Saigon’s Final Days Before The Citywide Freeze: A War For Groceries And Medicines

Historic moments before Saigon entered a “stay-put” phase

For those who live in Saigon, the past couple of days have been unforgettable. They will probably go down in history as the toughest moments of physical and emotional preparation as Saigon was about to enter a new chapter. 

Some have called this period of time a “semi-lockdown”, “no-movement restrictions”, or “freeze”. No matter what name it bears, it doesn’t change the reactions or events that the most recent restrictive policy brought about. From the endless lines at the grocery stores to the unavailability of the most essential goods such as eye drops, what happened in Saigon last weekend deserves to go down in history.   

This is my account of what happened in Saigon before the dawn of 23rd August 2021 broke.

19th August – a “stay-put” order was issued and people started panic-buying

People waiting to get into a grocery store on 21st August
Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

According to my grocery stamp, I was allowed to visit the market on Monday and Thursday every week. 

On the afternoon of Thursday 19th August, I visited the nearest grocery store at 4PM and was amazed by a very long queue of shoppers. That was totally unexpected. On the last grocery trip that I made on Monday, it took me less than 20 minutes of waiting to get in. 

Knowing that I wouldn’t be able to make it inside by 5PM, I went home and made my grocery order online. No staff member replied to my order that afternoon.

On that evening, a neighbor called me and asked me to read the news about a new restrictive policy that’d kick in on 23rd August. 

I wasn’t stunned yet when I first heard that, as we had been on movement restrictions for 3 months already. I told my neighbor that I didn’t think that it could get worse than this.

Military troops will supervise a majority of activities in Saigon starting from 23rd August onwards
Image credit: Soha

She replied, “It’s worse. You won’t be able to go out after 23rd August. You don’t know that? On top of that, the news said that delivery riders would have to cease operations from then on. The military will take over. Have you made any preparations yet?”

I was shocked to hear that announcement. It was too sudden. My brain still couldn’t process the idea of not being able to go out. 

It dawned on me that the reason why so many people flocked to the grocery store this afternoon was because they were panic buying groceries. 

When I realized that 23rd August was Monday, my supposed grocery shopping day, I knew that my chances of grocery shopping for the week were completely gone. 

City leaders conducted a briefing introducing the new phase of citywide freeze
Image credit: Ministry of Health

I rushed to read every article regarding the 23rd August policy. All the information that I could get from those articles was that everyone was supposed to stay put for at least 15 days. The military would supply the groceries, but there were no details yet on how they would bring them to my doorstep. 

The information was there, but the details were nowhere in sight.

20th August – the tensions increased and I called my family for help

Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

On Friday, I called a grocery store first thing in the morning to urge them to deliver my order. 

A staff member told me that she had noted down my request. She told me that a store staff member would deliver the ordered items to my door between 9AM-5PM. 

Because of her words, I dared not keep my eyes off my phone for the whole day.   

I was added into a group of grocery shoppers who often shop at the store, so I was, thankfully, kept posted with what was going on to a certain degree.

Around noon on Friday, a store staff member announced to the group that they would stop receiving orders for the day because the system was already overstrained. I felt my heart skipping a beat.

Police force had a hard time maintaining orders in front of a supermarket
Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

I went around my neighborhood, which is home to 3 grocery stores, to see what was going on and whether I could get a chance to find groceries without a food stamp. 

To my shock, they were all filled with grocery shoppers. I wouldn’t be able to get in, safe and sound, let alone shop without a grocery stamp.

I decided to go home, continue working, and wait.

I opened my refrigerator and there were only 6 eggs and some instant noodles left. Realizing that I might go hungry for the whole week unless I could find a way to get groceries within the next 2 days, I felt the earth tremble beneath my feet. My whole week’s supply of food was at that moment depending on the delivery of the items that I ordered from the grocery store.

Image credit: Tien Phong

At 4PM, a grocery store staff called me and apologized.

“I’m sorry, I can’t deliver you the items today. The system is overloaded. We’ve tried our best,” he said.

I screamed on the phone and immediately felt apologetic for doing that, and explained, “But I ordered yesterday and now my household doesn’t have any food.”

