Life After Reopening:
Business Lessons From Vietnam
Only a few weeks after I arrived in February, worry began to spread about the state of the economy in Ho Chi Minh City. The Vietnamese government was determined to stamp out the COVID-19 virus and decided it was necessary to make some economic concessions in exchange for protecting public health.
The government first began enforcing public health measures in January when they shut down schools and quarantined some villages on the border with China.
International tourists traveling during the heightened social distancing regulations
Ho Chi Minh City, known to many Americans as Saigon, is a popular destination for Western expats. The low cost of living mixed with competitive teaching packages makes it a top destination for Westerners interested in living and working in Asia.
Parts of HCMC's economy have become increasingly dependent on the local international community. This is especially true in Thao Dien, an upscale part of HCMC that is home to many of the city's foreign teachers.
When schools started closing in January, people were unsure when they would reopen. Speculation was rampant in teaching circles and popular international Facebook groups with guesses going every direction.
Growing uncertainty, mixed with increased anxiety caused by the global spread of the virus, resulted in many foreign teachers packing their bags and returning home. For those who decided to stay, almost all were forced to tighten their belts as a result of having reduced or no income.
This sent shockwaves across the city's economy. Local shops and restaurants, ranging from electronic stores to motorbike rentals, had profits tank. A local Vietnamese resident put it best when she told me, "If you have a favorite restaurant, now is the time to support them."
A popular expat barber shop previously temporarily closed due to COVID-19 public health regulations
In March I went to a nearby electronics store in Thao Dien. It was during HCMC's most strict lockdown period when many stores and services were forced to closed. The normally upbeat shop owner had the economy on the top of her mind. She told me she had gone through tough times before, and that she would find a way to make it though this difficult period.
The international teaching community's mindset was similarly downtrodden. While almost no one agreed on the date schools would reopen, there was near consensus on one issue: even after schools resumed, it would take a long time for the teaching market to recoup.
During the lockdown period foreign teachers became increasingly desperate for work. Educated foreign teachers, who can normally earn at least $17 an hour, were fighting against each other for the few new online positions that offered less than half the normal amount.
Then, towards the end of April, things began to take a turn for the better. After what appeared to be a largely successful containment of the virus, the Vietnamese government started allowing some businesses to resume and schools were scheduled to reopen.
I remember how the city slowly came back to life. The social distancing regulations began easing on a Thursday. Few businesses immediately decided to open, but by Friday businesses were ready to go. On Saturday evening I went out and it felt like life was just about normal. The street fruit vendors were out, people were enjoying the evening air, and the only thing that seemed to separate it from a normal Saturday was everyone wearing a mask.
A couple days ago I went again to the same electronic store. Right when I walked in I could tell the shop owner's upbeat attitude had returned. I asked her about business, and while she admitted it was slower than in normal times, business was much, much better than it had been during the lockdown.
Even the teaching jobs that people thought would take a while to return have made a surprisingly quick comeback. A Facebook commenter perhaps put it best when he publicly replied to a lower-than-average teaching salary position with "this isn't the lockdown anymore".
Expats in Ho Chi Minh City: a popular expat Facebook group with over 126,000 members.
While it's undeniable that the American and Vietnamese economy are different, witnessing the Vietnamese economy bounce back should give Americans hope.
Many Americans are going to be more careful with their money after the public health crisis is over, but the craving for life to return to normal may be stronger than people think.
In Vietnam and China, where malls, restaurants, and stores have reopened, residents have flocked to go out after a prolonged period of quarantining at home. This has helped the service industry rebound after many were forced to close or adapt to the new economy.
This time a century ago the United States had just fought a world war and was combating the spread of another pandemic, the Spanish Flu. America will get through this challenging period - even if sometimes it is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
About the author:
Alexander graduated with his bachelor's degree in political science from Portland State University. He is a master's student studying international relations at Peking University. He is currently based out of Saigon, Vietnam.