A dose of ‘Rona Reality’ after three COVID-free months in Vietnam

vietnam covid poster

Poster by Le Duc Hiep with the words, ‘To stay at home is to love your country’.

After three months of glorious ‘life after lockdown’ here in Vietnam, I’m having a dose of Rona Reality. I suspected it would come.

It’s been three months of euphoria, pinching ourselves, saying “we’re so lucky”, and doing the thumbs up whenever a Vietnamese person with a bit of English says, “Vietnam safe; Vietnam beat Covid”. It was good to see the nation so proud − and great to re-integrate into the society, after the unsettling anti-foreigner sentiment that COVID-19 brought about earlier in the year here.

As a life-long pessimist, I wondered when the bubble would burst. This week, it did.

On Monday, because I’d recently been to Danang − where there’s been a flare-up of Covid after nearly 100 days of no community transmission in this country bordering China − I was ordered to self-isolate at home.

Compared with what others have experienced this year, it’s not much to complain about.

Besides, we’ve had the freedom to go out without masks on (and so on) for some time. Because everyone deemed the country safe (and it WAS), our new normal had relaxed enough to look not that different to the old normal − except we don’t go out as much as before, are still trying to recover financially and are all in limbo about future plans as we can’t go back to our countries right now.

Still, we all shared this feeling of having found ourselves in one of the safest places in the world. There was this sense of being held in a soft cocoon, while the virus caught up with the rest of the world, and sucker-punched our home countries.

The minute I could, I travelled locally, supporting the Vietnamese government’s drive to boost local travel. I’d accumulated a year of Annual Leave dates, and I was finally free to take them. (Would you have done the same?)

Since our social distancing ended, I’ve watched the sun set from Cát Bà Island; planted rice in Sapa; learnt how to embroider in Ninh Binh; swam in rim-flow pools overlooking the sea in Danang; and bought custom-made wares in beautiful Hội An. Tourists were few, hotels were cheap, and those in the service industry were all eager to please, clearly so enthusiastic to be serving customers again.

"Cat Ba Beach

Cat Ba Beach, the first weekend after lockdown, was the first place I took my mask off (everyone else was without one). Mask-free locals saw us and joked, nervously, “No COVID!

Then news of one new case of COVID in Danang broke. My landlady began frantically messaging and phoning. “When did you get back from Danang? The authorities want a list of all the places you went to and stayed in Danang. Hurry, they are waiting!”

I thought that was that – I’d flown back on 17 July, a day before the 18 July date they’d announced as the ‘safe’ cut-off period. Phew! “I’m so lucky”, I said, high-fiving the people I was with on a trip to Ninh Binh.

Those three words: I’m so lucky.

Before COVID, I hadn’t said them much in relation to my own life. But it’s funny how quickly you can get used to that idea, even as a pessimist – and to a tenuous, false sense of security (when you really need it).

The sense of rebirth and elation was quite something to experience. But since we’ve been taught that pride comes before a fall, and we wouldn’t want to ‘lose face’, there was still underlying uncertainty and caution. In my case, there was also some guilt. Sure, we faced Corona fears and social-distancing early, given our geographic closeness to China. But, thanks to Vietnam’s swift, strict response, it was nothing like what our home countries are now experiencing with the full-on COVID blow.

But back in Danang, when we all still believed Vietnam was safe, we finally blew caution to the wind. We’d gradually done all the post-lockdown ‘firsts’: first beer out, first grocery-shopping trip, first social dinner, first staff meeting, first face-to-face class, first time being brave enough to go to tourist areas as a foreigner, etc. Now that we’d navigated out first time in an airport, it was time for our first time in a local nightclub.

Karma, hey.

It turns out when me and my friends were bar hopping, dancing, and sharing cigarettes and body space with Vietnamese youth in a nightclub called Hair of the Dog – counting our lucky stars that we could enjoy life again sans masks or social-distancing restrictions – we were in the same area that the man who later tested positive had visited at some overlapping point in time.

