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How Vietnam managed to escape 2020

Vietnam succeeded against Covid because of one word: humility.

James Dunn
4 minute read

The Vietnamese have a time machine. Citizens get priority seating, but for several thousand dollars, foreigners with official business in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and a negative Covid test (make sure you get the RT-PCR test – details, people) can FedEx a few government forms written in their best attempt at Việt script, and pack their bags for the past.

A travel agent will help you choose a room in one of many hotels across the country that have been converted into high-end quarantine facilities, and will book you a circuitous series of flights interspersed with long waits at airports that have been converted into half-shuttered, near-deserted shells of their former selves.

Upon landing, you will jump into a lightweight Hazmat suit, then into the back seat of a van hermetically sealed off from the driver, which will leave the airport through the service exit (another perk of time travel: no airport traffic), and drop you off at your hotel lobby, which you will see exactly twice in 14 days.

Your hotel room window likely won’t open, a merciful touch since opening windows or even leaving your room is “not allowed” (get ready to hear that phrase a lot) except for two visits to a nearby room for more large Q-Tips up the nostrils. You will be given a glass armpit thermometer and a sheet to record daily results which nobody will check. You will spend roughly two days convinced you’re infected. Every three days, a hotel employee in one of those jumpsuits will take a deep breath, dash in and clean your room as fast as physics will permit. You will take more meals and baths than you could ever need, and maybe even more than you want. You will wear robes all day and adapt to solitude, the room service doorbell will startle you every time, and ultimately the weirdest part of your quarantine experience will be the fact that part of you will be sad when it’s over.

It’ll be no time for sadness though, because now you’re out, out into this time machine’s sole destination: Vietnam, 2019. Sure, international tourism has disappeared along with a number of businesses, but Vietnam is 97 million people and many industries. Yes, many people wear masks, but here they always did. Beyond that, life is as it was. Sweaty schoolkids lean on you in crowded markets while toddlers run through your legs and inspect your purchases. Old people gossip and exercise along sidewalks while men atop ladders adjust signage on another of the new bars, coffeeshops and restaurants that spring up across town faster than your five o’clock shadow.

People enjoy a friendly game of badminton and some exercise at a park in Hanoi. Photo: James Dunn

By now, if you’re from the Western world, certain questions might be presenting themselves.

How did the Vietnamese come up with this machine?

By banning non-essential inward flights from everywhere indefinitely, as opposed to shutting down travel from China for one month and crowing about it for eight.

By instituting real lockdowns, as opposed to politely suggesting people stay home if convenient.

By sealing off any neighbourhood where sick people are found, testing everyone in it, and sending the sick to hospitals to recover, as opposed to sending them home to infect their families.

Street vendors wait for customers at their stall in Hanoi. Photo: James Dunn

A logical next question is: why didn’t Western countries do the same?

To preserve their economies? The tools don’t yet exist to explain just how wrecked the average Western economy is right now.

To preserve their freedoms? The Vietnamese government delivered its people from the Americans, from economic ruin and now from Covid. The people of the West can barely walk down the street today. Who’s free here?

Essentially, Vietnam succeeded against Covid because of one word: humility. It turns out beating China, Japan, France and America off your doorstep will teach you things.

Everything you have can be taken away. It’s not a plot against you, it’s just life, and sometimes you can’t buy your way out of it. You can only take every precaution, even if it might not work, strong and early, when you can control things, to avoid a bunch of pain later when you can’t – a vaccine, so to speak.

It’s a vaccine surely more effective than any actual Covid vaccine so many westerners will mistrust, the same way they mistrust Vietnam’s success story, as surely as the Vietnamese are living it. Westerners have no idea how badly they’re doing right now, just as Vietnamese have no idea how well they’re doing. All the little things in life are actually the priceless things – a walk in the park; sunflower seeds by the lake – the things you can only fight for. These are the things the West took for granted, and the Vietnamese didn’t. So now they get to keep them.

James Dunn is an American businessman based in Hanoi.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of MalaysiaNow.