HANOI, Vietnam — When I stepped into the taxi, the driver shook his head and adjusted his mask a little more tightly. “American?” he asked. “You have more deaths than anywhere in the world! You are lucky to be safe in Vietnam.”
I was lucky. As I write, Vietnam has reported no deaths from COVID-19 and only 326 infections in a country of almost 100 million. In January, Hanoians celebrating Lunar New Year gathered along the shores of Hoan Kiem Lake, taking pictures in traditional dress and carrying blooming pink peach blossom trees on the back of motorbikes as they hurried to join family celebrations.
Then suddenly, everything changed. As the outbreak in Wuhan worsened, Vietnam closed all schools and the government set up military quarantine camps. A friend was isolated because her father had attended a meeting with one person who tested positive. Authorities confined my neighbor to his apartment with a masked, gloved guard outside the door 24/7 because he had traveled to South Korea and returned with a cough. I too was quarantined after returning from a holiday in Laos. Though I had no symptoms, I was forced to take a test and told that if it were positive, I would be hospitalized until I tested negative multiple times.
As more cases arose, communities of 10,000 were shut down, with the army bringing food to residents. The Vietnamese remained calm and cooperative. No one was allowed to leave home without a mask, but even N-95s were readily available. The smallest convenience stores sold rows of hand sanitizer. There was toilet paper in abundance.
Vietnam had experienced previous epidemics of SARS and measles. The government responded to the COVID outbreak with the simple, old-fashioned and inexpensive approach of isolating cases, extensive contact tracing, widespread free testing and quarantine. Finally, the country went into strict lockdown mode for several weeks, with no one allowed to leave home except to buy food or medicines. The borders were closed and inbound flights ceased. I could not leave my house and had not worked for two months.
The virus was ravaging Europe and Iran. But my American friends seemed blissfully unaware, and assumed the virus would not affect them, even as Asian media were predicting disaster for America.
“Be careful, you are so close to China,” my friends said. “Come home, where it is safe.”
A few weeks later, refrigerated morgue trucks were plying the streets of New York City.
From the vantage point of Hanoi, it is shocking to see how politicized the virus has become in the U.S., with some saying it is a hoax and refusing to wear masks. While Americans are destroying each other in response to COVID, the Vietnamese have unified, saying they are on war footing. Old battle songs from the American War and the French occupation have regained popularity and blast from open windows into the smoggy spring air.
After the tough lockdown and quarantines, the country is reopening. School has started again. No cases have been spread by community transmission in more than a month.
An authoritarian, one-party state with strong police and military makes the containment of the virus easier in Vietnam than it would be in the West. But Vietnamese society is based on Confucian ideals that long predate communism — ideas of harmony and working together and sacrificing for the common good. Many Vietnamese have known great hardship. Being asked to quarantine to stop a deadly illness is seen as a small sacrifice.
Also, the economic impact of staying home may be less in Vietnam. While many Americans don’t have enough savings to last a month, saving is highly valued in Vietnam. Although the average Vietnamese income is estimated at about $300 a month, studies have shown that savings rates often exceed 20%. The economic impact also is buffered by large extended families living together, so that if one person loses income, other family members can pick up the slack.
The sense of entitlement masquerading as freedom that I observe in the U.S. frightens me. In Vietnam I see self-discipline, unity and respect for scientific principles. Some Vietnamese methods for fighting the virus would be unacceptable to Americans. Those who refuse to wear a mask to the grocery store are unlikely to put up with confinement in a military quarantine camp. But contact tracing, free and available testing and some form of isolation are key to containing the virus, and the U.S. still lags far behind in these respects.
When my friends tell me they are playing old Vietnamese war songs to bolster their determination in isolation, I smile. I wish Americans could join together and see the virus as a common enemy to be fought, instead of bickering with one another.
Mary Lee Grant is a former Monitor reporter who currently lives in Hanoi.