HCMC expats try to overcome lockdown problems

By Dang Khoa, Long NguyenJuly 13, 2021 | 06:13 pm PT
HCMC expats try to overcome lockdown problems
Foreign tourists walk on Bui Vien backpacker street in downtown HCMC, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyet Nhi.
Expats in HCMC are worried for their second home and hope it will successfully contain the Covid-19 outbreak soon.

Waking up early on Sunday morning, Steven Fraser, a Briton living in District 4, planned to walk his dog and go shopping.

But a security guard in the neighborhood stopped him, telling him not to venture out with the dog since the city is in a lockdown to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.

Later he drove to his favorite supermarket in District 7 to buy some food, but a police officer stopped him and told him to prove that he was out to buy essential items.

He said: "I told them I was going to the supermarket, but how can I prove it? I have no papers that can show them why I was out."

But he said he felt sympathy for the officer and other Covid frontline workers.

"I do not mind the hurdles I face ... as long as everyone is safe."

The 53-year-old is among many foreigners to face disruptions to their daily life after HCMC extended its lockdown last Friday and made it more stringent than in the previous month.

This time it even prohibited food takeout and delivery and ordered people to stay at home and only go out for necessities such as buying food or medicines or going to work at factories or businesses that are allowed to open.

Knowing about the news later than locals, many expats struggled to do last-minute stocking up before the lockdown began.

Zak Coleman, an English teacher from the U.S., said: "The recent ruling about the illegality of food delivery came as a surprise as we were assured by Vietnamese friends that they would still be operating. For this reason, we were a day late when it came to stocking up on groceries."

He was among many expats who rushed to the nearest supermarket after hearing the news but found himself with limited food options since hoarders had already bought everything.

Since Friday Facebook expat community groups have been flooded with questions about stocking up on groceries, with many wondering how to shop safely and still follow social distancing guidelines.

Due to the language barrier, some have resorted to asking Vietnamese housemates, neighbors, friends, and colleagues to help them with shopping online for groceries.

Coleman said: "Thankfully I have a Vietnamese roommate who has been able to help me procure certain groceries that haven't been available at grocery stores lately like eggs, lettuce, milk, meat and others. Otherwise, it would be quite difficult."

Many foreigners said the inability to order takeout was a big blow since they could not cook and depended on restaurants for food.

Jarred Srot, an English teacher from South Africa working in District 6, called it the "greatest inconvenience at the moment."

Coleman also said cooking at home has been difficult due to the frequent stock-outs at his local grocer’s while sharing the kitchen with many housemates is also a challenge.

"I also need to adjust to multiple roommates all using appliances and the kitchen more frequently than before."

While shopping and cooking are major topics of discussion online, foreigners also fret about the lockdown rules, many saying they have no idea what documents to carry on the streets in case the police accost them.

"If I tell them I am out to buy food, will they simply trust me and let me go?" Fraser asked.

He said he has woken up at midnight several times to take his dog fearing fines.

Srot said the rules are unclear and he does not know if he can travel between districts in the city. He shared this concern in a Facebook group, but others too did not know if they could travel to another district without being stopped or fined by the police.

HCMC, epicenter of the ongoing wave of coronavirus, had set up 266 checkpoints. Everyone passing through them must produce a certificate provided by employers proving they work at businesses or organizations that are allowed to operate or other papers establishing a valid reason to travel. If they fail to do so, they can be fined VND1-3 million ($43.38-130.15).

According to a police report, city authorities have so far fined violators VND3.3 billion ($143,592) for leaving their houses for non-essential reasons, gathering in public places and trading non-essential goods in just the first two days of the lockdown.

These checkpoints were removed on Tuesday morning, but patrol teams will keep working across the city.

"There is no official information in English from the authority, so I must read the news or learn from my friends," said Steve Read, a British business owner residing in District 4. Worrying he would be fined, Read has postponed going to a bank in District 1 for his business in the last few days.

The uncertainty caused by the outbreak has also taken a toll on mental health, with many expats starting to feel Covid-19 fatigue as the city's daily tally continues to hit new records. The economic crisis threatens their financial stability.

Coleman said: "I worry about the status of my friends, both foreigners and Vietnamese. I worry that the lack of income can only be sustained for so much longer before things begin to fall apart."

He said some of his housemates have been sent on leave without pay.

Fraser said many of his friends have had to leave Vietnam because "they could not withstand the joblessness caused by Covid."

A Russian man sells cake on the sidewalk in Saigons Binh Thanh District, June 23, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa.

A Russian man sells cakes on the sidewalk in HCMC's Binh Thanh District, June 23, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dang Khoa.

Second home

Many expats said the silver lining is that most of their friends and neighbors strictly follow Covid prevention rules.

Guillaume Rondan, a Frenchman and founder of movetoasia.com, a community for expats based in Saigon, said: "One time I was alone on the rooftop calling my family, and no one was around, and so I took my mask off, and a security guard suddenly came to tell me to put on my mask again as it is mandatory even if I am alone... I am feeling safe here."

Munish Gupta, an Indian businessman and admin of a Facebook group of Indians in Vietnam with more than 10,000 members, also appreciated his neighbors saying they were supportive and cooperative amid the pandemic.

But with the daily record tally of new Covid cases, many expats cannot hide their concerns.

HCMC now has the highest number of cases with 17,239 as of Wednesday morning.

The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh City on July 9, when the city began 15 days of stringent social distancing measures to curb Covid-19. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

The downtown area of Ho Chi Minh City on July 9, when the city began 15 days of stringent social distancing measures to curb Covid-19. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa.

"We are worried for Saigon and Vietnam, we are here since 2006 and Saigon is our second home," Gupta said.

Srot said he was disheartened and sad for the city and its people.

"I just hope there is some relief eventually. I'm thinking a lot about those with less resources and how they must be struggling."

They have been optimistic by keeping in touch with families and friends and supporting people who have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Many are eager to get vaccinated, which they think is the key to beating the pandemic.

While some are praying for HCMC, Andrew Weller, 44, decided to take matters into his own hands. The British-Australian man has been calling on people posting in online expat groups to sign a petition urging the U.K. to vaccinate its citizens living abroad.

While waiting for their first shots, Fraser, Srot, Rondan, and Gupta hoped Saigon would succeed in containing the outbreak with the 15-day lockdown.

Fraser said: "I can bear the inconvenience caused by the lockdown because I know it is nothing compared to what frontline workers face. I hope my second home and its people will be healthy soon."

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