Q&A: Returning home an easy call for Hanoi-based Leadership Network member

We chat with Leadership Network member Ben O'Brien about being in Hanoi as COVID-19 first struck and get his take on how Vietnam responded to the ensuing crises.
Leadership Network member Ben O'Brien wearing a face mask in an airport terminal

Ben: [returning home] was an easy decision, and it was a great relief to be on the plane home."

Where were you and what were you doing in Asia when COVID-19 first became an issue?

I was working for a Kiwi company called Rishworth Aviation as a senior consultant in their Southeast Asia team, based in Hanoi.

Why did you decide to return to New Zealand?

Life as we knew it began to change very rapidly in Vietnam from around the start of March, around the same time as New Zealand started to see its first cases. As I was mostly working from home in Hanoi and most of our clients had started to downsize their operations and close their offices, it made sense to come home as the situation was rapidly developing.

Was it a difficult decision?

It was an easy decision, and it was a great relief to be on the plane home.

How would you describe the response of Vietnam's government?

Vietnam’s response has been a major success story but hasn’t been intentionally recognised as such.

Initially Vietnam had about 17 cases in early February who then all subsequently recovered and Vietnam was COVID-19 free for a period of time, despite having a large land border with China.

China and South Korea being Vietnam's two biggest inbound tourism markets meant that life was mostly normal until the second wave began to hit in early March. At that point the government moved swiftly to contain the spread, with mandatory quarantining for all international arrivals from mid-March and advanced tracking and disinfectant measures in place. With a population of more than 95 million and only 327 cases (as of 27 May), it seems to have worked.

How did daily life change with the onset of COVID-19?

As I was travelling in the region a lot, the first thing that changed was the stricter border controls.

Eventually Vietnam mandated compulsory mask wearing in all public places (public transport, supermarkets, airports), where you would be prevented from entering without a mask. You were also temperature checked at most places bigger than a dairy and hand sanitiser became a common site outside all buildings.

Restaurants and bars were “encouraged” to not open and only offer takeaways, but the area I was living in with most of Hanoi’s expats largely stayed open until after I left – when a mandatory shutdown order came into effect.

Leadership Network member Ben O'Brien sitting at a table eating noodles with friends

The Vietnamese Government initially 'strongly encouraged' restaurants and shops to close before enforcing their closure

How did citizens adapt?  

 The difference between the locals and expats was quite apparent, with locals seemingly following the rules strictly.

The second wave in Vietnam was started by a Vietnamese woman who caught the virus in Europe and unknowingly brought it back with her and ended up infecting a number of passengers on her flight. The media made quite an example of her and I think this probably helped to get others to toe the line.

A man on a motor scooter wearing a mask

Harsh media criticism of woman returning to Vietnam with COVID-19 meant few citizens dared step out of line

What was it like travelling back to New Zealand?

It was a bit stressful. I was boarding my flight from Hanoi to Singapore on route to Christchurch just as Prime Minister Ardern announced the closing of New Zealand’s borders.

I took off not knowing the full implications of the decision and whether or not my connecting flight would go ahead. Luckily, I was greeted in Singapore by a large number of other returning Kiwis on a surprisingly full flight back home to the South Island. But it was quite a surreal change from Hanoi airport where everyone was required to be in masks, to being back home where the only additional security was an extra page on my arrival card.

How did it feel being back in New Zealand?

After an extended period of being away from home and family, and the stress of potentially being caught in layover limbo, touching down in New Zealand and going almost immediately into lockdown made me feel safe and at home.

After being offshore, how would you rate the New Zealand government response?

It's hard to argue with the results, let’s just hope we can capitalise on all the sacrifices we have been making. 

Will you head back to Hanoi when you can?

It is impossible to know right now. As someone who works in the aviation/travel industry and knowing that this is without a doubt the most difficult period in that industry’s history, I would like to think that as soon as international travel becomes available again, I’ll be first in line to get back on a plane. But at the same time, the whole experience has given me a new perspective and in these sorts of times; I don’t want to stray too far from family until everything is safe.