Associate Editor Jim Weitz
The Pandemic Letters: Trapped Overseas

Trapped in Vietnam:
The Experience of a Middle-Aged Australian Nomad

Associate Editor Jim Weitz has compiled a series of interviews and first-person accounts from travelers trapped abroad by quarantine protocols related to the CCP virus (COVID 19) Pandemic.

The latest respondent in this O:JA&L Featured Series is originally from Sydney, Australia, and has spent most of his adult life as an expatriate and serial language-learner. He travels from country to country studying languages and getting to know the cultures: Indonesian, Mandarin, French, Italian, Spanish, German, some Malaysian and now Vietnamese. When he needs funds, he takes work teaching English. His longest stint in one country was 13 years in China.

Weitz for O:JA&L:   Where are you now?

Stranded Australian:  I came to Saigon in December 2017 with the goal of learning the language. After two years, I had learnt Vietnamese to a reasonable degree, and the realization that I wasn’t in love with the country was settling in. I was over the “friendlier than China” honeymoon period – always the country of comparison for Vietnam, fairly or not. A few English schools had tried to rip me off, and I had had a few bad experiences with witchy women. I reckon I would have left way back then if Vietnam hadn’t shut its borders on March 22nd. If I had left and gotten stuck in another country without work, I wouldn’t have been able to get back in. I couldn’t go to Australia either, because living with my parents with no prospects of finding a job wasn’t an option. The whole foreign student business was dead there. So I just stayed here.

Since then, Vietnam has gone through a few periods of being fully open, and a few lockdowns, each time claiming they’ve crushed the virus. Now, since early July, they’ve implemented an extreme lockdown throughout the country, but they’re having little success with it. Daily cases are increasing to almost 10,000, mostly in the far south in and around Saigon.

Weitz for O:JA&L:   What makes this lockdown so severe?

Stranded Australian: They’re about 450 areas throughout Saigon which have been fully quarantined; you’re not even allowed to go to the supermarket. The guards are there 24 hours, all entrances and exits are blocked with barbed wire. In those 450 areas, you can only leave your home if there’s a medical emergency. Guards bring food to your door. You’re not even allowed to go out to receive food over the fence.

In my local supermarket, they only allow three people in at a time, and you have to line up outside for hours. They’ve shut all the open-air markets, which has sent inflation through the roof. The area I’m in has been shut off, so I can’t leave a certain radius during the day. They’ve implemented a 6:00 PM to 6:00 AM curfew. But for now, in the evenings, the guards usually go home.

Just the other night, though, around 2:00 AM, after a few beers on my mate’s rooftop, I returned home through the same alley I had come, only to find it had been barb-wired off. I thought holy fuck! I detoured through one back alley, avoiding any guards, then went through another back alley, only to find it had also been blocked off, but I managed to crawl under the barbwire and run back to my house. It was almost unbelievable. Just having to be at home all the time is bad enough.

Weitz for O:JA&L:   What would have happened if you had been caught?

Stranded Australian: They might have just said you have to quarantine in your friend’s house for three weeks. Sleep on his sofa. And I would have had no money and no laptop with me.

Weitz for O:JA&L:   They have the authority to do that?

Stranded Australian: Yes. The problem living in an authoritarian country, generally, is that you never know what’s going to happen next, who’s lying and what they’re holding back. As in most of the world, you can definitely see that this new variant, delta, spreads a lot faster, which the government wasn’t upfront about early on. The lack of vaccinations hasn’t helped. Until recently, the government has been pathetic about getting their hands on vaccines. They’ve just started the process in the last month, really. They insist they’re going to be able to crush it again.

Another authoritarian surprise: a few months ago, when this new outbreak began, they stopped extending tourist visas. The thing is that everyone is on dodgy visas issued by corrupt visa agents, which means now almost no one can get them renewed. Suddenly up to 2/3 of the foreign community has left, I reckon, mainly because the visa agents are closed. That’s just insane. I’ve arranged to get a work visa with one of the schools where I’ve been teaching, but I’ve almost given up. I think I might just overstay my tourist visa. I’ve heard they’ll only hit you with a bit of a fine, and you might get blacklisted from Vietnam for a year or so. To tell the truth, this whole process has just really put me off the country in general. I’ve never seen such authoritarian decisions being made. The government could probably just say we’re all illegal. But it’s the corruption and the dodgy visa agents that has allowed this situation to arise. Many other countries deal with visas in very different ways.

