Enthusiasm in Vietnam wanes as search for missing Malaysia Airlines MH370 moves elsewhere

Standing before a bust of Ho Chi Minh and holding a microphone gingerly, Vietnam Air Traffic Management Corporation vice-director general Doan Huu Gia rattled off on Thursday what the waiting group of journalists at Phu Quoc island already knew: It could not find any traces of the Malaysia Airlines plane that went missing on Saturday.

Asked to comment about a report that suggested the plane had flown past the South China Sea where Vietnamese forces had been combing through, he said: “You should ask Malaysia.”

Shortly after, the press conference ended, leaving reporters wondering if Vietnam would give up the hunt as the multinational search party was being redirected far from Vietnamese waters, into the Indian Ocean as investigation increasingly pointed to that the plane had been intentionally redirected there.

Already, the energy has waned at Phu Quoc, an island off the coast of southern Vietnam where flight MH370 with 239 people was earlier thought to be last detected on radar before it disappeared on Saturday morning. Earlier in the week, hordes of foreign media had descended on its gleaming new airport where the Vietnamese government had set up coordination centre for multinational air and sea search taking place in the nearby South China Sea.

Unaccustomed to the attention, local media turned the spotlight on foreign media, filing reports on their arrival and how the Vietnamese government was doing its best to facilitate their entry.

It was an opportunity for Vietnam to show its humanitarian side to the world after recent bad press about its harsh control of online dissent.

Deputy prime minister Hoang Trung Hai ordered a round-the-clock search. Other top officials turned up at the mountainous Phu Quoc, better known for its piquant fish sauce and ambitious infrastructure projects to increase its tourist appeal. Deputy transport minister Pham Quy Tieu and, deputy air force commander Do Minh Tuan as well as deputy navy commander Le Minh Thanh took turns to brief the media against a wall bearing South China Sea maps and a banner declaring “Long live the communist party”.

On Wednesday, there was a near stampede as over 50 journalists rushed into the briefing room to claim the best vantage point. And the cameras rolled each time a helicopter or sea plane took off from the nearby runway.

But the enthusiasm faded as each day of search drew a blank. The Vietnamese search time at one point expanded their aerial survey inland, to the forests covering the two southern provinces of Ca Mau and Kien Giang.

On Thursday, it was left to Mr Gia to hold the fort in Phu Quoc after most of local media had shipped out, leaving a large Chinese contingent as well as international media.Asked how much the search was costing Vietnam, he said with little emotion: “We will have to bear a certain cost, but we will do this for humanitarian reasons.”

The next day, as reports on the investigation increasingly revealed that the plane had been redirected away from the South China Sea, he insisted that Vietnam’s search will go on. But his parting shot left reporters with little doubt that the country had lost hope that the plane– or parts of it – will show up in its waters.

“From tomorrow, there will be no press conference,” he said.tanhy@sph.com.sg