Vietnam keen for return to normal, albeit ‘new’

By Long Nguyen   April 23, 2020 | 10:29 pm PT
With the easing of social distancing requirements, Vietnamese are keen to return to normalcy though without dropping their guard.

Nguyen Tuan Anh woke up earlier than usual on Thursday morning to hit the streets at 6 a.m., something he could not do for the last one month.

The 29-year-old left his house in Hanoi’s Long Bien District for a traditional pho restaurant on the downtown Hang Bong Street to eat breakfast.

In the morning not drizzle amid the last vestiges of winter more than 10 people were having their first breakfast after the nationwide social distancing campaign was relaxed. 

Some wore masks and pulled them down when their hot bowls of noodles were served.

Being told to wait outside for his turn since the eatery had to comply with social distancing rules, the excited Anh knew life would be on a slow path back to normalcy. 

As soon as the three-week social distancing campaign was ended at midnight on Wednesday many shops and businesses in Hanoi and HCMC reopened.

Tay Son Street slowly regains its former hustle and bustle on April 23, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Dinh.

Tay Son Street slowly regains its former hustle and bustle on April 23, 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Dinh.

In a restaurant on Saigon’s Le Dai Hanh Street, Phan Thuy Trang woke up early to clean the place and prepare ingredients along with her employees, who had arrived from the southern province of Tien Giang just the day before.

"I learned about the semi-lockdown relaxation last night, and I do not want to miss any customers after three weeks of closure," she said.

On Cach Mang Thang Tam Street, a host of fashion shops, restaurants, electronics shops, and others opened promptly on Thursday morning.

"Three weeks is a long time, and now all I need is normality," Le Cuong, owner of a motorbike repair shop, said, adding he earned VND1.7 million ($72.3) in the morning alone.

For many people in the two metros, venturing out was one of the first things to do after the social distancing period came to an end.

Truong Sa Street in Saigon’s District 3 bustled with walkers and joggers, some accompanied by pets. 

In Hanoi, the cold weather could not prevent mask-wearing people from going out to get a glimpse of the city after three weeks or meet up with friends.

"I cannot wait to go out and have some outdoor exercises," La Thi Bac, 62, said. "Staying at home for too long makes me bored and tired." 

She hung out with friends at their building in Hanoi’s Long Bien District on Thursday afternoon while her son and his wife went to a nearby pagoda.

Many young people posted pictures of themselves at a restaurant or coffee shop.

"Long live normal life; finally I can have my favorite food," an Instagramer said with a picture of a pasta dish at a popular pizza restaurant on Saigon’s Hai Ba Trung Street. 

Traffic in both sprawling cities has begun to return to normal and more people can be seen out on the streets. In Hanoi, buses and taxis are allowed to ply though in Saigon bus services have not resumed yet.

Many companies have ended their work-at-home and welcomed employees back. Office workers marked their first day back at work with photos and snacks parties on Thursday.

For most people, going out and seeing others has been great since being locked up indoors was stressful especially in a country where there are a lot of communal activities with family, friends and colleagues.

Nguyen Duc Manh, a white-collar worker in HCMC’s District 1, said his children had been complaining about being at home every day since they could not go out to play football or hang out with relatives.

"My family and my brother’s plan to have dinner together on Friday. The kids are very happy to go out and so are we." 

The excitement is also evident in many business owners, who had to close at the end of March.

According to HCMC Deputy Chairman Le Thanh Liem, 1,523 businesses in the southern metropolis had shut down in the first quarter, another 5,088 suspended operations.

Owner of a pub on Saigonss Bui Vien Street cleans the sidewalk in front, preparing to open as the semi-lockdownn is lifted. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyet Nhi.

Owner of a pub on Saigon's Bui Vien Street cleans the sidewalk in front, preparing to open as the semi-lockdownn is lifted. Photo by VnExpress/Nguyet Nhi.

Nguyen Thanh Vu, owner of a barbershop on Saigon’s Lac Long Quan Street, said: "We have been losing money, my employees have no salary, the landlord still asks for rent. Resuming the business is a blessing, it gives us hope."

Some positive news related to Covid-19 also gives people reason to feel better, especially with the easing of the semi-lockdown. Vietnam has gone eight days without a new Covid-19 case, and its tally remains at 268, including 43 active cases.

"We are all optimistic and thrilled to resume normal life after being affected by the pandemic and the social distancing campaign," Anh said while eating his favorite pho.

But he knows life will not be as normal as it used to be.

Long way to go

People remain on guard since the Covid-19 threat is here to stay.

Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc said people still need to be alert and aware they are living with the pandemic.

For many people, day-to-day life remains stilted.

Many non-essential businesses like karaoke and massage parlors, bars and cinemas have not been allowed to reopen yet. Gatherings of 10 or more people are still prohibited outside workplaces, schools and hospitals. Masks are still mandatory in public.

A senior like Bac knows the risk of infection has not entirely vanished, and "going to crowded place is still taboo."

"My kids said two districts in Hanoi are still ‘high risk’, the virus is here to stay and I am not at ease," she said after considering going to the pagoda with her children since it was the first day of a new lunar month.

On Friday morning dozens of mask-wearing people tried to keep a safe distance from each other while waiting for their coffee at a Starbucks store on Saigon’s Cach Mang Thang Tam Street. 

The coffee chain has said it would limit the number of seats to create "a comfortable environment" for patrons.

Several buildings in both cities still require people to have their temperature checked before entering. Bottles of hand sanitizer are available at many public places.

Since Thursday buses and cars are on Hanoi’s streets, though with few passengers.

"I am far from a full recovery," Nguyen Thanh Tung, a Grab taxi driver in Hanoi, said. He had only three customers on Thursday morning.

People know normalcy as they knew it is a long way off and living with the pandemic is the only choice they have at the moment.

Manh said: "Reading the news about Covid-19 is like checking the weather every day. Let us get used to it and never drop our guard." 

He checks the news at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day to see if there is any new case.

On Thursday, after returning to office, he had to turn down an invitation to go drinking with colleagues.

The government has warned that since many parts of the world still suffer from the pandemic, the risk is not over and "adapting to Covid-19 is normal and pandemic control is necessary."

"Covid-19 has changed our lives and normality will never again be the same," Anh said, sanitizing his hands and pulling down his mask to eat his first bowl of pho in the new normal. 

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