Buddhist followers converged at a monastery to pray for his well-being. Others thronged the airport hoping to witness his charter flight's arrival from the US.
The man at the center of their concern remains out of sight, but he continues to be the subject of an endless stream of conspiratorial Internet rumors and hopeful news stories.
For many in Da Nang, Nguyen Ba Thanh represents one of the few politicians who speaks up for the people and does what it takes to protect their interests. When that does not work, many acknowledge, he is the first to step forward and accept responsibility.
Thanh was Da Nang’s leader between 2003 and early 2013. Since January of 2013, he has served as the head of the Central Interior Commission, an organ tasked with advising the Communist Party on anti-corruption efforts and the appointment of high-ranking personnel.
During a packed press briefing held Wednesday, Tran Huy Dung, deputy head of a central commission tasked with caring for senior Party officials, announced that Thanh fell ill last May and has since been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome.
Officials from that commission dismissed the now-viral rumors that Thanh was poisoned.
Myelodysplastic syndrome is a type of cancer which inhibits one's bone marrow from making enough normal red blood cells to beat out the abnormal cells that are attacking the body.
Thanh sought treatment in Singapore in June and July and then the US starting in August, Dung said. He underwent chemotherapy three times but he has yet to receive a bone marrow transplant.
Various treatments are available for patients suffering from myelodysplastic syndrome, including drug therapy and stem cell transplants.
At the briefing, Bach Quoc Khanh, deputy director of the National Institute of Hematology and Blood Transfusion, said a bone marrow transplant could “push back” the disease. But his current health status won't allow for that, he said.
Thanh will be treated in Da Nang at his family's request. Further treatment protocols can only be pursued upon his return, doctors say.
He was originally scheduled to arrive in Da Nang on Tuesday evening on a flight chartered from a Seattle-based hospital, whose name was not revealed. However, bad weather prevented the flight from taking off and details of his itinerary have remained sketchy.
His supporters in Da Nang are anxiously awaiting the return of a leader many view as a populist.
People have flocked to the airport in recent days-- some have even stayed overnight -- hoping to catch a glimpse of him. The crowd included street hawkers, xe om (motorbike taxi) drivers and menial workers who are all keeping their fingers crossed that he will recover.
“The ordinary people are massively grateful for what he gave them: a job and a stable life,” said Tran Van Long, a retiree.
Analysts concur that Thanh by all accounts was a popular leader during his tenure in Da Nang.
“He advanced grassroots democracy, improved administration, and pioneered direct elections. He also oversaw the remarkable development of Da Nang into a truly modern, attractive and outward-looking city,” Carl Thayer, a Vietnam expert based in Australia, told Thanh Nien News.
“These factors coupled by ensational speculation about his illness sparked intense public interest. This is manifest in the public outpouring of concern and support for him.”
New tough job
Thanh's lionization bears some resemblance to the Singaporean enthusiasm for their charismatic founding prime minister.
Nguyen Ba Thanh, head of the Central Interior Commission and the former populist leader of Da Nang. He fell ill last May and has since been diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome, a type of cancer. He was originally scheduled to arrive in Da Nang on Tuesday evening to continue seeking treatment at the request of his family. Photo: Ngoc Thang
The international media has repeatedly dubbed Thanh "the closest thing Vietnam has to a Lee Kuan Yew.”
Thanh himself has taken on the mantle of turning the small, central city into a business-friendly hub similar to Singapore.
Thanh grew up in Da Nang, which broke away from Quang Nam Province in 1997 to become a centrally-administered city like Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.
Critics dismiss him as a tyrant besieged by a raft of corruption allegations; some have even gone so far as calling him a “dictator.” Thanh also drew flak for some controversial policies that limited rural migration into the city in an effort to spruce up its image. He also seriously limited the types of academic degrees officials could submit for admissions and promotions.
His local fans championed him as a magnetic reformer who espoused populist policies. He also became a darling of foreign investors by railing against red tape.
The Vietnam Provincial Competitiveness Index (PCI), based on a survey of around 7,000 Vietnamese and 2,000 foreign companies, has consistently ranked Da Nang at or near the top since 2005, well above both HCMC and Hanoi.
Thanh is consistently credited with steering Da Nang in that direction.
But, while the city still has quite a long way to go, in January of 2013 Thanh took to the national stage as the country’s anti-corruption czar.
Analysts have pointed out that such an effort cannot be engineered by a single man in a second-tier city.
“Battling corruption in Vietnam will require a broad effort that draws on the consensus from elite decision makers and a mandate that subordinate officials will enforce,” Edmund Malesky, the lead researcher for the Vietnam Provincial Competitiveness Index, said at the time Thanh took his official position.
“To battle corruption, Thanh will need to win the cooperation of a large number of actors. This will not be easy,” Malesky said.
The 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) ranked Vietnam 119 out of 175 countries and territories with a score of 31/100. In 2013, the country was ranked 116 out of 177 countries and territories.
Notably, Vietnam’s CPI score has remained unchanged since 2012 and corruption in the public sector remains a serious problem, according to remarks released last month by the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International, which commissioned the ranking.
After taking on his new position, Thanh reiterated that he would remain steadfast to a “no-holds-barred” anti-corruption drive.
“All corruption cases, be they petty or major, will be brought to trial in the future,” he said in September 2013.
But such remarks have, evidently, yielded few results.
“Managing corruption [in the courtroom] is not a sustainable strategy,” said Jairo Acuña-Alfaro, the former anti-corruption policy advisor to the United Nations Development Program in Vietnam.
“It is a good time to rethink the incentives and root causes. If incentives are not addressed, it will not matter who comes in or goes out.”
(THANH NIEN staff in Da Nang contributed to this report)