(Don’t judge: We started the corona battle back in January. We couldn’t teach face-to-face for three months. There had been no new cases of infection for nearly 100 days.)

Note, too, the word ‘area’: We were not in the same venues as this infected person (bless his soul, health, family) just in the general vicinity of streets. And that shows how efficient the Vietnamese contact-tracing strategy has been; how they managed to contain the virus so well, for so long. Within two hours of receiving my detailed list (thanks, Google timelines), they’d deemed me enough of a risk. “If you are out, get home. They are coming,” my landlady said.

Boy, was I scared. I didn’t know whether they were the police, ‘coming to take me away’ to one of the many military-style quarantine facilities I’ve seen pictures of and read about. All my xenophobia fears from earlier in the year resurfaced, and that sense of being so powerless as a foreigner in a country without the essential tool that is language.

quarantine

Gavin Wheeldon wrote about his experience in a Vietnamese quarantine facility, saying is wasn’t too bad. I see a lack of mattresses…

I was pacing, calling my housemate at work (a language school). The potential severity of the situation was freaking me out (“What if I DO have COVID? I live opposite a daycare! I work with children! I’ve just bought cigarettes from the old lady shopkeeper a few houses down!”). This was ‘worst-nightmare’ stuff a few months ago, when locals assumed we were travellers bringing COVID into the country and we were treated like disease-ridden ticking time bombs. Even our Vietnamese colleagues started stepping away from us, with clear fear in their eyes, thinking we’d perhaps been in contact with foreign travellers and so on.

Hanoi xenophobia during covid

A sign in Hanoi from a few months back, when anti-foreigner fears were high (as was xenophobia).

Would they haul me off, those men in green who frightened me during our lockdown?

I left my weekend bag from Ninh Binh packed in case I’d have to leave in a hurry, as I’d been told others going to quarantine had had to do. Then, for some strange reason, I put on my favourite dress and earrings, so that if they marched me off in full view of the nosy neighbours, I’d at least be able to hold my head up high. (I know, I know: logic level = zero.)

THE BACK STORY TO THE FEAR (circa March 2020):

During lockdown, there were checkpoints on every street (three on my little alley alone). The army was called upon. When the uniformed officials first saw me, their eyes widened and they asked the taxi driver: Where did you collect her from? Where is she going?

They were worried I was a traveller, just in from some flight or other. As I’m mute without the language, it was intimidating. Especially given the trickles of info we were getting at the time − that security guards and officials were threatening foreigners with instant detainment in the military quarantine facilities if they didn’t provide passports/money/medical certificates etc.

On the day we finally got news of a ‘lockdown’ (they don’t like that prison-like term here, preferring ‘social distancing’), communicated via Whatsapp from our manager, we went straight to the grocery store to stock up. Returning home an hour later, the officials stopped me and my American friend, called us out of my home where we were separating our groceries. They marched us back to the checkpoint, took our temperatures, phoned people, and kept us there. They didn’t want to use Google translate to answer my question: “What are our temperatures? Why are we being kept here?”

The neighbours I’d had for 10 months gathered. My friend didn’t have his passport. He was without a phone. He was nervous. I was furious. I called my landlady to talk to the sternest official, a man old enough to have fought in the Vietnam War. He let us go. I walked in front, my friend behind, between the rows of onlookers and neighbours standing at their doorways, as I raged with a sense of injustice and powerless.

Two more intimidating home visits from immigration police followed within the hour. And only when my landlady and her husband arrived in person did they disband and leave. My landlady was clear: no more visitors. No more going out.

Fortunately, that was the worst of my run-ins with officials. But the encounter − along with hostility from locals jumping out the way when they saw me, saying “không tây! Corona/Covid!” [No Westerners! Corona/covid!] – made me feel quite unwelcome here in HaiPhong, North Vietnam, where foreigners are few and remain ‘Othered’ to begin with.

