A policeman checks documents from motorists at a check-point in Hanoi on July 29, 2021, amidst the government imposed two-week lockdown to stop the spread of Covid-19. Photo: AFP / Nhac Nguyen

As Covid-19 cases soar in Vietnam, hundreds of checkpoints have sprung up to enforce a strict lockdown in the capital Hanoi – where even grocery trips are restricted.

In contrast to many of its Southeast Asian neighbors, who are also suffering through their worst wave of the pandemic, Vietnam is rigorously enforcing stay-at-home rules in several major cities.

For many in the capital, restrictions on movement are an irritating, but necessary, measure.

Like every Hanoi resident, kindergarten teacher Do Thi Lan Anh had to show a shopping ticket before stocking up on food at her local wet market on Thursday.

With shopping trips limited, and the day of the week she’s allowed to go mandated by authorities, she made sure she bought plenty of tofu, beef and vegetables.

“Shopping tickets help maintain social distancing,” said Lan Anh. “The disadvantage is: I cannot go to the market anytime I want.”

While the majority of virus cases are in Ho Chi Minh City, the government is taking steps to prevent a similar outbreak in Hanoi, which reported only 46 of about 7,500 cases nationwide on Thursday.

Hanoi, a city of eight million people, was ordered into lockdown for two weeks on Saturday. The streets, usually humming with the calls of street sellers and the honking of motorbike horns, are largely quiet.

For some older Hanoi residents, the controls have conjured up difficult memories of the post-war years.

Before the communist nation opened itself up to the world in 1986, Hanoi residents used a coupon system to get access to food and other essentials.

“The market coupon is somewhat the same as what we had decades ago, during the North’s subsidized economic period,” said Vo Thi Chien, 50.

“We cannot go freely to buy what we want and it’s very inconvenient. But what else can we do now?”

In April last year, a similar lockdown was imposed on the city, but authorities were not as strict.

“I have never experienced this level of checking in my life,” said Tran Van Toan, 75, from Hanoi.

Toan said the situation reminded him of inter-provincial security checkpoints before 1954, when Hanoi was under French colonial rule.

“It’s very inconvenient for movements indeed. But I support the authorities as it will help prevent the spread of the virus,” Toan added.

A local resident rides her bicycle past a make-shift barricade of bricks and a parked truck to stop unauthorized travel at a neighborhood in Hanoi on July 30, 2021. Photo: AFP / Nhac Nguyen

Thousands fined

Vietnam has been slow to procure and administer vaccines, with just over 5.5 million doses administered among its 100 million people as cases soar.

More than a third of the population has been forced to stay home as the country battles an outbreak that began in April in two northern industrial provinces and has since spread south.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s business hub, has been badly hit and cases are rising despite a stay-at-home order and a night-time curfew.

The government is worried Hanoi may not be far behind, with thousands of people fined in recent days for going out without permission, without masks or for gathering in groups, authorities said.

At rush hour, queues of vehicles wait in line at checkpoints, making it hard for officials to check them all. 

“Many offices and companies … issue travel papers to their staff. They have not adhered to the city’s recommendation of online working from home,” said Phan Thi Hai Yen, while staffing a checkpoint.

“With this big number of people moving at rush hour … the risk of Covid-19 spread is still high.”