From Vietnam to USA for COVID-19 Vaccine Tourism

by Jackie
Published: Updated:
Two COVID-19 bottles with a portion of a U.S. flag in the background

Vaccine tourism here we come! It’s been recent news where international travelers head to the U.S. or other countries for a quick trip to get their COVID-19 vaccine. 

As you know, we’ve been living in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in South Vietnam for the past 3.5 years. It has a special place in our hearts and we consider Vietnam as our second home. Our first home will always be in the Bay Area in California, U.S. 

We haven’t talked much about our experience during the pandemic. In a snapshot, we’ve been fortunate to stay in a country where the Vietnamese government is focused on keeping the people safe and controlling the spread of COVID. With the social distancing efforts and closing the borders to international travelers, the first three waves had few deaths and the number of new cases went down to zero. 

That all changed with the current fourth wave which has wrecked the country. With over 16,000 cases a day recently, the news changes constantly on what everyone can or cannot do. It keeps everyone on full alert and in a constant panic.

Many of the cities have been on full lockdown since May where no one was allowed to go outside of their homes unless they had a COVID test every 3 days and official documentation for specific travel purposes. Starting August 23, Ho Chi Minh City is on an even stricter lockdown where everyone except military or medical professionals must stay inside their homes for another two weeks with the food supply chain managed by the army. 

After staying in Vietnam continuously for 17 months and being locked in our apartment for the last 2 months still working from home, we decided at the last minute in mid-July to return home to the Bay Area to get the COVID vaccine, see friends and family, and return to Vietnam as soon as possible. Since we were already working remotely, why not do this back in the U.S.?

Is Vaccine Tourism Right for You?

Vaccine tourism isn’t for everyone. It’ll depend on the current situation you’re facing, the budget, and the amount of time that you have to spend.

**Update as of December 2021: Visitors must be fully vaccinated before entering the U.S. Check for the updates here.

If traveling to the U.S. or any other country for the COVID vaccine, there are some things to consider. 

  1. Length of the trip. This will require some planning if you’re looking to stay in the guest country for a certain length, especially if you’re looking for 2 dosages of the vaccine. You’ll need at least 3-4 weeks. 
  2. The cost of the round-trip flight. Round-trip plane tickets are not cheap as many of the flying routes have been cut or canceled. We booked a one-way ticket from Ho Chi Minh City to San Francisco (SFO) (as we didn’t have a return date yet due to waiting for Vietnam to process a new visa) and it was over $1,000 USD per person. The cost was high as we booked the flight 36 hours before departure. 
  3. There is a risk of catching COVID during air travels and layovers. Even though everyone boarding the plane has to take a COVID PCR test and show proof of a negative test before boarding, there is a small chance of getting exposed to the virus. 
  4. The cost of a visa to enter the guest country (if needed). 
  5. The cost of the quarantine facilities on arrival in the guest country and quarantine costs at a hotel or self-isolation when returning to the home country (if needed). 
  6. Any accommodations, rental car, and food costs once landing in the guest country and other travel costs depending on how long you plan to stay. 

As you can see, it can get very pricey to do this trip. 

Why Didn’t We Get a Vaccine in Vietnam?

Vietnam’s government is working as hard as it can to distribute vaccines. Unfortunately, the process is slow as there isn’t enough quantity and waits for new shipments from COVAX weekly. 

At the time of publishing, over 17.6 million doses have been distributed in the country, 17.77% of the total population received one dosage of the vaccine, and only 2.68% of the current population is fully vaccinated with 2 doses. 

The vaccines offered in Vietnam to both locals and foreigners are Astrazeneca (the most common), Sputnik, Sinopharm (Vero Cell), Moderna, and Pfizer (the last two are given to those 65 years and older). 

You’re given what is available so there isn’t any choice of the vaccine. Some foreigners hesitated in getting a certain vaccine due to the efficacy and the potential side effects. 

If we had stayed a few weeks longer in Vietnam, we would have received the first dose of the vaccine as our apartment community organized a vaccination drive, but many of our friends and colleagues still haven’t gotten their first dose 1.5 months after we have left Vietnam. They don’t know when they will get an opportunity.

Otherwise, we were excited about the choice of vaccine back in the U.S. – either Pfizer or Moderna.

How Did We Prepare to Leave Vietnam?

