Pestilence and Perspective
I set out for northern Vietnam on the brink of a pandemic.
How it began
I live in the undeveloped countryside of southern Vietnam. 5 hours away from the concrete beast that is Saigon. There are no malls here. No apartment buildings. Not even a VinMart. The only other person who speaks English is my employer.
I was an ESL teacher here. But that was before Corona Virus shut down all the schools. For 3 months, I watched from afar, deeming the hysteria surrounding the outbreak both unnecessary and decidedly inconvenient. It didn’t feel a tangible threat and I was adamant not to be sucked into the latest world-drama.
Spending 23 out of 24 hours a day in my room with nothing to focus my attention on had started to make my mind a little slippery around the edges. I needed a change of scenery.
5 days before I would be departing on a week-long reprieve from nothing, I was summoned to the police station.
With the aid of my employer acting as translator, I was asked to give a detailed account of everywhere I had been within the last two months. My travels had taken me home to South Africa, through Turkey and Qatar, Saigon and even across the Cambodian border for my visa. I was asked whether I had been in contact with anyone from China, and if I had experienced any flu-like symptoms. How the fuck would I know if I had encountered anyone who had travelled from China? I answered, “Not that I’m aware of,” and, “No,” respectively, my teeth gripping together in an effort to stay polite and calm.
A woman pulled up to the station on her scooter. She was wearing high-heels and a summery floral dress. In one hand she carried what appeared to be a white briefcase.
She handed me a thermometer from what transpired to be the first aid kit. At the look of utter bewilderment that must have crossed my face, she gestured for me to put it under my armpit whilst she took my blood pressure. My temperature loaded to a balmy 36.5 degrees Celsius.
After being found bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, I was set free to scamper off into the wilderness…only to be called back the next day.
Another statement. A twinge of annoyance. I was clearly healthy. This time, the man asking my employer questions appeared to be an official from the Department of Health. Did I have any travel plans? “Yes,” I answered truthfully, “On Sunday I am heading to Cat Ba Island for 4 days, then Hanoi.”
I sat in silence for 15 minutes as 3 men and a woman discussed me in Vietnamese, occasionally flashing them a grandiose, awkward smile.
“What did they say, Mr Dung?” I asked as we walked down the steps of the police station.
“They say that you have to check yourself for any fever, and if you find any problem, let me know right away.” Ok, monitor myself. Easy enough.
“And about your travel to Hanoi…” he smiled uncomfortably, tilting his head left to right several times, “You might not be allowed to go.”
“W-what do you mean?” I stammered stupidly, blinking in the sunlight as I tried to get my brain off spin cycle. Not allowed to leave? Was I not free? My brain and my innards churned in opposing motions over the next few days.
But nothing further came of it, and on Sunday I hopped on the bus to Saigon. Only in hindsight do I realise that he meant that the places I was travelling to might be quarantined. It was such a ridiculous notion; it didn’t even occur to me as a possibility.
Before I got to Hanoi, the whole virus reaction was like getting your license renewed at the DMV. Something most of us have to endure if we want to live our lives, involving red tape, paperwork and a lot of waiting around. Causing a scene doesn’t make the process go any faster, and there is usually a moment of silent pleading with the gods of technology, “Please, pleeease be clear…”
Things got strange
2 bus rides, 1 flight and a speedboat brought me to Cat Ba Island. My hotel was a 10-minute walk from the tourist street into which most hostels and pubs are packed. Strolling around town, I was greeted by several dozen locals minding their shops, eager for business. Passing restaurants, I saw staff engrossed in animated conversation, each establishment spilling out a different style of music. All the seating areas were empty. A lot of Cat Ba’s tourism comes from the Chinese, who were under quarantine. There were hardly any people. It was just the way I liked it.
Now, I should also mention that it was off-peak season and it rained most of the time I was there. There were two small, but distinct indications that this was no standard lull in tourism.
