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How Music and Art Empower Vietnam's Efforts to Contain Covid-19

"Even if it's small, it is very cruel. Many have died because of it...We definitely got to stay alert."—'Ghen cô Vy' by ERIK and MIN.

Due to its diligent efforts in containing the spread of COVID-19, Vietnam has thus far been free from the worst impacts of the pandemic. Art has played a meaningful, if intangible, role in fighting the spread of the virus. Since the virus appeared in Vietnam, art has urged us to wash our hands, to wear masks; discouraged us from spreading false information on social media; and equated staying at home with patriotism. Along with closing schools, shutting borders, testing, quarantining and contact-tracing, art has mobilized community efforts in fighting the virus in Vietnam, something many countries are still struggling to do.  

A poster by Đỗ Như Diễm outside of a school in Binh Thanh District. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

A song a day keeps the virus at bay

While Vietnam was working to contain the spread of the deadly virus, the song 'Ghen cô Vy' was going viral in a good way. The song, which was based on the melody of the hit 2017 V-Pop song 'Ghen,' (Jealous) had its lyrics rewritten by Khắc Hưng, the song's original composer, in cooperation with the National Institute of Occupational and Environmental Health. 

In the animated music video, a cartoon couple's evening is interrupted by the news of the presence of the virus in Vietnam. Sharp-toothed anthropomorphized blobby and knobby green viruses, oddly wearing crowns, appear on screen but are quickly flicked away by a gloved hand.

'Ghen cô Vy' was remade from a V-Pop hit.

Our on-screen couple meets the news of the virus with a melodic "ohh ohh ohh" and aghast expressions. As wacky as the video sounds and is, the message within it is vital: be responsible to quell contagion by washing your hands, "rub, rub, rub, rub evenly"; avoiding touching your face or going to crowded places; and generally improving your "social awareness." It is easy to imagine how other countries' viral loads could have been lessened if these simple practices had been adopted early on. 

Soon, the viral song was joined by an accompanying viral hand-washing dance. Dancer Quang Đăng uploaded 42 seconds of choreography in accompaniment to 'Ghen cô Vy' to TikTok. The video does something incredible; it makes washing your hands, or at least miming it, cool and fun. 

The exuberant dance became an internet sensation and was praised by the United Nations International Children's Fund, in addition to appearing on HBO’s Last Week Tonight. Đăng came up with the choreography in 15 minutes and based it on the Ministry of Health's six step process for hand-washing.

'Việt Nam Ơi' is a staple tune whenever a football tournament comes into town. Now, the song has taken on a new rendition as a health awareness song.

Among the many things that the global pandemic has changed about our world, the renaissance around hand-washing is one of them. Đăng's choreography shows that there is more to proper hand-washing than an absent-minded rinse by demonstrating the necessity of degermifying the gaps between fingers, fingertips, nails and thumbs. When you think about it, this renaissance in personal hygiene is devastating, as it has been ushered in by a modern-day plague, but Đăng's dance brings positivity to the fight as it concludes with a cheerful slap to the grimy viral unknown.

Moving on from a song which, according to John Oliver, "absolutely slaps," we come to 'Việt Nam ơi, đánh bay COVID.' The song, written and performed by Minh Beta (Bùi Quang Minh), is another collaboration with the health ministry in an effort to encourage the public in virus-fighting efforts, Beta told Saigoneer

The tune was refurbished from Beta's original song 'Việt Nam ơi,' and it seems fitting that such a Vietnam-loving song would be revamped to mobilize public efforts to keep the country safe from COVID-19. In the music video, Beta and other celebrities take on the characters of healthcare workers, soldiers and everyday people fighting the spread of the novel coronavirus and elevate them to superhero status because, as Beta explained, "we wanted to praise the people on the front lines and we also wanted to provoke the hero instinct in everyone."

Visual arts as a key tool to raise awareness, provide needed respite, and bolster spirits amid the pandemic

Beta also collaborated with Sài Gòn Vi Vu to create a multimedia project to go along with the song which includes an animated music video, photography and illustrations. These efforts are done in the style of tranh cổ động, or propaganda art. Speaking to the illustrator Lê Khang, the animator Đỗ Quỳnh, and the project manager Đỗ Viết Tuấn, Saigoneer learned that this propaganda style was utilized because its retro aesthetic connects with youths, with the addition of highly saturated hues, as well being familiar and emotion-provoking for older generations. 

An illustration from Sài Gòn Vi Vu X Minh Beta depicts a giant virus under attack. Image courtesy of Lê Khang.

This is not the only example of the propaganda style being utilized to stop the spread of COVID-19, by a long shot. For a while, it seemed propaganda art had been denigrated to historical objects and tourist souvenirs, but the outbreak of COVID-19 has seen a resurgence of the style for similar purposes for which it has been used in the past. 

Besides its use in Vietnamese independence efforts, propaganda art has been utilized in public health endeavors in Vietnam. Propaganda posters have promoted safe sex, been used to fight drugs and tobacco usage, and used during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Amidst the global pandemic, there has been an outpouring of art in cooperation with Vietnam's mission to keep the country protected from the virus. 

Propaganda-style posters in cooperation with the health ministry can be found readily around cities depicting good behavior during the pandemic. Renowned artist Lưu Yên Thế has joined the fight by creating posters and artist Phạm Trung Hà worked with the health ministry to create stamps with the "aim of sending clear messages of solidarity in the fight against COVID-19," along with many other artists who have joined the effort. Along with posters with clear messaging on how to keep yourself and others safe from the virus, artists have also created artwork to thank doctors, soldiers and nurses for their virus-fighting efforts

Lưu Yên Thế's poster (left), and a poster depicting proper hand-washing by Nguyễn Tuấn Khởi in Hanoi. Photo by Chris Humphrey.

