere else.
The only thing I would have done differently was to spend less money at the end of 2019 and early 2020. Of course, I didn’t know what was going to happen: I was on holiday in Saigon and the south, I’d saved up money working in Phong Nha, and now I could spend it having nice meals with my girlfriend, going on road trips, buying a new motorbike. After that, I went eight months without receiving a paycheck, and money was very tight. If I hadn’t got the job with 7 Bridges I don’t know what I would have done. It was a challenging time, but fortunately it turned out well. I live in a nice place near Hoi An with my wife, I have a good job, and I’m happy.”
Interview Session 4 | My Hoang (25, Vietnamese)
“By the time the pandemic hit, I’d been working for Style Motorbikes in Saigon for about 4 years. Style is a motorbike rental company that helps tourists – foreign and local – to do road trips around Vietnam. My job required me to talk and to constantly engage in conversation with people, much like any other customer service job. I wish I could say that they’ve all been terrific customers (anyone who works in a position where they’re required to please customers will understand what I mean). But I loved doing it regardless. My job taught me loads about how to be (more) sociable, how motorbikes work, how to read maps (which frankly I’m still trying to get a hold of), but mostly how to be politely passive-aggressive.
At the end of most days, I just wanted to be by myself, cook something nice, stalk people on social media and silently judge them behind their backs like everyone else does, and generally have some quality me time. My social life, therefore, was (by choice) almost nonexistent, except for the occasional dinner or bbq with the boys after work. You’re more likely to run into me on weekends at a supermarket shopping for a recipe I just found, rather than at a bar or a coffee shop.
That being said, I love travelling. I had very few days off each month so I wanted to make the most of them. Working for a motorbike company comes with certain perks: I could borrow whichever motorbike I wanted and ride off into the sunset (albeit only for 3 days each month). I travelled whenever I got the chance. I found it easier to ‘sell’ an experience to customers that I’d already had, so I considered those road trips market research (or so I told my boss, in order that he might let me off for more than 3 days). I met my now husband in August 2019, who happened to share the same interests. We travelled together as often as we could. He was living in Phong Nha at the time, so every month since we met I’d spend all my days off there. I absolutely loved it.”
“I remember when SARS broke out in Vietnam in 2003 (or 2004). I was in primary school at the time. Neither my parents nor my teachers nor any adults asked me to wear a mask when i was out, or wash my hands more often, or keep a distance from others. Then it was gone and nobody talked about SARS anymore. I thought it would be the same for Covid-19. Boy, was I wrong.
Being honest, when the word ‘corona’ started to make headlines at the end of December 2019, I didn’t think that it was a big deal. A couple from China that used Style Motorbikes at the time came up to me to ask my opinion on the coronavirus. I was quick to dismiss it as ‘just a flu’ and ‘it will be over before you know it’. Looking back, it was utterly ignorant of me to have said that. ‘Just a flu’ was and still is a deadly narrative that I was naive enough to perpetuate, which undermined the severity of what is now a global pandemic. There are still people who don’t take Covid-19 seriously even though there is solid evidence that it is in fact very real.
It was early January 2020 that i noticed a big change in every person in Saigon: this took the form of a mask. Bear in mind that wearing masks in public at that time was only advised; it was not mandatory. To give some context, traffic accidents regularly kill more than 20 people each day on Vietnam’s road. And yet, no one bats an eyelid: some people can’t even be bothered to wear a helmet or drive sober at times. Wearing a helmet wasn’t even mandatory until 2007.
For a virus (that was yet to take any lives in Vietnam at that time) to instill such fear and caution into 90+ million people that they were actively protecting themselves from it and consequently, their community, was a sign that this might become something very serious. Whatever it was, I had a feeling that it was going to get worse before it got better.”
“Work wise, yikes, it went down faster than the ratings of the Star Wars sequel trilogy. The main target of Style Motorbikes is international tourists. Since it was getting more and more difficult to travel internationally, there were fewer and fewer people that were able to make it into Vietnam from outside. Those that had already made it into Vietnam started to question whether they should carry on or end their holiday early and return home; more likely the latter than the former. I started to receive cancellations and early returns. Every now and then, an optimist would walk into the shop and was adamant that they could complete a Saigon to Hanoi road trip amidst Covid slowly spiraling out of control. As much as I wanted to help them fulfill their wish to do so, I didn’t think they had much time before the government started to implement stricter rules on travelling. So, I tried to work around it. I came up with shorter rides (after excessively reading Vietnam Coracle) that they could make the most of during their limited time, be it 7 days or 3 days. This worked out quite well at first.
