A personal account, by Peter Rimmer
“I am deeply honored to call Vietnam my home and thank the Vietnamese who have made me feel so welcome in this beautiful and proud country.”
After 40 years of studying Vietnam as well as working and living with Vietnamese people, one of the joys has been not knowing what is likely to happen next. A very short while ago such a situation arose which put this theory to the test.
Due to a late change of plans I had to fly from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi for a Vietnam Airlines flight to the UK so that I could take part in the Britain in Southeast Asia Roadshow on behalf of the British Business Group Vietnam. The trip would involve visiting UK companies in various cities to explain the opportunities and benefits of trading with Vietnam.
My wife in Hanoi was rather irate to see I was not wearing a facemask when I arrived at Noi Bai Airport. The previous professional advice I had been given was that they offered little if any protection against COVID-19. I dutifully packed several packs of facemasks for my onwards trip to keep her happy and agreed to wear one for the flight to the UK. Upon arrival in the UK effectively no one was wearing a mask – a distinct contrast to what was happening in Vietnam.
The situation concerning the virus escalated quickly and one of my planned cities visits was cancelled in preference of distance phone calls instead. Other meetings saw reduced numbers attending. Getting around London I used tube train but some were so full it was impossible to get on them. Again, few if any people wore facemasks. I was receiving calls from Vietnam telling me to wear a mask and drink salt water. I did not do so though as I did not want to be the odd person.
Towards the end of the two-week roadshow matters took a turn for the worse as flights to Vietnam were being restricted and passengers placed in quarantine if they did return. It was necessary for me to keep a close watch on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel guide for information, especially concerning Vietnam. This proved to be a wise move.
Matters further developed quickly when notification was made that Vietnam was to stop entry from noon on March 15 for anyone who had been to the UK or even transited there during the previous 14 days. This left just one Vietnam Airlines flight that I could take to be sure of entry back to Vietnam.
Phone calls were made and with help again from my wife my return ticket was reallocated on to the final flight destined for Ho Chi Minh City. I understood quarantine was certain upon arrival back in Vietnam. Quick arrangements were made to get myself to Heathrow Airport whilst ensuring plenty of time for any last-minute travel issues.
At this point I realized that in the UK little direction action was being taken to protect the population against COVID-19, except for advice to wash hands frequently. This contrasted with Vietnam where masks, washing hands, and drinking salt water were all highly recommended.
The Vietnamese schools had also been closed for several weeks and the number of confirmed cases was still relatively low. Whilst appreciating the UK advice I did begin to think that Vietnam must be doing something right to keep the numbers so low. I decided it was time to take my own actions, which would include the measures being used in Vietnam.
Upon arriving at Heathrow Airport, it was unclear whether people with a temporary residency card would be allowed on the flight. Further calls were made and it was agreed that I was indeed allowed onto the Vietnam Airlines direct flight back to Vietnam. The wearing of masks was compulsory on the flight and I used a good one I had brought with me for the visit. It was a big relief to be included on the flight.
Passengers boarding the plane were greeted by the aircrew wearing blue ‘surgical’ suits and plastic facemasks. Other than the strange uniform, it was service as usual, a great testament to the attendants servicing the flight. Every passenger was required to wear their facemask and complete a health check form. Previous flights from the UK had included COVID-19 positive passengers, so as a precaution I avoided the toilets for the full 12-hour flight.
I had heard that the flight might not land in Ho Chi Minh City as planned but rather be diverted to the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho. We would be then sent to a quarantine center nearby.
Ultimately, we did land at Ton San Nhat Airport in Ho Chi Minh City as originally planned.
Upon disembarkation, there was a single desk for dealing with the health check forms, which promptly closed as passengers from the UK flight approached. All the passengers were required to remain in a holding area prior to the immigration control booths. Hours passed and confusion was rife.
Myself and two other westerners grouped together in the hope we may collectively gather some information as to what we needed to do. Facebook became a source of intense scrutiny. Welcome contact came from UK Ambassador Gareth Ward and Consul General Ian Gibbons. Both gave good encouragement and requested to be kept informed of any developments.
There was little, if any, information given to those gathered, certainly nothing for westerners but it appeared also to be the case for the Vietnamese nationals. Whilst appreciating the staff were under intense pressure and doing the best they could it did appear to demonstrate a lack of procedure which I hope can be addressed for any future occasions. Given the nature of the outbreak, having everyone gathered in such a small area could have had serious consequences.
