Covid-19 Surges Back

But life carries on

Good morning! Welcome to the latest free-to-read edition of the Vietnam Weekly. I had intended to send out a piece for paying subscribers, but I tested positive for COVID-19 last Sunday (I’m fine!) and that threw off my schedule over the previous 10 days. That will come next week. If you’d like to upgrade to a paid subscription (US$5/month, US$50/year), you can do so below.

On to the news.

Covid comes back

Unfortunately, we’re back to the point where COVID-19 is dominating the news.

Nationally, cases are on the upswing, though once again this was expected following the end of lockdown. Life here in Ho Chi Minh City rumbles on, but less-vaccinated provinces such as Nghe An, Quang Tri and Bac Ninh have brought in various social distancing regulations.

The rolling seven-day case average is 14,349, up from 9,213 a week ago (though that’s helped by the off-the-charts spike you see below, which was the addition of 28,000 cases detected over several months in Binh Duong that hadn’t been recorded in the national database).

Tay Ninh, one of several southern provinces seeing sustained case surges, has shut down bars, internet cafes and karaoke and massage parlors, while Binh Thuan closed non-essential services and introduced a 7pm-5am curfew.

These restrictions are happening because many areas remain at high risk due to low vaccination rates, even though Vietnam is moving as fast as possible on this. Just 23 of 63 cities and provinces have given a first dose to all residents over 18, while only 12 localities have fully vaccinated more than 80% of adults: An Giang, Ba Ria-Vung Tau, Bac Ninh, Dong Nai, Ha Nam, Hanoi, HCMC, Khanh Hoa, Lam Dong Lang Son, Long An and Quang Ninh.

Over 110 million vaccine doses have been administered nationwide, which is excellent considering where we were a few months ago - in fact, Vietnam has passed the United States in terms of the percentage of the population with at least a first dose (69.09% to 68.79%) - but this isn’t enough given the large population.

The US delivered another 4.1 million Pfizer doses this week, while Japan donated 1.5 million more vaccine doses too, but deliveries based on commercial contracts have been very slow, while Nanocovax - the domestic vaccine candidate which had a lot of hype a couple of months ago - is nowhere to be seen.

And in news that is certainly not going to help the perception of Sinopharm, three people died in Thanh Hoa Province after receiving their second Vero Cell dose on Wednesday - though the exact cause of death has not been announced. An investigation is underway.

The media messaging as infection numbers rise again has been mixed, to say the least, with some articles noting that this was to be expected, while others focus on concurrent increases in deaths and severe cases.

HCMC, for example, recorded between 50 and 62 Covid deaths each day from Saturday to Tuesday, ending a month-long stretch where fewer than 30 deaths were reported on a daily basis. However, these deaths are concentrated among the elderly (who are still at risk even when vaccinated) and the unvaccinated. Severe cases from other provinces are also brought to the city, since health facilities here are more advanced.

Hanoi is also seeing rising case numbers, and an increase in severe cases, but largely among unvaccinated people.

Yesterday, Deputy Minister of Health Nguyen Truong Son reiterated that the number of new cases each week is not important; instead the primary factors are hospitalizations, severe cases and deaths. New outbreak assessment criteria based on this reality are expected to be announce soon.

He also discussed newer treatment regimes such as the use Molnupiravir, which is reportedly showing strong effectiveness in reducing mortality. Of the current active Covid cases, 95,932 (51.9%) are being treated at home, while 10,491 are in isolation areas and 78,406 (42.4%) are in some kind of hospital. Of that last figure, 3,462 cases are considered severe.

Taking all of this into consideration, I stand by my earlier prediction of no further lockdowns for HCMC and other highly vaccinated cities, but it’s harder guess when it comes to smaller provinces.

The Prime Minister Goes to Japan

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh visited Japan this week. During a meeting with Japanese PM Fumio Kishida, the two sides agreed to enhance security cooperation between the countries, while also sharing “serious concerns” over aggression in regional bodies of water (obviously this was aimed at China).

Back in September, the two countries signed an agreement allowing for the export of Japanese-made military equipment to Vietnam.

Chinh also met with Japanese business groups, with the chairman of Aeon announcing that his company aims to double their number of malls in Vietnam, building on more than US$1 billion worth of previous investments.

Fast Retailing, which owns Uniqlo, also shared plans to increase its presence here, while the energy firm Enos expressed interest in helping Vietnam reduce carbon emissions. (Energy is an area to watch, as Japan remains a bit opaque on whether it will continue to finance overseas coal plants.)

