As the delta variant of COVID-19 has surged through Vietnam over the past two months, the country’s central provinces have endured the strictest lockdown measures to date.
As of Tuesday, the country had recorded 624,547 confirmed cases and 15,660 deaths, according to the John Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
Both foreigners and locals have been complaining that food and water supplies have been mishandled because of restrictions on motorbike delivery people known locally as “shippers.” When the full lockdown was announced three days in advance it caused people to rush to stock up at local markets.
On July 22, the government issued “Directive 16,” an official notice to follow stay-at-home orders, for the coastal city of Da Nang. Under the new directive, residents couldn't leave their homes. Non-essential businesses were shut, food shipping stopped and residents were banned from exiting Da Nang without official written permission.
Ward leaders were mobilized to the various neighborhoods, enforcing curfews and issuing order forms to residents for food and water deliveries. If residents were in green zones, they were allowed out during a two-hour period but only in close proximity to their homes. Some ward bosses provided free groceries consisting of a few different vegetables and instant noodles.
Supermarket aisles emptied, and anxiety about a Wuhan-style lockdown was starting to collectively set in. Expatriates and locals have been panicking and venting their frustrations in online forums.
“Why wasn’t there a concrete plan for food supply chains if outbreaks were to get this bad, that’s what I am most angry about,” said Brian Edwards, a British national whose name has been changed for privacy. Because of an existing respiratory problem, Edwards was afraid to go out into crowded spaces such as supermarkets and is relying on local contacts to help him receive food.
In August, Da Nang color-coded its neighborhoods based on infection rate data and provided an online map. All wards underwent mass COVID-19 testing every three days in spaces where social distancing was not possible and people became concerned these might become superspreader events.
Vaccine availability an issue
Until recently, Vietnam had received widespread acclaim for its handling of COVID-19, but a slow vaccine rollout has become its Achilles’ heel. There is a consensus that Vietnamese authorities relied too heavily on donated vaccines as opposed to buying them.
“Most local people want the vaccine in Vietnam — maybe not the Chinese-made Sinopharm — but the rollout of any vaccines has been too slow, and you know, people just follow orders and rarely say anything critical about the top,” said Nguyen Tung, a Da Nang local, whose name has been changed to protect his privacy.
Tung thinks the government is showing signs of strain in communicating information to the public and the strict lockdowns could continue into next year, especially in Ho Chi Minh. He says the authorities will eventually need to stop the strict lockdowns and let the country move toward natural immunity while allowing the economy to open back up.
Some people are worried the authorities might be stockpiling vaccines and money might go into the wrong hands. Vaccine scams have already emerged, with some people being overcharged for the shots or receiving fake vaccines. As of September, less than 4% of Vietnam’s adult population has received two shots, and 16.5% have received a single shot. Much of the vaccine rollout has been concentrated in Ho Chi Minh, which has the highest case rate nationwide. Military personnel have been dispatched to the city to manage the lockdown there.
Many foreigners marooned in Da Nang have encountered problems renewing their tourist visas. At the same time, they are also finding it difficult to leave the country because of the strict lockdown and lack of domestic and international flights.
As of Tuesday, leaving the central provinces of Vietnam requires flight tickets, a COVID-19 test, and a written letter of permission to leave from an embassy or city police authorization. Those leaving need to hire a private car to drive them to Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, depending on the departing city. The cost is roughly 7.5 million dong ($330) per person if ride-shared, and the journey itself can take up to 24 hours depending on traffic and the time required to pass through provincial checkpoints.
In Facebook groups, people have been lamenting that visa agents are overcharging them for extending their visas or local immigration officials making them pay excessive overstay fines at the airport. Expatriates’ main gripes include lack of communication or miscommunication between the government and foreigners residing in Vietnam and the ever-changing rules.
“They (immigration officials) are so corrupt, they will try to make money from you in any way possible,” wrote one foreigner on Facebook about his recent exit experience.
“There is no reliable information, nobody knows what’s going on and they are making it impossible to leave,” said Mark Warth, an Australian national who is desperate to leave Vietnam with his wife. His name has been changed to protect his privacy.
The dearth of reliable information has likely prompted Vietnamese authorities to implement a new hotline for foreigners in Da Nang; however, responses have been either slow or nonexistent.
Most expatriates in Da Nang are English teachers. Due to the closure of many local schools and the recent worldwide termination of most foreign teaching contracts with online Chinese schools, many foreign teachers are struggling financially. And the situation for the poorest locals has worsened as the Vietnamese economy slows.
“Many local people are starving and haven’t had paid work for a long time,” said Nga Hanh, a local woman working as a consultant in Da Nang whose name has been changed to protect her privacy.
Hanh has a brother who works for the government. His salary has been slashed in half since last year, but he says he is one of the lucky ones to still have a job.
“Some of my friends in the tourism industry haven’t worked for over a year,” Hanh said.
Her sister, a nurse, has been forced to stay in the hospital and work 24-hour shifts since the latest lockdown began, and she isn’t being paid for overtime.
“It must be so terrible for the really poor people here in my country right now. Nobody takes care of the poor people adequately,” said Hanh.