China is also Vietnam’s largest source of foreign visitors, so the blanket ban on travel from the mainland is expected to severely impact the industry

In an average week, the Hanoi-based Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation brings anywhere from two to five Vietnamese people rescued from human trafficking in China back to their home country. However, amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, the foundation’s last such border crossing took place on January 25, the first day of Lunar New Year. “It’s not so much that we decided to stop, but that travel within China and across the border is simply not possible,” said Michael Brosowski, its founder and co-chief executive. “If it was physically possible, we’d keep going.”

Blue Dragon is still able to do basic investigative work on reports of trafficking, while it is also receiving more calls for help, but for now the organisation is unable to do any cross-border work. This is just one of the many ways in which the virus outbreak has disrupted business in Vietnam, where 10 confirmed infections have been reported. On February 2, a day before schools in the country were set to resume classes following the lengthy Lunar New Year holiday, officials in most of Vietnam’s 63 provinces decided to close all public schools for the week. This includes Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where over 4 million students were impacted by the decision.

Private schools were left to make their own call regarding classes, and many have followed the government’s lead, including Concordia International School in Hanoi, a sister institution of the Hong Kong International School.

“We have about 430 students at our school,” said Stephen Conroy, one of the school’s principals. “At this point, as with the rest of the world, we are unsure of how long we are going to be closed. We are of course optimistic that we’ll resume classes on Monday, but we have to take sensible guidance in making that decision.”

Conroy explained that the school had plans in place to allow older students to do some work online through platforms such as Zoom, but if closures last longer, difficult decisions will need to be made.

“Many of our faculty and families have made plans for their time beyond the end of the school year,” he said. “We have considered using some of our professional development time … however, this week is very much a wait-and-see approach.”

As the school waits, Conroy has placed himself under quarantine, as he travelled to Malaysia over the holiday and was on flights with Chinese tour groups. “They were lovely people, as concerned as I was about the whole thing, and I’m sure they were not ill … but there is a sense of responsibility for each person to do their small part,” he said.

Travel restrictions to China could also have an impact on the Vietnamese education sector. This time of year is the second-busiest period for the international student recruiting industry, following autumn. Normally, admissions officials from schools and universities all over the world visit Asia to meet prospective students, particularly in China. Fourdozen is a Hanoi-based digital marketing agency that organises fairs, school visits and meetings for these officials in the Vietnamese capital. Brett Wertz, the company’s director and co-founder, said these annual visits are now being cancelled as bans are imposed on travel to and from China.

“These fair tours are usually multi-country, and so although Vietnam might be ‘safe’ to travel to, as long as China is banned it will impact the rest of the region because most recruiters coming to Asia will always stop in China,” he explained. “China is the big pull, so most people wouldn’t just do a one-off trip to Vietnam.”

In 2018, Minister of Education Phung Xuan Nha said Vietnamese families spend up to US$4 billion annually on overseas education. The longer the outbreak goes on, the more pronounced the impact will be on potential students as well as the educational institutions they dream of attending.

China is easily Vietnam’s largest source of foreign tourists, meaning the blanket ban on flights from the mainland will severely impact the tourism industry. Domestic media reported that in January, before the restrictions went into place, 644,700 Chinese nationals visited Vietnam, a 72.6 per cent jump from January 2018. The figure also accounted for a third of all international arrivals that month. Visitor numbers are likely to plummet through February, while Vietnam’s proximity to China is scaring away potential visitors.

Diep Nguyen runs Nomad Home Saigon, a Ho Chi Minh City-based hospitality service focused on short-term property rentals. Tourism in the city is currently in its low season, with business usually picking up by April, but Nguyen has already seen up to 50 per cent of her company’s bookings cancelled.

“A lot of people are cancelling trips, and we aren’t getting any new bookings,” she said. “Generally only 10 per cent of our guests are Chinese, while we get a lot of customers from Taiwan and Hong Kong.” On February 1, flights from those two destinations were briefly banned by Vietnam’s aviation authority, creating chaos and lingering concerns that restrictions could be reimposed. Nguyen also said some of the apartment buildings in which she manages units had taken precautionary measures over the coronavirus, though only three cases have been confirmed in the city. At one building, a security guard takes the body temperature of guests, while people have to check in at the reception desk and show where they have travelled recently.

She lives in a large apartment complex on the Saigon River, and the building management has given out face masks in the lobby, while hand sanitiser dispensers have been installed inside lifts. Both of the products have become difficult to find at pharmacies and grocery stores throughout Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese government is converting two existing facilities in the city into field hospitals to handle a potential influx of coronavirus cases. These facilities will “receive, monitor and treat” all suspected coronavirus patients if the epidemic spreads further, according to Ho Chi Minh City’s health department director Nguyen Tan Binh.

In Hanoi, two military facilities have been turned into quarantine centres for up to 1,500 people as the country prepares to receive 950 people from China to be isolated at the sites.

By Michael Tatarski - The South China Morning Post - February 6,2020 Two provinces in northern Vietnam near the China border have also set up beds for close to 3,000 patients, while central Vietnam has centres ready for as many as 3,700.

By Michael Tatarski - The South China Morning Post with Agence France Presse - Fébruary 6, 2020