And in the coming week, four more trains for HCMC’s first metro line will arrive from Japan, though city residents won’t be able to ride on them until late 2023 at the very earliest.

Chinh also said during this visit that Vietnam plans to begin resuming commercial inbound flights from early December, which is…very soon. No further details are available yet - previous announcements had aimed for January.


Extra links:

Workers in Vietnam lived inside factories to keep Samsung’s products on shelves during the pandemic (Rest of World)

Vietnamese workers at Chinese tyre factory in Serbia get back passports as activists call for human trafficking probe (South China Morning Post)

Bồ Kết: When Nature Dreams of Bubbles and Silky Hair (Saigoneer)

As times and tastes change, Vietnam’s bear bile industry is fading away (National Geographic)

Vietnam lenders adopt loan shark tactics (Southeast Asia Globe)

Have a safe weekend, and a belated Happy Thanksgiving to American readers!

Mike Tatarski

Tourism is...Back?

And VinFast Debuts in LA

Good morning! Welcome to the latest free-to-read edition of the Vietnam Weekly. If you’d like to sign up to receive future newsletters, or upgrade to the paid version (US$/5month, US$50/year), you can do so below.

On to the news.

Tourism (?) is Back (?)

I’ll start with the caveat that I’ve found it very confusing to follow what is going on with the limited, vaccine passport-based international tourism re-opening, in part because there is a lot of inconsistent information out there.

On Saturday, AFP reported that over 400 South Korean and Japanese visitors had arrived in Khanh Hoa on two flights, making them Vietnam’s first foreign tourists in 20 months. (This VnExpress article mentions those flights, but I don’t know why they didn’t count as the first ones. The guests were brought to the Vinpearl Resort in Cam Ranh.)

Yesterday, VnExpress reported that a charter flight carrying 29 foreign tourists from 11 countries landed in Da Nang, while saying that they were actually the first tourists in 20 months. (Just to add to the confusion, the government’s official news portal said the same flight carried only 12 people.)

They got the big banner out for that flight, so I guess we’re saying this is the official first one. (Perhaps they just meant Vietnam Airlines’ first flight? Any clarification is welcome.)

The guests (all 12 or 29 of them) were then taken to the massive Hoiana resort complex south of Hoi An - my understanding is that they have to stay there, and will be taken to places like My Son as a group.

Elsewhere, 209 South Korean tourists are expected to arrive on Phu Quoc tomorrow, where they’ll stay at the Vinpearl Resort for three nights and only be able to visit places within the Vingroup complex. (One tour agency aims to bring 5,000 South Koreans to Phu Quoc by March.)

Almost 30 more charter flights are scheduled to fly from South Korea, Japan and Taiwan to Phu Quoc, Cam Ranh and Da Nang in the coming days and weeks while officials assess the safety of this program and consider expanding it to other parts of Vietnam. (As mentioned here before, HCMC, Binh Dinh and a bunch of other provinces/cities want tourists back.)

This Viet Nam News piece includes an interesting tidbit from a Civil Aviation Authority official, who notes that with China aggressively pursuing zero-Covid and keeping its citizens at home, Vietnam will have to offer more tempting options to visitors from other countries. (Prior to the pandemic, China was by far Vietnam’s largest source of foreign tourists.)

Keep in mind that this is the same week in which Cambodia dropped all quarantine rules for fully vaccinated foreign arrivals.

Meanwhile, Vietnam’s tourism powers-that-be have unveiled a new campaign called ‘Live fully in Vietnam,’ which is a curious one given how few destinations are open.

And in one last bit of aviation news, Vietnam Airlines will operate its first regular direct flight to the United States - from HCMC to San Francisco - on the 28th, something the airline has been aiming for for about two decades. There will be a return flight on the 29th, but I don’t know how that will work since commercial flights are still suspended.

VinFast’s US Launch

VinFast had a busy week in the US. On Wednesday, they announced their national headquarters in Los Angeles, part of US$200 million in investments recently announced for California.

They then debuted their VF e35 and VF e36 electric SUVs at the LA Auto Show. These are the two vehicles they’ll begin selling in the US and several European countries next year. For more background on this, I’ll share my feature for The Ken from last month on VinFast’s US strategy again .

Finally, in an interview with Reuters, Vinfast Global CEO Michael Lohscheller confirmed that the company plans to both launch a US IPO and begin producing cars in the county within the next few years.

