Hanoi, Vietnam – Vũ, a migrant worker in Taichung, Taiwan, was hoping to return to northern Vietnam on one of the monthly repatriation flights arranged by the Vietnamese government during the pandemic.
But after three applications at the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei last year, Vũ heard nothing back for seven months.
“Every time I called them, they told me to wait, but I’ve been waiting for half a year,” Vũ, who worked with a Taiwanese electronics company on a short-term contract, told Al Jazeera .
After searching the internet for people in the same boat, Vũ gave up waiting and in July booked a charter flight from Taipei to Da Nang operated by Vietjet. The trip, including a 21-day quarantine and several COVID-19 tests, cost her 59,000 New Taiwan dollars ($ 2,100), equivalent to about two months of her salary in Taiwan. The government flight would have cost 14,000 New Taiwan dollars ($ 500). Before the pandemic, commercial flights from Taipei to Da Nang went for as little as $ 100.
“Nobody saved me, so I had to save myself,” said Vũ, who asked to use only her surname. “I could not wait any longer.”
Vũ considers herself happy compared to many of her colleagues in Taiwan, who remain stranded because they could not secure a place on a government flight or afford a chartered flight.
Vietnam all international commercial flights suspended in March 2020 to halt the spread of COVID-19. The government has carried out special flights for Vietnamese citizens stranded overseas, as well as allowed some charter flights for certain foreigners, including highly skilled workers, specialists and investors. About 200,000 Vietnamese overseas have been waiting to return home since September, according to state media reports citing government figures.
Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Phạm Bình Minh said 200,000 civilians had been brought home since the pandemic began on more than 800 government flights carried out in the spirit of “leaving no one behind”.
Applicants should apply to a Vietnamese embassy or consulate, with preference officially given to people with underlying health conditions, seniors, children, pregnant women and those whose visa or employment contract has expired. Those who are successful are contacted a few days before their flight and instructed to buy tickets.
But cost considerations, limited space and the lack of transparency over how people are selected for the government scheme have raised questions about who is entitled to come home.
Phạm, a college student in Canada who asked to be referred only by his surname, told Al Jazeera he could jump into the queue, even though his case was not urgent due to a personal connection with a staff member at the Embassy of Vietnam in Ottawa.
“The embassy informed me of the flight date and required me to respond within three days,” said Phạm, who decided to return to Vietnam to save on living expenses in Canada after moving his university classes online.
“If I did not accept the offer, someone else would accept that slot. There were so many people waiting to fly home, so I thought I should take it. “
Phạm’s trip home in December 2020 cost him $ 2,600, more than double the price he would have paid before the pandemic.
“It was the cheapest rescue package I could get,” Phạm said, adding that some of his friends had waited almost a year in vain. “The embassy only rescued those who could afford it.”
Nguyễn, who graduated from an MA program in South Korea, paid $ 470 for a seat on a government flight in September 2020 after a five-month wait for a seat.
“I never expected a rescue flight to be so expensive, but I had no choice,” Nguyễn, who requested to use only his surname, told Al Jazeera. “They [the Embassy] told me to be grateful for the flight, not to be grumpy about it ”.
Nguyễn’s displeasure was exacerbated when he discovered his flight was crowded, despite assurances that it would only be half full.
“I was so scared to get the virus on board. “I thought there would be empty seats next to me, but no, the plane was completely full,” he said.
Vietnam’s Foreign Ministry and diplomatic missions in South Korea, Canada and Taiwan did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
In the local media, some articles have called for an end to “rescue” flights that take advantage of the plight of overseas Vietnamese, although they have refrained from pointing directly at the government.
During a webinar hosted by Thanh Nien News magazine last month, Dr Lương Hoài Nam, a local aviation expert, accused unnamed figures of taking advantage of differences between the actual cost of flights and the amounts charged, which is “harmful to the tourism sector and detrimental to the economy”.
In the popular Facebook group Tôi và Sứ quán (“Me and Embassies”), overseas Vietnamese shared experiences on paying for expensive airline tickets from countries including Russia, Thailand, Australia, the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.
Some members exposed violations, mostly the artificial inflating of fees by staff at diplomatic missions.
In 2018, the group’s administrator Vương Xuân Nghiêm launched an internet petition alleging that illegal practices are being used in diplomatic missions abroad, especially levying for services and collecting unauthorized fees.
One hundred and seventy-three Vietnamese citizens reported being unfairly charged with a total of $ 10,346 between January and November 2019, according to a report published by Vương on the group’s activities that year.
For stranded Vietnamese, there has been some light at the end of the tunnel in recent weeks.
Since November, neighboring Cambodia has allowed quarantine-free access for all vaccinated arrivals, opening an indirect route home for returnees.
After repeated flares in COVID-19 cases put a damper on reopening last year, Vietnam on Saturday resumed commercial flights with the United States and eight Asian destinations, including China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand.
Under the eased restrictions, arrivals who have been fully vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19 will only need to isolate themselves for three days instead of entering a quarantine facility. More flights to Australia and Europe are expected to resume in the coming weeks.
Hoa, a young professional in Bremen, Germany, told Al Jazeera he was looking forward to coming home for the first time since 2019.
“I can not make it for the new lunar year, but I will probably be able to go home this year,” Hoa said.