A lady working at Frankfurt Airport approached us with a puzzled look on her face and an apologetic smile. She said we were in the wrong queue and would have to walk a little further to the Condor check-in counters for the vacation flights, since this was the queue for a Condor special flight that was not intended for tourists. Admittedly, with only three suitcases, my wife in my arms and our toddler in a carrier, we probably didn’t look like business travelers who had a “golden ticket” to Vietnam. The dark circles under our eyes could also have been mistaken for the typical tired eyes of parents who had packed their vacation suitcases the night before and set off for the airport early in the morning feeling completely exhausted. And yes, we had indeed packed a lot, vacated our apartment in Stuttgart at short notice for the second time that year, squeezed what we wanted to take with us from our life in Germany to Vietnam into three suitcases that seemed much too small, and spent the days before departing desperately searching for a Covid test center in Stuttgart that also performs PCR tests on one-year-old children. We were standing in the right queue with a few foreigners and many Vietnamese who were hoping to finally make it to Vietnam, a country that had so far weathered the Covid crisis well, but had completely cut itself off from the rest of the world to do so.
“Boarding completed. All doors in flight!” Off we go! But suddenly the pilot announced that he had not yet received the landing permit and that he would wait another 10 minutes and then take off anyway, with or without landing permit. After all, the 12-hour flight time was long enough to sort out that paperwork, he said.
But weren’t the landing permits the reason why it had not been possible to operate any relocation flights of the German Chamber of Commerce Abroad (AHK) since the beginning of 2021?
We had also not had good experiences with permits, especially with the entry permit, in the months since March 2021. We wanted to be in Vietnam in April 2021. Everything looked good, the flight was booked, we had canceled the lease on our apartment in Stuttgart and we had moved out. But then came the shock: no entry permit for my family. Back we went to our canceled apartment, and had to pay an extra 15% rent on top. And so we waited for clarity – first days, then weeks, then months. This continued until 3 August 2021, when we were finally sitting in the plane hearing about the landing permit, because up until then no-one wanted to, or could, promise that we would actually be able to set off.
But finally we did set off! As we left behind the cellphone network along with the gray skies of the past few exhausting days of rain and glimpsed the first rays of sunshine above the clouds, the three of us made ourselves comfortable in our row of four seats and started to believe the on-board monitor in front of us – eleven more hours to Ho Chi Minh City.
Then, shortly before Vietnam, the plane made an uncharacteristically sharp 180° right turn at cruising altitude and the on-board loudspeaker began to crackle. Even though we couldn’t follow the first words uttered by the contrite pilot, we abruptly realized that things were about to get uncomfortable. There were apparently problems with the landing permit: “Entry into Vietnamese airspace denied!”. So at an altitude of eleven kilometers – between Cambodia and Thailand – we kept flying one big circle after another, and with each circle and a night spent in the plane without sleep, the tremendous tension mounted.
After what felt like an eternity of aimless circling, we finally went in for a landing approach due to a lack of kerosene. The destination was not Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi, nor, as had been discussed in the meantime, Singapore or Kuala Lumpur. The monitors now showed Bangkok. At the airport, we were directed to a deserted outer position and left there for the time being. Where to put the stranded people, including crew, when entry into Thailand was not even possible in times of Covid? The pilot cheered us up while giving us updates, even though he himself was, as he said, only stuck in conference calls.
Stopover or final destination? Welcome to BKK!
Bangkok-Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) was deserted. Whether the security guards were filming us out of suspicion, amazement, or mere curiosity when we arrived by bus at the gate of Suvarnabhumi Airport, it soon became irrelevant, as it was outweighed by the joy of being able to stretch our legs in an enclosed gate at the airport.
We witnessed the famous hospitality of the Thais as they brought us endless airplane boxes full of good food and fresh drinks. In fact, they even removed a snack machine from the terminal hall and reinstalled it for us in our gate. The following 18 hours flew by like a daydream.
Numerous conversations, such as with our freelancer Paul, provided distraction. He had already traveled to Frankfurt a week earlier from the UK, which was particularly affected by the delta variant, to first endure quarantine in Germany so that he could finally travel to Vietnam together with us. He was eagerly awaited at the offshore construction site to support one of our five owner’s engineering projects in the wind sector in Vietnam, operating under the most difficult conditions. He looked at me skeptically: “Michael, is that it? Will I be back in the UK in two days’ time and then have to quarantine there again?”. Just like us, he had been waiting for entry into Vietnam since April and did not expect an answer from me. After all, I too could not imagine carrying our furniture up to the fifth floor in Stuttgart yet again.