The first of these occurred as I stepped aboard the bus to the national park.
“Do you have a mask?” The conductor lady asked as I sat down. I shook my head no. “I will give you one. You must wear it.” She said this with such gravity. I couldn’t swallow the cackle that clattered out when she handed me a tissue with two rubber bands stapled to the sides. I rolled my eyes and sent my friend a selfie.
The second flag planted the next day. All passengers had to get our temperatures checked (this time via a gun to the forehead) before we could embark on a boat tour.
I got to Hanoi on the 5th of March. They identified the first positive case of Covid-19 in Hanoi on the 6th.
The district was quarantined. Blocked off, streets sprayed, no one in or out. The authorities responded quickly, with militant efficiency.
I only found out about all of this from my friend Shan on Sunday morning, the 8th. Since my arrival, I had stayed at 3 different locations in 2 districts, walked everywhere twice, hit up some tourist attractions and went clubbing on Saturday night.
At that moment, it was like my ears equalized. The empty streets and shops. The lack of vibe. The reason so many businesses weren’t open. POP. I had been in Hanoi last in December 2019. Since then, it had turned from a swarming ants’ nest into a desolate shell of a city.
I cancelled the rest of my sightseeing plans, as a quick google search revealed it would bring me within 1.7km of the quarantined area. I bought a mask. One with pollution filters, so it serves a purpose for me too.
An unavoidable sense of dread was settling over the city. It was as if the panic and pollution emulsified. The air was thick with it. You breathed it in and it settled on your skin.
Conversations between friends developed an undertone. All the words remained rational, their tone neutral, but their expressions remained serious as they spoke and it was rare for 15 minutes to pass without a mention @covid-19. Once bright future prospects had been contaminated, spluttered and died.
“Did you respond to the work email?” Hailey pressed Barb.
“I did,” she responded grudgingly. “I didn’t want everyone knowing where I live, but I had to set the record straight.”
Their English Centre had asked all teachers to respond to the group email with their residential address. Anyone living near Truc Bach was asked not to come in to work. Those who didn’t hit “Reply All” were treated as lepers.
“You reckon they’d still get paid though?” Hailey fixed her sombre gaze on Barb, who finished chewing her mouthful of food. Swallowed. Exhaled audibly.
“I mean…they should. It’s not their fault. But…” she shrugged. We were all too aware of the grim reality.
Many language centres had closed their doors permanently.
The cute boy I was supposed to stay with that weekend had received notice that his centre would remain closed for another 3 months. With no means of making an income or paying rent, he had no choice but to pack up and head home to South Africa.
These were the only people I knew living in Hanoi. And just like that, my perspective shifted.
Things are not the same
Noone has been left untouched. We are all experiencing this. We may be feeling it in different places and in varying degrees of intensity, but we all share in this dis-ease. This global stress-test has shown us where our failures lie — as a civilization and as individuals. The world has been sick for a long time.
Things are not the same.
One virus forcing another to adapt. This is what accelerated evolution looks like. It’s not pretty, or neat, or convenient. It’s an unwelcome reminder that our desires, emotions and the human psyche — they’re all secondary, yet inextricably linked — to healthy biological function. Not only as individuals, but collectively, as a species. And nature doesn’t give a fuck about our feelings.
Why can’t we stop making each other sick?
Upgrade your brain. Feed your passions.
Just as those with a stronger immune system are less prone to sickness; those who fortify their minds are less susceptible to pathological ways of thinking.
Investing energy into developing new skills is constructive. Getting frustrated at another person’s inability to utilize critical thinking is destructive, and ridiculous. You wouldn’t expect someone who doesn’t have legs to run a marathon. You cannot drive someone else’s brain.
I would much rather get frustrated at myself for being a pleb as I learn slowly, painfully and imperfectly to use ever-expanding technologies to get the creatures that live inside my head out into the world.
The world is changing.
Choose to change with it.