Forget video conferencing and contact tracing apps; the coolest innovation in Vietnam during this coronavirus crisis might be the curious mix of human, machine and mobile tech that is the "rice ATM."
Hundreds form kilometer-long lines at these semi-automated rice distribution centers, which offer free helpings of the Vietnamese staple food to furloughed and laid-off workers struggling to feed their families.
Begun by Ho Chi Minh City entrepreneur Hoang Tuan Anh earlier this month, each person is allowed 1.5 kilograms of rice twice a day by queuing up - and maintaining social distance - at the machines.
Behind the machine, the rice is stored in giant elevated vats and funneled through plastic pipes into bags carried by individuals. When an individual presses the button on rice ATM, a volunteer gets an alert on an app on his or her smartphone to release the rice.
Anh's first machine, located in Ho Chi Minh City's densely-packed Tan Phu District that is home to many workers from rural provinces, dispensed 5 tons of rice in the first two days of operation, the Thanh Nien newspaper reported.
Since it went into service April 6, other businesses and donors have followed by setting up these machines elsewhere in the nation's commercial hub, as well as in the capital of Hanoi and other cities across the country.
These rice ATMs are attracting Vietnamese struggling during the government's partial economic shutdown to contain the virus. The social distancing mandate, which required most people to stay at home, was lifted April 23 for the majority of the nation. But the economic damage from the lockdown and global outbreak continues to ripple across the Southeast Asian country.
Vietnam's government says about 5 million workers have been furloughed or laid off due to the fallout from the novel coronavirus outbreak. Its social distancing order went into effect April 1, allowing only businesses providing essential services to remain open.
Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc approved a 62 trillion dong ($2.6 billion) aid package April 10 for Vietnamese struggling economically during the pandemic.
Anh, whose business of smart home services is also struggling, wants to open 100 rice ATMs around Ho Chi Minh City. He says he plans to maintain them for two months after the outbreak subsides in Vietnam, according to Thanh Nien newspaper.