Stranded Vietnamese tackle obstacle course to get home

By Phan Duong   December 20, 2021 | 06:13 am PT
Pandemic restrictions and rules have crafted obstacle courses for Vietnamese citizens desperate to be return after being away from home for a long time.

Nguyen Van Tam and his wife, both 67 years old, went to the United States to visit their daughter after the 2020 Lunar New Year.

They planned to stay for a month. It’s been two years and counting.

Despite being near their daughter, the couple are homesick and feel sad very often.

Van Nguyen, 29, Tam's daughter, said: "Seeing them cry, desperately wanting to go home, I feel very sorry. I have tried many ways to find tickets for them to get back."

Tam has made countless calls to an airline asking for the price of repatriating flights, but the price of $4,000-5,000 per person was too steep. Working as a nail technician in California, Van manages to earn about $4,000 per month, but she has to take care of six family members.

To make things more complicated, over some family conflict with their son-in-law, Van had to rent a room for her parents to live on their own, leaving a bigger dent in her wallet.

Tam and his wife keep consoling, comforting and encouraging each other as they wait for the opening of commercial flights in order to go home.

A group of Vietnamese returnees at South Korea before boarding their next trip to Cambodia. They have completed their quarantine requirement on Dec. 7, 2021, and returned home safely. Photo acquired by VnExpress

A group of Vietnamese returnees in South Korea wait to board a flight to Cambodia en route home in Vietnam. They reached home safely after completing their quarantine requirements, Dec. 7, 2021. Photo acquired by VnExpress

At the end of 2020, they received a letter of registration for repatriation from the Vietnamese consulate, but the ticket price was still $4,000 per person. Once again the old couple suppressed their impatience and continued their wait for ticket prices to go down.

"Recently, my parents decided to go back no matter what the price is," Van said.

During their stay of almost two years in the U.S., the parents worked part-time jobs and managed to save $10,000. They had planned to use this money to repair their dilapidated house in Vietnam, renovate the grave of their eldest son and get their teeth fixed.

"We have scrapped that plan after seeing our daughter struggling to support her husband and children and us," Tam said.

One weekend, Van came across a video on YouTube showing how Vietnamese stranded overseas can return home with a cheaper price, if they transited in Cambodia.

She later learned that thousands of Vietnamese have returned home through Cambodia after it reopened flights with ASEAN countries.

Van spent two nights reading all that she could get on this issue and contacted many people to find out more about the safety of this repatriation route.

At the same time, she also read news that the Vietnamese government plans to reopen international commercial routes.

But since her parents want to return home as soon as possible, she has decided to still let them go to Cambodia. With airfare and other fees, each returnee would only need to spend $3,000.

Hopes dashed

According to the State Committee for Overseas Vietnamese under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, there are about 5.3 million Vietnamese living and working in 130 countries and territories.

Vietnam grounded all international flights in March last year, allowing only Vietnamese citizens, foreign experts, investors, and highly-skilled workers to come in on special flights.

Vietnam has organized 400 flights to repatriate more than 70,000 citizens since the pandemic broke out,

On the evening of Dec. 10 this year, the government agreed to restore regular international flights to areas with a high Covid safety levels starting next year.

From January 1, regular flights are scheduled to resume to San Francisco or Los Angeles (the U.S.), Singapore, Bangkok (Thailand), Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Vientiane (Laos), Beijing/Guangzhou (China), Tokyo (Japan), Seoul (South Korea), and Taipei (Taiwan).

Deputy Health Minister Do Xuan Tuyen said that there was a huge demand for repatriation flights for Vietnamese workers whose contracts have expired, as well as students and business travelers who are stuck abroad.

The reopening of the flight routes will also create favorable conditions for foreign investors and experts to enter Vietnam to explore investment opportunities, he said.

Upon reading this information, Van Giang, 35, a native of Hai Phong Province currently in Slovakia, became hopeful about her return.

She’d just cancelled her ticket to return via Cambodia, because she has not been vaccinated and wouldn't be allwed to enter the country.

"I was very sad since the airfare to Cambodia is less than 800 euros (around $900)," she said. She revealed that when she canceled her ticket, 200 euros was deducted and she would only get the remaining amount after six weeks.

Giang went to Slovakia in October 2019 and later sponsored husband to come to the Eastern European nation.

But Covid-19 has put the couple in a miserable situation.

Due to some problems with his documentation, the husband could not work until early this month, when a bakery decided to hire him. Meanwhile, Giang had to stop working for a carmaker because of health problems and switch to a company making paper gift wrappers.

The financial pressures on the couple increased after she got pregnant seven months ago. She said it costs her 50 euros per hour to hire an interpreter for each prenatal visit and she can't imagine how tough it would be when her future child gets sick.

She has been researching repatriating flights since June. But she couldn't afford them since the airfare is two to three times her current income. A compatriot booked a ticket but got scammed and lost 3,000 euros once, making Giang even more afraid to take risks.

After learning that many people had successfully returned to Vietnam via Cambodia, she decided to book the tickets. But the hopes of the pregnant woman crumbled when she failed to qualify to board the plane.

"I was so sad that I couldn't sleep for a whole week," she said.

With the new rule that requires passengers who have not been fully vaccinated to undergo quarantine at home or at a centralized quarantine camp, Giang will have to pay 2,500 euros for a one-way repatriation flight

A view from Nguyen Hong Quangs quarantine facility in southern Tay Ninh Province on Dec. 10, 2021. Photo courtesy of Quang

A view of the facility in the southern province of Tay Ninh where Nguyen Hong Quang was quarantined, Dec. 10, 2021. Photo courtesy of Quang

Nguyen Hong Quang, 26, a Physics PhD student in Iowa State University in the U.S. saw the closure of universities as a rare, welcome opportunity to reunite with his wife back home.

But after two years of waiting, he grew frustrated with the failure to get a slot on a repatriation fight.

He decided to return in November, but since the repatriation flight tickets were too expensive, booked the return trip via Cambodia instead, which cost him a total of around VND40 million.

He chose to fly from Iowa, transit in South Korea and then head to Cambodia. Despite the long total flight time of 27 hours, he didn't find the trip as terrible as other people described.

On the verge of completing his quarantine, he said he hasn’t planned his next move.

"But I am already happy that I am able to be back in my homeland and breathe in the fresh air. That is all that I need," he said, adding he was looking forward to a happy Tet reunion with his wife.

Meanwhile, Van has seen her parents off on a flight to Cambodia. She joined two online chat groups of people boarding the same plane, just in case she can't contact them.

"Everything seems to be okay, but I still can't be reassured until my parents are safe back in Vietnam."

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