How some Hanoians live after life turns topsy-turvy

By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam   March 9, 2020 | 05:09 pm PT
How some Hanoians live after life turns topsy-turvy
People sit outside their houses on Truc Bach Street which was put under lockdown on March 6, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.
It’s 8 p.m. Friday, March 6. Street-side diners are tucking into a gourmet meal of snails and steamed rice paper rolls pho cuon – a conjured-up Hanoi specialty.

The food stalls at the intersection of Truc Bach - Ngu Xa Street in Ba Dinh District are sparkling with bright lights.

Truc Bach Street, named after the nearby lake, along with Ngu Xa, Chau Long and a few small streets surrounding the lake, form a particularly urban landscape in the capital city. History buffs will remember the lake as the one over which U.S. Senator John McCain was shot down and taken prisoner during the Vietnam War.

The area, with its charming old-style houses in small alleys, is also home to many cafés and eateries favored by young and old alike. It is still a "hideout" Hanoians escape to when they want to get away from the bustle and relax.

On Friday night, the people are relaxed, no coronavirus fears in evidence. All 16 infected people have been discharged and the nation has gone 22 days without a new infection. In fact just a few days earlier, on Wednesday night, the lockdown on Son Loi Commune in Vinh Phuc Province was lifted after it went through 20 days of no infection cases starting February 13.

The pho (rice noodle soup) stall run by Hung and his wife Thuy at No. 85 Truc Bach Street opens from 7 p.m. to midnight every day. On Friday night, Hung looks forward to selling more than a hundred bowls of the soup to the weekend crowd.

Then, without any warning, the "earthquake" strikes.

Screeching police cars and ambulances halt before the building at No.125. In scenes reminiscent of Hollywood blockbusters, medical personnel in head-to-toe protective gear hurry into the building.

Customers let go of their chopsticks and crane their necks to see what is happening. Hung does not have a good feeling about this. Something tells him something bad’s about to happen.

In quick order, barriers are erected at both ends of the street. Hung’s wife puts out the charcoal stove while he tidies and collects the tables and chairs. They know they are done for the night. Less than a dozen bowls have been sold.

Along with millions of Hanoians, Hung’s family and all other Truc Bach residents had a white night, courtesy of Nguyen Hong Nhung, a 26-year-old woman who’d tested positive for the Covid-19 causing novel coronavirus that Friday.

Nhung, who’d returned from Europe, was confirmed as Hanoi’s first Covid-19 patient and the country’s 17th. Capital city authorities were swift in taking action to lock down the entire area.

The lockdown started from the Truc Bach-Ngu Xa intersection and stretched until Chau Long Street – an area with 22 families and 176 residents.

"Our pho stall has been definitely closed, but living in a lockdown like this, how do we eat and live? Thuy is unable to sleep. Outside, many families in the neighborhood keep turning on the light, and medical staff and police are busy through the night," Hung said.

The first morning

The next morning, those in the neighborhood that were able to sleep woke to a loudspeaker blaring warnings about the Covid-19 epidemic.

Residents on Truc Bach Street began to understand what it was like to live under a kind of siege.

Boxes of noodles, rice bags, eggs and sacks of vegetable as well as other necessities for daily life were passed through the barrier rods.

For a housewife like Thuy, who went to the wet market every morning and too care of buying things needed to feed her husband, children and grandchildren, this was a hugely unsettling experience.

Fortunately, her worries proved short-lived.

The office of Truc Bach Ward People's Committee is located at the beginning of the intersection, and it became busy with cars carrying supplies to residents inside the quarantine area.

"Each person gets three eggs, 200 grams of meat or fish, two kinds of vegetables per day, and rice with a bottle of cooking oil," said Hung as he received the free rations.

He also found some humor in the situation. "This menu is beyond nutrition. My wife doesn't let me eat well like this every day."

All residents also have their health checked twice a day, starting at 8:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. Hand sanitizers are distributed daily, as also garbage bags. Garbage is collected at 6 p.m. daily by special forces.

Local police officers check people upon entering Truc Bach Street. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Local police officers check people entering Truc Bach Street. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

"Please wear gloves and masks when you take out the trash. Please disinfect hand and feet with sanitizer after going out to throw out the trash and remove the gloves and masks immediately," healthcare staff keep reminding everyone.

Thuy’s two grandsons stay indoors and review their lessons. Her son is a freelance businessman, and has to stay home during the quarantine period.

Hung is angry with Nhung, his neighbor who returned to Vietnam after traveling to epidemic-hit countries in Europe, but failed to make health declarations to local authorities. "She is to blame," he said, and declined to comment further. Hung does not know Nhung and has never met her.

After two days passed and he found that his neighbors were fine, Hung felt easier about the quarantined existence.

