Vietnam Update Oct 4: Ho Chi Minh City’s first weekend under the new normal

After months of some form of a lockdown, Vietnam’s largest city and epicenter of the country’s fourth Covid wave, Ho Chi Minh City, enjoyed its first weekend under relaxed restrictions. A sense of normalcy is returning, yet Vietnam’s Covid-19 battle is far from over. The following is Access Asia’s latest update on the situation in Vietnam in collaboration with Vietnam Weekly, a subscription-based publication covering current affairs in Vietnam.

On Friday afternoon, Ho Chi Minh City’s overarching new pandemic rules got an official name: Directive 18. This codified the sweeping loosening of restrictions and the impact this weekend was as dramatic as expected. Yet, as cases repeatedly numbered in the thousands during even the strictest days of lockdown, one does not have to be a medical expert to predict the next trend as life business and crowds return to the city. Yet business (and life) needs to move on – and now it is.

Streets and sidewalks are now very busy, which is quite the sight after months lockdown. People are out walking, running and cycling, and an incredible amount of energy has returned to the city.

Businesses such as motorbike repair shops and barbers have been slammed, and popular street food spots have picked up right where they left off with take-away orders.

Buses, taxis and ride-hailing services will restart this week, with a range of capacity and safety regulations in place, meaning traffic will continue to get busier (though many companies are still working from home).

While most HCMC residents enjoyed a weekend of freedoms they hadn’t experienced in months, the biggest story of the last few days has involved tens of thousands of people trying to leave the city.

The migrant exodus

On Thursday evening, as the lockdown started to ease, huge numbers of people originally from other provinces attempted to leave HCMC.

That night, local media began reporting that thousands had been stopped by police in Binh Chanh District, on the city’s southwest side, as they tried to drive to the Mekong Delta. The pictures from the scene were something else, so we’ll share a couple from Zing News here.

The problem here was that while rules within HCMC had been relaxed, movement to other provinces is still not allowed, as officials are worried about people bringing Covid to other areas.

Huge crowds of adults and children ended up waiting on the side of the road the entire night, and on Friday 113 buses were arranged to begin bringing them to their hometowns in the delta (where they will have to quarantine for 14 days), and by that night over 8,000 people had been moved out of the city.

But this is just a fraction of the people desperate to leave, and highlights once again how devastating the lockdown was for countless people. News stories featured quotes from individuals who have been out of work for three or four months and, with limited government support, have no other option but to try and get back to the relative financial security of family.

Over 15,000 people have returned to An Giang Province from HCMC, Binh Duong and Dong Nai on motorbikes, with officials struggling to test everyone as they arrive while also providing food and water. More people are on the way, and the province’s quarantine facilities are already full.

Around 30,000 people have gone back to Soc Trang, while roughly 20,000 have returned to both Dong Thap and Kien Giang, and regional leaders are concerned about the increasing chances of local outbreaks.

These provinces have already detected a number of Covid cases through rapid testing, and there is obviously huge risk in so many people spreading out from Vietnam’s pandemic epicenters.

But this also should have been expected. As we saw when HCMC’s hard lockdown was extended in mid-August, a lot of people did not want to stay in the city, where they faced unemployment, financial ruin and the threat of the Delta variant.

This isn’t only an issue for the Mekong Delta, either. Over the weekend, Dong Nai arranged for caravans of thousands of unemployed workers to head toward the Central Highlands and central provinces. Many others had to return to HCMC after being stuck out in the rain for hours.

Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh has urged people not to leave on their own, but that’s not having much of an impact, and this exodus is likely to remain a top story this week.

In addition to the heartbreaking desperation of so many people and the virus transmission risk, the situation illustrates how difficult it will be for southern Vietnam to return to ‘normal’ economically.

These workers are the people employed by the factories that supply major multinational corporations – many of which have been saying how badly they need lockdowns to be lifted – and getting labor forces back to strength is clearly going to be difficult. Anyone expecting a rapid economic rebound now that the strict lockdown is over is likely to be disappointed.

HCMC has released new regulations for people who want to return to the city for work, but demand for leaving is intense, and unlikely to abate any time soon.


Malls in Hanoi were busy this weekend after reopening last Tuesday, but a concerning Covid cluster linked to the Viet Duc University Hospital in the city has appeared. This came after Hanoi went five days without detected any community cases.

Obviously this bears watching, and we’re also well into the period of seeing whether the capital’s Mid-Autumn Festival crowds have led to any virus spread. In a good sign, just four cases were reported yesterday.

Hanoi may also serve as some sort of preview of what HCMC can expect as more activity picks up here. While it is wonderful to see people out enjoying themselves over the weekend, we couldn’t help but wonder what this will mean as the outbreak is anything but over. In fact, we do expect another surge in cases before levels taper off. Thankfully the major cities are heavily vaccinated, but other provinces are far less protected.


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