All photography by Christian Berg
When it became clear that many people did not have enough food for their families during the pandemic, one young Vietnamese entrepreneur set up a free “rice ATM” in Ho Chi Minh City. Soon rice ATMs were also set up in other cities dispensing this basic staple at no cost. In Quảng Trị, Bình Thuận, and many other provinces, locals hosted weekend ‘markets’ where struggling families could shop for essentials for free, and generous donors gave out meals on street corners. Many Vietnamese donated in other ways. Tailors in Quảng Ngãi and Cần Thơ used their sewing machines to create free masks. Volunteers in Đà Nẵng drove through the nights to deliver supplies to hospitals. University students gave their dorm rooms to be used as quarantine facilities. Stories like these warmed hearts across the country.
One of the most dramatic stories that circulated in Vietnam early in the pandemic was the repatriation flight from Wuhan to Vietnam. Aware of the dangers of the mission, Vietnam Airlines asked for volunteers to help bring 40 Vietnamese home from the pandemic’s epicentre. More than 100 flight crew raised their hands to go to Wuhan and enter quarantine on arrival back in Vietnam. The flight was carefully orchestrated to protect crew and passengers, and everyone returned safe and sound. Over the months that followed, Vietnam's airlines all joined the mission to bring Vietnamese home from around the world. These brave flight crews were celebrated by Vietnamese alongside the medical workers and military personnel.
Despite the unusual circumstances created by the pandemic, Vietnam’s warm hospitality and care for its visitors shone through on many occasions. When one British pilot became seriously ill and required a lung transplant, more than 60 Vietnamese volunteered their lungs for the procedure to help him, and teams of the country’s best doctors met virtually to discuss the patient’s recovery. It was a great success for Vietnam when Patient 91 recovered and was able to fly home. Vietnam’s tourism board also set up an English helpline to assist stranded travellers, and hospitality group Victoria Hotels & Resorts offered four-star rooms at 20 USD a night to travellers who needed to stay longer.
Over the course of the pandemic, thousands of returning Vietnamese and expats spent time in quarantine. Vietnam’s soldiers were tasked with the job of setting up makeshift camps around the country and running daily operations. The soldiers did everything from cleaning and delivering food to baby-sitting, winning the admiration of their guests for their hard work. Gavin Wheeldon, a British citizen, penned an essay titled ‘Life Inside a Vietnamese Government Quarantine', detailing his daily life in the camp and expressing gratitude for the “friendly and caring” soldiers who “work(ed) tirelessly" to make his life more comfortable in a time of chaos.
Because many Vietnamese already wear masks on motorcycles, the country had plenty of masks to go around. But it soon became clear that some of our neighbours did not. In response to the crisis, Vietnam sent 420,000 USD worth of masks and medical supplies to Australia, India, Singapore, Thailand, as well as other countries. More than 700,000 made-in-Vietnam masks were donated to Germany, France, Italy, Spain, UK, and the US. On a smaller scale, two children from Hanoi spent their Lunar New Year lucky money savings from over the years to buy 20,000 masks which they sent to patients in the United Kingdom. British Ambassador to Vietnam Gareth Ward wrote a personal thank you letter to the children for their kindness.
Like many places, Vietnam has seen countless industries devastated by the pandemic; but generous members of the business community and private individuals are working together to bring relief to those severely affected. The ‘Rise with Vietnam’ relay took place in October 2020, and saw 153 runners covering the length of the country to raise funds for workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. The runners raised 4.9 billion VND for the cause. Vietnam's top singers and songwriters also gathered for a virtual concert which raised 1.3 billion VND for women affected by the pandemic. The government’s COVID-19 fund drew donations from North to South amounting to more than to 2.2 trillion VND.
After months of working together to combat the virus, Vietnam received an outpouring of praise from locals and expats who appreciated the capable handling of the situation. In April 2020, an expat started the ‘Vietnam We Thank You' campaign honouring Vietnam’s doctors, nurses, police force, soldiers, and volunteers for their efforts to keep people safe and healthy. Foreigners living in Vietnam and travellers treated under quarantine posted thank you notes on social media, cheering Vietnam on.
As a result of the pandemic, Vietnam’s community spirit is stronger than ever, and the whole country is eagerly awaiting the day it will welcome visitors back again.