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Coronavirus Lockdown in Vietnam

Musings from My Rooftop in Ho Chi Minh City

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

April 17, 2020

A police pick-up truck parks each night on the shore of the Saigon River. A large speaker on the back blares information in Vietnamese and English about the latest government directives regarding the Covid-19 epidemic. I can see and hear it from the rooftop deck of my apartment building.

Normally, the riverfront promenade would be bustling with people enjoying the sunset, but the loudspeaker’s message is clear:

Go home.

It feels like a throwback to an earlier era in Vietnam, when megaphones mounted on telephone poles would crackle to life each day at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., playing patriotic music and the latest government-sanctioned news.

On my first trip to Vietnam in 2008, I bicycled through tiny villages in the Mekong Delta, and asked my guide what the announcements were for.

“It’s the news,” he said. “Because not everyone has a radio.”

That might have made sense in the 1970s, but in 2008, Vietnam was well connected to the Internet. Even in poor areas of the Mekong Delta, many families’ front doors opened up to show off a living room status symbol: flat-screen TVs.

The megaphone newscasts were a way for the government to disseminate information, and in parts of Vietnam, they still are; however, I’ve never encountered them in Ho Chi Minh City. I can see a pair of megaphones from my bedroom window, but based on the daily arrival of the pickup truck, I assume they no longer work.

I’ve lived in Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) since 2015. As the Covid-19 outbreak swept through parts of China and Korea, I started receiving e-mails from worried friends and family, asking if I was safe. The truth is, I feel a hell of a lot safer in Vietnam right now than I would in the United States.

The government here has taken the coronavirus outbreak seriously since the onset. In January, they sealed the northern land border and banned incoming flights from China. Schools nationwide have been closed since late January – a decision many of my teacher friends thought was an overreaction at the time, though now, most agree this was a rational decision.

Loosely translated, this poster says, “Resisting the epidemic is resisting the enemy. Wear a mask regularly and properly to prevent and control Covid-19 effectively.” (Photo: Greg Dolezal)

Early in the outbreak, the government also launched an information campaign, encouraging everyone to wear masks in public and wash their hands frequently. What began as suggestions has evolved into rules, which have become more and more restrictive.

In mid-March, all bars, karaoke centers (a big thing here) and massage parlors were ordered to close. The ban was extended two weeks later to all non-essential businesses.

Travel restrictions have grown tighter and tighter. By late February, nobody was allowed to board a flight if they had been to China recently. In mid-March, the government announced that only two airports in the country – in Saigon and Hanoi – would accept international flights, and that anybody arriving in Vietnam from abroad would be required to undergo a mandatory two-week quarantine in a government quarantine center.

Travelers were warned about this rule before boarding flights. Those who chose to fly to Vietnam anyway were taken straight from the airport to dorm-room facilities, where they were housed and fed free of charge under military supervision.

The quarantine centers filled up with more than 45,000 people. Eventually, Hanoi became the only airport accepting international flights – and then, a couple of weeks ago, all international flights into Vietnam were banned. Most domestic flights and intercity bus services were also halted, as were local bus and taxi services.

The country has been under a stay-at-home order since April 1. It is now illegal to go outside without a face mask. The only reasons you are allowed out are to go to a grocery store, a doctor, a pharmacy, or to work if your business is still open. Public gatherings of more than 10 people were banned. That number was later reduced to two people.

Exchange rate translation: People not wearing a mask could be fined up to US $13 … or sentenced to 12 years in jail. (Photo: Greg Dolezal)

Supermarkets take your temperature and require you to apply hand sanitizer before you enter. Bottles of sanitizer have also been placed at many ATMs.

I look out my window and, in a city that normally roars with motorbikes 24-7, things are eerily quiet. Late at night, stray dogs now own the streets. The dogs seem to be enjoying the no-traffic freedom the lockdown has given them. I watch them from my fifth-floor window, wishing I had a laser pointer for them to chase.

I rode my motorbike into the city center two weeks ago to see my doctor. Lể Duân Street is usually swarming with motorbikes.`

In spite of the fact that some people have tried to paint the coronavirus as an Asian disease, the Vietnamese government’s early and swift action has been effective.

At the moment I’m writing this – lunchtime in Saigon, midnight in New York, on April 17 – there have been more than 670,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States and 33,000 deaths.

In Vietnam, we’ve had 268 confirmed cases and zero deaths.

The moon and Jupiter, rising over Ho Chi Minh City a couple of weeks ago.

Friends on Facebook have speculated that’s because the government in Vietnam might be under-reporting the number of cases here so the country doesn’t look bad, but I don’t buy that. What I’ve experienced over the last couple of months is that the government wants to scare the hell out of all of us, so we take the pandemic, and their restrictions, seriously. Assuming that’s their goal, there would be no benefit to downplaying the spread of the virus.

On March 18, I came down with a low-grade fever and a mild sore throat. I self-quarantined in my apartment for 17 days. Just as I was feeling better and my doctor said it was safe for me to go out again, the lockdown restrictions went into place. So in the last month, I’ve spent maybe an hour outside my apartment building.

Being allowed back on the rooftop deck again has been a treat. I go there most evenings, after the day’s heat and humidity have gone away, to watch the barges in the river, and the dogs in the road, and the pickup truck on the shore.

Published on Friday, April 17, 2020

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