I wouldn’t mind revealing to the world what Vietnam has done, using foreigners when they need them, then effectively forcing them out of the country by not renewing their visas when it’s no longer convenient.

Weitz for O:JA&L:   Will you continue living in Vietnam?

Stranded Australian: I’ve come to the conclusion that mainland China is actually better than here. On the surface the Vietnamese are nicer and the Chinese on the surface are gruffer. Each government is just as bad as the other, only the Chinese make it a bit more obvious what they’re doing. I’ve learned both languages and can fly through their newspapers. The Vietnamese are a bit lower key, but they’re holding back vital information and probably lying almost as much as the Chinese Communist Party. It’s made me really think about what it means to live under authoritarian governments versus more transparent democratic governments.

Right now I’ve probably got $12,000 US in Vietnamese dong in my apartment here. I heard if they catch you with more than 4k US in dong at the airport, they won’t let you take it out. What the fuck am I going to do with it? Go buy some expensive clothes or a new computer? Go buy a massive gold watch? I haven’t paid taxes on it because employers pay you under the table to avoid taxes and fees for a work visa. It’s just the way the system works. Even if I could open a Vietnamese bank account, I’ve still got to have the tax receipts to transfer it out.

The people are less reliable here than in China. They have that mentality that they are going to use us westerners to develop their country, possibly even worse than the Chinese. It’s there, but it’s subtler and lower key than in China, where people speak up and lack tact. But I’m starting to see that long-term, the Chinese might be better. Living here has been an interesting sociology project in a sense.

Sometimes I think what I really want to do is get back to China. Here there is a lack of clear information, things are a mess. Or am I just telling myself what I want to hear? The money is better in China and everything works better, like the infrastructure and rules. On the other hand, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) froze my account with about 500,000 Chinese RMB of my money in it. Back in October 2019, while I was visiting Sydney, I tried to withdraw $1000 Australian. I had been gradually drawing down the account while I was in Vietnam, and the sudden large sum must have tripped their security system. So now, I have to go to the Guangzhou ICBC branch where I opened my account, present all my papers and say, “This is me could you please unblock it?” When I returned to Vietnam from Sydney, I thought I’d go in the next few months. Then corona hit and I couldn’t travel. I’m just hoping my money is still there.

I’ve also got 500,000 Chinese RMB in Hong Kong, from when I was an IELTS examiner. The British Council kept paying us without paying taxes, which I always loved, but then how do you get the money out? I would have been better off if they had been taking out taxes. But, again, the government corruption did not give us that option.

China is filled with opportunities, but likely when you turn 65 they’ll just boot you out and that’s it, you’re gone. No more work, no more visa. I saw this happen just recently here in Vietnam. I’m thinking long-term you have to get something better than easy tourist visas through corrupt visa agents.

I’ve also thought of going to eastern Europe to live and even retire. Some countries there are almost inviting online workers to immigrate. And unlike Vietnam, you’re not getting in on just a tourist visa. There is a framework for you to stay. There are a few parts of the world like this. Montenegro, I think. Albania. I was thinking about going to Albania and getting work doing online teaching and translation from Chinese and Vietnamese, and possibly just settling there. I spent two months in Bucharest and it was awesome. I went to Budapest for a holiday, loved the feel of it. Beautiful city and the people seemed cool. Certainly lively. It was cheap. And like all of Eastern Europe it had that great combination of being a rundown, yet classy intellectual European country. Eastern Europe is good for long-term. When you learn a language in one of those countries, you start using it everyday. You make friends, and they don’t use you for an English lesson. You’re just another white person there. That would be nice for a change.


About the editor/compiler:
James Weitz is the author Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He is also a travel writer. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the previous 15 years. During that time, Weitz has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously, he worked on anti-corruption issues at the Organization of American States and in the Latin American and Caribbean section at the World Bank. His writings have appeared in print at the Mekong Review and in the online journals Red Savina Review, and Pennyshorts. Weitz has a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. He is an Associate Editor at OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters and also contributes articles to O:JA&L on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region.

Image: National flag of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Public domain.