Blog

Saigon Descends Into Silent Chaos as Covid Worsens

Vietnam’s largest city is now under a strict and eerie curfew.

By Dave Fox
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
August 4, 2021

I wrote five weeks ago, on June 29, about Vietnam’s sudden spike in Covid cases after keeping the virus at bay for most of the pandemic. For more than a year, Vietnam was a Covid success story. Everything changed in early May.

Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon) has become the epicenter of the current outbreak, and the situation has deteriorated further:

  • On May 1 of this year, Vietnam had recorded a total of 2,942 Covid cases since the start of the pandemic.
  • On June 29, the day I published my previous article, the country had confirmed 16,413 cases.
  • As of today, August 4, the total is at 174,461 cases and continuing to rise at a rapid rate.
  • More than 100,000 of those cases are here in Ho Chi Minh City.
  • On May 1, Vietnam’s Covid death rate was 35. The total is now 2,071.

(Source: worldometers.info.)

On July 9, city officials enacted “Directive 16,” a strict distancing and lockdown order. All non-essential businesses were ordered to close for 15 days, including restaurant deliveries and takeaways, public transportation, and taxis. An emergency taxi fleet is still in service for people with urgent medical needs.

Officials embarked on an ambitious plan a few weeks ago to test five million of the city’s 13 million residents. Testing centers were shut down, however, because the volume of people asked to come to testing sites at the same time was creating potential “super-spreader” events.

Saigon residents were ordered to stay inside at all times, except to buy groceries or for medical reasons. We were also advised not to leave our district, except to see a doctor. (The city is divided into 17 urban districts. Each district is divided into many smaller neighborhood wards.)

Saigon’s usually-bustling streets are deserted after dark.

At the time, factory and construction workers were still allowed to go to their jobs, and vehicles delivering food and other “essential goods” were allowed to move through the city. The definition of “essential” was stunningly narrow, however. On July 29, VNExpress reported vehicles carrying diapers and sanitary napkins were “blocked” at checkpoints because they were deemed unessential.

Police set up roadblocks to check people’s paperwork, but the roadblocks themselves created dangerous situations. VN Express, posted a disturbing photo essay, showing long back-ups among people on motorbikes, packed together, waiting to funnel through and show their paperwork at understaffed checkpoints.

Authorities disbanded these inter-district roadblocks a few days later and replaced them with roaming vehicles that stop people to question their reasons for being out.

Outdoor exercise has been temporarily banned. Local media report police have been fining people up to three million Vietnamese dong (US $130) for jogging.

In Nha Trang, a beach town in central Vietnam, authorities confiscated a man’s motorbike because he had gone grocery shopping but only purchased bread. A deputy chairman in one of the city’s wards said bread was not an essential food item and the man should not have been outside.

Nha Trang’s city chairman later issued a public apology for the motorbike seizure and said the ward’s deputy chairman had misunderstood the city’s social distancing order, according to VNExpress.

Police last weekend escorted motorcycle caravans with thousands of of migrant workers from other provinces back to their hometowns. The police escorts were set up to help the workers pass through highway checkpoints efficiently and to ensure they underwent mandatory quarantines upon arrival. Many of these people had come to Saigon to earn money but had lost their ability to work due to lockdown restrictions.

Some provinces, meanwhile, are paying their citizens to remain in Saigon, as they fear imported Covid cases from people returning home.

I witnessed a crime in progress from my rooftop the other night: Jumping rope after curfew.

Saigon is Now Under a Curfew

The initial 15-day lockdown that began on July 9 has now been extended twice, with speculation it could last a lot longer.

Nine days ago, when it seemed things couldn’t get any stricter, they did. The Ho Chi Minh City government announced “Directive 16+.” This new directive imposes a nightly curfew. Nobody is allowed outside between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m., except for medical emergencies. It is illegal to leave your neighborhood ward at any hour without special permission.

If you’ve visited Saigon, you know how crazy the traffic usually is. My apartment rooftop has a view of the Saigon Bridge, which normally busy 24 hours a day. The city has seemed eerily quiet for several weeks but as this video shows, the curfew has made things downright surreal, with only an occasional truck or emergency vehicle crossing the bridge after 6 p.m.

Panic Buying

The government has been scrambling to keep food supplies stocked, but grocery shopping has become a challenge. Staple items such as eggs and vegetables have been hard to find in some areas. A few stores have been fined for price gouging.

Most “traditional markets” (produce markets with lots of vendors operating small, independent stalls) have been shut down.

Modern supermarkets are restricted on how many people can enter at once. People on Facebook reported waits of two to three hours at some stores.

To reduce crowding, the government has begun issuing shopping vouchers, which permit one person per household to enter a supermarket twice a week at an assigned time. Leaving your neighborhood to shop is prohibited – a problem for some, as some wards have better stocked stores than others.

The line to enter a grocery store stretches around the block.

Low-Income Workers are Struggling

Vietnam’s low-income population is suffering phenomenally. Many people are out of work and relying on charity donations for food. Saigon’s “informal workers” – self-employed street vendors, shoe shiners, lottery ticket sellers, and recycling collectors, for example – are now without an income as they are not allowed outside.  

Police last weekend escorted huge motorcycle caravans with thousands of workers from other provinces back to their hometowns. The police escorts were set up to help the workers pass through highway checkpoints efficiently and to ensure they underwent mandatory quarantines upon arrival.

Some provinces with lower Covid rates, meanwhile, are paying their citizens to remain in Saigon, as provincial governments fear imported cases from Saigon.

