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5 Days in Hanoi's COVID-19 Quarantine

Despite social-distancing, I ended up in the beating heart of COVID-19

Recently I had the opportunity to experience the frontline of Vietnam's fight against the deadly SARS COV 2. While I wouldn't recommend it for your next trip, I did gain fresh respect for Vietnam's approach. I was taken to the National Hospital for Tropical Diseases following a severe asthma attack. The symptoms of asthma bearing too close a resemblance to the current pandemic.

This all started around midnight on the 11th of April 2020. I was sitting on the couch when my chest started feeling very tight. This was followed by a spike in my heart rate followed by a hot flush. I suffer from intercostal neuralgia, and of course, this flared up at the same time. My asthma hadn't been an issue for more than a decade, so I didn't initially think that it was the cause of the tightness. The chest tightness was rapidly getting worse as I frantically searched google for any hint as to what could be happening. Google informed me that I was likely having angina that would probably lead to a heart attack and death. I started freaking out as lightheadedness set in and my body grew heavy and unresponsive. Somehow, I found myself laying on the floor fighting for breath as the panic took over. My neck and chest felt incredibly tight and swollen. I started saying goodbye to the people around me.

That's when we started trying to call an ambulance. Unfortunately, none of the ambulance services could speak English and we finally had to call our landlady. She arranged for an ambulance to come to get me. While I was waiting, my fingers and toes had turned blue and I was struggling to suck in air like a beached fish. Luckily, the ambulance arrived in a couple of minutes. Unluckily, they refused to come into the apartment and I had to somehow stumble out of my apartment, down the stairs and into the ambulance. I was in such a rush that I didn't think to stop to put on my shoes. My fiance thankfully had the foresight to pack some essentials into a backpack before the ambulance arrived.

I was expecting them to attend to my condition, but they simply handed me a thermometer and waited outside of the ambulance for several minutes chatting. Remember those hot flushes I was having? Yeah, that registered as a slight fever and the paramedics freaked out and rushed me to the nearby French Hospital. We arrived at the hospital after a wild rush through the empty streets. Once again I was expecting someone to see to the medical emergency I was experiencing. This didn't happen.

I had to wait outside the hospital in a makeshift tent where I was briefly questioned about my travel history. We had been self-isolating for 63 days at this point. The doctors moved me to another tent where they assured me that someone would come to see me soon. I waited for an hour before someone showed up with forms for me to fill in. They offered little clarification on what was happening, but I could tell that I was signing admission forms. Once the forms were all signed they informed me that I would be going to another hospital. I was growing impatient with the lack of treatment, but I understood the need for caution.

The infamous ambulance selfie

The second ambulance journey was a long one. We drove for 45 minutes before stopping in front of a cyclopean structure. This was BỆNH NHIỆT ĐỚI TRUNG ƯƠNG Hospital. Unbeknownst to me, I would be staying here for the next 5 days. Cautiously, I was ushered inside and made to sit in a deserted corridor. My fiance was still with me at this point. Someone dressed in heavy PPE (personal protective equipment) brought me more forms to sign. The dizziness hadn't quite passed but I managed to fill the forms out. I would sign anything if it got me some medical attention.

After several more minutes of waiting, we were approached by the head doctor. He explained to me that I was to be taken in for testing and would be staying at his hospital for some time. My fiance was told that she had to leave as there was a strict no visitors policy. The ambulance driver volunteered to give her a lift home and as she had no other options, she agreed. She made it home safe after her third ambulance adventure of the night.

empty hospital corridor during COVID-19
There's something very eerie about a mostly abandoned hospital

I was taken through the mostly abandoned hospital to a nurse's station. They had erected a large plastic screen and a nurse sat waiting on the other side. She asked me what happened and I explained to the best of my abilities. I was told that they only treat COVID-19 cases at this hospital and for any other medical problem, I was expected to be self-sufficient.

The nurse pointed me to a waiting stack of supplies and told me to proceed to a room number that was on a different floor. I attempted to find some way up but everything was blocked off and the elevator required a key-card to access. Returning to the nurse defeated she led me to a room on the same floor. There had been a problem in translation and she had said 6 instead of 4. I thanked her and entered the red-lit room.

Covid quarantine at night in a hospital in hanoi
The red light came on every night. The mystery of the red light remains to be solved

The supplies they had given me consisted of a comforter, a sheet, comically undersized pajamas (I'm freakishly large), a toothbrush, toothpaste, some soap, and a broken thermometer. They were undoubtedly unaware of the faulty nature of the thermometer. My backpack contained a single change of clothes and my phone charger. I didn't sleep much on the first night, and the subsequent day didn't go very well for me. At least I found a pair of tiny, plastic slippers that I could wear while taking a shower. I consider this a major win.

