Saigon grief smoulders as Tet hopes go up in smoke

By Dinh Van, Ha An   February 9, 2021 | 05:39 am PT
Saigon grief smoulders as Tet hopes go up in smoke
A restaurant on the Bui Vien walking street in HCMC's District 1 closes down with all the Tet decorations amid a new coronavirus outbreak, February 9, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Dinh Van.
As non-essential businesses in HCMC closed Tuesday amid a new Covid-19 outbreak, hopes of extra income from the Tet festival have been dashed.

The signs say the businesses will remain open throughout the festival.

There are notices saying extra hands are needed at this time, a valuable chance to earn some extra money.

But the doors of restaurants, karaoke parlors and beer clubs are locked and the usually bustling Pham Van Dong Street seemed lifeless on Tuesday, just days away from Tet, the Lunar New Year festival, which peaks on February 12.

Nguyen Quoc Thang, 45, who manages a restaurant on Pham Van Dong Street in Thu Duc City, instructed his employees to put away the chairs and tables. Outside its gates, people were stashing away colorful Tet decorations. The restaurant has two branches, and only one was scheduled to remain open during Tet, he said. Now with the new Covid-19 prevention order, both have been shut down.

"Four days ago we were booked two birthday parties with over 30 people. But we have to cancel them based on the authorities’ request," he said, adding that he had hoped to make some decent cash to make up for the losses incurred last year because of Covid-19. That won’t happen.

In the past five days, Saigon, home to around 13 million people, has been shaken after a new outbreak of the pandemic was detected at the Tan Son Nhat Airport. With the number of infections rising rapidly to 31, authorities ordered the closure of all non-essential services, saying the risk of community transmissions was high.

They said Monday night that restaurants, bars, karaoke parlors, cinemas and discotheques would have to close starting Tuesday. Religious events with gatherings of more than 20 people, as also cultural, sports and entertainment events were also banned.

The closures have hit many businesses hard. They were looking to make up for a bad year with the added business that comes in during the Tet festival, when consumer spending rises sharply and delivers handsome profits.

Thang said the nationwide social distancing period last April had forced his restaurant to suspend operations. The salaries of over 50 employees were cut. Total losses incurred last year amounted to VND6 billion ($260,500), he added.

Around 20 restaurant employees, whose hometowns are either in the northern or central regions, had decided to stay back in Saigon this year in the hope of earning Tet bonuses to cover income losses due to Covid-19. With that possibility gone, they are dejected and down in the dumps.

"I had hoped to make some more cash this Tet so I could send it to my family, but now that cannot be done. Staying healthy and keeping Covid-19 out is more important," said Truong Cong Linh, 22, from the Mekong Delta's Tra Vinh Province, a security guard at the restaurant.

A similar gloom is reflected in downtown Saigon. Iconic locations like the Bui Vien pedestrian street in District 1 saw the depressing sight of beer pubs and restaurants downing shutters at noon, Tuesday.

As Tet decorations were being put away, some shop owners worked on making some renovations, installing extra LED lights that would not attract any customer, for now.

Van Minh Thuy, who owns a restaurant on Bui Vien Street, rolled down the establishment’s door Tuesday after putting away chairs and tables to a corner. In the past nine years of running the business, it was the first time she was having to close down during Tet.

"Last year, a lot of customers flocked to my place a week before Tet and even later. Our earnings doubled or even tripled over normal days. But this year, there're just losses," she said.

Thuy spoke for thousands of businesses and their employees in the city when she said she hoped the outbreak would be controlled and business can return to normal sooner than later.

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