After several hours, names taken from the health screening forms were read out for selected people to progress to immigration control. Slowly people got processed. The queue to the holding areas was growing all the time. Rumors abounded that included Cu Chi being the quarantine camp and not Can Tho, or perhaps even self-quarantine. Water finally arrived together with a small selection of sandwiches. Eventually everyone could progress to immigration – some with stamped health certificates, and others without.
Passports and visas were checked and we progressed to the baggage claim. A queue formed of people waiting to be transported to a quarantine center. For those of us who had passed through immigration minus the health questionnaire a new one was rapidly completed and handed in.
It seemed as if my destination was not to be Cu Chi but rather a quarantine center in the city.
After a long day, this came as a relief and I hoped it was correct. Eventually I boarded a 15-seater minibus with just six people, including a fellow Englishman named Richard. All remaining space was taken up by baggage.
It was quickly apparent we were indeed destined for somewhere in Ho Chi Minh City. On arrival, the center had an outdoor LED display explaining it was a COVID-19 quarantine center. It was a converted military barracks. Minibuses had to be disinfected with the spray entering the vehicle due to open windows.
I was immediately taken back to my work in the UK with refugees from Vietnam back in the 1970s and 1980s. Many memories have resurfaced from that time during my stay here in the center, though of course there is a role reversal. I supported the Vietnamese then, and the Vietnamese are supporting me now. The circle of life.
We decanted with our baggage and sat behind desks waiting to be called for a temperature check and registration. We were then escorted to our new accommodation. Rooms with eight steel framed bunk beds. Lower bunks for sleeping, upper bunks for holding our belongings. More importantly it had two toilets having refrained from using the toilet in the airport as well as on the plane it was a real relief to use the toilet after a total of 23 hours.
My roommates consisting of six Vietnamese, Richard, and myself all rapidly settled in and slept. The next day started with a playing of the Vietnamese national anthem, which was followed by a version of Scarborough Fair by Simon and Garfunkel and other mellow tunes.
Most of the day in the center is spent interacting with family and friends on Facebook, emails, and other social media. A friend of a friend was quarantined from the same flight and it is good to have a kindred spirit nearby. The daily routine is broken by food breaks; face masks being delivered, and temperature checks.
A sign of normality returning came when after three days some girls started playing badminton in the central courtyard area. It was nice to watch as they made the best use of their skill. Later basketball, football, and kick shuttlecock would also be played. Parcel deliveries arrive from friends and family twice daily.
Unfortunately, the mains charger for my laptop stopped working so a replacement was ordered. Everything seemed fine until three separate Grab taxis set off to deliver the charger but each time they returned to the shop as they were scared and refused to go close to the quarantine center.
Thankfully Tien, a good acquaintance who has always been willing to help and is also a soldier, who had kindly delivered previous parcels, stepped up again to deliver the charger to me at the center. It was another kind act from the military supporting me during my stay here.
There are many people who are both directly and indirectly supporting the fight against COVID-19, from staff at Heathrow, health screening staff, and immigration officials, to food delivery team, nurses and doctors, soldiers, students, and even media personnel.
Many more people in Vietnam are involved in the fight to control the virus spreading and protecting others. I have seen many pictures, which show army personnel sleeping in bivouacs and working until they drop to sleep to support the programme, along with students vacating accommodation to provide more beds for quarantine. This makes me feel humbled to be here in the relative comfort and safety of the center.
The situation took a dark turn when I heard that a passenger on the same plane as me from London had tested positive and had been taken from a different center to mine to a tropical disease hospital. Also, a roommate who had a bad cough was taken for further tests and isolation. It made me realize just why I was in the quarantine center and how brave all the staff are to be here day by day.
I am deeply honored to call Vietnam my home and thank the many Vietnamese who have made me feel so welcome in this beautiful and proud country. The encouragement and assistance of family and friends both old and new, including Mai, Hung, Thanh, both Richards and Hoa have supported me greatly, both practically and emotionally during my journey and stay in the center.
I especially thank every doctor, nurse, and soldier both at senior and junior rank and all the other staff here for their kind support during my stay. I am sure with good fortitude supported by fast and careful action Vietnam will rise to the challenge of COVID-19 and continue its amazing culture and development.
Peter Rimmer is one of Vietnam’s most well known expats, and is highly visible as the executive director of the British Business Group in Vietnam. After returning to Vietnam from the UK, he was placed in 14-day’s of mandatory quarantine and wrote this personal account of his experience. This article was originally published by the Vietnam Investment Review and is republished here with Peter’s permission.