It is hard to walk away. The friends, opportunities and pace draw you in

But, for me, being in Vietnam relied on the fact that home was less than a day away if needs be

Sean Boyle from Ballymoney, Co Antrim in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Sean Boyle from Ballymoney, Co Antrim in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

 

Seán Boyle grew up outside Ballymoney, Co Antrim. He moved to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam in 2012 to teach and explore the country. “One year turned into nine and I have spent that time getting immersed in the local football scene, teaching maths and working as a freelance copywriter.”

The world does not seem as small as it did a year ago. If circumstances or homesickness dictated, you could walk out the door in Ho Chi Minh City and arrive at the backdoor of your parents’ house in under 24-hours with no strings attached. That is no longer the case. Due to lack of flights, health risks and quarantine-shaped obstacles, home is further away than ever before. It’s sobering talking to friends and family and realising that they feel equally cut adrift despite being only a short drive or flight away from each other.

If circumstances or homesickness dictated, you could walk out the door in Ho Chi Minh City and arrive at the backdoor of your parents’ house in under 24-hours

Vietnam’s handling of the virus has drawn international acclaim, not as much as it deserves, but the low number of deaths and lack of community transmission is not scoffed at by those outside the country. Measures such as quarantine camps and restricted air travel have spared us from any significant infringements on our daily lives bar a brief lockdown 12 months ago. People still wear masks in public almost without fail, even though no Covid is evident in the city.

Sean Boyle, his father Martin, friend Linh Phan, mother Margaret and younger brother Niall on the Hai Van Pass in 2018
Sean Boyle, his father Martin, friend Linh Phan, mother Margaret and younger brother Niall on the Hai Van Pass in 2018

There remains a sizeable Irish contingency among the ex-pat population of HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City; young, wide-eyed ESL teachers, international school teachers on career breaks, a burgeoning business community and an array of people from different backgrounds with diverse careers, hopes and dreams. Some are settled with families and others are not so settled but glad of an irrefutable excuse not to have to splash out on flights. Longer-term residents must factor in this new immobility and uncertainty of the future into the equation of where they want to be in the world.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that we are fortunate to be here in this little bubble. We celebrated St Patrick’s Day in a packed Irish pub with live music and (canned) Guinness, but there was a surrealness to it. We sang and swayed and it felt like we were back home, but in Ireland the pubs and streets were almost empty. As in any Irish pub, there was a little guilt at the bottom of the glass.

It is a little daunting to consider how things might have changed from the last trip home to the next. What new social rules will catch us unawares?

It only takes one visit home to realise that people understandably have little interest in what happens in a world far away from theirs. Things always move on. It is a little daunting to consider how things might have changed from the last trip home to the next. What new social rules will catch us unawares? Hearing of family get-togethers with people stationed at four different corners of the garden and then for months not even that, sounds more foreign than anything in Vietnam.

It is hard to walk away from the lifestyle here. The friends, opportunities, speed of life and climate draws you in deep. But for me, being here was always on the proviso and the mantra, that home was less than a day away if needs be. Now, when tragedy strikes, irregular flights and harsh impracticalities mean that people sometimes can’t make it back in time. Saying goodbye to loved ones on a computer screen, heartbroken, helpless and homesick. There is no fluidity anymore. We can only hope the vaccine roll-out changes that, but people have to make their own decisions as the clock ticks on.

Vietnam raised eyebrows by ordering almost 120 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine instead of the variant offered by their neighbours and have also approved the Sputnik vaccine for use. They have four vaccines of their own in trials and aim to have 70 per cent of the 90 million-plus population inoculated by 2022. With talk of vaccine passports opening borders to investors, tourists and those Vietnamese stuck overseas will happen. It seems that at some point soon, the bubble will be perforated. For a tourism industry that accounts for 10 per cent of the overall GDP, it would be a welcome boost for many of the country’s inhabitants.

How vaccine passports will work and how much of the population will first be vaccinated remains to be seen. Due to Vietnam’s success in containing and all but eradicating the virus, it holds a community with minimal immunity and one without a pressing need for a vaccine. Any move to open borders too soon will put the population at risk; after all they have achieved, it is a high-stakes balancing act.

As in any year, many young Irish will head home in the summer with their year or two behind them, other young men and women coming in the other direction and starting a two-week quarantine welcome package. But, for the time being, it’s a one-way trip in either direction. My long-awaited summer trip is now more likely to be an extended Christmas visit. We are grateful to be here, safe and employed; claustrophobia, itchy feet and dwindling tea supplies aside, there are worse places to be.

If you live overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do

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