So near, yet so far: Tet separation leaves migrants in tears

By Long Nguyen   February 3, 2021 | 09:23 am GMT+7
She’s just two hours away, but the young woman is distraught because Covid-19 won't let her go home for Tet, the Lunar New Year festival.

In the three years that she has been living in Hanoi, Nguyen Thu Ha, 21, has never imagined not being home for the Lunar New Year celebrations, which is the most important time for every Vietnamese family.

Unlike millions of other rural-urban migrants, Ha does not have to go to great trouble to get home, which is in Hai Duong Province, just two hours away from the capital city.

She planned to return home early, help her mother cook banh chung, buy new clothes, clean up the house and have a year-end party with the whole family on Lunar New Year’s Eve, which falls on February 11 this year.

"This is what people living far from home like me yearn for the most after a long year," she said.

Two weeks before the biggest and longest holiday kicks off, Vietnam as whole has been shaken by the latest Covid-19 outbreak of community transmissions last Thursday in the provinces of Hai Duong and Quang Ninh. The outbreak has since spread to 10 localities.

Hai Duong and Quang Ninh have locked down several localities for 21 days while other places in the provinces are undergoing less stringent social distancing measures. Passenger buses have also been prohibited from entering the two provinces.

"The outbreak is brutal, I have never imagined having a Tet without my family, they are only less than two hours away," Ha said.

Many of her friends had rushed home soon after learning about the new outbreak, worried about possible travel restrictions.

A student of Hanoi’s University of Finance - Business Administration lifts her suitcase at the Giap Bat Station as she heads home for Tet, January 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

A student of Hanoi’s University of Finance - Business Administration lifts her suitcase at the Giap Bat Station as she heads home for Tet, January 30, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Tung Dinh.

Ha is one of the millions of migrants for whom Tet is the main opportunity to reunite and spend time with their families. And she is one of the millions forced to rethink their plans to go home and face a reality – spending Tet away from home, alone.

The hardest hit are those whose homes are in Covid-19 hotspots like Hai Duong Province.

Nguyen Thanh Quynh, a 28-year-old worker in Ho Chi Minh City, has learned that she cannot return to her hometown in An Sinh Commune, Dong Trieu Town in the northern province of Quang Ninh. The commune has been placed under a lockdown after a few new community transmissions were detected there.

"That is the best place for me to celebrate Tet, I am still shocked," Quynh said, adding her sister would have to be with her husband’s family during the holiday, so her mother would be alone.

"I called Mom last weekend and we both cried, I have never gone through this feeling before."

Many other people who face no obvious hurdles have also decided to stay put instead of reuniting with their families over Covid-19 fears.

In the south, thousands whose homes are in the north have returned their train tickets for the Tet holiday because they feel travel at this time is risky.

"I bought a ticket to Ha Tinh (central province) this weekend, but the pandemic with the new variant virus is become dangerous, so I have decided to stay in Saigon," said Dinh Hoang Linh, a worker in Saigon’s District 3.

He would wait for the new outbreak to be contained before going home, he added.

According to the Saigon Railway Company, the surging wave of patrons returning their tickets for Tet has seen it run out of cash for making refunds.

It is estimated that around 209,000 migrant workers, 67 percent of workers in HCMC, will not go home for Tet. Local authorities have also suggested that workers abstain from traveling to native places where people have been infected by the novel coronavirus.

Economic rationale

Many migrants workers in the country’s major cities have an added reason to stay put and not travel to their hometowns.

Staying back would help them save money that they have worked very hard throughout the year to earn and gives them opportunities to earn more during the holiday.

In Hanoi’s Long Bien District, home to the Sai Dong Industrial Zone, many migrants workers have sent money to their families because they do not plan to be home during the nation’s biggest holiday.

"Traveling is expensive and other expenses like buying gifts are a severe financial strain, so I will have Tet alone," said Doan Thi Du, a worker at the Sai Dong Industrial Zone who is native of the northern province of Lao Cai.

Du said she would go to work on the first day of the Lunar New Year to have her daily salary tripled.

"I do not mind working during Tet; it has been a difficult year to earn money, so I work to send money to my children. "

A farmer sits in her garden of peach bonsai trees in Hai Duong Province, the current Covid-19 epicenter. The outbreak has led to large scale cancellations of orders. Peach trees and branches are indispensable Tet (Lunar New Year) adornments and the festival is a peak earning season for many farmers. Photo courtersy of Tien Phong Newspaper.

A farmer sits in her garden of peach bonsai trees in Hai Duong Province, the current Covid-19 epicenter, January 30, 2021. The outbreak has led to large scale cancellations of orders. Peach trees and branches are indispensable Tet (Lunar New Year) adornments and the festival is a peak earning season for many farmers. Photo by Tien Phong Newspaper.

Just find a way

The upcoming Tet separation is the hardest to bear for elders who have spent a whole year yearning to see their children, grandchildren and other relatives.

"We would have visited her grandparents’ graves and the village’s market this weekend, if the new outbreak had not come, " said 51-year-old Nguyen Thi Kieu, Ha’s mother, sighing.

Faced with the prospect of being on their own away from the family for Tet, many migrants are steeling themselves for the experience of being lonely at a time when the whole family gets together.

"It is just a matter of time before I can see my family again. I do not want to take any risk of the virus to my house at this time, " said Linh as he waited to return his train ticket at the Saigon Railway Station on Monday.

He said he planned to invite some friends to come over for a year-end party, but "when I heard about the first Covid-19 case of the new outbreak in Saigon, I changed my mind."

The 36-year-old man said he will stay at home during the one-week holiday and binge-watch his favorite series on Netflix and call his mother.

Last Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Vu Duc Dam, head of the National Steering Committee for Covid-19 Prevention and Control, said the committee would strive to contain the outbreak within 10 days.

Since Vietnam recorded the return of Covid-19 community transmissions on January 28, after 55 clean days, the number of infections have jumped to 310, including 226 in Hai Duong and 38 in Quang Ninh.

On Tuesday morning, Ha, a sophomore at the university, cleaned her 25 square meter rented room in Hanoi and bought some sweets to send to her parents in Hai Duong.

Sighing, she said: "My Tet is canceled."

 
 
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