Marooned at sea, Vietnamese sailors suffer from homesickness

By Doan Loan   March 16, 2021 | 05:30 am PT
Marooned at sea, Vietnamese sailors suffer from homesickness
Sailors doing maintenance work on the Bien Dong Victory ship, which is stuck in the Middle East due to Covid-19 travel restrictions. Photo courtesy of Tran Cong Hung.
For more than a year and a half, Tran Cong Hung and his crewmates on Bien Dong Victory have been stuck in the Middle East.

"I have two kids. When I began this trip to the Middle-East, my wife was carrying our third child. The baby’s nearly a year old and I haven’t been able to hold my child even once," Hung said.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, sea trips typically lasted 9-10 months, after which he could fly home to Vietnam. But now, he and thousands of crew members are stuck on ships, only receiving food and water through an intermediary. Many haven’t stepped on land for over a year.

Le Dinh Toai, another crew member, said he has been working continuously for over 12 months. The crew’s daily job is to maintain the ship while waiting for flights to Vietnam, which have become scarce due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

"Recently the ship has been equipped with Wi-Fi, allowing us to contact with our loved ones regularly. Before, we were only able to talk with our family once every few months," he said.

There are 17 Vietnamese and eight Malaysians on the Bien Dong Victory, which belongs to the Bien Dong Shipping Company under the Vietnam Maritime Corporation. Among the Vietnamese, eight have worked on the ship for over 12 months, some even up to 20 months without returning home, said Le Hai Quan, a company representative.

"Some have been away from home for so long, their health has suffered and they have showed signs of stress," he added.

Besides those on the Bien Dong Victory, the Biendong Shipping Company also has 25 other crew members on another ship in the Philippines who have worked for nearly a year and haven't been able to return home.

According to the Vietnam Maritime Corporation, there are 152 crew members working on ships in different countries who have worked for at least 12 months without returning home. Bui Viet Hoai, the corporation’s deputy director, said that in accordance with regulations by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), crew members are not allowed to extend their working period if they have already worked on ships for over a year.

But these people have been allowed extensions because of the pandemic, though most want to return to Vietnam once their working periods end.

Last year, some ships carrying goods from Japan and South Korea through Vietnamese waters were allowed to dock just to replace crew members, but not many ships have had that opportunity.

Replacing crew members on ships in faraway waters would depend entirely on the availability flights to Vietnam. But current Covid-19 travel guides don’t consider ship crew members among prioritized groups for repatriation. Moreover, ships moving between multiple ports would find it difficult to reach cities where repatriation flights to Vietnam are available.

Another problem is that the passports of several seamen are about to expire and cannot be renewed at a local embassy. As such, the Vietnam Maritime Corporation has proposed that the government allows crew members to extend their passports online instead.

Hoang Hong Giang, deputy head of the Vietnam Maritime Administration, said around 6,000 Vietnamese are working as ship crew members abroad. By the end of 2020, around 2,000 had already worked past their supposed working period of 12 months, and many, if not most, are still stuck abroad, unable to return to Vietnam.

He said: "We have proposed that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs approve priority tracks for crew members to return home on repatriation flights, and requested the Ministry of Health to put them among prioritized groups for Covid-19 vaccination."

go to top