When I first arrived in Vietnam, I was routinely given the same piece of advice from more experienced expats: have a plan for Tet. “Everything is closed.” “You won’t be able to get food.” “Hanoi becomes a ghost town.” The annual fear of trying to cook for myself in solitude made me anxiously search for an idyllic place to wait out the season (preferably near a cheap bar).
For my first Tet holiday, I danced on the shores of Langkawi, a jolly, little Malaysian island. Every morning began with banana pancakes and every evening ended with a beachside bonfire. The next year, I travelled domestically but kept myself entertained at touristy pubs in Sapa Town. I spent the first day of the new year at the peak of Mt. Fansipan, overlooking the fantastic reaches of Vietnam. While Tet is extremely important to the Vietnamese families, I’d argue expats also deeply enjoy the holiday, albeit purely for the partying and the time-off from work.
This year, I expected nothing to interfere with my new, beloved tradition. I would be in Hoi An, clad in a freshly-tailored silk shirt, sunbathing on a beach, drinking coconut water and several bottles of whatever passed for the local liquor. It would be the perfect holiday. But it is not happening.
Two weeks before Tet, a third wave of Covid-19 crashed over an unexpecting Vietnam. Since Jan. 28, the country has now recorded over 400 cases of the fatal disease. This strain has been identified as the U.K. variant which is far more contagious than previous cases. Fortunately, the Vietnamese government continues to effectively respond to the pandemic. Through extensive contact tracing, the government has been able to significantly impede the rate of infection. While there is no cause for panic, there is no cause for complacency either.
Like so many other expats, I have been suffering a moral dilemma concerning traveling this Tet season. Do I brave coronavirus, lockdowns, and mandatory quarantines for a few fun days on the beach? Or do I remain in Hanoi, sad, pale and alone?
“Planning this is making me uncomfortable. We shouldn’t do this,”
For a while, I deluded myself into thinking a short trip was possible: perhaps the jungles of Pu Luong or the tea fields of Thai Nguyen. My friends and I could ride our motorbikes there, avoiding the cramped, unhygienic buses. We could wear gloves when we greet the homestay owners, who will be happy to host us during their family holiday. If there are other people in the dorms, don’t worry- I have a hammock! We could sleep outside. If it rains at night, we’ll sleep with an umbrella.
I pitched these silly ideas to my much wiser friend. “Planning this is making me uncomfortable. We shouldn’t do this,” she replied. I pouted for a bit before she reminded me about how cases in her home country exponentially increased due to uncaring beachgoers. I couldn’t argue with her. I noticed this disturbing trend also happened in the United States. When I heard about apathetic spring breakers risking public health for some fun in the sun, I wrote it off as privileged western ignorance. Now, a year later, I find myself trying to similarly justify my own reckless decisions.
Expats traveling during Tet undo the fantastic strides made by the Vietnamese to keep Covid at bay. Unlike the Americans who have resorted to conspiracies and infighting, Vietnamese citizens routinely make sacrifices to protect their families and communities. Many Vietnamese workers are heeding the advice of the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor, by staying put for Tet. While a sensible decision, this has caused grief for plenty of families, especially those whose homes are now hotspots for the virus.
“[Quang Ninh] is the best place for me to celebrate Tet, I am still shocked,” Nguyen Thanh Quynh, a resident in Ho Chi Minh City, told VN Express. “I called Mom last weekend and we both cried, I have never gone through this feeling before.”
It is not just adults who have to deal with the harsh realities of the pandemic. In an elementary school in Hanoi, nearly 60 third-grade students have been quarantined within the school for two weeks after one student tested positive for Covid-19. Instead of making banh chung or thinking how they will invest their lucky money, these children are sleeping on desks and reading comic books to pass the time.
Imagine you were one of these third-graders who had to give up seeing their family during Tet, only for the outbreak to worsen because of selfish members of the expat community who value Vietnamese beaches over Vietnamese lives. Understandably, you would be royally pissed off.
I feel truly blessed to witness the pandemic from Vietnam, especially as an American expat. Thanks to swift governmental responses and a well-informed, caring populace, this country continues to leap over every hurdle laid down by the coronavirus. While the past year certainly wasn’t easy, Vietnam has allowed for normalcy to return much sooner than my homeland. This was only made possible by the greater majority choosing the greater good.
Sometimes, it feels as if the expat community lives in a bubble, unaware and unbothered by matters outside of Tay Ho. However, like it or not, everyone leaves an impact. Therefore, make sure your impact is one that benefits the country that has tirelessly defended both Vietnamese and expats alike.
So what will I do this holiday, now that my dreams of Hoi An are dashed? Lay in bed and cry? No, I already did that last night. As a silver lining, the weather is supposed to be gorgeous and there are plenty of parks I haven’t explored. I plan to enjoy the quiet, stillness of Hanoi during Tet and look forward to more, safer trips in the coming year.
Hãy an toàn, Việt Nam.