COVID-19: ON THE GROUND IN SAIGON

Updated: Mar 21

Over the last few weeks, as I've been reading and watching all the reports about COVID-19 from around the world, it makes me really thankful that I'm here in Vietnam. While the cases continue to rise in my hometown Canada and elsewhere, I feel really safe here as measures have been taken from the government and the people early on. So I thought I'd give you a glimpse of what's it like being here during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Photo by Tien Nguyen

As the cases in China started to appear, the Vietnamese government acted quickly and started testing all flights coming in from Wuhan. Then they decided as of January 29th to close nationwide all schools including language and afterschool academic centres. Every few weeks the government reassesses the situation and currently, the schools are closed until April 6th. In the wake of this announcement, the schools scrambled to get online programs in place and the parents scrambled to adapt to a life of homeschooling.


Prevention and communication are key and The Ministry of Health started text messaging almost daily, to everyone about prevention methods, updates on cases, and information about what they should do if they thought they were infected. They created an animated music video about washing your hands and everyone doing their part to combat COVID-19, "Ghen Cô Vy" by ERIK x MIN x KHẮC HƯNG that went viral with TikTok videos popping up all over social media. Then the video was picked up by John Oliver and the song exploded in the West.

Full Video

In February, Vietnam started to see cases appear throughout the country. People were tested, treated, and quarantined. Their movements were tracked and potential cases were tested and home quarantined for 14 days. The 16 infected people were quarantined, treated and released during this period. After this initial outbreak, Vietnam was free and clear for 22 days with no new cases. We were taken off the United Nations' list of the infectious areas to avoid and the city was starting to get back to normal.


Then on March 2nd, it was the flight that changed it all....VN54 from London to Hanoi. One passenger, 26-year-old Vietnamese socialite, Nguyen Hong Nhung, attended fashion shows in Milan and Paris before visiting family in London and before flying back to Hanoi. On March 5th she went to the hospital, tested positive and became Patient 17. The government cracked down and enforced a 14-day quarantine for the 189 residents on Truc Bach Street, where Patient 17 lived. I knew the area well and used to stay with friends there whenever I visited Hanoi. Then Patient 17's friend who was still in London at the time, and had attended the shows with her started to feel ill. She went to various UK health centres to get tested but was unable to. So instead, on March 9th, she booked a private jet and flew back to Vietnam, tested positive and became Patient 32.


VN Express Video: "The Flight that Changed Vietnam's COVID-19 Course"


I started to see friends and friends of friends posting online that they were self-quarantining themselves as they had come in contact with possible infected people or were in the same place as Patient 17. It started to become more real to me.


From that point onwards, cases started to pop up all over the country connected to Patient 17. The government worked hard and quickly to track people's movements and home quarantining people who may have come into contact with any of the infected people. They placed security guards in quarantined areas. People who were home quarantined, living in apartment complexes have their key cards taken and security guards stationed in front of their doors. The buildings released information to residents about the quarantine and temporarily closed gyms and pools. The government made sure every quarantined person was provided with 3 meals a day and assisted them to receive online food deliveries and supplies.


Check out the article below of an Englishman's experience in quarantine "It's clear that while the rest of the world waited, Vietnam has been preparing."

As the cases in Europe started to rise the Vietnamese government added those countries onto the already existing list of places that they closed the doors to. Then other cases not related to Patient 17 started to pop up around the country. In order to track people's movement, Health declaration forms were now mandatory for anyone coming into the country. As more cases rose, they took an additional step and decided to limit the number of foreigners coming into the country. No tourist visas would be issued from those countries with high infection rates and anyone coming in from those places with valid visas or citizens were immediately tested and placed into quarantine while they waited for the results. Quarantine centres were created outside of Saigon and major city centres (see above for one man's experience) with all testing, quarantine, and treatment free for Vietnamese citizens. Testing and quarantine would be free for foreigners but they would have to pay for treatment and the test if it comes out negative.

Then last weekend, as a preventative measure to curb the spread, they shut down all bars, clubs, karaoke, cinemas, massage places in the entire city and required everyone to wear masks in crowded public places such as supermarkets, bus stations, airports, etc... No mask, no entry. People who purposely hide their illness or attempt to evade quarantine will be fined.


In terms of supplies, we have plenty. There was only one day where people went a bit crazy and that was the Saturday after Patient 17 was found infected. The day after, supplies were re-stocked. I ran out of cat food and ran to the supermarket just before closing that day and the 4 deep refrigerated units that were normally full of chicken were completely empty. I asked a staff if they had put it away and they said, "no it sold out. It was pandemonium all day today." I've never seen the instant noodle aisle so empty before. And the toilet paper aisle was completely full. :D

The country has done great and have found innovative ways to help each other. When dragonfruit farmers posted on social media about the loss of income due to a decrease in demand from China, the local bakery brand ABC Bakery bought them up, made pink bread and the people flocked to buy them.


On March 20th, KFC will debut a pink dragonfruit burger, which will give Popeye's chicken sandwich a run for its money.


People have been giving out free masks on the street, supermarkets have limited the number of hand sanitizers you can buy. Public places and private apartment buildings have large sanitizer bottles to use upon entering and exiting. Companies have employees working from home. All to try and curb COVID-19 infection cases.


While all of this has been fantastic. The country has also been hit hard financially, the hospitality and tourism industry in particular, including Hidden Saigon. It is estimated that the Vietnam tourism sector will lose around $5 Billion US. The streets are empty, hotel and tour cancellations are the norm now, restaurants and cafes are empty, decrease in customers, canceled events that affect artists and suppliers (Equipment rental houses, printing services, etc). The ripple effect has been enormous.


Last week I went to the Central Post Office to courier a letter and I've never seen it that empty in my 14 years of living here. On an average day, you see around 100 tourists in there at one time, with tour buses and cars lined up outside. This time there were about 20 tourists and less than five vehicles.


Yesterday I went to my favourite Hu Tieu Sate My Tho place, that is on our Other Than Pho Tour to sadly see it gone and replaced by a cafe. Friends have closed restaurants and cafes and others are on the brink of closing. We're all doing what we can to support each other by ordering delivery and takeaway and sending supportive messages to one another.


As of March 17th Vietnam has 66 infected, no deaths and 16 fully recovered. Hopefully, with the hard work that the Vietnamese government and people have been doing so far, we will be able to curb the COVID-19 infections.


Links:

Video: Vox: "Why fighting the coronavirus depends on you"

Worldometer: Up to Date Tracking of Coronavirus

Need to Keep Busy While in Isolation? Check out these free online courses

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