Life, interrupted. Riding out the coronavirus lockdown in Hanoi, Vietnam
Shit show: a description of an event or situation which is characterized by a ridiculously inordinate amount of frenetic activity. Disorganization and chaos to an absurd degree. Often associated with extreme ineptitude, incompetence and/or sudden and unexpected failure. Urban Dictionary
There is an old Chinese curse that says: may you live in interesting times. That curse should be updated to a 2020 version that says: may you live in unprecedented times. And that’s where we find ourselves, and will for at least the next few months — riding out the coronavirus lockdown shit show. COVID-19, and all that that entails, means that plans are in limbo, on hold. Jobs gone. Freedom severely restricted. Flights grounded and travel limited for the time being. We are washing our hands with an OCD-like repetition, adhering to the social distancing demands of our respective governments and, quite possibly, depending on your circumstances, suffering from a lack of toilet paper and cabin fever. We face the reality of uncertainty and our own mortality, and see the effects of panic and fear caused by the unrelenting 24/7 news cycle. I’m finding access to valid and reliable information and correct data is proving difficult, because I refuse to take the numbers-based propaganda that is being fed to us on face value.
I was supposed to head back to Australia in May. I can’t see that happening before June, July or even September. When I go depends largely on when I can move Bella (my beloved cat) out of Vietnam, and who knows when that will be with borders closed and international flights grounded. When this coronavirus lockdown shit show went down a few weeks ago, I almost bought into the panic caused by the Australian government and fleeing friends. Come home now, DFAT urged. You may not be able to get a flight back when you want to, they remonstrated. The subtext was: if it all goes to shit, you’re on your own — so good luck with that because we won’t be able to help you.
The subtext from DFAT was: if it all goes to shit, you’re on your own — so good luck with that because we won’t be able to help you. They almost had me.
My immediate thoughts were: faaaaaaarrrrrkkkkkk! Should I put Bella in boarding and get my arse back to Australia knowing that I had to self-quarantine for 14 days and had nowhere to stay? There was no one to pick me up at the airport, nor the ability to quarantine in hotels three weeks ago, when I was contemplating returning. Or should I stay put in Vietnam with Bella because I had a reasonable amount of certainty, a good supply of toilet paper, stocked supermarket shelves and a government that seemed in better control of the situation than many other countries in the world? After talking to non-fleeing Australian friends in Vietnam and Bali (with pets) and my sister, I opted to stay for a number of reasons. I didn’t want to put Bella in boarding for an indefinite amount of time. My visa situation is fine until February 2020. I hadn’t been in Australia since 2017, or travelled that much out of Vietnam in the last couple of years anyway so not being able to get a flight out wasn’t an issue. And there are still flights out, if I did have to leave in a hurry. I had money coming in from freelance work, and was actually quite busy. Wait it out I would.
So the point of this post is to document what life has been like in Hanoi, riding out this coronavirus lockdown shit show because it’s important to record my thoughts and experiences for posterity. It’s not every day (or year) that you get to participate in living history…
Management of infections in Vietnam
While I believe (based on my research) that the shut down of the entire world is unwarranted, I can’t fault the Vietnamese government’s approach to containing infections. Schools have been closed since Tet, and are unlikely to open until Semester 2.
From early March, travellers into Vietnam were quarantined for 14 days on arrival. Travel became increasingly restricted, and now there are no commercial flights into Vietnam, and only limited flights out. Domestic flights have been cut, and travel by road and rail is also restricted, with mandatory quarantine on arrival if you travel to a different province or city from Hanoi.
If there is an infection, entire neighbourhoods are cordoned off and quarantined for 14 days, with the government making supplies available to the community via food parcels. Masks in public areas are mandatory, and I get my temperature checked each time I go to the supermarket. Only essential services are allowed to open.
I’ve had to fill in various declarations about my travel and health (paper and via an app), and yesterday I had to send a copy of my passport with entry and exit stamps to my landlord because the police requested it. While I haven’t been quarantined, and it’s unlikely that I will be because the last time I travelled out of the country was in late January, and I’m not in contact with many people, I am slightly nervous that I will be…
Increased anti-foreign sentiment
I’m white and middle class, so I have to admit that the only kind of “ism” I’ve experience is sexism and (as a middle-aged woman) ageism. I was surprised and disappointed to be exposed to racism here in Hanoi — something I’ve not experienced before — based on the fact that I’m foreign and could be infected. At first, the Chinese were blamed — “Sorry, No Chinese” signage was common — and then there were no more Chinese coming to Vietnam. So even though much of the transmission has been by Vietnamese themselves, all foreigners were thought to be carriers. That sentiment continues today. I get it. One foreigner is very much the same as another. Vietnamese don’t know how long I (or any other foreigner) has been in the country. It could be one day or one decade. It’s all very tribal.
The anti-foreign sentiment has been a big enough issue that the government issued a declaration to say that discrimination against foreigners would be severely punished.
So what does this anti-foreign sentiment look like? It’s being told to wear a mask (before mask wearing became mandatory) by non-mask wearing Vietnamese. It’s being turned away from establishments that you have frequented for years because you are not Vietnamese. It’s being turfed out of your accommodation, or refused accommodation, because you aren’t Vietnamese. It’s the rorting that’s been going on around visa extensions. It’s the pulling up of masks by Vietnamese when you enter a building. It’s having your Grab ride cancelled because you have a foreign name. It’s the “No foreigner” signage at restaurants and cafes. It’s Vietnamese people running away from you yelling: “Corona!”. This has been a big enough issue that the government issued a declaration to say that discrimination against foreigners would be severely punished. Things have settled down somewhat, but I’m still skittish about venturing out into the community because being a foreigner means being a target.