The crew slept in the hotel, while we were left with only a not-so-bright corner of the gate to allow our one-year-old and us to get some sleep. Along the way, we got to know a wide variety of fellow travelers, with whom we are still in contact today. The atmosphere was calm, friendly and cheery, which I still find remarkable to this day.
After ten hours at BKK, it looked like we were going back on a return flight. But shortly after midnight local time, hope began to spread. The pilot and crew were awake, and more importantly: In what by then must have been almost 30 hours of talks between AHK, embassies and Vietnamese Ministries, a breakthrough had been achieved – the landing permit had been granted!
On the same morning, 5 August 2021, we arrived in HCMC at 6 a.m. local time. My memory of the time from our entry at the airport, which had seemingly been opened only for us, and our final arrival at the quarantine hotel is patchy at best, as all we wanted to do was sleep.
But as our exhaustion faded, our anticipation grew. Another 14 days in hotel quarantine, then we would get on the plane to Hanoi and finally arrive in Vietnam – now in September instead of April, but still.
This is where the story of our journey should actually end, and I can forgive any reader who has persevered up to this point for stopping here. The journey was exhausting and was to become even more so.
15 days quarantine – as a warm-up
Thanks to a separate sleeping area, I was able to start working remotely on the first day in quarantine, while my wife unpacked a surprise or two that we had squeezed into the suitcase for our little one. This made looking out of the window and onto the pool not quite so hard. But when your one-year-old son is standing in front of you with his shoes in his hand, pointing longingly in the direction of the pool, you know what quarantine without a chance of fresh air means.
On the thirteenth day of quarantine, we set about packing and preparing for the seven-day follow-up quarantine at the aparthotel. This was unfortunately a fixed part of the entry process as an additional program item for parents with children.
The ultra-lockdown looms
But then, one day before check-out, there were first rumors, then the news came thick and fast. During our days in the quarantine hotel, infection rates had exploded outside our windows in Ho Chi Minh City. The country was gripped by its first real Covid wave. We were scheduled to move on 20 August 2021, but the results of our (by then) 4th PCR test were a long time coming and our hotel stay had to be extended for one more night.
At the same time, WhatsApp was continually lighting up with the latest news while we tried to order food as a precaution, albeit unsuccessfully. Without a local SIM card, it was simply impossible for us to order food via completely overloaded Vietnamese apps. But we had to because a complete lockdown, including the closure of all supermarkets and even pharmacies, had been ordered. The military was supposed to distribute food like eggplant and rice, but would that even reach us at the next hotel?
Just before we changed hotels, 30 eggs, flour, salt, sugar and pumpkins arrived along with some eagerly awaited diapers and, most importantly, two SIM cards. We had received a donation, organized by Vietnamese people traveling with us on the plane.
One SIM card was sent directly to Paul’s room via the hotel’s internal “infection-proof” mail. He was sitting on packed suitcases waiting for the last chance to get out of HCMC and into the neighboring province to reach the project after all. At the hotel, the emerging chaos delayed the check-out process, and the elevators had to be shut down because of impatient guests. Will Paul still make it across the provincial border by 6 p.m.? The driver had been waiting and ready to leave for hours in front of the hotel. At the last minute and thanks to the tireless support of our Hanoi colleagues, the hotel staff finally got Paul to the check-out via the freight elevator. He apparently traveled the 60 kilometers to Go Cong after several attempts and a journey of almost six hours. The text message about his arrival reached us shortly before our own departure.
Checking in for the longest quarantine stay of our lives
During the strict check-in at the aparthotel in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City, it became immediately apparent that there would be no catering of any kind, with only drinking water being supplied via canisters. At least that was something. We therefore adhered to the imminent home quarantine in our apartment at the aparthotel for only about 60 minutes on the first day before setting out to find whatever food we could in the last few hours before the total lockdown began in the almost deserted city. Some fruit, noodles, fresh meat and fish from the roadside and finally canned food and leftovers from the convenience store of our hotel, which we were kindly allowed to enter through the staff entrance without having to wait in line.
