Before the pandemic, I had a dream of opening a café and souvenir shop. I’m a 25-year-old tour guide in Hoi An in Vietnam, where my family has lived for five generations. The city is one of Vietnam’s most popular tourist destinations, and most of us here work in the hospitality industry.
Since October, I’ve been borrowing money from friends and investing my savings in the shop. I was going to open it with my friend around this time. The plan was that I would buy the gifts and design the café, while my friend would take care of the property and rent.
I was really excited, and had prepared many recipes. Then, the coronavirus hit.
At the beginning of March, I was still giving tours for visitors to my area. At the time, some guests asked me whether the virus would become a problem, and I told them that I didn’t think it would reach us.
The pandemic has made me realise that everyone has to be prepared to suddenly lose everything. I felt so secure before.
But things quickly took a serious turn, and by 7 March all tours were cancelled. Our company arranged for us to work from home, mostly handling online reservations – until the end of March. Since almost all of what I made came from tours, March was the last month I received a full salary.
Right now, I feel like I’ve gone back to zero. I have spent 80% of my savings on my dream, and don’t have much money left. This is a problem because I’m my family’s primary breadwinner. I live with my father, who is retired, my 88-year-old grandmother and my little sister. She works as a tour guide in the Cham islands, where the tourist season runs from March to October. Because of the virus, she won’t work this year.
If I sit back and do nothing, my family won’t survive. So I started to resell the souvenirs I had bought for the shop on social media, and take on freelance jobs like typing for $3 to $4 an hour.
At first, I put on a brave face and hid this situation from my family. I felt it was my responsibility to take care of us, and I didn’t want them to feel burdened.
By April, I had to tell them the truth, which was difficult. Now, they understand the situation and have begun to live even more frugally.
Since the lockdown began, Hoi An has become so quiet. Before, I couldn’t have imagined my city like this.
My friends lent me about $500, and I started to think about how I could make more money. Since all the restaurants were closed, I decided to try to make desserts for delivery.
Most of my customers are people I know. I don’t make much profit, but what I do earn I pay back to my sister and cousins, who are helping to cook and deliver these desserts.
I do it not only for the money, but also to keep everyone active. If we don’t, I know we’ll die from stress even if we don’t die from coronavirus.
The pandemic has made me realise that everyone has to be prepared to suddenly lose everything. I felt so secure before, and never expected anything like this to happen.
Now, when I think about my future, I feel overwhelmed. It was such a crazy thing already for me to try to open a shop. I thought that, since I’m young, I could take on this challenge and try to raise my family’s living standards.
The virus burnt down this dream. Now, I’m very careful about spending money. I feel insecure and scared of making a wrong choice. Even if I’m able to save enough money to try again, who is to say there won’t be another pandemic?
Everyone I know is worried about the future. We want our country to open up again soon because we’re running out of money. We rely on tourists, but realistically it will be a while before they return.
Although we are a poor country, I feel thankful because we have rice and don’t have to worry about running out of food. The government also did a good job locking down the whole country, which is not easy. If they hadn’t, things would be a lot worse. For now, I’m going to try my best to maintain my family’s situation – and hope things get better soon.
[As told to Jessie Lau]
Vietnam acted fast and early to contain the pandemic, and has a relatively low number of infections. By the end of April, it had fewer than 300 cases out of a population of 95 million. Its first three cases were detected on 23 January in airline passengers returning from Wuhan. By 1 February, it had suspended all flights to and from China. Passengers returning from other international destinations were quarantined for 14 days in camps run by the military. It kept schools closed after the lunar New Year break and imposed a 21-day quarantine in Vinh Phuc province north of Hanoi, home to many migrant workers returning from Wuhan. It has relied on strict contact tracing to contain the virus and mobilised public sector workers and armed forces to do this, as well as launching an extensive public education campaign. Vietnam was badly affected by SARS in 2003, which is likely to have prepared it better than many other countries for the COVID-19 pandemic.