Vietnam an easier destination after return to pre-COVID rules

A Nikkei reporter reflects on a milestone in the country’s path out of pandemic

Roadblocks in Ho Chi Minh City were common in October, but now Vietnam has eliminated almost all COVID restrictions for foreign and domestic travel. (Photo by Lien Hoang)

LIEN HOANG, Nikkei staff writerMay 24, 2022 12:23 JST NIKKEI

HO CHI MINH CITY — Last week after a trip to California, I returned to Vietnam with a COVID vaccine certificate, negative PCR test and smartphone tracing app in hand. The green-uniformed immigration officer at the airport asked for none of it. Inside his plexiglass cage, the 20-something officer gestured for me to pull down my mask for a second. I spent less than a minute and zero words at passport control and then was back outside on the balmy, car horn-filled streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

Just like every other flight I took to Vietnam until 2020.

When the country stopped demanding test results at the border on May 15, it marked the latest in a steady string of easing measures. The milestone passed with barely any notice, but it means we can now enter the country exactly as we had before the coronavirus took over the world, a feat that almost no one else in Asia can claim.

By contrast, just last month my family had to fill in a health declaration sheet to enter. Earlier this year my friends were paying for hotel quarantines. And even earlier, people had to seek approval from their district governments in order to reenter. However, each of these barriers fell away one by one in recent months.

I was among the first passengers to enjoy test-free entry, a policy change that bodes well for tourists, supply-chain managers and anyone else relying on the smooth flow of traffic across borders. It also signals the country is staying on a path out of the pandemic.

That is in sharp contrast to the Chinese shutdown and to Hanoi’s own record of lockdowns and policy flip-flops. If Vietnam does not backtrack, it may gain a further edge over trade rivals from Indonesia, which has long been willing to block exports including palm oil, to China, whose slowdown threatens supply chains and nudges more investors to Southeast Asia.

Vietnam has come a long way from its summer COVID shutdown, when residents faced fines for going outdoors without permits like shopping vouchers. (Photo by Lien Hoang)

For potential tourists, Singapore Airlines’ travel advisories page is a useful tool. Type in details like your departure and arrival cities, and it tells you whether you need a vaccine, health insurance, testing, quarantine or other documents. Vietnam is the only country in Southeast Asia that gets a green label on all counts now: “not required.” Visas, however, are still required.

A similar trend of eased restrictions has allowed manufacturing in Vietnam to return to 2019 levels. In the last three months, factories have gone from fearing possible COVID checkpoints — hitting the movement of workers and materials — to full production and staffing, with employees who test positive still allowed to show up for work.

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These days when I hear about Shanghai’s lockdown, what I hear is echoes of Vietnam’s virus restrictions last summer. Few countries had as precipitous a plunge. For the better part of a year we enjoyed going to work, school, restaurants and beaches, feeling that the pandemic was something that happened mostly out there, overseas. Then starting in April 2021, we smashed into a COVID wall of death and economic disruption.

The virus ripped through the unvaccinated population, forcing businesses to shutter en masse or house employees on-site until October. On my California trip, I would tell friends that they had only been able to buy boots and batteries because Vietnamese were sleeping and working at factories. The live-at-work model became widespread and I wonder if Chinese plants, using it now, drew from the experience of their southern comrades.

There are other echoes. During lockdown, I could not so much as step outside my apartment, except when given rare permits to buy groceries or get vaccinated, on which days I climbed past barbed wire to pass a blocked road. I didn’t go hungry, but I did wonder where next week’s meals would come from. Using chat apps with neighbors, we arranged group orders for food. I would watch from the window as military or other officials drove by saying it was patriotic to stay home, or on my phone as videos went viral of locals tearing into the one-party state for centralized quarantines and tests.

Now all this is happening in China.

Beijing is sticking to a zero-COVID policy while Hanoi has discarded it. That has been possible largely because 81% of people in Vietnam are fully vaccinated, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, reducing the severity of cases for individuals and hospitals.

A willingness to change tack and discard policies that are no longer relevant is allowing Vietnam to reopen to trade and tourism.

But there are big caveats. Officials warned the public to stay vigilant for outbreaks as testing is eased and the uptake of a third vaccine dose slows. And most foreigners still need visas. Depending on your nationality, that is a whole other headache.

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