Then another issue surfaced from February. Vietnamese-owned guesthouses, hostels and hotels started to turn away foreigners, specifically European-looking foreigners. This was around the time when Italy was struggling with a skyrocketing number of Covid cases and deaths. Some Vietnamese living in rural areas, who are as welcoming as they are close-minded, quickly jumped to the conclusion that if you were white, it was very likely you were carrying the virus and therefore you would not be allowed to enter their accommodation. One customer even rang me saying that the reception had called the local police on them.
Numbers of customers plummeted. There were days that nobody came into the motorbike shop. The infamous Bui Vien Street (Saigon’s backpacker hangout) was a ghost town. It was predicted then (March, I think – time was quite blurry to me at that stage) that Covid-19 would be under control by at least September 2020. But who knew how long it would take for the economy to recover, let alone the tourism industry.
Needless to say, anyone working in tourism was bound to lose their jobs. Style Motorbikes financially supported the staff that were let go for the first 2 months. In April, they were still open with only one mechanic working. Flights, trains, buses, and transportation in general gradually became a commodity. After booking and having flights cancelled on me, I finally managed to reserve a berth on a train to Dong Hoi (in Central Vietnam) to spend the impending lock-down in Phong Nha with my boyfriend.
Money was tight but Phong Nha isn’t an expensive place to live. My boyfriend supported me a lot. I started to cook at home more since I now had all the time in the world (and none of the income), but also because, as beautiful as Phong Nha is, food choices are pretty lackluster.
Phong Nha and Quang Binh Province as a whole had zero cases of Covid-19 back then. So when my boyfriend’s landlady heard that I was coming from Saigon – the current epicentre of Covid-19 in Vietnam – she wasn’t particularly pleased. Locals in Phong Nha could tell I was from Saigon by my accent, which made trips to the market very awkward as vendors immediately put on masks whenever I asked how much something was (even though they were communicating with one another without masks).
I didn’t see much of the ‘new normal’ in Phong Nha. Yes, people wore masks more often, but there were still karaoke nights, afternoon volleyball sessions, ladies in pajamas sitting in their front yards gossiping away. ‘New normal’ for me was just my usual ‘normal’, but with a mask on. I was already used to staying at home and away from people way before it was mandated. I’d had years of training. The only thing I had to adapt to was bringing a mask with me whenever I went out.”
“Social distancing was absolutely necessary given our current circumstance. I didn’t think the risk of the virus was at all exaggerated even though some leaders kept insisting that it was. I chose to social distance from people even before it was implemented. Personally, it was something I was already used to so I didn’t feel a loss of individual freedom or anything.
The government has been using text messages to warn the population of natural disasters, online scams and other things long before the pandemic hit. There were some concerns about the government being intrusive and having access to people’s personal details. But after the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 and everything we’ve learned from The Social Dilemma in 2020, I don’t think any of us should be under the illusion that personal privacy or online confidentiality exists anymore.
I didn’t resent any of the regulations and I followed them immediately. I wore a mask at work, in public: whenever I was around other people.”
“Since the world had turned upside down, my boyfriend and I started to read the news religiously. In Phong Nha, the first thing we checked in the morning was whether there were any new cases, recoveries, and, something we hoped would never happen, any fatalities. There was a lot of clickbait around, so much so that it became an art. There was misinformation and ambiguous news (the kind of ‘news’ that was based on ‘person A heard from person B that person C did this and that’) and of course fake news: ‘according to my neighbour who has absolutely no medical experience, taking this pill can cure Covid’.
Many Viet Kieus (overseas Vietnamese) in the US appeared put their confidence in the hands of Trump, who said some wildly inaccurate things about Covid, not to mention opting to not wear a mask. But also the amount of supporters Trump had in Vietnam was colossal. And so, quite a few Vietnamese believed whatever verbal diarrhoea came out of his mouth. I remember in March or April 2020 when Trump took to twitter to announce that anti-malaria drugs were a ‘game changer’ in treating and preventing Covid. The next day, I started to see tabloids in Vietnamese quoting and praising him without thinking twice. My Facebook feed was so toxic I didn’t want to use it, but at the same time it was a good way of knowing who to unfriend.
But I have to say, I had 100% faith in the government statements about Covid during the pandemic in Vietnam. No doubts whatsoever. Yes, I am fully aware that only they have exclusive access to the statistics. But in times of uncertainty, we need leaders that are capable of carrying out a sensible response and producing positive results.
I followed the regulations. I wore a mask in public and I always tried my best to social distance, although this wasn’t always possible. In a check-in queue at an airport, for instance, there would be a distance between me and the person in front of me but not with the one behind me, because I had no control over the action of the person behind. Realistically, social distancing could have been more strictly regulated. But unless you commuted to work inside a zorb ball, it was tricky to stay 2 metres away from others all the time.”