He kept apologizing and told me that he’d try to deliver the items when he could. No specific timeline was given to me. 

Feeling helpless with the mounting pressure of shortage of food, I had to call my family for help with food, which I had never done before.

I live alone in District 7, and my family is in Nha Be District. 

I asked my parents if they could send me anything while delivery shippers were still able to work. For the first time, my family had to discuss and strategize how to get groceries that were enough for 2 weeks.     

I received many text messages from my friends that evening, and I also texted many of them to ask for more information in their areas. My friend who worked in Gojek advised me to order groceries while I still could, because further instructions on delivery were still not announced yet. 

A grocery shopper happily waved to the camera after successfully buying several bags of rice
Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

Here’s my takeaway for those who might face a similar situation in future.

Get yourself added into as many chat groups as possible these days, to keep yourself updated on what’s going on. Trust me, it’s very hard to get the full picture of what’s going on in this crisis if you just rely on the news. Even the news is updated on an hourly basis.

Do not hesitate to contact your neighbors, your friends, or anyone you know who might give you a heads-up that might give you peace of mind or help you prepare properly. 

21st August – I got groceries from my family

Food from my resourceful mom

On the morning of Saturday, I had nothing left in my fridge. 

Throughout my entire life, I had encountered all types of fears. From failing school exams to losing a business deal, I had been through the crushing lows. However, a fear of not having food had never been among them. 

At 9AM, I got a call from my mom telling me that she had bought a large amount of instant noodles and some kilograms of pork for the household. She told me that she would send them to me before noon.

I was amazed by my mother. I had no idea how she had sourced that amount of groceries. 

“I ordered them from my neighbors and they delivered everything to our door. The price was higher, of course, but it was worth it,” my mom said. She added that the situation was more relaxed in her area and all the groceries that she purchased for the whole month were sourced from her neighbors who happened to be independent retailers. 

People waiting in front of the closed doors of the house of a neighbor, who happens to be a retailer, to buy groceries. For those who wonder why the doors were closed, it’s because family-run retailers are not allowed to operate like grocery stories or supermarkets during the pandemic. 

My mom warned me to not go to any grocery store because they were filled to the brim by then. There was a very high risk of contracting Covid-19 if everyone just squeezed in without caring about their own safety. 

I went to read the news and couldn’t believe my own eyes. 

Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

Photos and videos of people around Saigon flocking to grocery stores filled social media. I was never a believer in panic buying, but seeing people panic buy made me panic. 

The distance between my place and my family’s is about 7KM away and less than 20 minutes’ drive, but it took my mom 2 hours to find an app-hailing rider to send me the groceries.

Every minute went by in immense anxiety and fear. I was so afraid that the rider would have a run-in with the law along the way and I would go without food until God knows when.  

Fortunately, I got the promised delivery. 

The moment I received the much needed supplies for the whole week, I was overwhelmed with joy, gratitude, and a bit of guilt. I had enough to tide over because I had my family. What about those who didn’t?

An hour later, I got the long-anticipated ordered items from the grocery staff. 

“Do you think I can order groceries from your store after 23rd August?” I asked the delivery guy.

He shook his head, “I honestly don’t know what will happen after that day. There’s no information yet. Sorry!”

Before he left, he advised me to stop ordering fresh produce or meat, because I wouldn’t know how the situation would play out the next week. 

“You don’t know when you’ll be able to grocery shop again right? Therefore, you should order canned food if possible because you can’t preserve meat or vegetables for long,” he said.

Saturday was an eventful day for me, and I learned so many lessons. 

A meme from the Internet describing the eventful weekend
Image credit: Hai Duong

The biggest of all, from my mother, is to be good friends with your neighbors and be very flexible. If your neighbor sells essentials at a much higher price than that in the market and you need to be alive, just buy them. Of course, you need to eat. At the same time, you need to protect yourself from Covid-19. 

To strike a happy medium, buy what you can from your neighbors, and keep your protests about price gouging for later.     

22nd August – a death without a funeral

The harsh, sunny weather couldn’t deter people from queuing for groceries
Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

On Sunday, I received news that delivery riders in my district would still be able to work after 23rd August. I breathed a sigh of relief. However, I decided to take every news update with a grain of salt and did what was best for myself.

