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Love in the Time of Corona: Long-Distance Relationships When You're Just 1km Apart

In an ever-moving world, “long distance” has become a well-established concept in modern relationships. It’s easy to spot couples with one half living in a different time zone among our social circles. Since a new COVID-19 outbreak descended upon Vietnam, a new “generation” of long-distance couples has emerged. This time, the separation is not due to geographic displacement, but lockdown enforcement.

On an average day, long distance is already a strain on a normal relationship, but maintaining a connection when the world is going through a global calamity is even harder. Before embarking on the long-distance mode, lovers usually have time to mentally prepare and put down terms; but what happens to others who were unwittingly yanked into the arrangement by government restrictions this year? Saigoneer talked to three couples currently living apart in the city to discuss how their relationship is faring and what they’re doing to keep the flame going.

Open communication is key

Lê Hưng and Châu Phương are among many affianced couples who had to delay their wedding indefinitely. On a trip to Da Lat before the pandemic, Hưng popped the important question, “on a night sans candles or flowers, just a bottle of wine and home-grilled meat.” According to Phương, they have been together for two years and can’t wait to say “I do.”

She adds that in the beginning of lockdown, connecting was a daunting task because they are not used to constantly texting and talking on the phone. Due to the nature of his job as a lawyer, Hưng is also quite stoic. As time went by, they slowly forged a communication routine, understanding that it’s the only way to sustain a sense of closeness.

“Now, from Zalo to Messenger to Viber to Whatsapp, we text everyday and call each other before bed. I love telling him about the tiny moments of my day,” she gushes. “We can’t see each other so this is the only way to affirm that the other half is still in tune with us.”

Phương explains that they could sense that an extended lockdown would be on the horizon before it hit, so they packed the previous weeks with countless dates: “Our favorite type of date is breakfast hangouts. So the list included many morning dishes like bánh mì, xôi, bánh ướt Nguyễn Cư Trinh, bún mọc Thanh Mai, noodles on Trương Định. When in the city, we’ll ride around on a bike. When on vacation, we’ll listen to cải lương together on the way, because that’s his favorite [type of music].”

The tight dating schedule before Saigon imposed tight movement restrictions has unfortunately backfired, because they got used to the easily accessible intimacy. “We miss the hand-holding, kisses. We miss even the simplest things that now are a luxury, like just going for a morning cup of joe together, nhậu-ing together, watching TV together, etc.”

Connect on every channel

Thanh Chi and Đăng Trí represent the openness and progressive stance of Gen Z. They met via Tinder and went through a period of long-distance courtship when Chi got a job in Da Lat, so they were somewhat used to not being able to meet often even before the pandemic. “Every fortnight, Trí would travel to visit me. We would amble around Da Lat, watch many sunsets and sunrises, or even do a roadtrip to Nha Trang,” she recalls.

When the current outbreak began, Chi returned home to Saigon, while Trí went back to Dong Nai, both working from home. She admits that they are both busy workaholics, but they have found time for each other even during business hours.

She elucidates: “We will video call and watch each other work. We are in different fields but both have ‘sold our soul to capitalism.’ Sometimes someone will add commentary on what they’re working on or just blurt out ‘ugh my head is itchy I think I’ll go wash my hair.’”

Besides, the pair also seek social connection through games and online courses: “Upgrading ourselves is also a life goal for us, so we pledged that if one person doesn’t accomplish this or that task, they would have to ‘contribute’ VND500,000 to the dating fund.”

Sharing simple daily updates is one way for Chi and Trí to feel closer to the other person: “Every day, we talk about what our family is cooking for lunch. At times, Trí will hop onto his rooftop and call me so we can watch the sunset together.”

Personal struggles like her sensitivity and his work pressures have been more difficult to tackle without face-to-face conversations. When a problem rears its head, they choose direct communication as a way to clear their emotions and understand each other more. She shares: “I believe that, when there’s something wrong, it’s best to avoid passive aggression or fighting. If both parties agree to sit down to clear their head and express what they feel, it can be solved much faster."

When the situation improves in the future, their plan is to organize a vacation to Sapa and Vung Tau as a belated birthday gift for Chi.

Keeping the fire and the secret

Minh Uyên and Hà Như’s relationship faces a different set of challenges stemming from their need to stay private. “I’m still living with my family and haven’t told them that I have a girlfriend. Như lives alone so there’s no one around to share the pandemic burden with her. We don’t have privacy or peace of mind so every day we sneak calls to the other to see if they’re still alive,” Minh Uyên says.

Their romance has a rather unique track record, going from 300 kilometers apart when Như lived on a farm in Da Lat to just one kilometer now when they are both in Saigon. Though, with restrictions in place, the “long-distance” status is back, even though they’re literally a walk away from each other.

Both food lovers, the ladies have taken many a trip to the other half’s heart via the stomach. Once Saigon became a shared home, they immediately started going through the list of most-recommended eateries. “We’re food enthusiasts so before we spent a lot of time around town to seek new restaurants, be it Chinese, western or Vietnamese cuisine. The growth of our relationship is directly proportional to our waistline,” Uyên shares.

The first trial came when Như’s block was cordoned off for three weeks due to a local infection. She was too busy with work to cook or stock up groceries, so Uyên had to step in as the designated shopper.

“We had fights big enough to come near ‘breakup territory’ because I tend to choose food that fits my palate. The seemingly sentimental passing of food across the blockade turned out to be so comical we both burst out laughing, because we were both masked up and brandishing sanitizing spray,” she adds.

With every lockdown extension, the separation grew from three weeks to three months. The living situation has become a significant setback.

Like any other couple, they keep in touch via phone apps: “We dedicate a time frame to call each other. It’s usually during noon, so ‘Have you eaten yet?’ is now a common trope. When one manages to get good food, she will show the other via phone.”

Uyên is quite loquacious, while Như prefers to keep to herself, so some misunderstandings happen here and there in the texts. “Our solution is to rely on cat memes to demonstrate emotions — crying cat for sadness, frolicking cat for happiness, etc. Even though they take up a lot of space in our phones, they help clear our head,” she says.

Illustrations by Hannah Hoang, Patty Yang and Phuong Phan.

Some names in the article have been changed upon the subject’s request.

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