Ho Chi Minh City shuts down
The next day, absolutely everything was indeed closed. No people, no traffic. Only the relentless drumming of tropical rain could be heard. The intersection in front of our hotel was blocked off with barbed wire on Sunday night. Initially without reflectors or warning lights. A few minutes after the roadblock crew had left, the first moped rider wandering through the streets experienced this painfully.
Trapped in the spacious 90 m² apartment that we were to call home for almost the next two months, we embarked on many gloomy days and nights – with a balcony view of a city that felt like a village. Thanks to a functioning high-speed internet connection, I was able to continue supervising my projects. The compassionate questions from my colleagues, which were always asked even when there was a lot of time pressure in the project, showed me once again why I value working at Fichtner so much.
Swabian noodles from the chopping board and sourdough – what else can we invent to eat?
Our rather sparsely equipped kitchen was probably worked like never before. 30 eggs and flour meant lots of noodles, which we scraped off the chopping board. During that time, we came up with many creative recipes and also our first batch of sourdough, which later traveled with us to Hanoi and continues to provide us with delicious breads.
Only after almost four weeks of complete lockdown did the situation in HCMC ease in very slow steps. The convenience store in the hotel even opened after just two and a half weeks – even though entry was restricted to hotel guests and staff via the back entrance, and fresh produce such as fruit and vegetables barely made it to the shelves. Meanwhile, food was rotting at the interprovincial roadblocks, as was the odd construction site crane that would much rather be erecting wind turbines.
Suddenly a quick departure to Hanoi after all? 9 September 2021 was a sad day.
We almost didn’t witness the gradual awakening of Ho Chi Minh City, because on 8 September we received surprising and joyful news: AHK, in close cooperation with Vietnamese authorities, had been able to organize a permit and tickets for the remaining passengers, who did actually then depart from HCMC to Hanoi on 9 September 2021.
Everything had to happen quickly, and going to the nearest Covid test center even allowed us to spend a few minutes walking around the cordoned-off city. At 10 p.m., we received the joyful news via e-mail that the tickets had been issued. But upon closer reading, we realized that two passengers and the Schmidt family would have to be patient a while longer. First they said at midnight, then at 6 a.m. the next morning. The flight left as planned at 10 a.m. the next day – but without us. My family and two other unfortunate passengers had been lost on an Excel list.
At the second attempt on the following day, the same authority that had already blocked our entry into Vietnamese airspace blocked our onward journey.
16 October 2021 – One month and one week after our first attempt to journey on to Hanoi, the time had supposedly come. Flights from HCMC to Hanoi were allowed again, and it was finally our turn to fly. Or was it? The evening before our departure, it was made clear in the media that unvaccinated children, even if tested, were not allowed to fly. So we had to unpack again.
23 October 2021 – Finally, the time really had come and we were allowed to fly to Hanoi, almost three months after our departure from Germany. Only two final Covid tests and seven days of home quarantine in a pleasant hotel with a view of the playground awaited us there before I was allowed to say “hello” to my new colleagues in the Hanoi office on 1 November 2021, exactly one day after expiry of the fixed feed-in tariff for wind projects.
After 90 days of traveling, including 30 days in quarantine, 53 days in what was virtually quarantine in the lockdown in Ho Chi Minh City, 18 hours in Bangkok and eight Covid tests, the restrictions in Hanoi, which were still very strict by German standards, were no longer a problem for us. We had finally arrived.
For our wind experts at Fichtner, together with our clients and the contractors, a race against time and all the adversities associated with Covid simultaneously came to a successful end. Despite extreme restrictions, such as interprovincial two-week quarantine, stranded experts and non-arrival of site machinery and wind farm components, all five wind farms supervised by Fichtner were connected to the grid before the deadline expired. Thanks go to the more than ten colleagues in Stuttgart as well as the approximately 40-strong office and site team on site in Vietnam.
A very personal thank-you goes to my wonderful wife, for without her and our little son I would have gone crazy and those 90 long days would have been much, much longer.
PS: A final recommendation to all parents: Even if luggage space is scarce, an ice cream maker in your suitcase can be a lifesaver on many weekends in quarantine.