I made a list of medicines that I needed and went to the nearest pharmacy store. 

As I walked past a neighbor’s house, I smelled strong incense coming from the house. Plus, there were several people sitting and standing nearby looking into that home.

Curious, I looked into their home from a distance and spotted a heart-wrenching sight.

I saw an incense burner with burning incense in the middle of the house, some bananas, and a person lying there covered from head to toe by a blanket. 

I realized that someone had just passed away. 

That was new for me too – seeing a person who had their final moments in this world without a proper funeral. In these Covid-19 days, to be able to die in one’s own home is already a blessing and to have a funeral is mission impossible.  

I hurried on with my essential trip. Honestly, there was nothing that I could have done. 

As the clock counted down the hours, people in my neighborhood rushed around to get what they had to before 5PM. 

The entrance and exit to my neighborhood were then barricaded much earlier than I expected.

People queueing in front of a drug store
Image credit: Nguoi Lao Dong

I got into a thin queue in front of a drugstore. As I looked around, I still saw a very long line of people queuing in front of a grocery store across the street. I was lucky enough to get groceries without having to put my foot in a grocery store, so I was in no place to judge anyone. 

People flocking into a grocery store up until the final hours before the curfew on 22nd August

However, let’s admit that there’s a very high risk of contracting Covid-19 during such a dense essential trip. 

As I was waiting, I overheard another shopper screaming on his phone, “I’m not interested in buying any property in Phu Quoc right now. Can I eat it? I’ve been queuing from early morning until now and still can’t get my hands on any bottle of fish sauce.”

I disagree with the man’s tone of voice but totally agree with his point of view. Nobody is interested in buying anything but food and medicine these days.  

After queuing for 30 minutes, I was finally able to speak with the drugstore cashier. All I wanted to buy was eye drops, balm oils, and a bottle of Cetaphil cleanser.

“We have no eye drops and balm oils left. Plus, we have only 1 bottle of Cetaphil left,” the cashier said in a dry tone.

That came as a big shock, not having any eye drops left. That was when I started feeling extremely bad for the people with chronic ailments. These people must have their medicine but medicine is not easy to find these days. 

“What about the people whose lives depend heavily on medicine and can’t afford them?” I asked myself. 

I bought the Cetaphil and continued walking to other drugstores amid the noon heat. People were still flocking into convenience marts and grocery stores, looking anxious and hurried. 

After wandering about for the next 45 minutes, I found a drugstore that sold eye drops. 

On my way home, I chanced upon a grocery staff member whom I was acquainted with. 

A text from a staff member at a grocery store that I often shop at notifying us about its temporary suspense of accepting grocery orders

When I asked him about grocery shopping after 23rd August, he said, “You can still order groceries, but it would be military soldiers who deliver this time. By the way, we’ll keep you posted if anything comes up. Nothing is set in stone yet so stay tuned.”

That was the best news that I had heard in days. 

By the time I got home with my hands filled with bags of medicines, it was 3PM.

At around 6PM, the final day of restrictive movements concluded with a heavy downpour, paving the way for a new day of no movements. 

Saigon in these historic days of the Covid-19 pandemic

The past 3 days have been exhausting for many, especially people with kids or parents who are advanced in ages. It’s easy to judge and shame people based on the photos that you see online. For many people, all that you can see is people flocking to the malls or drugstores to hoard supplies and put others in danger. From the perspective of someone who was there, what I saw were people who couldn’t do without baby powder, diapers, and medicines. 

On the other hand, I think that we should all consider playing by ear now. It’s not easy to be thrown into an unprecedented situation and requested to comply amid all sorts of uncertainties, but we don’t really have other options. We either suffer for several days due to a shortage of food or die of Covid-19 complications if we keep crowding into stores. 

If the government says that the military will help us, let’s try to have faith about it because that’s the only hope we have right now. Meanwhile, stay updated on the latest developments of the new policy and keep your online communications with your neighbors and friends open at all times. 

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Cover image adapted from: Hai Duong and Nguoi Lao Dong

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Josee Ng

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