Vietnam News

She was in labor. Floodwaters were rising. Then the boat tipped over.

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A pregnant woman who drowned in Vietnam was one of at least 114 people killed in record-breaking floods that have pummeled the country’s central coast.

It was no time to travel, but when Nguyen Dac Minh’s wife went into labor, he put her on his motorbike and rode toward the hospital.

Floodwaters that had killed scores across Vietnam were rising ominously around their village. At a washed-out railway overpass, he hired a man to ferry them in a small boat. But strong winds carried away some of the baby clothes the couple had packed, and Mr. Minh waded into the water to retrieve them.

Suddenly, the boat capsized in the fast-moving current. His wife, Hoang Thi Phuong, a 35-year-old cancer survivor, was just out of reach, and she was swept away by water turned brown by loosened sediment.

“Everything happened right in front of my eyes, but I couldn’t save her,” he said by phone on Thursday. “All I could do was scream.”

Video from the scene in Thua Thien Hue Province has ricocheted across social media, generating an outpouring of grief and sympathy nationwide. Ms. Phuong, a mother of two, was one of at least 114 people killed this month in record-shattering floods that have pummeled Vietnam’s central coast. Twenty-one people remain missing.

More than a quarter of the deaths have been attributed to landslides. One killed at least 20 military personnel last weekend in the central province of Quang Tri, a prime theater of battle during the Vietnam War. It is believed to have been the country’s largest military loss in peacetime.

Nguyen Thi Xuan Thu, president of the Vietnam Red Cross Society, said the floods were among the worst the aid group had seen in decades.

“Everywhere we look, homes, roads and infrastructure have been submerged,” she said.

Storms are a fact of life in Vietnam, with its 2,000-mile coastline. Typhoons lash central provinces during the rainy season, which begins in late summer. Tourists visiting Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the central coast, are often surprised to see its narrow streets suddenly turn into Venice-like canals.

Scientists have pointed to climate change as the main driver of more frequent and deadlier storms around the globe. The authorities in Vietnam tend to be well prepared for natural disasters, but a surge in cyclones, rains and floods this month has overwhelmed some coastal provinces. According to the United Nations, 178,000 homes in central Vietnam had been flooded as of Thursday.

Vietnam’s foreign minister, Pham Binh Minh, said on Twitter this week that the country had “suffered a difficult time with huge losses.”

Now, as rescuers scramble to reach other flood victims by land, air and sea, Vietnam is bracing for its third major storm in three weeks. Typhoon Saudel was moving through the South China Sea on Friday and was expected to make landfall on Sunday — in the same coastal areas where many villages are already underwater.

The amount of rainfall this month was “so extraordinarily out of the normal” that it far exceeded the government’s midrange predictions of how climate change might increase precipitation in central Vietnam by the end of this century, said Pamela McElwee, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University who studies environmental issues in Vietnam.

Other countries in Asia have seen record-breaking rainfall. Earlier this year, torrential rains submerged at least a quarter of Bangladesh. Unusually heavy rains wreaked havoc in central and southwestern China, leaving hundreds dead and disrupting the economy’s post-pandemic recovery. Flooding in Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Myanmar and Nepal killed scores of people, destroyed homes and inundated entire villages.

In Vietnam, heavy rains can be bad enough along the flat plains of the Red River, which flows southeast from the border with China through the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, before emptying into the sea. But in central Vietnam, where population centers are wedged between mountains and coastline, the potential for catastrophic flooding is that much higher.

“The earth is just soaked with water and has nowhere to go,” Professor McElwee said. It hardly helps, she added, that tree cover is cleared in the mountains for hydropower dams, or that mountain roads are built in ways that weaken the soil.

She added that the floods were a lesson for those who believe that building more infrastructure is a silver-bullet solution to the climate crisis.

In the central province where Ms. Phuong and Mr. Minh scratched out a living, extreme weather is so common that it animates local folk sayings.

“When it is hot, heaven burns the field like baking stones. When it rains, fields go rotten and sand starts to stink,” is a popular one.

For years, the couple were too busy to worry much about the weather. He worked construction while she toiled on an assembly line in a garment factory. She also beat breast cancer.

Last week, when Ms. Phuong went into labor, Mr. Minh fired up his motorbike, asking his brother-in-law to follow along on a separate bike with his wife’s luggage. When they reached the railway overpass, he hired a boat to take them across a flooded expanse to a taxi on the other side.

After he climbed out of the boat to retrieve the baby clothes, it tipped his wife into the floodwaters. He was close enough to see her hands waving as the current pulled her under, he said.

The authorities mobilized a search party of more than 100 people, but it was too late. Ms. Phuong’s body was found about 300 feet downstream.

As of Friday, video of the search effort and Ms. Phuong’s funeral had been viewed more than a million times, and donations were pouring in for Mr. Minh and the couple’s daughter and son, now 12 and 13.

In a video recorded at the site after the accident, on a patch of road by the water, Mr. Minh can be seen bending to the ground in a prayerlike position.

“Oh my god,” he said. “My darling.”

By Chau Doan and Mike Ives – The New York Times – October 23, 2020

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