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Order governed Ho Chi Minh City during its effective first lockdown, but laxity has returned

The mood in the Vietnamese city, home to some 13 million people, is one of confidence. Given the country’s low active-case total, there has been no sense of panic.

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On 24 July, Vietnam was enjoying its 99th consecutive day without any detected community transmissions of coronavirus. The country’s Covid-19 death toll stood at zero, while the case total was just 416, many of which were Vietnamese people returning from abroad, and were quarantined upon arrival. While the borders remained closed, daily life had largely returned to normal: masks were no longer required, social distancing regulations had expired and domestic travel was doing major business, with popular destinations packed on weekends.

That changed the following day, when a community transmission case was confirmed in Da Nang, a city of one million on the central coast. The case total has since climbed to 1,060, while the death toll has reached 35, and the source of the initial transmission remains a mystery.

The vast majority of these new cases were in Da Nang, but infections were also detected in 14 other cities and provinces, including Hanoi and here in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). Fortunately, the number of new cases in Vietnam’s largest city and commercial capital remains in the single digits, and local officials have avoided implementing large-scale shutdowns in order to prevent further economic damage.

The outbreak appears to have been brought under control: nightclubs and bars in Ho Chi Minh City have reopened, and domestic transport to and from Da Nang has resumed. However, large public events remain suspended and mask usage is once again required. Residents can be fined up to $15 for failing to wear a mask, and hundreds of people have been penalised in recent weeks. Temperature checks and hand sanitiser have also returned to the entrances of nearly every business, though adherence to social distancing is mixed.

In August the Japanese lifestyle brand Muji opened in its first location in the country, in central Ho Chi Minh City. Outside the building, tape was placed on the pavement to ensure a safe distance between people waiting in line. However, once inside the store, it was impossible to keep one’s distance from other shoppers. Outside, mask usage is widespread but not universal, and many road-side cafés and restaurants remain very busy.

Once masks became mandatory again, I was at first concerned about going running. It’s too uncomfortable to run with a mask on, but I didn’t want to risk a fine. Having gone out several times without wearing one, it seems enforcement is quite lax. Sometimes the half-measures are the worst of all worlds. Barricades seal off a nearby park by the Saigon River, but a small gap remains through which people can squeeze.

The mood in this busy city of some 13 million is one of confidence. Given the low active case total here, there has been no sense of panic, but if the situation were to worsen, there is little doubt that people would react quickly.

In late March, when a virus cluster was detected at a bar in an expatriate neighbourhood, the city largely came to a halt until the outbreak was brought under control. For now, residents here are watching for potential resurgence cautiously, lest their relatively carefree post-lockdown life be jeopardised once more.

Read the rest of the “Postcards from Planet Covid” series here

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid