No Tet homecoming for Vietnamese expatriates

By Long Nguyen   January 26, 2021 | 04:44 pm PT
Tran Trong Khanh has always returned home to Vietnam during Tet to be with his mother, but the Covid-19 pandemic has put paid to such desires this year.

More than two weeks before Tet (Lunar New Year) on February 12, Khanh is reconciled to an unusual holiday this year since he knows he cannot make it to Vietnam.

"I know we live in a pandemic-hit year, so I have gradually given up hopes of reuniting with my family," the graduate student in Toronto said. His 71-year-old mother had also been looking forward to seeing her son.

But Vietnam, which has closed its borders since March 2020 and only lets its nationals return on government repatriation flights, has had few such flights this year.

Khanh is among many Vietnamese living across the world who wanted to return home but are unhappily reconciled to a quiet Lunar New Year without the customary family reunion or parties.

A street vendor sells branches of peach blossom, one of the most popular Tet decorations in northern Vietnam, on a Hanoi street ahead of the 2019 Tet in January. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A street vendor sells peach blossoms, a common Tet decoration in northern Vietnam, in Hanoi before Tet in January 2019. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

"I will call my mom and celebrate Tet with her on the screen, but it is not the same as being there. Anyway, I have mentally prepared for it."

Some retain a glimmer of hope and keep checking for news about repatriation flights.

On several Facebook groups for Vietnamese living abroad, mostly workers and students, members tell each other to keep their eyes peeled for the flight schedule and prepare to pay a lot if they are allowed to fly before Tet.

Between January 26 and 28, some flights will bring Vietnamese from South Korea, Japan, Australia, the U.S., and Europe home. But they will never be enough to meet the surging demand with the holiday barely two weeks away.

Some have opted for traveling to neighboring countries and entering Vietnam via land.

On a 2,200-member Facebook group called "Ve Viet Nam Qua Duong Campuchia" (Returning to Vietnam via Cambodia), people exchange tips for flying to Vietnam’s neighboring country and entering Vietnam legally.

"People should not be incited to avoid quarantine ... or make an illegal entry," a group administrator has warned.

In the last few weeks, thousands of Vietnamese workers in Laos and Thailand gave up opportunities to earn extra money and instead returned to Vietnam earlier than usual to enter the compulsory 14-day quarantine before going home for Tet.

But many others chose illegal ways. "I want to help my parents clean up the house and cook traditional foods for Tet; they will be sad without me there," an unnamed Vietnamese woman in Malaysia said. She had registered for a ticket on a flight but was not chosen.

Some 100-150 people are caught daily trying to enter illegally through unmanned border trails, posing a huge risk of bringing Covid-19 into the country.

In late December nine Vietnamese workers came from Myanmar through Thailand and Cambodia illegally into the country and avoided quarantine. After the mother of one of them reported the situation to Saigon authorities, all were traced and tested and four of them tested positive with coronavirus.

On January 22, a boat illegally bringing 38 Vietnamese from Malaysia was intercepted off Ca Mau Province.

Deputy Minister of National Defense Lieutenant General Tran Don has ordered the military to bolster troop numbers along borders to prevent illegal entrants since many Vietnamese work in neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and China.

Vietnamese workers returning from Laos and Thailand listen to quarantine regulations at Cau Treo border gate in Ha Tinh Province, central Vietnam, January 17, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.

Vietnamese workers returning from Laos and Thailand listen to quarantine regulations at Cau Treo border gate in Ha Tinh Province, central Vietnam, January 17, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Hung.

Yearning for home

Besides Tet, another reason many Vietnamese look forward to returning is that they have undergone a year of upheavals with job losses, lack of money and expired visas.

In South Korea, Luong Thi Nga, 40, said the restaurant where she worked has been closed for three months, and she has no income "to live ... in a strange land."

"I must spend a lot from my savings since tickets on repatriation flights are very expensive," the woman from the northern Tuyen Quang Province said.

In countries like Malaysia, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates, many Vietnamese workers complain on Facebook that their employers have delayed salary payments because of their gloomy business situation.

Some workers and students want to return since their visa or study program is finished.

In Finland, Nguyen Thuy Linh and two of her Vietnamese friends, who graduated from a university in July 2020, have been living frugally to survive the ordeal.

They could not return by a repatriation flight from Paris on January 28, and said they might celebrate the Lunar New Year with other Vietnamese in Helsinki.

"Not seeing my family at Tet makes me sad, but we have to lift our spirits and try to enjoy what we have here," Linh said.

The government has urged Vietnamese expatriates not to travel home for the New Year.

It is normally a time for family reunions, but the Ministries of Health, National Defense, and Public Security agreed it is necessary to "encourage Vietnamese living overseas to comply with pandemic prevention regulations in their host countries."

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said the transport ministry would study the possibility of resuming international flights after the holiday, from February 10 to 16, with restrictions remaining in place.

"I will order some fast food or make some spring rolls for the Lunar New Year, and my friend in Vietnam will send me some banh chung," Khanh said, adding he would still be homesick.

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