Saigonese fearful of eating out in Covid's dark shadow

By Dang Khoa   November 16, 2021 | 04:58 pm PT
Saigonese fearful of eating out in Covid's dark shadow
Customers dine in at a restaurant in Vincom Center, HCMC's District 1, Nov. 13, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa
With people in Ho Chi Minh City apprehensive about dining out under the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, many restaurants are deserted.

On a weekend in November, inside Takashimaya department store in downtown Saigon, only a few dozen customers could be seen eating in food court, all sitting far away from one another.

At some of the restaurants, waiters outnumbered customers. Staff stood at the entrance to invite people in and promote their current offers, others cleaned tables or chatted or spoke on their phones while waiting for patrons.

"My restaurant only served around 20 customers on Saturday night, much lower than we anticipated," Nguyen Huu Quy, an employee at a Thai restaurant, said.

Dao Thi Ngoc Lan, a patron waiting for her order, said: "I just finished shopping and only came here for some takeout. I am still afraid to remove my mask in public."

Though HCMC has shifted from a zero-virus strategy to living with the pandemic and many localities have resumed indoor dining, Lan is among many people who are still wary of eating out, fearful of the virus. This has sent the sales of many food establishments plunging and caused them to struggle to stay afloat.

In the last few weeks many restaurants and beer places have been attracting hordes of people looking to hang out with friends after a months-long lockdown. But others, especially in malls, where people do not tend to gather for social drinking, have been deserted.

At Van Hanh Mall in District 10, except for a few buffet restaurants, which had around 20 guests, the other food establishments were quiet with just a few customers sitting among staff wearing masks.

Some restaurants are still closed, with notices outside saying "We will be back soon."

In front of many closed places, chairs are placed to create a barricade to prevent people from coming in. Inside, chairs are stacked on top of tables amid darkness and silence.

Many business owners admit the city’s reopening has not caused a miracle for their business.

Nguyen Manh Cuong, a coffee shop owner in Binh Tan District, lamented: "I used all my savings to open the café in March. But I've lost my investment after the fourth Covid wave. I have given up on the shop."

Tran Thi Lan Anh, 45, expressed the fears many people feel: "I still don't feel safe eating out at the moment since everyone sits in an enclosed environment where individuals spend lengthy periods of time without wearing masks, potentially spreading the virus into the surroundings and endangering others."

To celebrate her eight-year-old son's birthday last weekend, instead of going to KFC and inviting his classmates like in previous years, she ordered fried chicken home.

Her son was very upset and kept nagging her to organize a party, but she was insistent, saying Covid still poses a threat even though "my husband and I have been fully vaccinated."

The city has had nearly 450,000 patients since April, when the latest wave began. The pandemic is gradually coming under control, but around 1,000 people still contract the disease every day.

In the two years since the pandemic began there have been widespread job and wage cuts, leading to a sharp decrease in disposable incomes and spending and shopping by people.

The average monthly income dropped to VND5.2 million ($229) in the third quarter of this year, down VND877,000 from the previous quarter and VND603,000 from a year earlier, according to General Statistics Office.

Economists said the crisis has forced people to change their spending habits.

A report titled ‘New norm among Vietnamese after Covid-19’ published last year by market research firm Q&Me said eating at home had increased dramatically.

People refrain from eating out to save money and assuage Covid fears. Even when they do go out, they tend to avoid pricey restaurants and choose ones with good hygiene, the reported stated.

Some Saigonese admit they have cut their spending, including on eating out.

A restaurant inside Van Hanh Mall remains closed on Nov. 10, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa

A restaurant inside Van Hanh Mall remains closed, Nov. 10, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa

"In the past I was willing to spend VND400,000 to eat hot pot buffet with my friends once every other week," Phong Vinh of District 4 said.

"But now spending that amount of money scares me."

Instead of buying coffee from a shop near his workplace, he now brings it from home.

Changing eating behaviors is also what many Saigonese are doing, with more and more people taking up cooking as a new hobby.

Ngoc Thao, an office worker in District 3, has been cooking lunch and bringing it to work. She picked up the habit of cooking during the five-month-long lockdown, and plans to retain it.

"I have learned many new recipes and cooked delicious food, impressing my family and friends," she said. She is also worried about the pandemic and refuses to accept invitations to eat out with friends.

Her caution is not misplaced.

Minister of Health Nguyen Thanh Long warned Wednesday that winter, including the Lunar New Year period in early February, could see new Covid-19 outbreaks if people let their guard down.

"Switching gears to adaptation means infections are inevitable, but the important thing is we should be able to manage the risks of severe cases and deaths".

In District 1, Lan, waiting for her takeout food, said eating at home is safer at the moment.

"I long to eat BBQ and drink with my friends, but not right now," she said as she disinfected her hands with a hand sanitizer after making payment to a waiter, and made her way out.

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