Living in Vietnam during this pandemic has made us appreciate Vietnam even more than we already did. We’re grateful to be here as opposed to almost anywhere else in the world.
The year 2020 started out on a high note. Daisey & I rang in the new year in Inle Lake, Myanmar. Shortly thereafter, we were rediscovering Malaysia. By the end of January, the news of the coming pandemic was putting a damper on things. In early February, we flew into Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Not sure what to expect, things were still operating as normal. There was however a vague sense of dread permeating everything. We went to Vung Tau to eat our favorite seafood: Bay Scallops and BBQ octopus with okra. Then a few days later we headed to our preferred home away from home (wherever home is), Da Nang. We planned to stay there for a few months but then Corona clipped our wings. We are still, eight months later, in Da Nang, not regretting a thing.
People we meet in Da Nang often ask us if we got stuck here. If truthful, I suppose the answer is yes. Honestly, we don’t see it that way. We are happy to be here. Yes, our plans got rearranged but we are grateful to be here and fortunately, flexible enough to readily adjust to the circumstances. Reading the world news, we realize how lucky we are to be here. Vietnam has been a case study on how to handle an epidemic. We would like to share our experiences and observations with you.
In the beginning, we were like everyone else, a little anxious. How bad was this going to get? How contagious? Were we all going to die? After all, we were in a country bordering with China. We wondered if made a mistake staying in a developing country during a pandemic where we don’t speak the language or have any rights. This is our fifth year coming to Vietnam – had we pushed our luck? We felt safe (& happy) here. The officials announced they were soon closing the borders. So, we trusted our intuition and decided to ride it out.
The first lockdown came in late March. It lasted at least six weeks. At no point was there panic shopping — or shortages. Hand sanitizer ( and toilet paper) was readily available, as were masks. We had to wear them whenever we ventured out for food. Restaurants eventually were closed — even for take out. Only markets and pharmacies remained open. There were people who took your temperature when you entered a grocery store. Hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol in spray bottles were to be found at every entrance and on every countertop — even at most every ATM machines. Billboards and posters were seemingly everywhere reminding us to wash, socially distance, and look for the symptoms. Locally, there were “Rice ATMs” that dispensed rice to anyone in need of food. The government even commissioned a catchy pop song that seemed to be playing everywhere. The song went viral… and soon there was a TikTok dance challenge that was even featured in a John Oliver episode on the Corona virus. Amazingly, everyone complied — aside from a few ‘entitled’ foreigners that couldn’t resist resisting. Within 6 weeks or so, there was no more ‘community transmission’.
In stages, the government eased restrictions. Within weeks, we were back to our regularly scheduled program: eating in restaurants, weekend beers in bars, live music, swimming at the beach. Life in Vietnam, in spite of the global pandemic, was getting back to normal — not the new normal, but the old normal. We almost had a sense of survivor’s guilt knowing what our friends and family were going through, both in the States and Europe.
After 99 days without community transmission, quite suddenly, and surprisingly, a new case popped up here in Da Nang. No one was sure — or ever able to derive its origins. A sense of orderly panic shot through the city, province, and country. Because it was in the month of July, and there were over 200.000 domestic tourists that were in — or had recently been in — Da Nang vacationing, everyone thought the much-dreaded second wave was going to be much more widespread.
From the onset, Da Nang evacuated all the domestic tourists to their respective home cities, over 80,000 in three days. Of course, the 2nd lockdown started immediately. Schools closed. Businesses shuttered — even restaurants. We were again restricted to our homes, allowed to leave only for food or medical excursions. Quarantine centers were established. A makeshift hospital was built in three days in the city’s auditorium — just in case. A schedule for city-wide (free) testing was established — including foreigners. (There are more than a million residents here in Da Nang). As before, extensive contact tracing went into effect. There was also a Health Declaration app that we were encouraged to routinely check in with. All we could do was check the daily news and hope for the best. Fortunately, as before, the best was accomplished.
This time the epicenter of the outbreak was at a hospital here in Da Nang. Unfortunately, that resulted in Vietnam’s first deaths from the Coronavirus. All the victims had numerous comorbidities. The city and the country braced itself for a widespread outbreak. With a well-laid plan in effect, after a few weeks, the numbers started going down — all the way to zero. In the past three weeks, there has been no community transmission and once again, life is returning back to the new normal. We still wear masks in public, but that’s about the extent of it. Businesses are open again. Beaches too. Even bars, spas, and gyms. Not bad for a developing country with over 95 million people.
This experience has made us rethink what it means to be a developed country. It has also forced us to reconsider how important and powerful a sense of community can be. It seems, thus far, the titans of the First World have failed to protect their citizens during this pandemic as well as many developing countries — particularly in Southeast Asia. As guests in the house of Vietnam, we have been continually impressed with the provisional oversight they have given their citizens — and guests. We only wish this model of care and planning was something that was exported to the western world.
On a related note, during the first lockdown, I devoted my time and energy to making a pandemic beat tape called Shelter Skelter. What is that, you ask? It’s a music project made from old Pandemic films. Unfortunately, it’s still as relevant as it was in April. It was released on cassette by Full Plate in Atlanta, Georgia. The tapes have since sold-out but the digital version is available for free. Enjoy!