Snowy Sapa, Tet Flight Restrictions

Plus, the National Congress Nears

Good morning! How is everyone doing? (I know, that’s a fraught question during the pandemic.) Hello to all new subscribers! Last weekend, I wrote about Da Lat’s bizarre, ultimately tragic Biological Museum for Saigoneer.

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On to the news.

Let it snow

This would barely qualify as news in many countries, but snowfall has been a front-page topic this week. Parts of Lao Cai Province in the far north received a healthy (for Vietnam) amount of snow last weekend.

While snow is not unheard of in northern mountainous provinces, it is not common, and visitors from other parts of the country rushed to towns like Sa Pa to enjoy the winter weather.

For people living in the region - especially those from ethnic minority groups, who tend to be less affluent than ethnic Vietnamese (for a number of reasons) - the frigid weather was less welcome.

Schools across Dien Bien, Lai Chau, Yen Bai and Lao Cai provinces closed, while many people struggled to stay warm and couldn’t work. If you’ve visited rural northern Vietnam, you’ll know that village homes are certainly not built for freezing temperatures.

In central Sa Pa, ethnic minority children were seen hawking goods on the street in bone-chilling cold, an activity that local authorities have tried to discourage recently.

On the border with China in Ha Giang Province, meanwhile, guards have had to patrol remote mountain paths during evenings where it got down to -2 C (28 F). (As mentioned in previous editions, illegal border crossings are up, especially as Vietnamese try to get home for the upcoming Lunar New Year.)

Cool weather pushed all the way down to southern provinces as well, with the mercury in Saigon falling to a nippy 19 C (66 F) early Wednesday morning, the coldest it’s been all winter. One weather station in Dong Nai Province clocked a low of 14.4 C (58 F), the coldest reading in the region in four decades.

Before you laugh, that does feel genuinely chilly when it’s scorching hot here most of the year. Everyone had jackets on, and it feels even colder when you’re driving a motorbike or riding a bicycle.

Tet flight restrictions

The all-important Tet holiday is less than a month away, and officials are worried about COVID-19 risks associated with the break. While the country has gone well over a month with no known community transmission, millions of people move around Vietnam during Tet, while multi-generational families gather in close quarters, meaning that any public health slip-up could be hugely consequential.

In response, the government is limiting inbound flights until the holiday ends on February 16, though it’s not entirely clear what that means, as such flights are already heavily restricted. (Domestic aviation will do just fine, if the extremely expensive airfares and rapidly filling flights are any indication.)

This has put Vietnamese stuck abroad wishing to return home for the holiday in a tough spot, as described by friend-of-the-letter Sen Nguyen, who reports that there are Facebook groups for Vietnamese hoping to enter the country legally via Cambodia, while repatriation guidelines are confusing.

Beyond that, there has been mixed messaging on what to expect in terms of flights following Tet. On January 4, VnExpress reported that the government was not considering resuming commercial flights anytime soon given the spread of COVID-19 variants and deteriorating conditions in countries that had previously been doing quite well (Thailand, China, South Korea and Japan, for example - all of which would be logical places to resume flights from).

Then, on the 12th, Tuoi Tre reported that Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc has ordered relevant government agencies to come up with a plan to allow more flights in after Tet.

At this point I think it’s safe to say that flights will remain very limited for the first half of this year, and ensuing months will depend on a lot on how vaccinations are going globally. Personally, I’d like to be able to visit my family toward the end of this year, but the Vietnamese government isn’t going to take any chances given their successful containment of the virus thus far.

The National Congress

The Communist Party of Vietnam’s latest National Congress begins on the 25th, during which leadership will be chosen for the next five years.

John Reed looked at some of the closed-door wrangling for the Financial Times, while James Pearson of Reuters described how savvy social media users are skirting strict rules on discussing the congress by using metaphorical weather reports and football scores.

Domestic media, meanwhile, covered a huge security exercise held in Hanoi last Friday that saw thousands of police officers and all kinds of anti-riot equipment deployed to defend a mock assault on the all-important government meeting. (It was purely coincidental, but seeing this show of force just a day after the US Capitol building was ransacked made for an interesting contrast.)

Finally, in possibly related news, earlier this week the Ministry of Information and Communications unveiled its new Anti-Fake News Center, whose mission is to find online misinformation, label it as such, and prevent it from being shared further.

The website, frankly, doesn’t look very good, and thus far most of fake content in question seems rather harmless (it’s only in Vietnamese), but this will be interesting to keep an eye on. (Anyone can also submit a link they believe to fake news via the site.)

Extra Links:

Infiltrating a Vietnam tiger trafficking network: Confronting an online kingpin (Southeast Asia Globe)

Vietnam’s top telco revamps to ditch ‘middle-aged’ image (Nikkei Asia)

[Photos] For a Day, Winter Convention Brings Kick-Ass Cosplay Back to Saigon (Saigoneer)

Have a great weekend!


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