HO CHI MINH CITY -- Vietnam has largely lifted a nationwide lockdown to contain the new coronavirus, but events will be drastically curtailed when the country celebrates Reunification Day on Thursday.
The national holiday, held every year on April 30, will commemorate the 45th anniversary of the liberation of Saigon, also known as the fall of Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, which marked the end of the Vietnam War.
The main ceremony began at 8 a.m. local time here in the commercial hub in Vietnam's south. But large parades have been canceled and many exhibitions will be held online amid the lingering risk of coronavirus infection.
"Each location which attends and follow the event online have a maximum of 30 guests and officials, including leaders and representatives from a variety groups in each location," according to the city's guidelines, which list members of the armed forces, intellectuals, war veterans and representatives of farmers, youths and Vietnamese living overseas.
Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, the incumbent chairwoman of the National Assembly and First Deputy Prime Minister Truong Hoa Binh were among the high-ranking attendees from Hanoi.
Hanoi had good reason to declare victory against the coronavirus and press ahead with the online celebration. Vietnam is set to decide its next leadership in January during its twice-a-decade Communist Party convention, meaning leaders have to balance economic recovery and a return to normalization with prevention of a new outbreak.
About 6,000 people participated in the main event five years ago.
This year, Vietnamese will be able to follow the activities from separate locations, such as the headquarters of the municipal Party Committee, the People's Council and People's Committee, and the local committee of the Vietnam Fatherland Front. Main locations will be set up at the Reunification Hall and the Tank 390 exhibition stage at the Independence Palace, the home and workplace of South Vietnam's president during the Vietnam War. All activities will be televised nationwide and livestreamed on digital platforms.
City leaders conducted some activities on Wednesday, such as paying tribute to fallen soldiers at cemeteries and offering incense and flowers to memorialize Ton Duc Thang, the last president of North Vietnam and the first president of the reunified country.
Sideline activities, including a photo exhibition, will also be shown online at the municipal Party Committee and People's Committee, Ho Chi Minh City's government website, and the websites of city departments and organizations. Public music performances will be canceled due to the continuing ban on large gatherings.
The Communist Party-led country considers Reunification Day a key event, this year marking the victory of North Vietnam's military against southern forces in 1975. The event was previously called Liberation Day but was recently renamed Reunification Day, which political observers said was a way to help Hanoi promote a reconciliation plan as well as move closer to the U.S. in its diplomacy.
The holiday comes after Vietnam eased restrictions meant to stop the coronavirus outbreak. On April 22, Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc told his cabinet "the country has moved to a new period [of] long-term epidemic prevention and control" while "allowing socio-economic development and ensuring that people are ready to adapt in the context of a well-controlled COVID-19."
In the absence of a vaccine and specific treatment for COVID-19, Vietnamese people need to learn to live with the disease, gradually creating a "new normal" amid the pandemic, Phuc said.
"The online celebration can be seen as part of the [government's] overall precaution measures," Phung Anh Tuan, managing director of Ho Chi Minh-based law firm VCI Legal, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Unlike New Zealand, I am not aware of any official victory announcement against COVID-19 from [Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City] city leaders. Instead, there is a government-level easing of social distancing so things can gradually return to normal," he added.