Phạm Trung Hà's designs on stamp in collaboration with the Ministry of Health. Image via Nhân Dân.

A particularly noteworthy project is the propaganda style poster created by Lê Đức Hiệp, who received acclaim for his poster's message, "to stay at home is to love your country." Communicating via email, Hiệp detailed the inspiration behind the use of the propaganda style: "War-time propaganda has a special place in Vietnamese people's hearts. It reminds us of a glorious time, of the power of our nation, our people. It makes us feel empowered and hopeful." 

What Hiệp gets to the crux of is not just the canny design of his own poster, but the way in which the propaganda style is synonymous with nationalism and how that patriotic feeling can, and has been, weaponized to engage the public in efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19 in Vietnam. 

"To stay at home is to love your country" by the designer Lê Đức Hiệp. Image courtesy of Lê Đức Hiệp.

There have been more independent efforts made by artists encouraging people to stay at home during the heart of the pandemic in Vietnam. Toma Nguyễn, an illustrator, created a series of illustrations titled "Stay Safe, Stay Home - Cảm ơn Việt Nam." In her illustrations, a nurse is pictured wearing protective goggles, mask and gloves. She is surrounded by large viruses, but also by beautiful flowers, and a winking Mickey Mouse, a smiley face, heart, and a star from the flag of Vietnam adorn her scrubs. Even such a serious situation as fighting an ominous world-disturbing viral disease, or especially that, necessitates beauty and cuteness. 

Nguyễn created her illustrations because, sadly, the spread of COVID-19 in Vietnam began during the Tết holiday, when "people gather and meet after a year apart." As she puts it over email, this made it difficult for people to keep their social distance and, frustrated by increasing case numbers and with the potential of hospitals being overloaded, she drew a picture of a woman wearing a mask to remind others to do the same. Her illustration of the nurse wearing personal protective equipment was done to "encourage doctors who are working day and night for the health of the community." 

A nurse in PPE surrounded by viruses and flowers by Toma Nguyễn. Image courtesy of Toma Nguyễn.

Not only has art played a role in fighting the virus, it has also documented these unprecedented times. Lucia Pham, a freelance illustrator based in Hanoi, documented the government-mandated social-distancing order in "The Quarantine Diaries." For those who experienced the stay-at-home order in Vietnam, the illustrations are quite relatable. She illustrates face masks, Vitamin-C, working from home, stocking up on toilet paper, lots of groceries, and games to pass the time. 

For Pham, a natural homebody who works from the home she shares with her family and her cat Mimi, the time in quarantine "was not too different" from her everyday life, Saigoneer learned over email. The big change was that the rest of her family was also home and in some very familiar tidbits: "The food in the house increased significantly, my kitchen was also a lot messier" and "I got a lot fatter." 

Stocking up on Vitamin-C, masks, and miscellaneous medicine is reminiscent of the social distancing era. Image courtesy of Lucia Pham.

The process of creating these illustrations was also a means of solace during the scary time when it was uncertain what the future would hold in regards to COVID-19 in Vietnam. Although only a few months ago, and as it is, as always, uncertain what the future will hold, these illustrations by Pham work as a lovely reminiscence of a time that feels much longer ago than it actually was.  

Another depiction of the peak of the pandemic scare are a series of paintings by Tăng Quang which depict his experience when he returned to Vietnam from the UK and quarantined at Military School Zone 7, District 12, of Ho Chi Minh City. While sitting down with Saigoneer to discuss these sketches, which can now be seen in the book Con Đã Về Nhà - I’m Home, Quang said that although he dreaded the idea of having to be quarantined, he was determined to return to be with his family. 

The experience of being in quarantine turned out to be much better than he expected for many reasons, but primarily because of a "two-sided connection" which developed between the workers, doctors, nurses, and soldiers working at the quarantine center and those being quarantined. Although Quang was careful to point out that his experience in quarantine was not the universal one, he explained that because of the respect that was shown to the care workers at the center, a strong bond was created, and he felt taken care of in a way that he can only imagine his family doing. 

His paintings depict the five-story building where he quarantined, and the soldiers who delivered food by walking up the elevator-less floors directly to each room, as well as the ways in which they passed the time playing cards, reading idly, mopping the floor, giving each other haircuts and other bonding activities, all while wearing masks.  

One of Tăng Quang's paintings depicting quarantining at Military School Zone 7, District 12, of Hồ Chí Minh City. Photo via Vietnam Times.

The story of the pandemic in Vietnam has thus far been a triumphant one. Although the economic fallout is massive, it is hard not to feel fortunate to be in Vietnam in a time of world upheaval, lack of leadership, grieving and death.  

Although Vietnam is free of these worst impacts of COVID-19, the presence of the virus still looms, and it is difficult to not, at least to some degree, feel a sense of the losses in the world and the often unfair ways in which they have been distributed. While in a bubble of relative safety, at least until international flights resume, pandemic-related anxieties and the ways in which they make us ponder our own mortality and the fate of human existence remain. "What Can We Learn From the Art of Pandemics Past?" is a great study in the way that art can help us to work through these feelings and understand what it is to live during a pandemic. Again, this time in a more emotional sense, art has our backs.

A poster by Lê Thuận Long in Binh Thanh District, Saigon. Photo by Michael Tatarski.