South Koreans in Vietnam avoid popular haunts amid epidemic

By Pham Nga, Phan Diep   February 26, 2020 | 05:25 am PT
South Koreans in Vietnam avoid popular haunts amid epidemic
A South Korean restaurant on Hanoi's Tran Van Lai Street has no customer at lunchtime on February 25, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Pham Nga.
South Korean stores and restaurants across HCMC and Hanoi stand deserted due to the Covid-19 scare.

In the four years she has worked as a parking attendant in ‘Korea Town’, Hanoi’s My Dinh District, Nguyen Phuong Anh has never seen the place so desolate.

It is almost midday and she is seated on a plastic stool in the area famous for South Korean shops and restaurants. "In the past, whether in summer or winter, going back and forth to find a parking slot would exhaust me," the city transportation department employee says.

The two-kilometer street would usually be packed with cars parked in front of restaurants, she says. Now, she hardly has to leave her seat to help anyone park.

Earlier this month, when the coronavirus first hit Vietnam, the number of customers at Korean eateries began to shrink. Now, the street has gone quiet, as South Korea is making international headlines as one of the countries worst hit by the epidemic. 

A few taxis and motorbikes drop off passengers and leave.

Not far from where Anh sits, a Korean owner rushes into her restaurant, telling her staff to buy alcohol and sanitize tables, chairs and doorknobs. But business at the restaurant with around 20 tables is at its "slowest ever."

"It decreased by 30-40 percent during the Tet (Lunar New Year) break (from January 23-29), and is even worse these days," Tran Van Giap, 44, its manager says, adding Koreans are avoiding crowds while Vietnamese do not want to have contact with Koreans due to the fear of infection. 

Bich Tram’s traditional South Korean restaurant in an alley off Tran Van Lai Street faces a similar situation. 

Since the beginning of this week, Tram has closed her business during lunchtime. The only two "clients" are her daughter and niece, who have remained at home because schools are closed.

Business has reduced by 70-80 percent in the evening, she says. "If the situation remains so bad, I may not have enough money to pay rent." 

Many other locations stand eerily quiet, with South Korean stores and restaurants closed.

Nguyen Van Minh, manager of a restaurant on Hanoi's Hoang Dao Thuy Street, describes business as "catastrophic." Dozens of his staff have to work four hours less every night because they have no one to serve.

"Our revenue used to be VND50 million ($2,155) [a day], now it is only VND4-5 million ($172.4-215.5)," Minh says. 

In Ho Chi Minh City, every afternoon cars and taxis with carrying South Koreans would fill Hau Giang Street in Tan Binh District, which is well known for its South Korean shops and restaurants, leaving little space for pedestrians. 

Since the epidemic hit South Korea’s Deagu City, all Koreans in the area vanished as if someone cast a spell.

"The street is empty and quiet, just like during Tet," Nguyen Thi Thanh, a senior living in the area, says. 

It makes it easier for her to go walking since she does not have to dodge motorbikes and cars.

But it also means the over 40 restaurants and stores in the area have few customers. 

Both locals and South Koreans in Hanoi and HCMC are confident things are under control.

On February 25, the roadside tea shop belonging to Nguyen Thi Be in My Dinh is packed with Vietnamese white-collar workers, a completely different scene from South Korean shops nearby.

"South Koreans rarely sit and drink on the sidewalk like us and always wear masks while going out; so I do not worry," Be says.

Min Keang, owner of a South Korean restaurant, says wearing a mask on the street apart, none of his other activities have changed.

After living in Vietnam for five years, he knows Vietnam is doing well in containing the epidemic.

"I live in Seoul, not Deagu, and the last time I went to my hometown was in November; so the possibility of getting infected is zero," he says, adding he is at ease because every coronavirus patient in Vietnam has fully recovered.

At the end of Hau Giang Street in Saigon, Thanh Hai’s hotel welcomes South Korean guests as usual. Hai says he feels safe because all of them wear masks. 

"People from South Korea are being watched closely and so I do not worry. However, if the epidemic in their country worsens, I will consider not taking them in." 

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