HCMC restaurant, cafe owners evoke mixed feelings as on-site dining allowed

By Nguyen Quy   October 27, 2021 | 11:30 pm PT
HCMC restaurant, cafe owners evoke mixed feelings as on-site dining allowed
A man drives past a restaurant with tables placed outside on Bui Vien Street in HCMC's District 1, Oct. 28, 2021. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Phong 
Owners of restaurants and coffee shops in HCMC’s tourist areas and expat hub were glad to serve customers on the spot again amid Covid fears.

Le Thanh Trung, owner of a coffee shop on Bui Vien Street, Saigon’s iconic backpacker street, and his staff woke up at 5 a.m. to arrange tables and chairs to welcome customers on the first day Ho Chi Minh City allowed dining establishments to resume on-site services after over five months of suspension.

"I've been waiting for this day for a long time. Though my shop had reopened from last month, offering only takeaway service with less customers," he said.

"My shop now has only three people including me, and everyone has been fully vaccinated. Though rent on this street is quite high, I still struggle to keep my business going."

Before the pandemic, his shop served over 20 customers at a time, but now only five to seven to ensure social distancing measures.

The tourist precinct, made up of Bui Vien, Pham Ngu Lao, De Tham and Do Quang Dau streets in District 1’s Pham Ngu Lao Ward, used to be one of the city’s busiest hotspots filled with foreigners day and night.

Tran Nguyen Ngoc Thy, owner of a small shop selling com tam (broken rice with grilled pork, pig skin, egg and fish sauce) on Pham Ngu Lao, said when city authorities eased Covid restrictions for some business activities in early October, she had waited patiently day after day to receive an official announcement of on-site dining resumption.

"Five months of strict social distancing measures, I had no revenues but still paid my rents and other bills. Though the rents is quite high, I still tried to keep my business going," she said.

"With social distancing measures still in place, the number of customers will not be as many as before the pandemic but anyway, it’s also a positive sign for food business owners like me," she added.

Nguyen Minh Kha, owner of a restaurant serving pho bo (beef noodle soup) on Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street in District 1 near iconic tourist attractions like the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Central Post Office, said he breathed a sigh of relief as HCMC allowed the resumption of on-site dining.

Kha said he only arranged six tables with each two meters apart, and all customers required to submit health declarations via QR code and show vaccine green passes.

"Only a few customers visit the shop in the morning and we still don't expect much in the first week of resuming on-site dining as many still fear they may contract the virus," Kha added.

Italian Manuel Reale, head chef and co-owner of the Pizza Reale restaurant in HCMC’s District 2, and his staff started arranging tables and chairs from the early morning to prepare for returning customers from Thursday night.

"I’m excited because I can welcome again my customers after over five months and we would ensure social distancing measures as required by the government while all of my staff have been fully vaccinated," Manuel said.

Reale said his restaurant would only serve customers with a ‘green pass’, a mobile app signal that records the users' vaccination status.

"I’m a little bit lucky because most of expat community here knows me and my small Italian restaurant and I have a lot of Vietnamese start to come to me as well," he said.


Despite excitement after the on-site dining ban was lifted, some business owners also worried about the risk of Covid infection from serving customers on the spot.

Thy said though the city lifted most Covid restrictions to adapt to the new normal, hundreds of infections are still recorded every day, making her a little worried.

"Despite the high vaccination rate in the city, fully vaccinated residents may still contract Covid and it would be inevitable to face risks," Thy said.

"If I fail to reopen my business, I will no longer have money to pay my rent and cover daily expenses but I still fear contracting the virus while serving customers and then spreading it to family members," Trung said.

Reale said though he feared his customers would be infected with Covid and visit his restaurant, he said people need to live with the virus to adapt to the new normal.

Despite lifting the ban on on-site dining, the city ordered restaurants and coffee shops to close by 9 p.m. daily and serve half their normal capacity.

HCMC has recorded over 426,000 infections in the fourth wave since late April. Its high vaccination rate and a strategic shift from a zero-virus strategy to living with the pandemic has enabled the city to lift most restrictions and resume many social-economic activities since Oct. 1.

Thousands of food and beverage facilities in the city have been hit hard by the prolonged closures and restrictions. The revenue of food and beverage establishments in the first eight months fell 20 percent year-on-year to VND32.07 trillion ($1.41 billion) because of social distancing.

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