Life behind the barricades

July 20, 2021 | 10:53 pm PT
Leigh Doughty Language tutor
The mood of the city changed as social distancing rules tightened.

The street vendors, lottery sellers, and Grab drivers that used to work outside each day and night vanished in an instant. The people left outside seemed to be on guard, masks firmly in place, and eyes to the ground whenever they walked by.

After two days of the new restrictions, we can begin to see red and yellow gates appear at the end of roads and on street corners. As each day passed, more and more buildings and homes were being taped up with stern warning signs to keep away.

As a foreigner living in Ho Chi Minh City, we sometimes get the news a little slower than most. Before we get the facts, we often hear the rumours, and it's around this time that the rumours began to swirl.

I found out about the barricades over a phone message. A friend casually mentioned that part of Thao Dien was being fenced in due to a high number of Covid cases. I looked out of my window and saw no fences or extra police patrols and shrugged it off as some kind of fake report.

On Friday morning (July 9), I made my way onto the street to pick up the day's shopping. As soon I left the house I could tell something was wrong.

At one end of my street, I saw a police officer with two local guards and a large fence being pushed into place. I decided to avoid the commotion and walked the other way.

The alleys were busier than normal. For the last few days everyone had been staying inside and keeping safe; now there was tension burning as people left their homes to see what was going on.

On the main road there was a newly built gate blocking our exit. The makeshift barricades were manned by three men in uniform and each of the men were patiently answering questions from worried residents.

The reality of the situation and that awful pang of fear hit my stomach. I decided to take one last try and turned around and headed down Quoc Huong street to see the full extent of the damage.

After a few minutes of walking, I found the final jarring reminder that the rumours were true, we'd finally been barricaded in. At the end of the road was an even larger barricade, this time there must have been a dozen officials standing by, giving instructions to people trying to get in and out.

I returned home as fast as I could while my head spun with a thousand worries.

I looked online to try and find some news and still I found nothing. How could this happen and nobody knew anything about it?

My worst fear was always being fenced in; perhaps there is an undercurrent of claustrophobia that runs through me. Whenever I see gates, literally or metaphorically, I get this sudden urge to run.

A section of Co Giang Street in downtown District 1 is blocked to restrict traffic to contain Covid-19 spread, July 9, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

A section of Co Giang Street in downtown District 1 is blocked to restrict traffic to contain Covid-19 spread, July 9, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

As the days passed, we were tested for the virus once again, and as we awaited the results my mind danced between an anxious panic to full blown despair.

By the third day I began to feel more normal again. We had a local shop, we had medicine, most of us were not sick, and we just needed to keep our heads together despite the new pressures.

Around the fourth day is when I started to feel some level of calm. I realized that I didn't have the virus and that was the important thing. The second thing was the owner of the home confirmed this would likely last for 14 days. While part of me hoped it would just take five or so days; having a number and a date to focus on made it more manageable and I was able to make peace with our new life behind in the quarantine zone.

At this point I realized this wasn’t about us. It wasn’t some attack on a group of people. We were barricaded because the government wanted to protect the city from a high number of cases. They were the logical ones, and while we griped about a lack of food variety, they were thinking about something far greater than our bellies.

By the time I'd rationalized and made peace with things everything became easier.

There were still small joys to be had. I cherished the 20-minute walk to the local shop. There were no more bikes buzzing down the alleys and there were no more cars and trucks hurtling down the roads. I could even hear the sound of children playing with their parents from their homes and the chirping of the birds from the trees above.

Life slowed down. Each day I drank coffee on my rooftop in the morning and just enjoyed the little comings and goings of the streets below.

There were also small acts that moved me. On the third day the community came together to organize food relief to the local residents. Police officers, charity workers, and local guards all worked together and began to organize truck loads of fresh fruit and vegetables into food parcels for local families.

The other heroes right now are the workers. The street cleaners have to work in hazmat suits under the blistering sun, just to keep the area from filling with trash. The young lady working in the pharmacy distributing medicine, always with a smile in her eyes. And the workers of our local convenience store, who are probably at the highest risk, yet come to work each day and just to help keep the people fed.

Even my fellow foreigners have changed behind these barricades. As we made our daily purchases from the shop it has now become common for conversations to start. While previously we'd done our best job to ignore each other, now we talked about the little things as we waited in line.

It’s now coming up to more than a week locked behind the barricade but I'd be a fool to complain.

We are in a tough situation, nobody can deny that, but despite all this we have the ability to endure. Vietnam has always had a distinct resilience under pressure. And here we are, behind the barricade and living through our own hard times, yet what we find is our capacity to survive and our strength to get through this.

* Leigh Doughty is a language tutor and writer based in HCMC, Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.

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