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On the ground in Vietnam's new COVID epicenter of Danang

Nation's early success slips away as coastal city becomes new hot spot

My Khe beach promenade in the Vietnamese resort city of Danang is deserted. (Photo by Hugh Bohane)

DANANG, Vietnam -- Just weeks ago, things were looking up for residents of the Vietnamese coastal city of Danang. Their country was winning rave reviews globally for effectively handling the coronavirus pandemic, keeping infections low and being one of the few places hit to have avoided any deaths.

Optimism was in the air. The local economy was gazing ahead to the eventual return of the foreign tourists who once flocked to its scenic beaches fronting the South China Sea. And more broadly, Vietnam itself was planning to pick up the pieces from the economic effects of the virus, with hopes pinned on an increased investment from companies seeking a safe haven from the U.S.-China trade conflict.

But now, however, the atmosphere is fraught with fear and uncertainty as a surge in infections believed to have originated in the city and spreading elsewhere in the country has brought a series of emergency measures, with neighborhoods barricaded and residents are being mandatorily tested.

"The situation is pretty bad here, people are dying," David Tran, a local real estate and visa agent based in Danang told the Nikkei Asian Review. "More and more cases every day," Tran said, stressing that the number of infections in a single week equaled the total the previous seven months.

The fresh outbreak has left the country reeling and begs the question of how it went from containment success story to suddenly having to revert to extreme measures to again bring it under control. But despite the shock, the government and citizens are clearly willing to cooperate and take on the virus a second time.

As of Tuesday, Vietnam had recorded a total of 847 coronavirus cases nationwide, still far fewer than many countries. But there have now been 15 fatalities nationwide. The country had gone 99 days without a domestic infection until one was detected in Danang on July 25.

The virus, which rapidly spread around the world early this year from the Chinese city of Wuhan, came just as the outlook for Vietnam was looking up: The country was being increasingly seen as one of the main beneficiaries from the U.S.-China trade conflict, with international companies having already started to make new investments.

A soldier stands guard on My Khe beach in Danang. (Photo by Hugh Bohane)

Since the virus reemerged in Danang, cases have been detected in other cities around the country, including the capital Hanoi and major southern metropolis and commercial hub Ho Chi Minh City. A 15-day period of social distancing began on July 28 in Danang with only basic services such as pharmacies, hospitals, ATMs and supermarkets allowed to operate. The tourist economy, which was still reeling from the lack of foreign visitors, is again stifled, with streets and beaches mostly empty.

Many of the new cases have been linked to three hospitals in Danang, according to the Health Ministry. The ministry issued a statement saying that up to 80,000 people who came to the city since July 1 have had to evacuate to other locations in the country.

It remains unclear how the outbreak began. Nguyen Thanh Long, Vietnam's top health official, said on July 27 that results of exams on infected patients identified a new strain of the virus, though the assertion has yet to be independently confirmed.

The Southeast Asian country's borders have been closed since March except for a few repatriation flights mostly bringing Vietnamese home from abroad. Those arrivals are seen as one possible explanation for the outbreak, while another could be related to 40 Chinese nationals illegally smuggled into Vietnam in April. Two Vietnamese citizens were detained on July 27 for allegedly organizing their entry, according to police officials.

In a move reminiscent of what happened in the Chinese city of Wuhan, albeit on a smaller scale, local authorities are testing the entire population of Danang -- a city of approximately 1.1 million people -- for possible infection. Local medical workers had conducted 8,247 tests before July 25 and carried out high-speed exams, including 5,000 in one day, in the city's Son Tra District.

A guard patrols a barricaded street in An Thuong, Danang. (Photo by Hugh Bohane)

In a sign of the urgency that has overtaken Danang, the Tien Son Sports Center in the city center is being converted into a field hospital on track to open Wednesday, with capacity to hold up to 2,000 patients. About 100 people are working to meet the deadline, a security guard told the Nikkei Asian Review.

Vietnamese residents in and around one of the city's infection hot zones told Nikkei that they have had to take mandatory blood tests and stay inside their residences. The government is focusing on antibody blood tests as they can determine if a person had the virus before or is currently positive, and they are faster than the PCR swab tests.

In the Ngu Hanh Son neighborhood, close to the city's popular My Khe beach, one street went into full lockdown on July 30 after at least one case was detected there. The street, An Thuong 15, was cordoned off and guards and medics in full hazmat suits combed the area. A few other streets around the city have also been isolated with barricades so officials can root out possible cases.

The tension is beginning to wear on residents, but some are finding resilience in the national character of the country, which during the 20th century fought to overcome foreign occupation by colonial ruler France, saw off a massive U.S. military intervention and united the divided nation and resisted a brief but bloody Chinese invasion. Vietnam also battled the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak.

"I really hope this is the last time we get locked down," said Lani Hoang, 25, who had to give up being a tour guide in Danang when arrivals dried up and who now teaches the Vietnamese language. But Hoang stressed that the country has a can-do attitude no matter what difficulties it faces.

"Vietnamese people are famous for sticking together and showing solidarity with each other," she said, stressing her own patriotism. "We just need to stay strong and stay healthy and all will be well."

Tran and Hoang both agree that the Vietnamese government is trying its best to contain the virus and that the strict lockdown measures are a vital step in the right direction.

"Although there wasn't a case on my street, everyone seems pretty serious about this and people are just staying at home," Tran said.

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