On the morning of Aug. 24, Hoang Thu Dong woke up late to save money by not making breakfast. The 20-year-old from north-central Nghe An Province had been relying on donated food from charity groups for over a month.
He moved to Hanoi as an informal worker at the beginning of July, but lost his job after only half a month. With a salary of VND3 million ($131.50), he had to share a living space with a friend and four other workers. But when Hanoi imposed more stringent social distancing on July 25 to curb rising numbers of Covid-19 infections, all his roommates rushed back to their hometowns, leaving Dong alone in the capital.
He admitted this was the first time he had felt stuck, not knowing how to support himself.
Knowing Dong's plight, a woman from his hometown introduced him to the "zero dong apartment" on Tan Trieu Street, in Thanh Tri District.
Over the phone, the person at the other end said: "You don't have a place to live, right? I'll text you the address right away. Once arrived, I'll bring you to get tested for Covid-19 first. You can stay here until the pandemic is over."
Entering the spacious 10-storey building, Dong was still trembling and could not believe he would be living here in the coming days. Dong was placed in the same room with two other people of the same age in similar circumstances. Upon arrival, he was given some egg and noodles from the property owner. In the following days, he also received some cash, prompting everyone in his room to visit the market and buy some rice, meat, and vegetables.
"At first, I didn't think much about the condition of the place I would be staying in. But when I got here, I was very surprised at the comfortable living conditions," Dong said, noting he is used to living in temporary shacks for informal workers.
Besides Dong's, there are five other rooms that host 20 other informal workers stranded in Hanoi. Each room has rice, instant noodles, in addition to a daily VND50,000 supplied to each tenant by the owner.
Hoang Xuan Tuan, 38, had also lost his income many months ago. He decided not to return to his hometown and kept his job loss a secret from his wife in Nghe An. His furniture delivery job got suspended when Hanoi imposed a stay-at-home order. On Aug. 23, Tuan happened to read an article about the 'zero dong apartment' and decided to apply for the free accommodation.
Nguye Xuan Thong, 28, said the 10-storey building is used as an office and workplace for more than 50 of his company staff. During the citywide social distancing campaign, although many guests asked to rent a room, he refused, providing apartments on the 5th and 8th floors to disadvantaged people for free.
After Hanoi extended social distancing until Sept. 6, Thong happened to see many people struggling at the foot of the overpass near Pham Hung Street and decided to provide them shelter.
He checked through the local council to find and help people in need of accommodation, and later posted information on social media to spread the word.
"I myself come from a poor farming family in the central region. There were days when I ran out of food to eat and experienced hunger. I went to Hanoi alone to start a business with an empty hand, so I understand the hardships people are facing and what they need most at the moment," Thong said.
Nguyen Tuan, an employee, said: "Fortunately, the company is in the business of renting apartments and office space, so there are many rooms available. And our boss also supports these people with VND50,000 each."
"We made a list of people to get Covid-19 tested then arranged rooms for everyone. Thong reminded me to check electricity, water and appliances and fix them if they were broken before welcoming anyone."
Hoang Thi Dam, head of a sub-quarter in Thanh Tri District, said this is a humane community initiative during a challenging time.
"Every day, we still talk to company representatives who are organizing for citizens with difficulties to come and stay to understand the situation, distributing vouchers so they can go buy more food and medicine during the social distancing period." she said.
As of Friday, Vietnam has recorded nearly 388,815 Covid cases in the current outbreak that started April 27. Hanoi has so far reported 3,055 cases and 34 deaths.