Saigon begins long haul to normalcy post-lockdown

By Hoang Ha   October 13, 2021 | 12:50 am PT
Many Saigonese are thrilled to witness the city’s gradual return to its usual hustle and bustle after the four-month lockdown, though some are gingerly tiptoeing toward normalcy.

Nguyen Danh drove around HCMC on Sunday morning to breath in some fresh air after months of being cooped up inside.

The 29-year-old freelance photographer’s first destination was the Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica in District 1.

He said: "It has been many months since I drove by this area and the grass in front of the church has grown taller. There are even squirrels climbing up and down trees to find food.

"I think that everyone is excited to go out again after four months of being confined to their home. It is fun driving around the city."

He feels happy to again hear the sounds of cars honking and people chatting on the street.

HCMC a week after reopening. Video by Tuan Viet, Khoi Mai, Nguyen Diep

For the last couple of days he has been driving by Notre Dame, Nguyen Hue Street, Thi Nghe Market, and alleyways around the city.

He sought to capture the city’s gradual revival through images of delivery workers bringing food, people exercising outdoors and families taking children to parks.

When he woke up early one day, he even managed to photograph roads filled with vehicles during the morning rush hour, a "strange yet familiar scene," as he called it.

"I was very excited to see an ice cream vendor driving around the other day".

On Sunday morning he visited the Nguyen Van Binh Book Street near the Central Post Office. The street was still quiet and had just a few customers buying books and taking pictures to post on social media before quickly leaving. No one lingered for long.

Nguyen Van Binh Book Street on Oct.10, 2021. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Danh

Nguyen Van Binh Book Street on Oct.10, 2021. Photo courtesy of Nguyen Danh

Though HCMC eased Covid-19 restrictions on Oct. 1 after over 120 days, many people still seem cautious about going out. The fact is that more than 1,000 new infections are found every day.

The fourth wave has infected over 411,000 people and killed more than 15,000 in the city.

The pandemic has changed many things in the southern metropolis, Danh said. Though streets are crowded again, overall the city has not fully recovered with many places still deserted and the fear of the pandemic being palpable, he said.

Hoai Thu, 30, lives in District 7. On Oct.1 her boyfriend texted her asking her to go for a walk, but she refused, saying she was "still afraid to venture out". That sparked an argument and it ended with the couple breaking up.

"He texted me as soon as the city opened," she said. He had wanted to drive from his home in Tan Binh District, "meet [her] face to face" and take her to the pedestrian square on Nguyen Hue Street in District 1.

Though fully vaccinated, she does not want to go out except if necessary and wants to avoid crowed places.

"My company does not require employees to go back to the office until mid-October. Until then I'll just stay at home".

Beside the fear of contracting the disease if they venture out, people are also not too keen to return to office after getting used to working from home.

Families hang out around the water fountain on Nguyen Hue Street in downtown HCMC on Oct.1, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Maison de Bil

Families hang out around the water fountain on Nguyen Hue Street in downtown HCMC on Oct.1, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Maison de Bil

Ngoc Tram, 25, of Go Vap District, said "I would like to work from home" for a survey done by her company's human resources department.

After months of remaining at home, she had felt both excited and worried about the Oct.1 reopening.

She sells air tickets and handles visa applications for guests and so is not required to be physically present in the office.

"I'm afraid to go back to the office. Most employees in my company prefer to work from home," she said.

Besides the fact "working from home is more comfortable," she is also afraid of coming into contact with many people since her young children have not been vaccinated yet.

HCMC has reopened, but getting sales and customers back to pre-pandemic levels is hard for business owners to achieve.

Hoang Vy, 28, of Binh Thanh District, a lawyer and owner of a children's fashion store, has been busy with the reopening of the store in the past few days, contacting loyal customers, checking the inventory and planning for promotions and advertising campaigns on e-commerce platforms.

The prolonged closure caused sales to plummet and consumers to be wary of spending on non-essential items while tailors at her garment factory have not returned from their hometowns.

"Reopening after the pandemic is like starting a business all over again," she said.

While waiting for her old customers to return, she has been selling some other things to people living in her apartment block.

"I sell vegetables and fruits. These days people only buy food and nothing else".

At first she had thought selling vegetables would be easy, but is now drowned in work like loading, packing, compiling orders, delivering, and cleaning.

Saigon is reopening but many people still feel sensorily deprived and long for the "busy, noisy" sounds of cafes and restaurants.

Tran Tam, 27, a media industry worker waiting in front of a coffee shop in Phu Nhuan District last Sunday, said: "During the social distancing period, I just wished eateries would open so that I can pick up a drink. But now I realize what I really need is not coffee, but sitting in the ambience of a shop."

Tam said as an introvert he had felt comfortable staying at home last year though many people were complaining about being cooped up for too long.

But the past four months have been very different, he said.

"I haven't been on the street for a few months, now I just want to go out and meet people. I am not satisfied with the current situation because I still have to sit at home and order takeout, instead of sitting in restaurants to have the foods or coffee."

Customers in front of a coffee shop on Mac Thi Buoi Street, District 1, on Oct.10, 2021. Photo courtesy of Tran Tam

Customers in front of a coffee shop on Mac Thi Buoi Street, District 1, on Oct.10, 2021. Photo courtesy of Tran Tam

Vo Mo, a preschool teacher in Binh Tan District, said she is still unsure about the future after being unemployed for five months.

"A fully vaccinated 30-year-old female looking for a part-time job at home" was the message she posted on a job search group in HCMC on Oct. 8.

She has to find a job for until January next year, when the city will allow schools to reopen, to cover her living expenses.

"My husband and I have had no income for the past few months, so we have to borrow money from relatives and friends to stay afloat. I'm looking for a temporary job working from home, like processing files and documents. Since I have small kids and cannot go out, finding a job has been very difficult."

The mother of two hopes to return to teaching soon, but is not too hopeful since "there are still a lot of Covid patients in the city."

Despite worries about the pandemic and shortages and inconveniences in daily life, Saigonese are generally happy about the reopening.

Vy said: "Looking at the positive side, the pandemic has taught me to adapt better from being a lawyer to selling clothes and vegetables. Now I can do it all."

It is going to be a long grind for her clothes business to get back to normal, but she said she would keep trying hard.

"At least I'm still healthy enough to be able to work and make a living."

For Danh, the lack of bus horns and the sound of planes flying in the sky are things he misses now.

"But I am glad the city is slowly reviving."

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