From Singapore to Saigon: A journey back to familiar sensations
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'You can fly back now! Normal travel is coming back!' my Saigonese friend excitedly told me.
The Vietnamese government announced that international travel will return to normal March 15, 2022. With that banner headline, I decided whatever scant details that came along, I will just book my flight from Singapore and head back to the wonderful city I last visited three years ago in 2019.
And I did, and what I've seen is a city that is trying to come back to its old vibrancy despite so many losses over the pandemic.
Initially, that news of a return to normalcy came with a one-day self-isolation and a PCR test within 24 hours of arrival. And if you wanted to leave your hotel room on day two and three, it was certainly possible but with a quick ART test done daily. "Not too bad," I convinced myself.
At least it wasn't 14 days quarantine or a fixed travel agency tour itinerary as required by the Vietnamese government sometime over the last two years of Covid.
As I got busy with travel plans, the Vietnamese government finally gave details that no PCR or quick ART test upon arrival or self-isolation was needed. All the better!
All I needed was a PCR test done 72 hours before departure, Covid-19 travel insurance, a notarized vaccination certificate and a medical declaration done on the PC-Covid application, which I made sure I downloaded before flying off from Changi Airport, Singapore. With the necessary documents all prepared, I was all set.
Finally, I was going to be able to fly into Vietnam again. Friends, food and new experiences waited. What a long time coming.
As the flight landed at Tan Son Nhat Airport, I felt like I was the only non-Vietnamese tourist at the barren Terminal 2 in late March.
Even though I had prepared all the necessary documents, I was a bit anxious that I might have missed something. The queue through immigration was long but moved fast. Alas, the immigration officer asked for all my travel documents, especially the medical declaration. Another officer also looked through my papers at another counter and with a firm wave, told me to go through. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Got to the baggage belt and saw many Vietnamese scooping up their huge bags while chatting happily. They came on a flight from Sydney and seemed to be transporting lock stock and barrel after the long Covid years. Perhaps they were marooned down under courtesy of Covid.
First stop, my hotel Liberty Central Saigon Center. Arriving at this hotel in the heart of the Ben Thanh Market area was a quiet affair. There were not many guests and they had high plastic window barriers on the reception counter. I felt like I was in a hospital!
Within a few days however, they had it removed. The manager, Cong, told me the Vietnamese government relaxed some Covid-19 measures for hotels. I guess in line with the government’s resolve to live with the virus, since it no longer seemed so deadly with the country’s 95 percent vaccination rate. The manager said the hotel capacity was low but they hoped to be receiving more guests within the next few months. Lucky for him, the timeline got vastly reduced.
A week into my arrival in Ho Chi Minh City, in early April, I got up one morning to a front lobby filled with cars and taxis, and busy reception staff filling out registration documents while concierges were holding court with a bevy of guests. I saw Westerners, Africans, Koreans, and heard Russian spoken, in addition to the northern Vietnamese accent. I guess Hanoians in search of warmer weather down south.
"We are at full capacity now!" exclaimed a smiling Cong, in between taking yet another call from a guest.
The nearby Ben Thanh Market had a different experience. Crowds were growing, but not business, from what I saw. This well-known market had a reputation as a tourist trap where prices of souvenirs and T-shirts were at sky-high inflated prices. The seasoned traveler had to be prepared to bargain down to get a good deal. That was pre-Covid. The long Covid years had a deflationary effect, I must say.
Ben Thanh Market, a popular tourist zone in HCMC, has suffered poor business after two years of Covid. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
I sauntered in one sunny afternoon to escape the humidity and got accosted by the usual band of shop owners pushing their wares. This time, their opening prices were not so high like before and they dropped their prices faster! I saw tourists walking by but many just took a quick look and went off. Most aisles were empty.
Ben Thanh survivors
Some of the nearby shops I remembered were survivors, pure and simple. Nhut Tailor was a prime example.
