German stuck in Myanmar homesick for Saigon as pandemic endures

By Viet Anh, Phan Anh   August 22, 2020 | 06:10 am PT
German stuck in Myanmar homesick for Saigon as pandemic endures
Stefan Hell (middle) poses with his two daughters in Hoi An, central Vietnam, 2019. Photo by Stefan Hell.
Covid-19 travel restrictions have detained Stefan Hell in Myanmar since March and he longs to return to his Vietnamese family in Saigon.

Hell said goodbye to his Vietnamese wife and their two daughters in Saigon to fly to Myanmar on a business trip in mid-March. It was a regular trip that was part of his job and he expected to be back home in around two weeks.

A week later, the night before March 22, he got the news that Vietnam has suspended immigration for all foreigners effective the day after. He knew it would be quite a while before he could return to his family.

"Okay, maybe it will take one month and then we can go back and things will be back to normal. So I just have to postpone my flight and then it will go back to normal," Hell thought.

Five months have passed since, but the day Stefan can reunite with his loved ones in Saigon does not loom large on the horizon.

"Being separated from my family, especially my children, is the worst punishment in life," he said.

The 52-year-old German is one of many foreigners who have been locked out of Vietnam by travel restrictions related to the Covid-19 pandemic. He has declined opportunities to fly back to Germany on special flights, because it would only take him further away from his family in Vietnam.

"Myanmar is not far away from Vietnam. Maybe a two-hour flight, or a bit more than two hours. So sometimes I dream. I just get on a plane. Two hours. It's so close, but so far away."

Life's fragile

Hell first came to Vietnam in 2001. He and his family moved to different countries before settling in Ho Chi Minh City two years ago. His daughters, aged 14 and 12, are attending schools in the city.

As a development assistance consultant for a European Union (EU) project in Myanmar’s Naypyidaw, Hell is very used to flying abroad for work. He continued to work online after he learnt of the immigration ban on foreigners, renting a hotel to stay in until he could return.

"Being separated is terrible. It is a very strange situation now with Covid-19. It has made me realize how fragile our life is.

"Everything has changed. Suddenly, I am an outsider."

After the first few days of being stuck in Myanmar, he had to readjust himself to the unsettling silence of his hotel room, something very different from what he was used to back home.

"What I miss the most is our everyday routine as city dwellers in HCMC: dropping the kids off at school, stopping at our usual sidewalk cafe for a ca phe sua da (coffee with milk and ice) and grabbing a bread at the lo banh mi (bread bakery) for breakfast or some banh cuon (steamed rice rolls) next door. My life in Vietnam is both bustling and calm at the same time, quite unique," he said.

These days, the most anticipated time of the day for Hell is late afternoon, when he can FaceTime his wife and children. The girls keep telling him about how they have got to study at home instead of in the classroom, ask him to help with their homework, and so on. As happy as he is to be in touch with his family, the happiness is tinged with the sadness of not being able to kiss his girls goodnight.

"Honestly, I think my children and my wife are helping me more because I am the one who is alone."

His wife, Luong, has been constantly trying to find a way to help her husband return. They both have talked to the Vietnamese Embassy in Myanmar many times, but have not had much luck so far.

"Maybe some weeks (of being stuck) is fine, but then it became more serious. And I think around May-June, I felt quite hopeless. Oh, it will never change, never end, I thought. I will be stuck outside forever."

A small glimmer of hope came when Vietnam said in June it was mulling the possibility of reopening international flights to certain countries. He hoped that Myanmar, being fairly safe from the novel coronavirus thanks to its preventative measures, would be included in that list, and also hoped that Myanmar would reopen its own flights to revive its tourism sector.

"And now there's the situation in Da Nang and it's hopeless again."

Vietnam had gone over three months without local transmission of the virus until July 25, when one case was recorded in the central city of Da Nang. The new case triggered an outbreak that has since spread to 15 different localities.

Hell understood then that he might not be going home any time soon.

Isolation projects

Stefan Hell poses in his office. Photo by Stefan Hell.

Stefan Hell poses in his office in Myanmar. Photo courtesy of Stefan Hell.

While he pines for Saigon and his family there, Hell isn't sitting idle. He has begun writing and engaging in several sports during his free time. And a particularly positive development of his isolation in Myanmar is that he has learned to cook more Vietnamese dishes.

"I have a small kitchen in my room. I actually prepare Vietnamese dishes like rau muong xao toi (morning glory stir-fried with garlic), bun bo (beef rice vermicelli soup), bo la lot (grilled beef in lolot leaf), nuoc cham (dipping sauce) and mam tom (fermented shrimp sauce). They have all the ingredients here," he said, adding that he can help his wife more in the kitchen when he is back.

And even as he is sad about being separated from his family, he is also assured that his wife and children are safe in Vietnam. Despite the new wave of Covid-19 infections, Vietnam has been lauded as one of the best countries in the world in handling the pandemic.

"I am very impressed with the situation in Vietnam," Hell said, adding that even with the ongoing outbreak, the disease's impacts in Hanoi and Saigon are still "not so strong," and that people can still live a normal life.

He said he also fully understands that the Vietnamese government would prioritize its own citizens first before considering bringing back foreigners to Vietnam on special flights, given factors like the capacity of quarantine zones. Foreigners "should not be a burden on the system," he said.

Hell said he also supports paying to be tested and quarantined, and that Vietnam could include foreigner spouses of Vietnamese to the list of people eligible for repatriation. If quarantine zones are full, foreigners can pay to be quarantined in other facilities like hotels or resorts, he added.

"When I first arrived in Vietnam in the early 2000s, it was very interesting for me because I learned a lot. I learned about the culture, the people, the language, the food, everything. And it made a very strong impression on me. The presence of a foreigner in my family doesn't make us less Vietnamese," he said, adding that he wants his children to learn about Vietnamese culture and traditions. "I don't want them to be the 'foreign' foreigners in Vietnam. They have to understand their culture."

For a while now, Hell himself has not felt that he's a foreigner in Vietnam. He can communicate with his wife and kids in Vietnamese, enjoy all the delicacies that Vietnamese cuisine has to offer, and love how Vietnamese call each other with so many pronouns. His family plans to stay in Vietnam long-term, he said.

"Being con (child) for my parents-in-law and bac (uncle) for my nieces and nephews is special."

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