Hanoi, Vietnam – Vũ, a migrant worker in Taichung, Taiwan, hoped to return home to northern Vietnam on one of the monthly repatriation flights organised by the Vietnamese government during the pandemic.
But after three applications with 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 had waited for half a year,” Vũ, who worked with a Taiwanese electronics company on a short term contract, told Al Jazeera.
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After scouring the Internet for people in the same boat, Vũ gave up waiting and in July booked a chartered flight from Taipei to Da Nang operated by Vietjet. The trip, including 21 days of 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). Prior to the pandemic, commercial flights from Taipei to Da Nang went for as little as $100.
“Nobody rescued me, so I had to rescue myself,” said Vũ, who asked to only use her surname. “I could not wait any longer.”
Vũ considers herself lucky compared to many of her colleagues in Taiwan, who remain stranded because they have not been able to secure a place on a government flight or afford a chartered flight.
Vietnam suspended all international commercial flights in March 2020 in order to halt the spread of COVID-19, only resuming international flights for a limited number of countries on January 1.
Through the pandemic, the government has operated special flights for Vietnamese citizens stranded overseas, as well as allowing some chartered flights for certain foreigners, including highly-skilled workers, specialists and investors. About 200,000 Vietnamese overseas were waiting to come home as of September, according to state media reports that cited government figures.
Last month, Deputy Prime Minister Phạm Bình Minh said 200,000 citizens had been brought home since the pandemic began on more than 800 government flights operated in the spirit of “leaving no one behind”.
Applicants must apply at a Vietnamese embassy or consulate, with priority officially given to people with underlying health conditions, seniors, children, pregnant women, and those whose visa or labour contract has expired. Those who are successful are contacted a few days before their flight and instructed to purchase tickets.
But cost considerations, limited space and the lack of transparency about how people are chosen for the government scheme have raised questions about who is entitled to come home.
Phạm, a college student in Canada who asked to only be referred to by his surname, told Al Jazeera he had been able to jump the queue despite his case not being urgent due to a personal connection with a staff member at the Vietnamese Embassy in Ottawa.
“The embassy informed me of the flight date and required me to respond within three days,” said Phạm, who decided to go back to Vietnam to save on living expenses in Canada after his university classes moved online.
“If I did not accept the offer, someone else would take that slot. There were so many people waiting to fly home, so I thought I better 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.
“That was the cheapest rescue package I could get,” said Phạm, adding that some of his friends had waited almost a year to no avail. “The embassy only rescued those who could afford it.”
Nguyễn, who graduated from an MA programme in South Korea, paid $470 for a place on a government flight in September 2020 after a five-month wait for a seat.
“I never expected a rescue flight to be that 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 compounded when he discovered his flight was packed despite assurances it would only be half-full.
“I was so afraid of catching the virus on board. I thought there would be empty seats by my side, but no, the plane was completely full,” he said.Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and diplomatic missions in South Korea, Canada and Taiwan did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
In local media, some articles have called for an end to “rescue” flights profiting from the predicament of overseas Vietnamese, although they have refrained from pointing directly fingers at the government.
Speaking at the webinar organised by Thanh Niên News magazine last month, Dr Lương Hoài Nam, a local aviation expert, accused unnamed figures of benefitting from discrepancies between the actual cost of the flights and the amounts being charged, which was “damaging to the tourist sector and detrimental to the economy”.
In the popular Facebook group Tôi và Sứ quán (“Me and embassies”), overseas Vietnamese have shared experiences of paying costly airfares from countries including Russia, Thailand, Australia, the United States, Canada, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore.
Some members have alleged wrongdoing, most often the artificial inflating of fees by staff at diplomatic missions.
In 2018, the group’s administrator Vương Xuân Nghiêm started an Internet petition alleging illegal practices at diplomatic missions abroad, in particular overcharging for services and collecting unauthorised fees.
One hundred and seventy-three Vietnamese citizens reported being unjustly charged a total of $10,346 between January and November 2019, according to a report Vương published about 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, neighbouring Cambodia has allowed quarantine-free entry to all vaccinated arrivals, opening up an indirect route home for returnees.
After repeated flare-ups in COVID-19 cases put a dampener 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 are fully vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19 will only need to self-isolate 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 based in Bremen, Germany, told Al Jazeera he was looking forward to getting home for the first time since 2019.
“I cannot make it for the Lunar New Year, but I am sure to be able to go home this year,” Hoa said.