Vietnam evacuees recall Wuhan airlift, homecoming

By Dinh Nhan, Hoai Vu   February 12, 2020 | 07:57 pm PT
Setting foot in their homeland after being stranded in Wuhan for days proved an unforgettable encounter for many rescued Vietnamese.

At 5 a.m. on February 10, the Vietnam Airlines flight touched down at Van Don International Airport in northern Quang Ninh Province, carrying 30 Vietnamese returning from Wuhan, epicenter of the new coronavirus. Travelling with their daughter, Tran Dinh Nhan and Nguyen Hoai Vu recall their unforgettable experience.

Early February, seeing their American, Japanese and Thai friends being rescued from the epicenter of the new coronavirus (Covid-19), many Vietnamese students and their families struggled to remain at ease. Knowing the 14-day quarantine is inevitable, they still yearned for home.

The Vietnamese embassy in China suggested flying them home but provided no detailed information. Via a WeChat group, many stranded Vietnamese vented their anxiety about transportation to the airport, passing through numerous checkpoints, and finally flying back.

The group of Vietnamese enter the aircraft. Photo by Vietnam Airlines.

Passengers swathed in protective clothing wait to board their return flight to Vietnam. Photo courtesy of Vietnam Airlines.

A day before the airlift, there was still no information about the flight, with many turning up their ringtones in the hope of good news, but to no avail.

Early February 9, many thought the plan had been canceled, with the local death toll hitting an approximate 780.

"The flight was approved, please consider your distance from and time of travel to the airport," the Vietnam embassy finally revealed in a message circulated at 3 p.m. the same day.

Six pickup spots for stranded Vietnamese passengers were organized across Wuhan, situated at 30 minute intervals.

At Wuhan University of Technology, the last stop, the group freaked out as the final student had gotten lost en route.

With all passengers accounted for, the bus headed to the airport via several pre-informed checkpoints, the only sound emitted by a 9-month-old crying baby.

The passengers and their friends before departure. Photo by Dien Tuan.

Passengers and their friends look relieved ahead of departure. Photo by VnExpres/Dien Tuan.

At the last checkpoint, the bus was ordered to await confirmation from the local foreign affairs department, making everyone break out in a sweat.

At 10:32 p.m., an official finally allowed the passengers to continue on to their destination, a journey of one hour turning into a five hour ordeal.

At Wuhan’s Tianhe International Airport, two staff members assisting passengers with food and clearance procedures after hours spent traveling.

Lacking sleep and wearing layers of clothes caused some worry among the group who feared raised body temperatures could prevent them from boarding the plane.

Removing some clothing, and stepping through the thermal scanner, all were cleared for departure by 11:45 p.m.

After 3 hours, the plane finally took off, leaving the epicenter of the deadly virus far behind.

The plane, which touched down at Van Don Airport around 5 a.m. Monday, was immediately disinfected and left idle for four hours to prevent infection. Passengers and crew members were all put in quarantine for 14 days.

Vietnam officially declared the Covid-19 outbreak an epidemic on February 1, with the country having confirmed 15 cases of infection. Seven people have so far been discharged from hospital after doctors declared them free of the new coronavirus.

As of Thursday morning, the global death toll from the epidemic had climbed to 1,363.

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