Vietnam-Laos border a potential Covid-19 spreader

By Duc Hung, Hoang Tao   May 13, 2021 | 09:00 am GMT+7
Vietnamese citizens have been adopting all manners of ruses to sneak back home from Laos to avoid being quarantined – heightening considerably the risks of spreading the virus.

The Vietnam-Laos border runs 2,161 kilometers (1,342 miles) across 10 provinces in the north and central parts of the country. Both countries have applied border restrictions to contain the pandemic. Vietnam requires every person coming from abroad to be quarantined for 21 days and have all their personal information registered with the authorities. However, many Vietnamese have chosen to return home illegally.

Captain Do Manh Hung, a senior border guard at the Cau Treo International Border Gate in the central province of Ha Tinh, said illegal entrants normally take advantage of unmanned trails or their relationships with drivers to hide inside cargo trucks, passenger buses and trailers to get back into Vietnam undetected.

For using unmanned trails, the Vietnamese citizens reach out to local Lao brethren living near the border areas for help. After agreeing on payments, the locals will take the Vietnamese on treks through forests, avoiding all the checkpoints until they reach Vietnam. Once they set foot inside Vietnam, the illegal entrants would figure out on their own the way to national highways or provincial roads to continue their trip back home.

From 2020 until now, Ha Tinh border guards have busted dozens of such cases.

Border guards in central Ha Tinh Province patrols along the Vietnam-Laos border in 2020. Photo by vnExpress/Gia Han

Border guards in central Ha Tinh Province patrol along the Vietnam-Laos border in 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Gia Han.

In February, two men residing in the central province of Nghe An, which borders Ha Tinh, were arrested when entering the country illegally from Laos.

The duo said they had spent 2 million Lao kip ($212) to hire a Lao native to trek nearly 5 km (three miles) through a forest to enter Vietnam so that they could skip the quarantine process and reunite with their families in time for the Lunar New Year festival, the most important holiday for Vietnamese people.

Captain Hung said detecting and handling illegal entrants who cross the border by trekking through forests was "very difficult" because locals that are hired "know the terrain by heart and it is way too easy for them to get the Vietnamese people to the border."

Border forces in Ha Tinh and other provinces along the Lao border have strengthened forces deployed to guard possible entry points round the clock.

Smuggled in

Those choosing to re-enter Vietnam in vehicles crossing the border legally strike a deal with drivers or even ask for a free ride in some cases. The drivers arrange for the illegal entrants to hide in modified spaces under the vehicles' floors, modified cabins, or goods containers.

Every day, hundreds of trucks, container trucks, and passenger buses move between Laos and Vietnam, creating favorable conditions for the illegal entrants, said Lieutenant Colonel Hoang Huu Thien, head of the Lao Bao Border Guard post in Quang Tri Province’s Huong Hoa District.

Most recently, police in the northern province of Hai Duong have begun investigating a 32-year-old man who sneaked into Vietnam late April by hiding himself in a container truck.

After entering Vietnam, he traveled across five localities undetected until he developed Covid-19 symptoms and visited a clinic for a health check early May. He was confirmed a Covid-19 patient on May 6 and so far has transmitted the virus to at least two more people.

This man had sneaked into Laos to work in March; but with the Covid-19 situation in the neighboring country becoming more complicated, he decided to return to Vietnam.

An investigator interrogates the man who is now tagged Patient 3051 in Vietnam. Photo by Hai Duong Police Department

An investigator interrogates a man who has sneaked back from Laos to Vietnam and is now tagged "Patient 3051" (R) in Vietnam. Photo by Hai Duong Police Department.

In July last year, border guards at the Cau Treo gate found three men aged 31-33 hiding in a passenger bus. Two of them were in a "basement" just three meters wide and a meter high under the seat of the driver; and one hid under a blanket at the back of the bus. All three said they knew the drivers and had been given a free ride back to Vietnam.

Last November, border guards at the Cha Lo International Border Gate in Quang Binh Province’s Minh Hoa District had found the 38-year-old wife of a driver hiding in a fridge placed just behind his seat.

In addition to these tricks, illegal entrants have also taken advantage of a Covid-19 prevention protocol to switch drivers applied by many companies in Vietnam.

Under this protocol, after the vehicles reach the border gate, they will move to a specific area for a driver-switching procedure wherein the first driver stays back in Laos and the second driver will take care of the journey on the Vietnamese side.

During the switching procedure, illegal entrants climb on to the roof of the vehicle or hide in some area in the vehicle and wait until the vehicles cross the border to officially enter Vietnam.

A woman was found hiding herself on a passenger bus from Laos to Vietnam in 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Tri

A woman was found hiding herself on a passenger bus from Laos to Vietnam in 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Duc Tri.

To handle all these tricks, several localities have had to come up with more stringent controls, including spraying disinfectant all over the vehicles once they cross the border and have border guards inspect the vehicle twice.

Laos has been facing a new wave of Covid-19 since last month.

The first confirmed Covid-19 death in the country is a 52-year-old Vietnamese woman who worked at a karaoke parlor in Vientiane. The country has been placed under lockdown until May 20 amidst the new outbreak.

Meanwhile, Vietnam is experiencing its toughest Covid-19 wave yet, which has seen 644 community transmission cases in 26 cities and provinces since April 27.

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