“I spent the nationwide lock-down (in April 2020) in Phong Nha. It’s a lovely place. If you haven’t been to Phong Nha, go! After 2 months of living in Phong Nha, I realized that I actually enjoyed the peace and quiet of the countryside despite minor inconveniences, like a 90km round trip to the closest supermarket. I still love the hustle and bustle of Saigon, but I think I have had enough of it. I would like to be able to breathe without the fear of contaminating my lungs with fine dust and exhaust.
Pre-Covid, Style Motorbikes opened a branch in Hoi An. When 2019 came to an end (before anyone knew what was around the corner), I asked if I could move to Hoi An to work in the new shop and was given the green light to move later in 2020. As it turned out, my boyfriend also got a job in Hoi An, and in August we both packed up to move there. Unfortunately, our move came at exactly the same time as the Covid-19 outbreak in Danang, which is just 30 minutes from Hoi An. So we both ended up spending the second lock-down (limited to specific regions in Central Vietnam) there together.
Time wise, I honestly cannot remember how long lock-down lasted. I started to cook almost every day; lots of movies and series were inexorably consumed; video games, too. My boyfriend and I did little motorbike loops around Phong Nha sometimes, because lock-down was quite loose there.
Did I feel safe? Absolutely. For a developing country, Vietnam rose to the occasion. The government and people have been fighting the pandemic with relentless determination and it has paid off. I am not the only one to feel extremely privileged to be in a country that has acted so quickly and responsibly to this crisis.”
“A round of applause for the government, the essential workers, the health professionals, the flight crews of all repatriation flights, and every single Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese that wore a mask and followed the guidelines. Without their contribution, we wouldn’t have been able to have birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, Christmas/non-denominational dinners, and numerous other social events with family and loved ones in 2020.
It was fantastic how quickly the government responded to the pandemic. I think because of the legacy of SARS in 2003/4 and H5N1 (bird flu) in 2005, measures were quickly put in place to mitigate the numbers of community transmissions. The government took decisive action early on and the result was impressive.
I think good leadership went a long way. The Vietnamese government’s action was decisive and timely. Quarantine measures, for instance, were based on exposure risk rather than symptoms, which is a very practical method to keep the virus contained. Covid tests and treatments were made affordable and public communication was also vital in controlling the pandemic. Since staying at home became the new normal, campaigns to raise awareness were run all over the virtual world that is social media.
Vietnam along with South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and New Zealand demonstrated that it is possible to return to normal life if guidelines are followed. I truly cannot understand why there are people who are still either denying the existence of Covid and/or refusing to take precautions (that have been proven effective in other countries) against community transmission.
The reason why the Covid-19 awareness campaign worked was because the song was so damn catchy! It was the baby shark equivalent for corona prevention. It also worked because everyone’s lives were simultaneously interrupted. At a time when the country could have fallen into total disarray, the people came together and came to their senses: either we fought it off or we crumbled. End of.
One of the silver linings of this very dark cloud was the sense of solidarity among Vietnam’s 90+ million people, which in turn underpinned a thriving national welfare. In public schools, at the age of four every Vietnamese child has to learn 5 lessons from Uncle Ho before we are taught anything else. The first lesson is to ‘love your country, love your people’. And only then should you continue to lesson 2, which is to ‘study hard and work hard’. It is deeply ingrained in every Vietnamese person at a very young age that when you find yourself in a time of catastrophe, unity is strength.
I feel like I will be crucified for saying this but many Vietnamese are inherently in denial of any socio-economic issue as long as they think their lives are not directly affected by the consequences. They are unable to see the long term repercussions that will inevitably bring them (and generations to come) to their knees. And as a result, they choose to ignore it or shift the responsibility onto someone else. This is one reason why similar campaigns to raise public awareness on other issues, such as road safety and the environment, have largely been unsuccessful.
However, the road safety campaign is a poor excuse for raising public awareness. The population is bombarded with numbers of accidents, injuries, and fatalities, but no one even bothered to look into raising the standards for helmets. I mean, the piece of plastic that is called a ‘helmet’ in Vietnam can actually contribute to head injuries on impact rather than protecting the user. And it was not even until recently that drunk driving was taken seriously. In addition, traffic police are notoriously corrupt. So the campaign felt superficial and not ethically-driven. Hence, it was ineffective and largely ignored.”
“Even though some leaders insist so, no one and no nation is to blame for the virus. The fact that it was used as a political agenda to turn people against each other is utterly ludicrous and almost inhumane. This virus brought out the best and also the absolute worst in people.
