16. In the Time of Corona

Vietnam has a record of remarkable success against COVID-19, which has ravaged much of the rest of the world.

Frame from a public-service TV commercial in Vietnam

In this landmark year of 2020, North American friends have asked me no question more often than: “What’s going on with COVID in Vietnam?”

As a matter of fact, there is probably nowhere in the world that I would rather be.

In sharp contrast to most Western nations, Vietnam has been in almost complete control of the spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus pandemic, since the first case was detected here on March 6.

The following statistics — current as of December 18 — underscore the country’s success.

Vietnam population: 97.7 million. Total cases: 1,407. Total deaths: 35 (none since September 3). Active cases: 109.

Contrast this to the United States, which has far and away the worst COVID record in the world. US population: 332 million. Total cases: 17.6 million. Total deaths: 318,000. Active cases: 7 million.

For every million people who live in Vietnam, 14 have contracted the disease, and 0.4 have died. For every million people who live in the US, 53,100 have been diagnosed with COVID-19, and 958 have died. The rate of infection in the US is 2,400 times greater than in Vietnam.

In Vietnam, the average number of new cases per day, since March, is five. In the United States, the average number of daily new cases during that same time period is 61,000. Daily new cases are now approaching a quarter of a million.

It is a shocking disparity.

Cautionary poster emphasizes face mask use

Do as you are told

How can a country that is considered a world leader in the field of medicine be such an utter failure at managing a deadly disease, when a Third World nation has such success? Without pointing a finger at political mismanagement in the US, here’s my interpretation.

First, Vietnam’s government is authoritarian, not democratic. It’s a one-party, communist system. When you’re told to do something, you do it. A higher power makes the decisions for you. There may be some minor acts of personal rebellion, but heavy fines and possible imprisonment await those who try to assert their rights as individuals, especially if they are counter to the political line. Communism advocates the belief that “We’re all in this together.”

Secondly, the Vietnamese people are used to wearing face masks. Especially in Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) and Ha Noi, where most citizens ride exhaust-spewing motorbikes, and where air pollution is a health hazard in itself, it is de rigueur to breathe through a filter on the city streets and highways. When the federal government mandated that masks be worn at all times, no one questioned the ruling.

Although this is a communist society, it is also, beyond question, a capitalistic one. People like to make money. So in March, when the severity of the first wave of COVID became apparent, an order to close all but the most essential businesses was met with shock and consternation.

Initially, this focused on places where people gather in close proximity — bars, restaurants, coffee shops and retail merchants. Soon, public transportation was shut down as well. Government schools were closed and private academies, such as my own, were told to do the same. (APAX Leaders, where I work, transitioned to online instruction within a week thereafter.)

Hospitals, pharmacies and major groceries remained open with skeleton staffs. Virtually everyone else in the country went into self-quarantine. We stayed at home. Once a week, I walked three blocks to the supermarket, where I had to pass a security screening (temperature taken, hands scrubbed with disinfectant) before I could do my shopping. I cooked at home, worked online, and read a lot.

TV commercial spot: Wash your hands!

Invasion of privacy

By mid-April, the initial threat had mostly waned without a single death. Then, in the latter part of July, there was a second, harsher wave, traced to a handful of illegal immigrants in the resort city of Da Nang. All of the country’s deaths occurred during this period. If COVID were going to truly surge in Vietnam, this is when it would have happened. It didn’t.

A good part of Vietnam’s success might be credited to “contact tracing.” As soon as a corona victim is identified, he or she is relentlessly grilled to determine any and all of their contacts in the two weeks prior.

The information is then published. That includes names, residential addresses (to alert the neighborhood), and businesses they are known to have visited — stores, restaurants, gyms where they may work out, karaoke bars where they may take the microphone.

Is this an invasion of privacy? Absolutely! It would not go down well in Western democracies, where individual freedoms are more highly valued than society as a whole. But it’s hard to argue with success, at least in this case.

COVID dancer Quang Dong goes viral

Feeling the bite

Even in this safe place, a great many Vietnamese remain terrified by the implications of COVID-19. There remains some fear of domestic travel, even to areas with no history of this flu. Restaurant and bar business continues to suffer. And in my classrooms, I still hear, “I wear a mask because of COVID.” Whenever anyone coughs or sneezes, an alarm flag is raised.

Ad campaigns have contributed to the heightened awareness. Early in the COVID era, a public-service television commercial with a catchy jingle reminded viewers to wear masks and wash their hands assiduously. When a Saigon dance choreographer produced a video and uploaded it to TikTok, it became a viral (no pun intended) sensation. And everywhere, there continue to be billboards and print advertisements reminding the public to keep vigilant.

Few segments of the national economy have been affected as much as the travel industry. Because airports were quickly determined to be the biggest offenders, where the virus entered the country, Vietnam suspended inbound international flights as early as March 25. That effectively put a temporary end to tourism.

In September, some flights to selected Asian countries — including China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan and Singapore — resumed. But incoming passengers are still required to spend two weeks in quarantine (either in a private home or a hotel) until they can again freely mix in public.

Now, with vaccines about to become available, the country is again promoting tourism for 2021. A new ad campaign by Vietnam Tourism — Why Not Vietnam? | Vietnam Tourism — highlights many of this nation’s stunning attractions.

And that’s a subtle invitation to my friends around the world to come visit.

Keep the pandemic from exploding!

Next: Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

4 thoughts on “16. In the Time of Corona

  1. John, very, very interesting. I commend Vietnam for its stellar record fighting COVID. So sad that virus politics have created such deep divisions here. Vaccine seems to be the only answer. And only if enough folks sign on. Take me back 50 years to Eugene. Life was so much simpler then. Sigh.


    1. Thanks, Stan. I look forward to the vaccine so we can all travel freely again. Happy holidays to you and Nancy!


  2. Love the choice of topic and comparative analysis John! This is exactly what many Americans need to hear!
    Well researched and written!


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