With two stores in the vicinity, still operating and looking the same, this bespoke tailor put survival down to loyal customers, both local and foreign. "We used to have 60 percent of our customers from overseas. They were Koreans, Americans, Europeans and so on. They appreciated the fine tailoring and high-quality materials we use in our suits and shirts," said Paul Truong, a member of the third generation, who together with his sister Ly, is starting to get involved in running the business.
"We source our fine Egyptian cotton and Italian wool from a range of overseas suppliers, including Singapore," Paul emphasized. "Some of our materials are exclusive to us in Vietnam."
"Over the past few years of Covid, business was moderating and we lost many of our key customers. In fact, we saw a 70 percent reduction in our sales to foreign customers. So, we needed to make some changes to our business model and grow our local base of customers, mainly Saigonese and locally based expats. Many of them were asking for more casual clothing, but with our tailored styling. With Vietnam's growing economy, we see more interest from this growing mid-tier affluent local market."
A customer has a new suit measured at Nhut Tailor in District 1, HCMC. Photo by Dennis Khng
"We want to continue tapping into this pool of customers and intend to launch a new line of clothing that is more casual and fashion-forward, based on linen, khakis and wool-linen-silk blends, with prices that are more affordable. We will still carry mainly menswear but will complement that with ladieswear too," said Paul.
"This new line will be marketed through a new store, as well as pop-up stores."
His sister Ly and marketeer Jeremy have been busy with marketing plans, which will include the use of social media and KOLs to reach this expanding pool of tech-savvy customers.
I could see the flexibility and adaptability of this tailor and hope they press on.
Another group of survivors were the jewelry stores that dot the Ben Thanh Market area. Many sell gold—traditional yellow and modern white, as well as diamonds. Many stores were still here.
Huong of Huong Trang Jewelry on Le Thanh Ton Street spoke about the past few years of Covid. With a stand-alone store and a counter in a jewelry mart along the same street, and beautiful jewelry to boot, this second-generation business owner was just relieved that Vietnam was opening up again.
"We used to get half of our business from foreigners and Covid was difficult for us, with the restrictions on international travel and local lockdowns," she shared while adjusting her face mask. There was continued interest in their gold jewelry over that time but sales have been weak. She hopes that a silver lining is on the horizon.
Back to normal
A new park has been built over the Bach Dang jetty opposite Nguyen Hue walking street in downtown HCMC, January 2022. Photo by VnExpress/Quynh Tran
Outside tourist zone number one Ben Thanh Market, Saigon is also slowly returning back to normal. But if normality can be measured by the traffic, it has some way to go yet. In 2019, morning and evening rush hour was an intense affair. The number of motorbikes on the road at any one time then was just amazing! Not to mention the polluted air.
Now traffic is light enough for intrepid bicyclists to take to the streets, even down main roads like Le Duan, Pasteur and Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. The road bicycling trend has surely caught on here.
Skirting the frequent late afternoon showers, I took evening walks down to Nguyen Hue walking street and Bach Dang jetty and noticed the local government has been sprucing things up.
Now the long walking drag Nguyen Hue has a large European-style fountain anchoring it with lots of benches along the perimeter of this picturesque street -- finally! Meanwhile, Bach Dang jetty is also now actually more fun to hang out at, with renovations making it cool and inviting, when it was gritty with broken pavement tiles before.
Changes have necessarily happened and people and businesses have had to adapt in this ever-moving metropolis. One thing that has not changed though, is the coffee culture.
People crowd a streetside plastic stool coffee shop next to the Saigon Post Office in downtown HCMC, April 10, 2022. Photo by VnExpress
I was glad to be able to get to old favorites like Cong Caphe and Cafe Vy at the end of Le Thanh Ton Street near New World Hotel.
The locals still loved their caffeine fix and gathering to chill out to it.
For me, sipping on silky ca phe sua da (Vietnamese iced milk coffee) on a sidewalk and talking shop with old friends on a cool April morning was pure simple bliss, and a welcome return to familiar sensations.