Now a ubiquitous sight worldwide, face masks were a fact of life in Hanoi long before the coronavirus outbreak and have been a major contributor to Vietnam’s success in curbing the pandemic.

“I’ve always worn masks whenever I go outside,” one Hanoi resident said.

Mask-wearing has been a widely accepted practice in the city due to severe air pollution. Vietnam’s capital ranked at the bottom of the world in terms of its air quality index in December 2019. Its air quality was categorized as “unhealthy” last month as well.

The pollution stems from a range of factors, from car and motorcycle exhaust to construction dust. Farmers also burn straw and other waste from their paddies in the fall and winter, which exacerbates the problem.

The city of Hanoi has decided to ban straw burning starting in 2021. But the specifics remain unclear, and not much improvement is expected in the short term.

However, the habit of wearing masks was a powerful deterrent to the spread of the coronavirus. Vietnam has limited its total number of cases to roughly 1,100 people, and there has been no new infection domestically for more than a month. Despite the returning sense of normalcy, it is not uncommon to see masked motorcycle commuters on Vietnam’s streets.

By TOMOYA ONISHI, Nikkei staff writer