The nurse woke me up at 6am on the 12th. I was expecting some form of communication but she wasn't feeling chatty (my guess is that she can't speak English). She drew blood and proceeded to administer my first COVID-19 sinus swab test. The test is about as pleasant as I imagine a lobotomy to be. Whenever my uncontrollably tearing eye would close from the discomfort, the nurse would lightly slap me on the shoulder and indicate for me to open my eye. She poked around in my sinuses, probing ever deeper into my skull in search of mischievous virus cells. There was a throat swab too and she left as suddenly as she had appeared. I felt very isolated.

Rules given to a foreigner while he was incarcerated in a Hanoi quarantine facility
The rules of your stay

There was another man in my ward. He was taking the whole situation very well it seemed. I caught him keeping a wary eye on me several times. I ascribed this to the growing sentiment that foreigners carry the disease. This is by no means solely a Vietnamese phenomenon. Expats around the world are being treated with extra suspicion during this pandemic. My roommate kept to himself and spent much of the day sleeping. Occasionally he would have a coughing fit and he always made sure to pull his mask down before coughing. This behavior struck me as very odd. Throughout my stay, he would display many of these concerning behaviors.

Everyone was required to wear a mask at all times. Due to my breathing difficulties I had a lot of trouble falling asleep with the mask on, but I stuck with it.

Later that day, my roommate and I were moved to another room. There were 3 other Vietnamese men in this room. I couldn't pick my bed this time and had to sleep right next to the bathroom door. My goal throughout was to stay as far away from every other human as possible. You don't know who has the virus, everyone is a potential contagion hazard. The other men in the room couldn't speak English either so I assigned them names according to their behavior. I assume they did the same for me.

I snuck out into the corridor when the boredom got to be too much. The armed guards never came to this area, so I was safe-ish

Sleepy old-man was an elderly fellow that was clearly very ill. He spent most of the time sleeping and was unable to eat solid food. Nurses would place him on a drip every morning. Sleepy old-man was accompanied by a Friendly younger man. The friendly man acted as a caretaker for the older gentleman and would assist him with eating. They clearly had some relationship prior to quarantine. My hypothesis was that Friendly Man was Sleepy Man's son. Sometimes the friendly man would pass the phone to the sleepy man during video calls. The last of my 3 new roommates was Computer Guy. He was the most prepared for the tedium of quarantine as he had a laptop and headphones with him.

My original roommate was becoming a growing concern as I watched him drink the disinfectant he used to clean the gaping wound in his foot. This came before Trump advised the American people to ingest disinfectant, so this was all very new to me. He was still pulling the mask down to cough by the time he left on the 15th. One night, I watched in horror as he snuck over to take the knife that friendly-man had used to cut apples. Foot-wound Guy placed the knife on the headboard of his bed and I spent most of that night watching him. He woke up before the others and put the knife on Sleepy Man's table.

I was having trouble eating the food they provided me. Traditional Vietnamese food didn't agree with my stomach and I had no way of asking for something else. Not that I wasn't thankful, I just physically couldn't bring myself to eat much of it. My landlady gave the hospital a call when she heard that I was struggling and asked them to change my meals. She has my eternal thanks for this. The canteen started leaving food trays labeled Tay (slang for foreigners) especially for me.

This trouble foreigners had with the Vietnamese food wasn't a new issue for the hospitals. According to this article by VNExpress, the hospitals were having a hard time figuring out what to feed the Tays. Food wasn't their only problem as some foreigners were opposed to the Vietnamese approach to treating COVID-19. The way I see it Vietnam has had zero deaths and a 100% recovery rate. Why argue with the doctors that are handling this pandemic with the most success?

Food package with the Vietnamese word for foreigner written on it
They wrote the Vietnamese word for foreigner on my meals.

The 13th of April started with an early morning visit from a doctor. Computer Guy got tested that morning. I assumed that it must be his second test because he had been there longer than I had. The doctor was unable to speak English, but she did bring me a note. This note was the first communication I had had with anyone from the hospital in more than a day. I was elated at this minor human contact, but unhappy with the content of the message. Any hope I clung to about getting out earlier was dashed and there was a wave of sorrow. Luckily for me, I got to go on a tiny journey to the radiology lab.

This was the first human contact I had apart from the nurse who slapped me during the Covid test for closing my eyes

Some of my roommates and I were herded out into the corridor to join a ragtag group of patients from other rooms. We were led through the hospital and past the ICU where the really sick people were being treated. I kept my distance from everyone else and especially from the ICU area. There was an old woman that I could see in there. My heart went out to her as I imagined what it must be like to have COVID-19. They took us past the entrance to get to the radiology department and for a brief second, I felt the mad urge to make a run for it. Had it not been for the 5 soldiers standing in the doorway, I might have attempted it.

People waiting for the lift in Hanoi's Covid quarantine hospital.
The whole ward got to go on a trip to the first floor. What a treat.

The x-rays didn't take nearly as long as I had hoped they would. I don't enjoy being blasted with radiation as a rule, but the brief access to a window without bars was nice. We were gathered and led back to our area where I would remain for the rest of my stay. That night, my fiance gave me the idea to construct a pillow out of my backpack. I kicked myself for not thinking about it earlier and having to spend two nights sleeping with no head support. The backpack was lumpy and hard but it was the best pillow I had ever felt. I wrapped it in the pajama shirt the hospital provided so that I could pretend like it was a real pillow.

I honestly considered making a run for it

Build your own pillow

Despite the shoddy construction of my pillow, I slept well that night. I woke up to my third full day in quarantine with renewed emotional stability. You'd be amazed how big of a difference decent sleep can make to your resilience. I had given up on thinking about whatever the hell happened to me on Saturday evening and refocused on getting through the hospital stay. The doctors weren't going to do anything about it and I resolved not to die before I could taste freedom again. Foot-wound Guy got tested in the early hours. This must be his second test, I assumed.

The temptation of freedom

I managed to write several articles for this blog from my phone. Sure the formatting got messed up every time I would try to delete an error, but that's just life. Computer Guy was released at 10:43. I took note of the time because I was anticipating my own release. The joy I felt for him was surprising to me. He was a stranger to me and I rarely react emotionally to strangers, but I felt his freedom like it was my own.

I spent hours staring out of this window

The 14th passed without further incident. I made little milestones for myself, counting the day by the three meals that would break the monotony. Friendly Man received a delivery of cigarettes and fruit from someone that clearly wasn't a doctor. He gifted me some apples and bananas at one point, but I was too afraid of possible contagion to partake of the apples. Bananas come in convenient virus-proof packaging. By the time night fell I was getting the hang of the whole hospital thing. I was obviously concerned about my health, but I kept my distance from others and obsessively disinfected my hands.

Stepping outside to sanitize my hands became my favorite pastime

My internal alarm clock woke me at 05:40 on the 15th, just in time for the doctor to swing by with another cotton-swabbing for my brain. This time it hurt more, or I just forgot the pain. After breakfast, I waited anxiously for 10:43. I had become a scientist eagerly awaiting the conclusion of a most serious experiment. The doctor came by at 10:58 to deliver the good news to Foot-wound Guy. He opted to linger around for another 2 hours before leaving. I guess he was waiting for his lift, or he just wanted to stick around for lunch. Either way, he left in the early afternoon. I resolved not to stick around when my time came. Regardless of the fact that I would have to wait for my lift to come to get me, I would start walking home if I could. The 15th went by slowly. Ageless eons passing between lunch and dinner.

The cleaner bows to no clock or god. Their schedule cannot be anticipated.

Dawn found me awake on the 16th of April. I was cautiously optimistic that I would be released soon and all I had to do was wait a few short hours. They passed like dripping molasses and I grew desperate for it to end. My hopes were all pinned on the 10:40-11:00 window of release. They surprised me with a visit by a very cheery hospital staffer at 09:26. He spoke enough English to tell me that my second test had come back negative and that I would be released very soon. I was ecstatic at this news. They had even broken the regular schedule that I had observed. This new best friend of mine led me out of my ward and down to the cashiers where I had to pay a nominal fee. Most of the expenses for my stay were covered by the Vietnamese government. I was given a coffee and sent back to collect my things. They ordered me a cab and pretty soon I was on my way home

Words can't describe the sense of freedom I felt upon my release

In the end, I spent just a little under 5 days in the hospital. Later I would find out that my symptoms had been caused by a mix of asthma, GERD, and a generalized anxiety disorder. I had a wound on my cheek where the masks had been chafing my face. There were many times where I cursed my luck, but I am very thankful for the doctors and health officials of Vietnam for the way they handled the situation. Their phenomenal handling of the COVID-19 pandemic meant that even in quarantine I managed to remain safe and virus-free. I'm especially thankful that this didn't happen somewhere where the hospitals have succumbed to overcrowding. Sometimes I still wonder about what happened to the two men that remained after I had left. I never saw them get tested.

Others would arrive one day and be gone by the next. I can only assume that they were the ones that tested positive. Their rooms would be invaded by a person clad in full PPE wielding what looked like a leaf-blower. This weapon of mass disinfection ran off a petrol motor and would roar to life every now and then.

Bonus Photos

The "adult-sized" shirt they gave me

Daily "soup" rations

Evidence of human activity

This guy only took his mask off when he needed to cough

90% of the meals were mayonnaise and tomatoes

The VIP room. No-one stayed here for long.

Coming home with the slippers I found in the hospital


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