The New Normal Can Be Confusing

Late Tuesday night, HCMC officials announced that bars, spas, karaoke parlors and cinemas could re-open the following day after being closed for around six months. Ride-hailing motorbike services were also brought back, and all of the above had various capacity limits based on the Covid risk level of specific districts.

Yesterday afternoon - less than 48 hours later - the city government announced that karaoke parlors, bars and spas would actually have to close again until the Department of Health issues detailed safety criteria.

This sort of policy whiplash certainly isn’t new, but I can’t imagine how frustrating this must be for business owners.

In another surprise move, on Tuesday, Hanoi’s city government ordered that anyone - even fully vaccinated individuals arriving in the capital from high-risk and very high-risk areas (this includes HCMC, Binh Duong and Dong Nai) must quarantine at home or a hotel for seven days.

This resulted in huge numbers of people cancelling their flight to Hanoi, while airlines warned that this would have a massive impact on domestic aviation.

Last night, that policy was cancelled.

Elsewhere, case numbers continue to rise in the Mekong Delta (and other regions), but the mortality rate is low, though deaths do lag behind movement in infection numbers.

HCMC’s health department has recommended re-opening some quarantine centers and field hospitals amid rising cases, though the city faces a critical health worker shortage, with just 2.3 medical workers per 10,000 people, compared to the national average of 7.4.

The outbreak continues to worsen nationally, at least from a statistical standpoint. According to VnExpress data, the rolling seven-day average for daily infections yesterday was 9,213, up from 6,651 the previous week. Those figures for severe cases are 4,023 and 3,095, and for deaths they are 90 and 64.

The good news is that almost 40% of the population is now fully vaccinated, and from what I’ve seen there is no discussion of fresh lockdowns anywhere.


Extra Links:

Vietnam reconsiders methane-emitting rice amid climate crisis (Al Jazeera)

Big Tech warns Vietnam data rules risk 'damage' to digital economy (Nikkei Asia)

After Each Flood, Hoi An Picks Itself up, Just Like It Has Always Done (Saigoneer)

Have a safe weekend!

Mike Tatarski

Vietnam Welcomes its 1st Metro Line

While Covid cases rise

Good morning! Welcome to the latest free-to-read edition of the Vietnam Weekly. I sent out an article on international flight plans, proposals and problems for paying subscribers yesterday. If you’d like to subscribe to the paid edition (US$5/month, US$50/year), you can do so below.

On to the news.

Hanoi’s First Metro Line Really, Actually Opens!

This was briefly previewed in last week’s newsletter, but Hanoi’s Cat Linh-Ha Dong metro line finally opened to the public on Saturday after a decade of delays, construction accidents and epic red tape.

Huge crowds rode the trains over the weekend, as residents eagerly tried out Vietnam’s first mass transit rail line. This led city officials to ask people who were simply riding it for enjoyment to avoid rush hours given the ongoing COVID-19 risk. (Hanoi recorded its highest single-day case total of this outbreak on Tuesday.)

AFP/South China Morning Post published a nice video showing the system in action, and there was obvious excitement among passengers.

I love this photo from Zing News, which perfectly illustrates why Hanoi (and Ho Chi Minh City) need metro systems.

Of course, one line isn’t going to solve traffic jams on its own, while this article (in Vietnamese) features input from a few passengers who said they will probably switch back to their motorbike since there isn’t enough parking at the metro stations and there is poor bus connectivity for onward transit.

Hopefully this won’t suffer the same fate as Hanoi’s sole bus rapid transit line, which has been criticized as ineffective because it doesn’t connect to any broader network, while other vehicles often use the BRT lane and hold buses up.

The capital’s second metro line, Nhon-Hanoi Railway Station, is running into problems of its own now. Work on the elevated section of the route has progressed well, but Hyundai E&C-Ghella, the project’s main contractor, has stopped working on the underground stretch and is demanding almost US$115 million in compensation for repeated site clearance delays.

That route was originally scheduled for completion in 2018, a date that has been pushed to December 2022.

And here in HCMC, workers are installing the final 660 meters of track on the Ben Thanh-Suoi Tien line, though it isn’t expected to open until late 2023 or early 2024 thanks to a laundry list of structural, financial and bureaucratic issues.

Whenever I next visit Hanoi I’ll certainly ride the metro and report back on the experience.

