Province at center of coronavirus epidemic hit hard as people keep away

By Hoang Phuong, Thanh Lam   February 23, 2020 | 07:11 pm PT
Vinh Phuc, Vietnam’s worst hit locality by the novel coronavirus epidemic so far, feels the full brunt as people leave and businesses close down.

On February 18 Lu received a call from a customer saying they wanted to cancel a wedding feast with hundreds of tables she was to have prepared, citing an "unexpected emergency." Lu told them to call her whenever they want to book again, though she knew that day would not come anytime soon.

Lu, who lives in Binh Xuyen District in Vinh Phuc Province, a hotspot of the ongoing Covid-19 epidemic with 11 of the nation’s 16 diagnosed cases, has become used to cancelations. That call was the second that week alone.

She has not bothered to count how many times customers have canceled bookings since the epidemic broke out at the end of January.

"If I tell them I’m from Binh Xuyen, it is hard to do business," she said.

For Lu and her family, the first few months after the Lunar New Year are the main time of the year for business. Lu cooks the feast, her sister buys ingredients and a niece does make-up for the bride and rents dresses.

The only problem is that they live in Binh Xuyen District’s Ba Hien Commune, not far from another commune called Son Loi in the same district.

Son Loi was locked down for 14 days from February 13 after six Covid-19 cases were confirmed. Though Binh Xuyen, with nine cases in all, has not officially been identified as an outbreak area, Son Loi’s lockdown has meant people are steering clear of the entire district.

Even locals have become wary. The most recent wedding Lu organized had 170 tables but only 90 filled up. It was unusual considering how weddings in the area are often crowded, she said.

Another wedding in Ba Hien had only 70 tables out of 140 occupied, she said.

"People don’t even go to markets to buy food any more."

Abandoned markets

Duong Thi Minh, Lu’s niece, sells seafood at the Ba Hien Commune market. She had expected more people to come to buy after the Lunar New Year Festival since workers at a local industrial complex usually stock up on food for weekends. But that was ruined by the epidemic.

Nowadays Minh only goes out to get new products when a customer wants to buy them. In the past she could sell around 20 kg of seafood in half a day, but now not more two or three kilograms in a whole day. Even suppliers are hesitant to come into Binh Xuyen markets these days.

Minh friend’s, a trader in Tam Long Commune, nine kilometers from Ba Hien, stopped doing business two weeks ago.

When news broke that someone at the Tam Long market came down with the flu, almost no one came there the next day, Minh said. People resorted to stocking on food instead of going to markets. Word would spread if someone in the community so much as sneezed or coughed. That was how paranoid things are, she said.

Many traders in the province have stopped doing business out of fear and a lack of customers, she added.

Tourism affected

Trong Dat, a bartender at a 15-room hotel in Tam Dao District, about 30 km from Binh Xuyen, was the only one in the hotel on February 19. For 20 days the hotel had put up signs saying it still had rooms, but no one showed up.

"Usually I would be busy making hot chocolate for customers at this time," Dat, 32, said.

A street of Tam Dao Town, Vinh Phuc Province is devoid of people. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A deserted street in Tam Dao Town, Vinh Phuc Province, February 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Until recently Tam Dao, a popular tourism destination, was bursting at the seams with visitors from everywhere. People were used to the cacophony of vehicles in the morning. Hotel owners often had to turn away customers. Dat’s hotel was fully booked for three months from January 26, the second day of the Lunar New Year holidays. The town was sleepless back then.

The morning of February 1, when Vietnam designated Covid-19 an epidemic, Dat and his colleagues were still serving customers when they heard of some cases of infection in Binh Xuyen. It was to spark a mass exodus from Tam Dao, but Dat did not know that yet.

The first call he received the next day was for a cancellation. "I’ll come when the epidemic’s over," the customer said.

Many more similar calls came that morning and on subsequent mornings. Over 100 hotels, hostels and other places of accommodation in Tam Dao suffered the same fate in what was peak tourism season.

The numbers are stark: Tam Dao received around 26,000 visitors in February last year, while the number this month is 1,500. With tourism accounting for 93 percent of Tam Dao’s revenues according to last year’s data, it is a heavy blow.

Three days after the epidemic announcement, Dat’s hotel had to let four employees take temporary leave. The hotel owner even told him to turn off half the lights to save electricity. Dat managed to rent out only two rooms until February 19 and that too by offering a 50 percent discount. He hopes that would be enough to cover the electricity bill for the month.

Similarly, restaurants and cafes in Tam Dao are also feeling the pinch. Dozens of them have had to close down, and their owners, who used to be busy at night counting the money they had earned during the day, now hang out with each other for company.

A square of Tam Dao Town, usually packed with people, is now almost empty. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

A square in Tam Dao Town, usually packed with people, is now empty, February 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Thanh.

Silver lining

Two food stalls in town have however refused to throw in the towel. Thanh and Luong, a married couple, opened one of them in 2015. With the rent for their place increasing every year -- it is VND500 million ($21,535) a year now -- they have no choice but to try and grab what little business they can.

Luong has told her husband to keep the lights on partly to attract customers but also because she misses the way Tam Dao used to glow at night. She misses the sound of embers crackling in her three stoves the whole day, how their 12 tables would always be filled with customers, chatting and enjoying their food, and how their workers would dash back and forth to take orders, clean tables and collect cash.

"It’s supposed to be the peak season for business, but this disease just came out of nowhere," she said. Her place only has two customers, who have ordered half a roasted chicken and some drinks. Four more came half an hour later when they ran out of options to eat in town. The stall only manages to earn a tenth of its usual daily income.

But remarkably, despite their loss of livelihood, most business owners in Vinh Phuc show no bitterness.

"There’s an epidemic and so it’s understandable if people panic," Minh, the makeup artist and seafood seller, said.

"It is okay if people want to stay away for a while. When the epidemic’s over, we would have all the time in the world to run our business and have fun."

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