The Ho Chi Minh City government announced an aid package two weeks ago for low-income workers who have become jobless. More than 200,000 people received a payment of 1.5 million Vietnamese dong. That equals around 65 US dollars.

VNExpress reported this morning that a second relief package for the same amount per person has been proposed to the Ho Chi Minh City People’s Committee.

Problems for Pets

When the government banned going outside for exercise in early July, this included walking your dog. Friends have told me some dog-owners are trying to house-train their dogs – not an easy task, particularly for larger breeds.

Dreadful timing of a new American law has created another problem. The US Centers for Disease Control announced earlier this year it would ban the import of dogs from 113 countries into the United States due to rabies concerns. That law took effect on July 14.

I know several American dog-owners who left Vietnam to bring their pets back to the US before the deadline. One friend of mine, however, who was unable to catch her flight because she does not live in Saigon and could not arrange transportation to the airport.

A more dire situation has evolved for pet owners who test positive for Covid.

For many months, authorities have been quarantining all Covid-positive people – even those who are asymptomatic – in medical facilities or government-run camps, depending on their symptoms. So-called “F1s” – people who have had direct contact with a Covid-positive person but have not tested positive themselves – were also taken to quarantine camps for several weeks of observation.

(As the caseload has exploded, and camps have become full, people who meet certain conditions are now being allowed to quarantine at home. Covid-positive people with mild or no symptoms are being released earlier from hospitals, due to overcrowding.)

When an apartment complex is locked down due to a positive Covid case, nobody who lives in the building is allowed in or out until it can be disinfected and residents can be tested. Quarantined pet owners cannot send a friend to take care of their animals. I’ve heard reports of some people having to leave their pets with large bowls of food and water and hoping for the best. Animal welfare organizations are working to alleviate this situation.

The ARC Vietnam Animal Rescue and Care organization released a statement on Facebook with steps pet owners should take right now, in case they later test positive and are sent to quarantine.

Meanwhile, a woman in Long An Province, which borders Saigon, was detained by police last month while taking her dying cat to the veterinarian. Police fined her for being outside for what they considered a “non-essential” reason, and told her to return home. Her cat did not survive.

Are These Strict Rules Necessary?

As I’ve written before, some of these restrictions might seem draconian to people in other countries. There are a couple of things that are important to understand:

  • The health care system is at risk of being overloaded if the government does not take drastic steps. Saigon is already facing a blood shortage because people are hesitant to leave their homes to donate.
  • Vietnam has had a vaccine shortage for months. As of today, 6.5 percent of the population has received one dose. Only 0.7 percent of the population is fully vaccinated.

Vaccines are now arriving at a faster rate than I reported last month – donated by several countries, including the United States, which I criticized in my last article for acquiring more vaccines for its own citizens than it was using. Saigon residents are being prioritized over the rest of the country because the outbreak is so bad here. (I have now received my first dose of the AstraZenica vaccine.)

While this last point is encouraging, authorities are still saying the country might not reach a 70 percent full-vaccination rate until the first quarter of 2022.

A Complicated Exodus

Many expats are leaving Vietnam now, but doing so is not easy.

With taxi service suspended, Facebook groups have been filled with panicky messages from people looking for a ride to the airport.

The curfew complicated things further. Travelers were initially told they must arrive at the airport before 6 p.m., regardless of their flight time, and that they would not be allowed inside the airport until their airline started checking in passengers for their specific flight. Most people had to arrive even earlier to give their drivers time to return home before curfew. Some travelers reported having to sit outside the airport for hours.

This July 27 Facebook post was one of many from people scrambling to figure out transportation logistics to the airport.

The government announced after a few days that taxis can drive travelers with valid airline tickets to the airport, regardless of quarantine hours.

So Why Am I Still Here?

My last couple of months have been stressful. Among other things, I had a mild sore throat and low-grade fever for six weeks and was terrified I might have Covid.

I tested negative twice during this time, and my doctor assured me he didn’t think I had anything to worry about, but shopping during those six weeks was an anxious endeavor.

What scared me most was not my symptoms but that I would be sent to a quarantine facility. People in quarantine camps have reported spartan conditions – often with eight people to a room, and four bunk beds with no mattresses.

The US Embassy in Hanoi released a statement last week encouraging Americans here to prepare a “go bag” in case we are told to quarantine on short notice.

Among other items, the embassy is advising packing toilet paper and bottled drinking water, as there were reports of those items being scarce in some quarantine facilities. (I’m perplexed by this as there is a shortage of neither in stores – but tap water in Saigon is considered unsafe to drink.)

The US Embassy has announced it is communicating with local authorities to ensure safe conditions for its citizens.

It also stated in its email, however, “The US Embassy and Consulate General in Vietnam do not have jurisdiction over local health authorities and cannot stop imposed quarantines.” 

So why am I still here? The answer is complicated but the short version is that a temporary move back to the United States would be a major life upheaval.

I’ve lived in Southeast Asia for a decade and Saigon has been my home for the last six years. I’ve got more stuff than I can bring on an airplane if I decide to fly out. Shipping costs are prohibitively expensive right now due to the exodus of foreigners, and current lockdown restrictions would make it difficult to sell anything I choose to leave behind.

I do have a loose contingency plan in place should I decide to leave Vietnam, but for now, staying put feels easier. I still feel relatively safe here. I rarely leave my apartment and am extremely careful on the days I go out to shop.

The rules here change from day to day, and keeping up with them feels dizzying. The hardest part in all of this, for me at least, is not knowing how long these current restrictions will last.

Published on Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Leave a Reply