Financial ruin, pandemic ordeal spark reverse migration to countryside

By Vo Thanh   October 8, 2021 | 10:30 pm PT
As Covid-19 restrictions ease, migrant workers in southern industrial hubs are braving motorbike rides of thousands of kilometers to return home rather than stay back.

As the clock struck noon on Tuesday, Tran Van Duc, 26, stopped in the central town of Hue after driving more than 1,000 km (over 620 miles) from Binh Duong Province, an industrial hub in the deep south bordering Ho Chi Minh City.

He was on his way home to the north-central province of Nghe An with his wife and two-year-old daughter and the family’s belongings.

A family returns home in northern Vietnam from the south by motorbike, October 10, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

A family returns home in northern Vietnam from the south by motorbike, October 7, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

The couple had come to Ben Cat Town to work at a footwear factory a year ago.

Together they had been earning VND14 million ($616) a month, and even before the fourth wave of Covid-19 had begun they were living frugally so that after paying rent and other expenses like babysitting they could save something.

Then came the resurgence in late April, which quickly turned into the most challenging outbreak Vietnam had faced.

For the last four months the couple have been unemployed since their company had to temporarily close down.

With stringent social distancing rules imposed in Binh Duong, the second worst hit locality after HCMC, they were stuck in their 10-square-meter rented room.

Even as they gradually ran out of money they became increasingly anxious as the infection and death counts kept rising in Binh Duong. So far the province of 2.5 million has had almost 220,500 cases and more than 2,000 deaths.

"Stuck in the rented room and hearing the sound of the ambulance taking patients to hospital every day, we were very worried," Duc says.

"We have no family there and we really didn't know what we would do if we got the disease and run out of money."

On Sept. 15, Ben Cat started easing restrictions as the outbreak was basically under control, and several businesses resumed operations, but instead of staying and waiting for their footwear factory to reopen, Duc and his wife decided to return home.

A trip of 1,500 km on a motorbike was a daunting prospect and one could not predict what kind of trouble they might face, but Duc says if they returned home they would no longer have to worry about rent and expenses on food since he has some farmland at home.

Though he and his wife would not earn as much as they did at the footwear factory, their hometown meant a safe shelter, he explains.

For now, only when the pandemic situation is controlled nationwide would they consider returning to Binh Duong to work, the couple say.

Migrant workers stop near the border of Thua Thien Hue and Da Nang in central Vietnam on their journey back home by motorbikes, October 7, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

Migrant workers stop near the border of Thua Thien Hue and Da Nang in central Vietnam on their journey back home by motorbikes, October 7, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

For the same reasons -- running out of money and fear the outbreak could return soon -- Tran Van Dung, 36, drove with his wife and two kids, aged eight and five, all the way from Dong Nai, another industrial province bordering HCMC, to their hometown in the central Quang Binh Province.

Dung has been working as a motorbike-taxi driver in Dong Nai for almost a decade while his wife was employed at a garment factory. The couple earned just enough to provide for the family of four.

Four months ago when the outbreak had just emerged in Dong Nai, the couple did think about returning to their hometown but soon set the thought aside, fearing it might upend their children's lives and education.

But the infection spread rapidly in Dong Nai, and soon it was the third worst affected place in the country. This pushed the couple into the same situation as many other migrant workers: no job and cooped up in a tiny rented apartment.

On Sept. 20 Dong Nai eased social distancing in 103 out of 170 wards and communes and Dung decided to take his family home.

"This strain [Delta] is highly contagious, and every day Dong Nai still reports 500-600 new cases," he says.

"Now that the province has decided to reopen, the risk of another outbreak remains high and it is even higher for me particularly as I work as a driver and come into contact with many people."

Duc and Dung are among tens of thousands of people who have driven motorbikes back to their hometowns in the Mekong Delta and the northern and central regions after southern provinces relaxed Covid restrictions.

In the past week a checkpoint on the Ho Chi Minh Highway in central Quang Nam Province recorded more than 10,000 people passing by on their way back home by motorbike.

According to the Ministry of Public Security, there are 3.5 million migrants working in HCMC and its neighboring provinces of Binh Duong, Dong Nai and Long An, and 2.1 million of them want to return to their hometowns.

But because road, rail or air transport services have yet to resume, they have no option but to travel by motorbike.

Many even trekked on foot.

Pham Quoc, 42, a member of the executive committee of the Thua Thien Hue Province Fellow Countrymen Association in HCMC, said after what migrant workers had been through in recent months without incomes and with strict social distancing, and the psychological effects of the outbreak, it is understandable they want to return to their hometowns.

In most cases, they fear another outbreak and having to go through these hardships all over again, he said.

In many cases, landlords do not allow people staying in their boarding houses to return to work at factories that are reopening, fearing they could bring back the virus from their workplace.

Dang Huu Phuc, director of the Thua Thien Hue Department of Labor, Invalids and Social Affairs, said migrant workers have been unemployed for months and are now unable to afford even basic living expenses.

"Authorities do support them, but it is not enough for them to maintain a minimum [quality of] life. If they return home, they still have parents and relatives who can help them get through this difficult period."

Migrant workers on their way back home in central Thua Thien Hue Province, October 4, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Vo Thanh

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