(I acknowledge that Asians in the West are being targetted for the same reasons and I absolutely empathise with their situation.)
In Hanoi, we have been in soft lock down since 30 March, and this will continue until at least 15 April, and possibly extended until the end of the month. Like most of the world, we are confined to our homes, and are only allowed to go out for essential services like the supermarket or medical care. It’s not terribly inconvenient. I can get food and groceries and shopping delivered quickly and easily, but delivery has always been a thing here so the pivot has been painless, and businesses have been quick to adapt.
My Vietnamese lessons stopped a couple of weeks ago, because police have been out in force ensuring social distancing “recommendations” are observed. Apart from my building security, I haven’t seen anyone for more than two weeks, apart from my cleaner and neighbours, because I’m obeying the government’s directions to the letter of the law. I only go out to the supermarket, which is the major social event on my calendar at the moment. So I walk there every few days to get some fresh air, exercise and human interaction.
And once I got into the “this too will pass” mindset, my mental state has been relatively calm.
I’ve settled into isolation relatively easily, although I don’t like the fact that my freedom of choice has been taken away. I’m a more or less a homebody now, but I do like to go to my favourite cafe and work. And I do like to get out and about and meet friends for a chit chat a few times a week. And I love going out to lunch. And exercising, which is out because my gym is shut and we’ve been “strongly encouraged” by the government not to be outdoors. Now, I have a loose routine revolving around work deadlines (oddly, I’m busier than ever). I read, listen to podcasts, play my guitar, colour, paint, write, learn, meditate, watch Netflix and cook, among other things. I don’t put pressure on myself to be “productive”. If I achieve something, great. If not, no biggie. And once I got into the “this too will pass” mindset, my mental state has been relatively calm. In fact, I’ve been sleeping well and am feeling quite refreshed by this enforced “me time”. It’s been quiet, peaceful and still. And I have almost no anxiety.
(I also acknowledge that many people don’t have it as easy as I do, and that being able to social distance in a comfortable apartment without having to worry about money is a privilege.)
The good and bad of social media
During this time, I’ve found social media, particularly Facebook, to be both a blessing and a curse. I have found Facebook Groups invaluable for information about what’s going on in Vietnam, particularly around what the government is doing. I have three or four groups that I keep an eye on, with each one giving a different perspective and offering up necessary information to navigate the situation as it changes. That’s the blessing part.
The curse part is the “friends” who seem to think it’s their God-given right to offer up their opinion about the research and articles I share that support why I think this global shutdown and general shit show is unnecessary. These people rarely interact with me on Facebook when things are “normal”. I’ve been personally attacked and gaslighted, told that my sources aren’t credible, that I should “soften my message”, that the data is wrong, that COVID-19 is as bad as the WHO, mainstream media and governments are saying. They are validating their own narrative so they can be right and prove me wrong BUT being right means more people die. If I’m right, fewer people die. And apparently, that’s not a good thing.
Look, I’m not adverse to disagreements — opinions are like belly buttons, everyone has one — but it’s how you disagree. So I’ve unfriended a few based on how they’ve disagreed with me. And yes, I’m well aware that what I share is supporting my position. But my feed, my message. And at no time have I gone into someone else’s feed and said: Hey! You’re wrong and your source is a moron.
I’ve prepped for this
When just about everyone was freaking out about the coronavirus lockdown shit show of border closures and cancellation of international flights and the threat of being stuck somewhere and not able to get home, I was remarkably calm and panic free — apart from a brief moment when the Australian government almost had me with their fear mongering. My few years in Vietnam have, oddly enough, prepared me for chaos and trauma and uncertainty and my own mortality.
This global, unprecedented shit show, unless I contract COVID-19 and die an ironic death, is nothing. I’ve faced off against worse.
I’ve almost died twice: once in 2017 when I was thrown from a motorbike and second, when I was admitted to hospital at the end of 2018 with my liver in meltdown. That same year, I was stuck in Bangkok for a month trying to desperately get back into Vietnam — all because of a dodgy visa issued by a so-called friend. I broke up with a man who was a dangerous covert narcissist, and I went to a dark, dark place in the aftermath. I unravelled, almost. And that’s not even the small stuff I have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
So, this. This global, unprecedented shit show, unless I contract COVID-19 and die an ironic death, is nothing. I’ve faced off against worse. Much worse. And it’s quite surreal to me. I see the drama and catastrophising and fatalism playing out on the news and look around my apartment, where I’m safe and protected and with my cat and my kitchen and my bicycle and my things. Yes, I’m alone and not in Australia where I want to be and life is uncertain, but there are worse things. My perspective is that of someone who has toughed it out in personal situations that would have destroyed others.
I have always said to keep your eye on China and those first wave countries. I have been sceptical all along (based on common sense and the data I’ve found) that this coronavirus lockdown shit show was warranted. Yes, CV19 seems to be a highly contagious virus, but the mortality rate is no worse than seasonal flu — even in Italy. China is bouncing back. Italy’s infection rates have slowed, as have Spain’s. Even the US has seen a decrease in hospital admissions. The same in Australia. Vietnam, in a country of 97,131,441 million people and at the time of writing, has had only 251 confirmed cases and no recorded deaths. Yes, they quarantined 74,600 people — mostly travellers — but there have been only 125 active cases. The numbers don’t lie. And there is no differentiation between deaths by CV19 and deaths with CV19. I’m going to be very interested to see the analysis once rational, logical thinking is restored among the masses and “they” start questioning the actions of their respective governments.
Image by Thomas Malyska from Pixabay
Feel free to buy me a cup of tea (or two!) for writing this essay ♥