The buzz in Alley No. 59 of Da Nang’s Tran Van On Street grows loud each morning as throngs of students lined up two meters apart in front of the local ‘Zero-VND Market.’
For many, the market’s opening was a lifesaver since a fresh COVID-19 outbreak that hit the central Vietnamese city last month has left them out of job and short on money.
The Zero-VND Market is exactly what it sounds like — a minimart where ‘customers’ pay with a smile instead of cash.
Dao Van Vinh, 28, the same man known for his restaurant where low-income Da Nang residents can pay just VND2,000 (US$0.086) for a filling meal, launched the market as a way to help those struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For students and tourists trapped in the city due to travel bans, it has been a crucial part of survival.
Unprecedented community spirit
Nguyen Duy Nhat, a customer at the market and junior mechanical engineering student at the Da Nang University of Technology, shared that he and his dormmates have been living on instant noodles since the new outbreak hit on July 25, trying to cut down on spending wherever they could.
A total of 298 local infections have been traced to Da Nang since July 25, when Vietnam confirmed the first local transmission after having gone 99 days with no documented community spread.
“Da Nang [banned all means of transport in and out of the city] on July 26. I wasn’t able to book a ticket home so I had to stay in the dorm. These should last me at least a week,” Nhat said as he excitedly showed off his free groceries.
Many of the students who rely on the Zero-VND Market are self-sufficient, relying on part-time jobs to pay for their tuition as well as room and board.
When the city entered 15 days of enhanced social distancing on July 28 to slow the spread of the virus, many found themselves out of work as non-essential businesses had to close.
“My landlord has invited me to eat with him during the past few days, but I was still so happy to hear that this market exists because it shows that others want to help,” Nguyen Thuan Thanh, a student at Duy Tan University, said.
By mid-mornings, the line for the makeshift market snakes further and further down the alley, but local residents happily volunteer their time to help manage the crowd, stock the store, and organize stalls.
One of these volunteers is Nguyen Xuan Hung, a resident of Alley No. 49 who has stepped up to lend a hand.
“Seeing these students queueing [at the market] reduced me to tears. This pandemic is unprecedented, but so is this amount of charity and ‘leave-no-one-behind’ spirit,” Hung said.
The man behind the scenes
“Thousands of students have chosen to stay in Da Nang to help ensure the safety of their families and those in their hometowns. Under normal circumstances, they’d be able to work part-time jobs but because of the pandemic they’ve been put in a tricky situation. We’ve been doing our best to help them through online crowdfunding,” Dao Van Vinh said.
The Zero-VND Market was designed to help not only students but also the city’s elderly, lottery-ticket sellers, and low-income workers who have been struggling since the virus first hit Vietnam in January.
Already a well-known name amongst local vendors, Vinh hit the road on July 29 with a team of volunteers to place bulk orders for groceries and essential items at a local wholesale market.
The team then cleaned out an apartment owned by his sister to store, sort, and divide the goods.
Vinh then announced the market’s opening through a simple Facebook post.
“I will launch a zero-VND market for stranded students on July 30. Anyone in need can visit 49/16 Tran Van No Street,” it read.
The post spread like wildfire throughout the night and dozens of students began lining up in front of the market early the next morning.
For Vinh, the market’s success is not just represented by the number of people it has supported, but by the overwhelming support from local vendors and residents who have helped make it possible.
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