Foreigners grapple with stigma as Covid-19 drives Vietnamese avoidance

By Dat Nguyen, Long NguyenMarch 18, 2020 | 12:29 am PT
Foreigners grapple with stigma as Covid-19 drives Vietnamese avoidance
Tourists row a boat near Mua Cave (Hang Mua), northern Ninh Binh Province. Photo by Shutterstock/OlegD.
Foreigners are considering whether to leave Vietnam or stay as they are rapidly acquiring a stigma due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Corb Vil, who has lived in Hanoi for three years, was earlier this month denied service at a restaurant because he was a foreigner.

The 45-year old American had gone to have lunch at a noodles eatery in downtown Hai Ba Trung District, and was surprised when a waiter came out waving his hands and shaking his head. "No foreigners," he told Vil.

Vil says: "I understand some locals are scared of foreigners at this time. I cause fear, but it’s not my fault."

It was just one of several such experiences he has faced since the outbreak. His favorite massage parlor refuses entry to foreigners, and a resident of his apartment building once refused to share an elevator with him.

"Some locals look at me like I’m a zombie."

Vietnam declared the coronavirus outbreak an epidemic on February 1, and so far 66 people have been diagnosed with Covid-19, 22 of them foreigners, including 19 currently in hospital.

Leigh Wills, a Canadian who arrived in Vietnam two weeks ago, decided to cut short her trip.

"I have been waved away a few times, and there has also been a case where a sign said no foreigners," she says. Her bookings at some Hanoi hostels were canceled without any reason being given.

There have been more reports about foreigners not being allowed into local hotels, including one who was rejected at six hotels in the northern province of Ninh Binh, where some hotels have completely stopped accepting bookings from foreigners.

A group of 18 French tourists were recently denied access by authorities in the Central Highlands province of Kon Tum. They are forced to go to Dak Lak Province instead, where a hotel only accepted them on the tour company’s persuasion.

Discrimination against foreigners has been a popular theme in recent days on a Facebook group in Vietnam, which has 132,500 members. Many users complain about the stigma they have faced.

Some foreigners in the group have jointly written a memo in English and Vietnamese to show restaurant waiters and taxi drivers in the hope it will ease their fears.

"I do not have Covid-19" is one of the statements in the memo, which also describes how long the person has been in Vietnam and the last time they left the country.

Officials have been calling out against discrimination. Authorities in Hue, Hoi An and Da Nang have urged hotels and restaurants to be friendly toward foreign tourists.

Bui Van Manh, deputy director of the Ninh Binh Tourism Department, says local authorities ensured that the tourist who was rejected by six hotels found a place to stay, and it is not the policy of the province to deny access to foreigners.

The department is making efforts to ensure something like that does not happen again, he says.

"We have sent staff to assist foreigners in finding accommodation amid the outbreak. A list of hotels available to foreigners has been published on our website."

A foreign tourist sits in front of a closed bar in Bui Vien Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City on March 14, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

A foreign tourist sits in front of a closed bar in Bui Vien Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City on March 14, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran.

Dampened atmosphere

With new cases being diagnosed almost every day, authorities have ordered bars, karaoke parlors and tourist sites across the country to shut down until the end of March.

Many foreigners are uncertain about whether to stay back as most entertainment activities have been suspended and they evoke xenophobic responses.

Wills says: "In Da Nang, not many backpackers or places with people present. If you are looking for atmosphere I do not recommend it."

The number of foreign arrivals in February fell 22 percent year-on-year to 1.2 million, and industry insiders expect things to worsen as Vietnam has suspended issue of visas to all foreigners.

In Ho Chi Minh City, all bars and beer clubs are closed as authorities continue to take precautions, leaving many streets deserted while night people "do not know what to do after sunset," Jessica Clayton, a British tourist, says.

"Hanoi’s Ta Hien Street was quiet when I was there last week. I thought the circumstances in the south would be better, but I was wrong."

Mask up

Another bother for foreigners is the mandatory face mask regulation in public places.

"We have been wearing masks, but we are not used to them back home," American Rebecca says, adding seeing locals around her in masks the last few days has made her feel worried.

"I am in your country, so I should adapt to your culture, but I will never be a fan of face masks."

Amid the stigma and dismal atmosphere at popular tourist attractions, some foreigners are considering leaving the country, but the big question is to where.

Briton Chris Morrison arrived in Hanoi last month, but now with his country recording around 2,000 cases, returning home would not be ideal.

"Going back means I face a 99 percent infection risk because people there are not fully aware of the coronavirus' danger."

Flying to and from Vietnam has become challenging amid the pandemic. Vietnam Airlines on Tuesday canceled all flights to France. It has also suspended flights to Malaysia until the end of March, and plans to stop more Southeast Asian services.

Other foreigners fear public transport could spread the disease.

Polish man Mikala and his friend last week canceled plans to travel to Thailand as the number of confirmed cases there approached 200, including several airport workers, three times the number in Vietnam.

"Who wants to get on a plane with a host of strangers now? I would rather stay here until my visa expires," the 34-year old says while looking for face masks on Nguyen Hue Street in HCMC.

But not all foreigners have faced discrimination.

British man Victor Luby says since the outbreak he has been riding his motorbike around Hanoi and having beers at local restaurants, and not once has he been shunned.

When the 51-year old teacher was in a park the other day, random children walked up and talked to him, and people still smiled and said hello as usual.

Luby and several others have taken to social media to urge everyone to show understanding in this difficult time.

"This country is the best country I've traveled to. They are the friendliest, most hospitable people I have ever met in my life."

Other tourists say they will come back to Vietnam later when the virus is gone, when "people can smile with others without layers of masks covering their faces," as British tourist Clayton says.

But Vil, the American in Hanoi, says that as much as he likes Vietnam, he might consider leaving if the discrimination persists.

"I want to be in Vietnam, but I don’t want to be treated less than equal."

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