"Living in the heart of the epidemic we should be more comfortable, so that people outside feel secure to fight it."

No escape

Pham Hoang Long, manager of a wine restaurant, said he saws the isolation as "carrying out a responsibility to the community." His family lives in Saigon. Only two brothers live on No.119 Truc Bach Street, right behind "the patient 17" house.

Families living near No.125 Truc Bach, Nhung’s residence, were placed under quarantine at Campus No.2 of the Central Tropical Hospital 2 in Dong Anh District.

Long lives in a 40 square-meter room with his younger brother and two neighbors. The room is equipped with an air-conditioner that cannot be used now. They are required to turn on the fan and keep windows open for ventilation.

Inside the room, everyone wears a face mask and limits talking to each other. Sometimes, he goes into the corridor to stretch his limbs.

On Friday night, as Long worked in his office on Trang Thi Street, his cell phone rang many times. His friends told to him that Truc Bach Street was locked down and advised him to escape instead of going home.

He called his younger brother and asked him to collect clothes and necessary furniture to leave home. But later, he thought that if he escaped, everything could get worse.

Thirty minutes later, Long received a call from a medical staff in Ba Dinh District, asking where he was and inviting him to return home to be quarantined. He asked for a few hours time to hand over work to his employees before going to the quarantine area.

As he returnd home towards midnight, Long noticed the usually-crowded Truc Bach Street had turned very quiet. There was no smoke coming out of streetside eateries, no groups of stylishly dressed youngsters going in and coming out of bars. The police and soldiers on duty opened the barriers to let him enter.

Long lives in an ancient mansion that houses many families. The lights in the common staircase were turned off. He shuddered in the cold as he entered his room. He turned on all the lights in his room and took a shower, putting his clothes into his backpack. At 2 a.m., he had packed a bag and a guitar. He was ready. He called the medical team. Ten minutes later the car arrived, taking him and a few people into the quarantine area.

The first meal he had was a stir-fry dish, two main courses with soup and rice that was wrapped in foil to keep the heat, making him surprised. Working as a manager for a restaurant with unstable hours, it had been a long time since he’d had as delicious a meal as this.

For two days in quarantine, apart from getting up to have his body temperature checked and samples taken for testing, Long has slept until noon and sat up late until 4 a.m. the next day to answer messages from friends. Running his restaurant mainly on the phone has been a new experience.

Many customers have texted and asked him: "What's wrong with you?" Long has told them the truth, although it can scare some of them. He also tells them that he is okay.

He guesses his chances of catching an infection is miniscule, but because isolation is mandatory, he will take it seriously. Long had never met Nhung. He’d just noticed that "it was a newly built house, the biggest in the street, and people in the house were very tight-lipped."

Fresh perspectives

Medical staff check a womans health status. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Medical staff check a woman's health on Truc Bach Street, Hanoi. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

On Sunday night, Long sat in meditation. He could not sleep because of his habit of staying up late. "I could feel every single blood vessel flowing in my body and I thought about the word ‘quarantine’."

He had always associated the word with something really bad, something to do with a serious illness, social persecution, alienation and so on. This is a reason that people try to avoid it, he realized. But now that he has thought about it "from the inside," he has had a new thought: People who are secluded are safer than people who mingle with society every day.

He gets food served in his room every day. His body gets regularly disinfected and he doesn’t need to gather in crowded places to buy food and worry about getting sick when going out. If he is accidentally infected, he will be detected and treated first.

"I just hope that everyone will see the isolation as a positive thing. Faith and positive attitude are the most important factors at the moment for overcoming the disease," he said.

When life slows down

A girl rides a bicycle around Truc Bach Street, one of her few options to kill time, March 7, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

A girl rides a bicycle around Truc Bach Street, one of her few options to kill time, March 7, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Giang Huy.

Truc Bach Street’s isolation has slowed down the pace of life in the vicinity to a crawl, although Hanoi is enjoying the beautiful sunny days of late spring.

At the Ngu Xa pho cuon restaurant there is no staff or customer sitting down to surf smartphones or invite each other to play shuttlecock. A few dozen meters from the barrier, the coffee shop at No.39 Chau Long Street is closed on Sunday morning.

The rows of old dormitories in the area are no longer noisy. The doors are closed. Occasionally, someone wearing a mask pokes his or her head out to watch the empty street.

In the afternoon, loudspeakers broadcast news about Covid-19. Truc Bach’s residents feel free to wear face masks and walk around, exercise and receive free supplies.

The women in Hung's family have enjoyed the "most special" Women's International Day with a meal of bacon, fried eggs and fried vegetables and garlic.

"I could only wash the dishes to make up for her," says Hung. He said he has promised that when the epidemic is over, he will take his wife to a buffet and listen to music, as they would do every March 8.

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