Emotional reunions for couples after borders reopen

By Phan Duong   February 12, 2022 | 06:09 pm PT
The taxi stopped in front of a house in District 7. Alan Nguyen rushed out and hugged the woman he hadn’t seen for two years and three months.

"Nothing can separate us anymore," he told his wife, Thanh Tu, from whom he’d parted just two days after their wedding.

Their reunion took place a week ago.

The couple had known each other since 2016, when Tu worked for an advertising agency in Saigon and Alan was a cybersecurity expert from Pennsylvania, the U.S. They got married in November 2019.

But because of some family issues, the groom had to return to America just two days after the wedding. And because of immigration paperwork problems, Tu could not follow her husband.

In 2020, the couple had no other option but to accept living apart from each other when international borders were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Thanh Tu and Alan Nguyen on their wedding day in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Tu

Thanh Tu and Alan Nguyen on their wedding day in November 2019. Photo courtesy of Tu

They were hoping to see each other again a year later but their hopes were dashed because travel bans were still in place because Covid had resurged.

"We were on an emotional roller coaster," the 34-year-old husband recalled.

When Thailand and Cambodia reopened to international tourists at the end of last year, the couple planned to reunite in one of the two countries.

But not long after, they heard by word of mouth that Vietnam would reopen commercial flight routes to the U.S. soon. They were in for more disappointment since the expensive charter flights were only available for foreign experts and not for overseas Vietnamese citizens.

"It was a real challenge to figure out where to look for official information and how to complete the application process. We debated whether we should travel abroad to meet or should we continue to wait," said Tu, 30.

Towards the end of January this year, she heard that the Vietnamese government had decided to open flights for overseas Vietnamese to visit relatives and celebrate Tet, the Lunar New Year festival. At the same time, she found an online group of people applying to return to Vietnam. This began a new phase in waiting for the couple.

During the day, she watched out any update and guidelines in the group. At night, she discussed with her husband the procedures she had learned about, as also how to arrange his work and life in the U.S. if he returned to Vietnam.

Exorbitant prices

The couple also found hunting and buying flight tickets a difficult process. When they tried to book a ticket for $1,500, the website crashed, then the ticket prices shot up to $8,000. They went on different websites and found tickets in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, but these were all for March.

"Fortunately my husband found and bought a flight departing from the U.S. on Feb. 4 for $1,800, with the only catch being that the total traveling time would be 44 hours," Tu said.

On average, about 18,000 Vietnamese people get married to foreigners every year, according to the Ministry of Public Security.

After Vietnam stopped all international commercial flights from March 2020, hundreds of thousands of couples and families were separated from their foreign spouses.

To reunite with their loved ones, some people have spent a fortune on charter flights, or get documented as experts to be able to enter Vietnam. Others have tried to meet in a third country, or gone abroad to get married; and then entered Vietnam.

Huyen Diu, 31, a restaurant owner in HCMC, decided to follow her heart by getting on a flight to Copenhagen, Denmark, in early summer 2021.

"At that time, everyone told me I was out of my mind. My family stood by my side and supported me," Diu said.

The Vietnamese woman had been in love with a Danish businessman for more than three years. During that period, he visited Vietnam three times while Diu went to Denmark once.

"He vistied me in early 2020 and intended to stay for three months, but left Vietnam on a repatriation flight because of the pandemic," Diu said.

More than a year later, they met again in Europe after the pandemic was brought under control.

Mai Trang, 29, an accountant in Hai Phong City, wants to spend the rest of her life with Nash Noann, a 33-year-old American she met four years ago.

They couple intended to get married in 2019, but had to put it off because one of Noann's close relatives died.

In November 2020, he had to return to his hometown in Florida because his visa expired. At that time, returning to Vietnam was next to impossible.

"Though I had never traveled out of Vietnam, I decided to pack and fly out," Trang said, referred to her departure for Uzbekistan in March 2021.

The couple decided to reunite there since only Uzbekistan had opened to international tourists then. During their stay there, the couple tried to apply for jobs and find their way back to Vietnam.

"We also tried many times to register our marriage in Uzbekistan or Cambodia or Thailand, but it was too difficult," Trang said.

Mai Trang and Nash Noann are holding each other hands. Photo courtesy of Trang

Mai Trang and Nash Noann holding hands. Photo courtesy of Trang

In mid-November 2021, when they heard that Cambodia was open to international tourists, they decided to book flights there and then find their way back to Vietnam. After transiting Turkey and Singapore on two flights, the couple finally arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Around this time, Vietnam began reopening its aviation sector slowly. However, because they were not officially married, Noann could not be granted a Vietnamese visa right away.

"As a friend advised, my parents sent documents to the local ward, asking them to sponsor a visa for my boyfriend, but they did not approve it," she Trang.

The couple have spent all of their savings since she couldn't find a stable job for several months and is about the give birth later this month.

She said she felt better after knowing that her parents, who have recovered from Covid-19, will fly to Cambodia to help her.

After living in Denmark for more than six months, Diu has booked a flight back to HCMC in April to finalize her marriage documents.

Tu and Alan, meanwhile, suffered because of their forced separation, which added to the trauma of losing a number of close friends to the epidemic. Around October, they were so insecure and stressed out that just talking to each other triggered a sight.

To get out of the dark situation, Alan cut off "access to all negative information," focusing only on exercising and watching fun things. And Tu turned to making crafts to calm down. "Only when we reunite will the knot in my heart be removed. I will feel light then," Tu said.

Instead of dwelling on their missed honeymoon period, Tu and Alan are now prioritizing completing all the documents so that will not have to be apart again.

Alan is planning their fifth Valentine's Day celebration together.

"I will treat her to a special dinner as soon as I complete my quarantine (at home)," he said.

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