Vietnam Letter: Barricaded into a province toxic with Delta variant

When soldiers dismantled barriers I cycled out to find only a ghost town, vacant car parks and wandering geese

A woman picking up ordered groceries in a quarantine area in Hanoi, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh city continues to extend Covid-19 lockdown until September 15th. Photograph:  EPA/Luong Thai Linh

A woman picking up ordered groceries in a quarantine area in Hanoi, Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh city continues to extend Covid-19 lockdown until September 15th. Photograph: EPA/Luong Thai Linh

 

I often wake from the silence on Street 7 and stand on my balcony in eerily refreshing air.

Early one morning in May soldiers erected barricades to enclose five streets here in Binh Duong province. Rasping, lawless motorbikes ceased. Slipping from online work each morning, I walked to Point 9 to set on a pile my day’s application form for food and water.

Neighbours no longer left their tall villas to squat on kerbs, urinate against walls or burn garbage. A tank rumbled past spraying the pavements and piled-up garbage with disinfectant. Hissing crickets fled the tall alders and tropical birds no longer cried. Perhaps they too were disturbed by the change of pattern.

Delta had emerged in April in Saigon, which was mostly in lockdown. The thunder of its passing juggernauts had already dwindled.

One commuter from the city to a black building on my street became patient 7,059. Consequently we were cut off from shops, services, doctors; our park was cordoned and patrolled. Covid deaths had remained at 35 since September 2020. Now there were 47.

In June 2020 deaths were zero. I was lured from Moscow by Vietnam’s over-the-top lockdowns. Few countries were more Covid-free. I conceded that obedient populations or effective dictatorships are the best responses to a future of global catastrophes.

In the desolate airport arrivals lounge I discerned two humanoid figures in neon-blue biohazard suits to seal them from earthy contact, disinfectant tanks on their backs. Masks worn high and hoods drawn low covered all but eyes squinting through thick spectacles and face shields at my documents.

I endured two weeks in one of those Holiday Inns where you hike up and down the carpet, no maid makes your bed, cold dinners collect outside your door, and you welcome minimal contact when shrieks from the corridor wake you.

“Take tem-per-a-ture!

Barriers

Soldiers dismantled the barriers on June 11th last. I cycled out to find only a ghost town, a locked-up mall, vacant car parks, wandering geese. In late June came Directive 16. Province-wide, entire “wards” of districts are now all enclosed. A 24-hour curfew may be broken to visit shops, clinics. No loitering, no outdoor exercise, kids can’t play outside.

Loudspeakers high on poles broadcast thrice daily yammering propaganda and regulations from Hanoi right to the south, which never supported the communists.

Yet there’s an edgy feeling of the mass of peasant farmers instinctively leaving the plough to take up quasi-military duties. Everyone watches others. All roads have checkpoints manned by soldiers and civilians from the People’s Committees. To pass you must present a weekly “market ticket’” and remain within the ward.

I cycled alone with the roads and the sun. People shouted down to me from balconies to raise my mask above my nose. In a well-spaced queue I joined some sweltering, plastic-suited aliens. Peering into bare shelves through steamed-up specs, I lowered my mask to see and was ordered outside: a once friendly neighbour suddenly uniformed, barking with the steel which humiliated America.

A brown-shirted, elderly motorcyclist pulled up beside me. Where were my justifying groceries! Bribery is unnecessary when you don’t know a word of the language. I was waved on and made it indoors by the 18.00 cut-off time.

My close neighbours’ houses are cordoned off. Instead of the juggernauts I hear ambulance sirens on the road, sometimes one per minute. One day I counted 50.

In under three months the death count has shot to 7,540, higher than in Indonesia and Cambodia. Exemplary care which saved many lives is another victim. Locals I know text me when friends die neglected in hospital and are rapidly incinerated.

Vaccines

Lockdowns alone could never suffice. Vaccines were finally ordered and last week administered. A guard at the black building on Street 7 asked me if deaths in Saigon and Mekong Delta were following Sinopharm. Dreading everything Chinese, he refused vaccination.

Instructions from my company came in the night to register immediately. Which vaccine? Don’t talk. No questions. But the health authority refused foreigners. Urgent registration again. Another cancellation. Finally, we clustered in a panting crowd in a hospital parking lot.

After months of yearning to escape my cell, to resuscitate my soul, I too refused for lack of confidence and transparency. Today people weren’t queueing for shops but crowded together – with only one jab. I’m desiccated by 16 months of partial living, the severest, seemingly endless lockdown, no exercise, secrecy, fear and barricaded into a province toxic with Delta variant.

I’ll be fine.

How are you?

View images of Binh Duong lockdown on Youtube by searching for Philip MacCann + Harvestman Productions.

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