Is there anything I’ve learned from this year? Expect the unexpected, I guess. Coronavirus is diabolical, but statistically there will come a day when a new virus capable of more destruction surfaces and wreaks havoc. If you look at the history of global pandemics, the time gap between the previous one and the current one is narrowing by the decade. They used to be centuries apart.
Due to unemployment, being broke, and boredom, I learned how to cook. Finally! I also spent an awful lot of time reflecting on myself. That was long overdue and much needed. A form of self therapy. I have put it off for years in fear that I would not like the person that I was and so I did not have the courage to even allow myself to think about it. I figured if I kept myself occupied enough, it would somehow disappear. But when I was unemployed (with too much free time), it was creeping up on me. So I thought I might as well confront it and get it over with. It was such a relief that I actually started to practice self-reflection more regularly. I started to keep a journal to check in with myself. My mental well-being improved so much. I’m pretty proud of that.
I also found peace in working with animals. I started volunteering at a cat shelter because I’d rather be surrounded by cat crap than reading the crap regurgitated on social media. That is something I wish I had done differently, spending less time online. People’s remarks were filled with vitriol. A bit of compassion really wouldn’t have gone amiss.
Unfortunately, some individuals took it upon themselves to dig up irrelevant private details of Covid-19 patients in the name of power, thinking they were doing everyone a favour. Patients, who I think we could all agree already had enough on their plates, were publicly slandered in the cyber world for simply catching the virus. Even in the event that someone violated the rules of quarantine, it is up to the the justice system to prosecute them, not the keyboard warriors, some of whom even had the audacity to drag and shame the patients sexual orientation into it, which is not only irrelevant but also damaging for the LGBTQ+ community that has already been marginalized by generations of internalized homophobia. It was regrettable that this happened. And unfortunately I know that people will still choose to be hateful and hold prejudice against what they consider not normal, even after the pandemic is over.
There were changes in everyone’s life in one way or another. Not all of them were necessarily bad. A lot of people left this year behind with new skills, more friends, better relationships with family, less toxic people in their lives, more appreciation for the bodies they’re in, and so on. Achievements like those should not be dismissed, even granted that they were likely the direct/indirect result of the pandemic. So I wouldn’t call it ‘Year of Corona’. There was enough negative connotation to 2020. I would like to end the year on a high note by appreciating the positivity that came out of it, no matter how little.”
“I believe humanity’s greatest existential crisis is climate deterioration.
In 2020, the world might have been occupied with the coronavirus, but that did not mean climate deterioration was any less. Wildfires spread like, well, wildfires. There were oil spills in Venezuela in October, Mauritius in August, Russia in May. The amount of oil spilled in 2020 was roughly 22,000 tons, which was 21,000 tons more than 2019. The Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam was desperate for fresh water as they suffered their worst drought whilst sea water intrusion continued to advance. Central Vietnam was bombarded by four consecutive storms that wiped out the coastline unlike anything the locals had seen before. Granted there were less factory emissions because of lock-downs around the world, but there was also a steep decline in wages, and unemployment spiked. The economy will eventually recover, but there is no going back on the damages done to the ecosystem. Wildlife and the natural world has been ravaged by us humans, and humans alone.
In 2020, I have been trying to be more environmentally conscious in my day-to-day routine. I now read the ingredient lists on almost everything I purchase, a lot of which, I now realize, contains palm oil. I was previously oblivious to the fact that I’d been contributing to the expansion of the palm oil industry which is single-handedly eradicating the population of orangutans by destroying their habitat.
I’ve developed a love-hate relationship with sustainable alternatives to shopping bags and straws. I reckon it only works when the production of plastic bags and single-use plastic worldwide is discontinued. Here’s a fun fact, though: plastic bags were actually invented in the 1960s to save the planet because too many trees were being cut-down to produce paper bags. Paper bags also break easily; plastic bags can be reused.
I even attempted to grow some vegetables in 2020, but my crops were destroyed by the storms. I wish the businesses in Vietnam that are producing “sustainable products” would be more transparent about their carbon footprint (where the materials come from, how they were made, and what the carbon cost of transportation is). I can only hope that they are driven more by ethics than by money.
I have to come to terms with the fact that we are all hypocrites. It is near impossible to exist within our current system without contributing to climate change. But let’s not waste time pointing fingers. We have to overcome individual blame and build an inclusive movement.”
“I wouldn’t change my location. I got to spend the pandemic with the best person ever and he introduced me to so many new things.
The pandemic has been tough on all of us. We, the ones that are lucky enough to be in Vietnam, have gone through (hopefully) the worst of it. Recently seeing domestic tourists flock to Hoi An for holidays again really sparked a light of hope in me. I believe 2021 will be a better year.”
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write: my content is always free & independent. I’ve written & conducted these interviews because I want to: I’m interested in people’s pandemic experiences & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here