BACK TO MONDAY, THREE DAYS AGO:

So there I was in my pretty dress and dangly earrings. Pacing. Looking down at the alley from my balcony, waving at the toddlers saying “Helloooo!” to me from their daycare opposite. My landlady arrived to be the translator. And when they arrived – one man and two women in white, wearing their masks and face shields – I wish I could say I handled it all with the dignity befitting the dress. I didn’t.

In fact, as the women from the daycare opposite looked on, eyes wide (there’s no privacy here in Asia, so they could see everything through our floor-to-ceiling glass doors), I turned into a dramatic, frightened child.

“I’m scared,” I wailed, gripping the couch in semi-foetal position.

ppe nurses at home visit

Blurry pic of the government nurses, with the daycare workers in the background.

At least the landlady-translator and PPE dude found it funny. (They would not have a few months ago!) The two nurses doing the forms were kind, and they laughed when my landlady didn’t know the word for ‘diarrhea’ (on the checklist of symptoms), and had to resort to childish ‘explosive poo-poo’ sounds and gestures 🙂

My biggest worry was, and is, the neighbours. The daycare women opposite were watching on with worry. Their front door is mere metres from ours. Grandparents collect their grandkids from that front door … they can’t be (and don’t look) happy to have foreigners living so near them.

Anyway, I’m armed with a thermometer and must send my temperature results to my landlady to pass on twice a day. My total self-isolation will only amount to six days. Not bad. (Well, that’s if we don’t go into another city lockdown, which is seeming more and more likely.) I hope that when I step out, if I get to step out, I won’t be feared by the neighbourhood.

This experience has certainly cued some paranoia, which only amplified when I heard the police would pay a visit, to check that I’m staying in my room (to avoid contact with my housemate), and to check that we’re not hiding any other foreigners. (They’re trying to trace the source of these new infections, and believe it may be from Chinese illegal immigrants being smuggled into the country via the porous Northern border.)

We were told they would arrive at 8:30am on my third day of isolation. My landlady brought over fire extinguishers (!!??!!) for, I assume, added proof that we’re following Health & Safety protocols. So just after 8:30, I sat in my room like a good girl, while 10 police officers (TEN!!) crowded my downstairs couch. My housemate was sitting on the stairs, texting me. 10 men in uniform. Because of me. I couldn’t hear much; there were no raised voices. But I could see passers-by stopping to look at what ‘the problem’ was from my balcony window.

“What are they doing???” I texted.

“Going through our papers.”

Being a foreigner in a country can sure be scary during a pandemic.

haiphong covid

One of the pictures that scared the crap out of me during our lockdown, when there were checkpoints on every street and alley of this city, Haiphong.

I heard them leave, checked that the coast was clear for me to come down (in my mask) for another cup of coffee. The landlady said they were asking how many people live here, and about me who came back from Danang. She says this was a mandatory annual visit, which was especially important at this time. Her uncle has a relationship of some kind with the police, so we’re lucky they didn’t stay too long. (Not that we have anything to hide, mind.)

FUTURE FEARS

I’m lucky years of living alone and working from home have prepared me for days of being inside alone. Right now my biggest concern is that my housemate is having to be my grocery shopper etc. I’m used to my independance. But looming over all of us here is the very real prospect of another lockdown, of teaching online, of being paid 25% of our salary to do so, with worries that the language centre we work for won’t survive financially, and we’ll be stuck here without an income. (Fortunately, I have resurrected my freelance writing and editing career since the last lockdown. Can’t have all eggs in one basket!)

So it’s back to tracking new cases, waiting on government notices to be translated by some well-meaning person on one of many expat Facebook groups, etc.

Thankfully, I know I am still lucky. I do not appear to have COVID (at this point in time). My family back home are still (thankfully) healthy. I have a housemate to help me get things from ‘out there’, an English-speaking landlady, two income streams (for now at least) and a working visa that extends until next year.

May luck be with you, and us all, until this damn virus dies out.

COVID-fighting superhero

Nữ Anh Hùng (NAH), a COVID-fighting superhero character created by illustrator Fred Serra, who is based in Ho Chi Minh City.