Then and now: the difference a pandemic year makes

By Quynh Tran   February 7, 2021 | 01:00 am PT
Just days before the Lunar New Year, Vietnam’s biggest airport presents a scene that contrasts starkly from the usual bustle of welcoming crowds.

With Tet, or the Lunar New Year holiday, barely a week away, HCMC’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport is strangely silent and empty. It is no longer crowded with families and relatives from southern provinces coming to pick up overseas Vietnamese returning home.

The pandemic has prevented many overseas Vietnamese from returning home for Tet because of suspension of international flights plus the quarantine protocol of 14-21 days on entering the country.

The seats outside the arrival gates are empty. Last year, not only was every seat full, there were thousands standing or sitting on the floor.

Some of the benches have been removed to create more space for social distancing.

Just last year, people had to make their way through the crowds that flooded the area. This year, the crowds are absent.

For years, the week before Tet, the biggest holiday and most important occasion for family reunions in Vietnam, the international terminal would be jammed with local residents day and night. Some would even spend the night sleeping on benches and the floor while waiting for loved ones to arrive the next day.

Every nook and corner that allows people to seat would be occupied, typically. This year, no one is looking for a place to rest their legs.

A flight information board has been switched off this year. Last year, a succession of people would crowd around it for information. Since March last year, Vietnam has only allowed cargo flights and others bringing Vietnamese citizens back home for special reasons.

Layers of people would be pressed against the railing, straining for the first glimpse of their loved ones after a plane had landed. This year, the path along the arrival gate is all but deserted.

The second floor of the international terminal was crowded with people looking down through the glass wall. The space is deserted this year.

Each conveyor belt in the baggage claim area usually has hundreds standing around as they wait to pick up their checked in luggage.

Last year, the number of passengers arriving at the Tan Son Nhat from abroad dropped by more than 75 percent year-on-year to just 1.3 million, while flights fell to 19,000, compared to more than 51,000 in 2019.

Vietnam is grappling with a fresh wave of community transmissions since January 28, after a consecutive streak of 55 clean days. Of the 1,985 Covid-19 cases that country has recorded so far, 517 are active, by Sunday morning.

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