Archiving COVID-19 Heritage in Ho Chi Minh City

A makeshift roadblock functions as a cordon sanitaire during the fourth wave of COVID-19 in district 5, Ho Chi Minh City. Cordons sanitaires isolate spaces rather than bodies associated with infection for as long as the social body inside is deemed infectious (Bashford 2004). ©Minh Triet Lam


Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Synopsis and Position

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted almost every facet of our world, prompting a variety of material responses in societies across the globe. This project draws on approaches in contemporary archaeology to witness and document COVID-19 materiality – posters, signage, murals, graffiti, discarded personal protective equipment, disinfection paraphernalia, barricades – on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam through photographs and sketches to create a fully accessible online archive of COVID-19 heritage. The project is timely. As lockdowns fade from memory, debates are ongoing as to how the extraordinary period of pandemic will be remembered. Meanwhile, material traces of pandemic are beginning to disappear as daily life resumes under ‘new normal’ conditions. Our research seizes the opportunity not only to create an open access archive of COVID-19 heritage but to test the extent to which material perspectives in research on disasters can improve understandings of the relationships between public action and government policies.

Objectives and Methods

Methodological tools to document unexpected, ephemeral events and investigate the social dynamics of disasters and disaster recovery are lacking. This study uses a mixed methods approach incorporating ethnographic, archaeological and arts-based methods to create an ‘archive from below’ that acknowledges alternative visions of the past and may offer a counterpoint to official narratives. Through informal conversations, semi-structured interviews and potentially through extended ethnographic encounters, the three research team members will engage with city dwellers who interface with transient COVID-19 materiality to understand the social meaning they ascribe to it. By employing visual arts practices – sketching, painting, photography – we stretch the meaning of archive and engage non-academic audiences. And in creating a social media repository, we will be developing an innovative mode of archival practice that accommodates diverse community experiences of pandemic. Learning from our research may support and inform others seeking to understand the social impacts of disasters through the analysis of space and material.

Workshops and Events

  • June 2023 Rachel Tough (PI) and Diana Lê (Co-I) presented the project at the ‘Heritage, Community, Archives: Methods, Case Studies, Collaboration’ conference at Sheffield Hallam University.
  • July 2023 – In-person ‘conversation cafe‘ and pilot exhibition held at ‘Still Thinking Spaces’ event space in Ho Chi Minh City, facilitated by Hao Bui (Co-I)


  • September 2022 – scoping visits in local neighbourhoods in Ho Chi Minh City
  • October – December 2022 – data collection across Ho Chi Minh City
  • January – March 2023 – design and setup of website and social media channel containing COVID-19 materiality and memories, devise metadata schema
  • April 2023 – application for AHRC IAA follow-on funding (successful)
  • June – July 2023 – event planning; further website functionality added
  • November 2023 – Launch of digital exhibition, organised by Sandra Nikusev (Co-I)
Photo 1 © Rachel Tough
Photo 2 © Rachel Tough
Photo 3 © Rachel Tough
Photo 4 © Rachel Tough
Photo 4 © Rachel Tough
Photo 5 © Vietnam Plus
Photo 5 © Vietnam Plus

Photo 1: A blue public information banner reads ‘The best vaccine is the vaccine you can get the earliest’. The red poster reads ‘COVID-19 epidemic prevention is protecting yourself, family and society’.

Photo 2: Manual disinfectant machine used in Phu Nhuan district, Ho Chi Minh City. This object featured in ‘Calm’, a recent exhibition of pandemic paraphernalia by collector Huynh Minh Hiep. Sign reads: Ho Chi Minh City command. Military command of Phu Nhuan district. Disinfectant vehicle. Join hands to repel the COVID-19 virus’.

Photo 3: Official COVID-19 signage partially hidden by street selling paraphernalia in a district 1 alley entrance following the resumption of economic activity after the stringent citywide lockdown during the fourth wave of COVID-19 in Ho Chi Minh City.

Photo 4: Vinyl and paper for rent and for sale signs on shuttered premises in district 1 – the commercial centre of Ho Chi Minh City – following the citywide COVID-19 lockdown.

Photo 5: COVID-19 murals painted by Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam