All those who lived through the Saigon lockdown, the outbreak that took Phi Nhung’s life, will never forget those terrible days.
In late April 2021, after a year’s false sense of security while the rest of the world wrestled with Covid-19, Vietnam finally succumbed to the virus. Saigon’s relentless energies faded as its people started to lose their breath. Coils of barbed wire cordoned off city streets in an echo of fifty years past. Ten million people waited in their homes for the curse to be lifted, a deadline that was forever “just two more weeks away”...
What’s easier to forget now is what most people were thinking at that time. We were all told that the vaccines were on their way, that soon everyone would get their shot and this nightmare would end. Whether people believed in those vaccines or not, everyone knew that nothing would change until they came. But they were so hard to come by in those days.
By that time, people in the US were lining up to get their vaccines, if they weren’t angrily refusing to be immunised. Attitudes towards the Covid vaccination divided everyone. Those who were eager to be vaccinated thought it was their responsibility to protect themselves so that they wouldn’t be a threat to others. They would register and wait and then post comments online about how happy they were to get vaccinated. Even though people all over the world were suffering so much and still carrying and spreading and incubating new variants of the virus, they thought that the solution was to take the vaccine as soon as possible. That was the extent of their philanthropy—to protect themselves.
The other kind of person strongly refused the vaccine. They thought it was a trick, that it was poison, that it was not and could not be safe, that it somehow took away their freedom. To them, the whole pandemic was nothing more than a frustrating inconvenience.
These two extremes of opinion remain exactly the same today as they were then. We stand divided still.
I’ve thought a lot about Phi Nhung’s attitude towards the vaccine, because she’s the only person I know who didn’t fall into either category. Even as small shipments of vaccines began to arrive in Vietnam, she didn’t take advantage of her celebrity status or American citizenship to secure her own shot. It wasn’t because she didn’t believe in their protection, it was more that she understood that vaccines were not the solution to the pandemic.
The problem was not the virus. The problem was how much the pandemic made people suffer. That was the reality Phi Nhung understood without question. Her personal vaccination wasn’t the issue that weighed heavily on her mind. To Phi Nhung, the suffering of the people of Saigon—their hunger and loneliness and isolation and fear—was the illness that needed to be treated, and she devoted her heart to healing that suffering. She was strong and still young, she knew that it was reasonable to delay the small issue of her covid shot.
Phi Nhung wasn’t stupid. She knew the risks, but her moral calling to help others was more important to her than that risk. Above all, she didn’t want to use a vaccine that she knew could help someone else.
In facing the question that had divided our world, she found the third way, the middle path, the correct moral stance.
Sometimes I feel like the whole pandemic was a test for humanity. Were we going to be divided and suffer, or were we going to come together and heal? Even though most of us agreed that we had to prevent the spread of the virus, this didn’t mean that we had no higher responsibility towards each other. We all knew that to save lives, we had to accept some level of risk. How much risk we were prepared to accept was the test.
Nhung’s death wasn’t inevitable. It was always a chance. She accepted that risk, just as any soldier knows that she could die defending her people. In some ways, humanity failed its test, and even now the politics are still terrible and we’re still arguing about it. Phi Nhung was defeated by Covid-19, but she didn’t fail its test.
Nhung’s whole life story was about healing divides. She was a bridge between the US and Vietnam after a terrible war. She was the person left behind by both sides who found unity in music. And she personifies the Buddhist ideal of transcending personal suffering and bringing light to others. Her moral path was something that any Christian could understand too—isn’t the core article of Christian faith the notion of self sacrifice? Isn’t that what Jesus represents, the Son of God who died so that others could be saved? Isn’t that exactly what Nhung did?
It’s literally true that someone else in Vietnam got Phi Nhung’s shot because she didn’t take it. That person could be any one of us who got their vaccine in this country. It could be me, it could be you. While we were hiding in our homes, screaming about not having a haircut or not having enough eggs, Phi Nhung was out on the streets delivering food to the hungry. When we were scrambling to get our vaccines, she calmly let us have her shot instead of taking it herself. While social media was buzzing with people boasting about how their relationship with their mother’s uncle’s great grandad helped them get a Pfizer, she quietly and graciously stepped away from her vaccine. Not because she didn’t believe in it, but because she didn’t believe that she deserved it any more than any other person did. I firmly believe that even if she knew she would die without it, she still wouldn’t have taken her shot in Vietnam. No one with a heart like hers could bear for someone else to die in her place.
Nhung is the example we needed to follow, the lesson we needed to learn, the challenge we needed to rise to during that terrible time. Most of us missed our chance.
So there’s something I want to say to all those in Vietnam who, like me, lived through that dark time and got vaccinated here. I want to ask all of you to think about the fact that maybe the vaccine that was injected into your arm would have been hers if she hadn’t given it up for you. Someone in Vietnam got the vaccine she could have taken, the protection that would have saved her life. That was the protection she gave to you in her place.
In our forthcoming biography of Phi Nhung, An Emissary from Heaven, we want to publish several letters from her fans to thank her for her sacrifice. I’m not talking about her sacrifice for Vietnam—we all know that Nhung spent all her days on Earth sacrificing her personal life, her time, her efforts and the money she made for this country. I’m talking about the sacrifice of her vaccine that benefitted one person only. If you got a vaccine and you’re in Vietnam, maybe that person was you. In a way, we are all the one who got her shot.
I’d like to ask those of you who love Phi Nhung the most, those who understand the gravity of what she gave up for your shot, to write some words of thanks and post it on your social media along with the hashtag #IGotHerShot. We will select the best of those letters, translate them into English, and publish them in her official biography to be released on the date of the anniversary of her death—the day she died because she gave you her shot.