Vietnam v. Covid: The Champion of the World

No one has died of Covid-19 in Vietnam, a nation of 100 million people.

Terraced fields in Sapa, Vietnam, near the Chinese border. (Creative Commons photo)

(CN) — The champion of the world in the fight against Covid-19, without any real competition, is Vietnam. Despite a 900-mile border with China, Vietnam mobilized and halted the spread of the virus with a mere 355 cases, all of whom recovered. No one has died from Covid-19 in a nation of 100 million people.

Vietnam’s success can be attributed to strict quarantine of infected patients and rigorous contact tracing. Even in Uruguay, the success story of Latin America, there have been 936 cases and 27 deaths, in a country of 3 million people.

One patient in Vietnam was near death. Stephen Cameron, a Scottish pilot for Vietnam Airlines, visited a few bars in Ho Chi Minh City on the night of March 14. The ex-pat bar in the pricey part of town was filled with Saint Patrick’s Day revelers celebrating the last night before the lockdown and closure of bars and restaurants in Vietnam.

Daily reports in the Vietnamese press and television followed the case of the gravely ill Brit. He was placed in an induced coma for 68 days while his blood was pumped out of his body, oxygenated, and pumped back into his body. He was on a ventilator the entire time.

When his lung function fell to 10% capacity, hundreds of Vietnamese offered lungs for a transplant. According to the BBC, teams of medical specialists from across the country held daily conferences in the effort to save Cameron’s life.

Finally, in mid-June, he began to recover without a lung transplant and now, 45 pounds lighter and awake, he has begun what will be a long rehabilitation. His flight back to Scotland is scheduled for next week.

Vietnam. (Quang Nguyen Vinh photo/Pixabay)

I went to Vietnam in March of last year. I spent a month in the capital, Hanoi, and another month in Hue, the ancient capital and the site of the most significant battle of the war against the United States. I also visited a couple of smaller cities.

In economic terms, Vietnam has performed admirably. According to the World Bank the country has virtually eliminated severe poverty and is now an emerging industrial powerhouse with GDP increases approaching those of China.

My first hotel in Hanoi had few rooms, but the owner spoke English and reminded me that Hanoi is 1,000 years old. “We live without crime and with increasing prosperity and without repression. Of course we are content. Just one generation ago nearly 90% of the families were surviving by growing rice.”

In Sapa, a tourist town in the mountains near the Chinese border, the area is populated by Hmong and Toy minorities. The economic activity is entirely devoted to upper tier tourism, financed by Chinese companies and built for Chinese tourists.

Western tourists are regularly visited by English-speaking fabric vendors from the ethnic communities. One Hmong woman invited me to spend the night with her family, a common alternative to hotels known as home stays.

“For $25 we’ll rent a motorbike and go to my hamlet. You can spend the night and we will roast some pig meat. You have a private bathroom like France.”

Hand-carved Buddha for sale at a Hue arts festival for $300. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

The embroidered fabrics these women offered were gorgeous, multiple shades of indigo woven into small purses and totes. “My husband farms rice and corn and never comes to town. I stay three days to try to sell my fabrics. I sleep outdoors rather than pay for a room,” she told me.  

Sapa is in the midst of a building boom, for the most part high-rise hotels for Chinese middle-class tourists. Nearby is the highest mountain in Indochina, Fan Si Pan, 10,300 feet.

Two hundred miles south of Sapa lies Vinh, an industrial city nearly destroyed by U.S. bombing during the war. Rebuilt, the capital of Nghe An province, Vinh is the most important city in North Central Vietnam. Twenty miles outside the city is Hue, in whose outlying village, Kim Lien, Ho Chi Minh was born.  

Hue is where the U.S. Marines suffered their biggest losses during the war. It was the only time the U.S. was forced into house-to-house combat during the war. The battle of Hue involved the complete takeover of Vietnam’s third largest city by the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong and the weeks-long battle to retake it by the South Vietnamese Army and the Marines. The United States suffered 218 dead and 1,364 wounded, according to the Pentagon.

Within weeks of the Battle of Hue, in March 1968, President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek reelection. Most historians see the battle as the turning point of the war, when the United States turned against it.

Many of the Americans who visit Hue and the surrounding demilitarized zone are veterans on group tours, men who return to the battlefields that altered their lives. Some insist on riding around the Hue battle zones on rickshaw bicycles.

Within the Citadel, the 10-mile in circumference walled old city on the north side of the Perfume River, the battle raged for weeks. South Vietnamese casualties were greater than U.S. losses. The main battle of the Tet offensive of 1968 caused Walter Cronkite, a beloved CBS nightly news anchor, to declare opposition to the war.

The Perfume River in Hue, Vietnam. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)

In Hanoi all public schools mandate the study of English for all students. The testing of proficiency involves an interview with an English speaker and English-speaking visitors today are continually asked to participate in a taped English language interview. which becomes the final exam not only for sixth-graders but for adult English-learners too.  

So committed to the campaign to learn English, public television broadcasts Disney Channel shows for toddlers in English, along with Sesame Street for older kids. Whenever one interviews a veteran of the American war there is a young student translating.  

One rarely feels negative responses to questions. In fact, many old veterans of the conflict were eager to discuss the war and what their assignments were. My journalist friends reminded me that most old people would assume I was another one of those veterans coming back to make amends of some sort. They taught me the word for comrade (dong chi) and were right that when I used it people would trust me and speak more freely.

I met several university students who asked for the chance to speak English to me. One, a 30-year-old environmental engineer, explained that Vietnam was identifying the capable students in the countryside and bringing them to the cities to study.  

Every student I met at the Hanoi Technological University and the medical school in Hue was born into a family of rice farmers, some of whom also farm corn and cassava. All of them were on the threshold of attaining middle-class status, yet all of them were intending to bring their skills and talents back to their villages and small towns, not to prosper but to share.

Thoa, an engineering student at the University of Hanoi spent hours practicing her English with me. I mentioned that in my country there had been a contested election and she was puzzled. I explained that some political systems invite voters to decide public policy.

“Why would anyone want to second-guess the leaders?” she asked. “If everyone has a job and nobody is poor and life is getting better, why would you want to vote against that?”

Buddhist temple by a high-rise hotel in Hue, Vietnam. (Courthouse News photo/Miguel Patricio)
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