Covid Concerns

Nationwide, the outbreak situation is becoming - to borrow the preferred phrasing of officials and local media - more complicated. And in a grim milestone, Vietnam passed 1 million total cases since the start of the pandemic yesterday.

HCMC recorded its highest case total in three weeks on Wednesday, though health experts have noted that this was fully expected following the comprehensive end of lockdown, and the key indicators are severe cases and deaths.

Those remain way below the worst of the city’s peak, though deaths are ticking up slightly - still, widespread vaccine coverage here should do its job. Over 90% of teenagers in the city have now received their first dose, which has happened incredibly quickly.

While there has been some media shaming of residents enjoying being able to do stuff again, I wouldn’t expect a return to social distancing given how many people here are vaccinated and how much more economic damage that would cause.

On that note, VnExpress published a solid infographic on how the pandemic has impacted Vietnam’s economy. Two headline figures are that the monthly average income is at a 10-year low, while the number of jobless people (1.8 million) is at a 10-year high.

At most, I could see some kind of reversal on in-person dining rules, and I doubt karaoke parlors or cinemas (sob) will re-open anytime soon, but another lockdown for the city would be shocking.

Localities with lower vaccination rates, however, are facing a bigger challenge. Lao Cai, Phu Tho, Bac Giang and Ha Tinh provinces have all banned in-person dining, in addition to a number of social distancing measures, in response to rising case numbers.

Binh Thuan and Soc Trang have re-established Covid checkpoints, while Binh Phuoc, An Giang and Bac Lieu each raised their outbreak risk levels. An Giang and Hau Giang have also implemented overnight curfews. The Mekong Delta continues to see significant increases in daily cases, though vaccine distribution is improving too.

In the most dramatic step we’ve seen this month, an entire Bac Giang district - home to 100,000 people - was locked down until further notice on Saturday following the discovery of a new Covid cluster. (This was surprising, as that province has very high vaccine coverage.)

Daily case trends from a few provinces, just for reference:

The Minister of Health, meanwhile, warned this week of possible renewed outbreaks as winter arrives in northern Vietnam and Tet (February 1) nears. "Switching gears to adaptation means infections are inevitable, but the important thing is we should be able to manage the risks regarding severe cases and deaths," he was quoted saying - as vaccinations continue across the country (but with just 1/3 of the population fully vaccinated), those will be the data points to watch, and key predictors of any potential new lockdown restrictions.

The Steak

Last Friday, a video posted on the TikTok page of Salt Bae, the nickname of Turkish celebrity chef Nusret Gökçe (who is famous for reasons I cannot comprehend), showed Tô Lâm, Vietnam’s Minister of Public Security, dining at the chef’s ultra-expensive London steakhouse. The minister was in the United Kingdom for the COP26 summit

While the video has since been deleted, the topic absolutely caught fire on social media, and attracted coverage from Reuters, AFP and The New York Times, among others. (And zero coverage whatsoever from domestic media.)

If you’re wondering why this would warrant international attention, a steak at Nusr-Et Steakhouse reportedly costs well over US$1,200, while the minister’s public salary is less than US$1,000 month.

To be sure, there’s a lot we don’t know here: it’s not clear how this dinner came about, or who paid for the meal. It’s entirely possible that someone invited the minister and took care of the bill, but purely on a visual level, this is bad optics, especially with so many here in Vietnam still struggling due to the outbreak. (Ironically, Minister Tô’s delegation visited Karl Marx’s tomb in London on the same trip.)

Perhaps most curiously, #saltbae was blocked on Facebook over the weekend - typing that in brought up a message saying it violated community standards. Users in Vietnam first noticed this, and I tried searching with my VPN set to the US - the same thing happened.

Reuters then reported on Tuesday that Facebook had unblocked the hashtag, and the company claimed that they didn’t know why it had been blocked in the first place.

Given the complete absence of this incident in local media, it seems unlikely that there will be any political blowback - at least in the immediate future - but suffice to say that people on social media are less than pleased. (I also hope this is the first and last time I ever have to talk about Salt Bae or TikTok.)


Extra Links:

Into the Storm: Saigon's Outbreak Through the Eyes of a Frontline Volunteer (Saigoneer)

Rescue flight (Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation)

Lêkima: The Flower Worthy of a National Heroine (Saigoneer)

In 'Hà Nội Bị Say Cà Phê,' a Tribute to the House Dancers of Lenin Park (Urbanist Hanoi)

Have a safe weekend!

Mike Tatarski

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