It was a last-minute trip so we had to get a few things in place: 

  1. Buy a flight. The quickest way to find availability is to buy directly from the airlines. Our final destination was San Francisco (SFO), so we did a flight from Ho Chi Minh City (SGN) to Narita-Tokyo, Japan (NRT) to SFO. You’ll need to have a flight booked before getting a COVID test. 
  1. Arrange a COVID test appointment (if needed). Luckily, we visited FV hospital in District 7 and walk-in appointments were allowed. 
  1. Get a taxi to take the PCR COVID test. Getting transportation was tricky since at the time, ride-sharing and taxis were not allowed to take people across town. Only certain taxis operated to drive people for hospital visits and vaccination appointments. While we called the taxi company to request one, they denied us twice. It was when Justin’s colleague called and spoke to the taxi company in Vietnamese and then a taxi came to us. 
  1. Take the required COVID test within 48-72 hours of flight departure. The COVID test type required will vary depending on the final destination. For the U.S., they allow these COVID test results. The cost will also vary depending on the facility. Check with your home country and layover location requirements.

By this time, we’ve already had two rapid COVID tests done from our apartment complex in the past week so we were a bit tired of having a Q-tip jammed up our noses.

Regardless, we took the RT-PCR (reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction) as it’s the most common test. Plus, we had a layover in Tokyo, Japan (Narita), and a PCR test was approved for this layover.

The test itself was only a few minutes. The nurse asked us a few questions such as our name, birth date, and when we will fly out.

  1. Take a taxi the next day to get the negative COVID results. The hospital sent us an email of our negative COVID test results, yet, we visited the hospital the next day to pick up the hard copy of the negative COVID certificate. In SEA, a paper copy is highly recommended as it looks more official. Luckily we pre-arranged the same taxi driver from the previous day. 
  1. Find a driver to take us to the airport. As we mentioned earlier, taxis and ride-hailing apps would not take people to the airport. We asked a friend to drive us to the airport which helped a lot.
  1. Pack a few things. We packed two duffel bags and two backpacks for carry-on and one large checked luggage. 

What about the apartment? We had less than two days to prepare to leave. Luckily, our landlord was understanding of the entire situation and allowed us to pay our rent once we returned to Vietnam. 

A face mask, four syringes, and an empty spray bottle on a blue background

Photo credit: Aleksey Bystrov via Scopio Photos

What We Experienced for Vaccine Tourism

From Ho Chi Minh City to Tokyo to San Francisco

Our flight was at 8:00am so we left our apartment at 5:30am. Once we arrived at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport, we noticed how empty it was. It was only Japan Airlines and Qatar Airlines that had flights out.

Check-in with Japan Airlines was easy enough with showing our passports, temporary residence cards, and negative COVID test results. It was quick – only 10-15 minutes total in line as there weren’t many people taking the flight. 

Going through immigration was also fast. We’re used to long lines that would snake around and would take over 30 minutes to get through. This time, we just had to walk up to the immigration officer and then go straight to Security.  

Jackie Szeto, Life Of Doing, waits in front of the empty Immigration section at Tan Son Nhat International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

We couldn’t believe how empty the Tan Son Nhat International Airport was!

We looked forward to visiting the lounge and using our Priority Pass card but it was closed. At least the waiting area wasn’t crowded.

The flight itself was about 10% full. It was nice to have no people around us. Plus, everyone wore their masks on the plane, except when eating and drinking. 

Jackie Szeto and Justin Huynh, Life Of Doing, sitting on a mostly empty plane on Japan Airlines from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam to Narita-Tokyo, Japan.

We enjoyed the empty space on Japan Airlines.

Since we arrived at Narita Tokyo International Airport a few days before the Olympics started, we saw a few Olympic athletes passing through. They walked through a different path of the airport. 

Tokyo Airport was also really empty. Most of the souvenir shops and restaurants were closed. We wanted to buy souvenirs but there was only one store open and didn’t have many souvenir snack options.

Before entering the gate to our flight to the US, the Japan Airlines crew checked our boarding pass and the negative COVID-19 test. 

On this leg of the flight, it was slightly fuller but still empty. It was a comfortable ride with plenty of food and beverage services from the flight crew. 

Arrival in San Francisco

We finally made it to San Francisco, California and we’re back home! After going through immigration and picking up our checked luggage, we were surprised that no one checked our negative COVID results. Guess it’s not needed since there isn’t a quarantine mandate on arrival to the U.S. 

The news reported that SFO has seen an increase in tourists stopping by for the COVID vaccine and we can see why. They offer the one-shot Johnson and Johnson vaccine in Arrivals, which is super convenient for those on the go. We also saw free COVID test kits. Both of these opportunities were FREE to tourists. 

Getting Vaccinated

We heard how difficult it was to get a vaccine appointment before mid-April in the U.S. Fast forward to a few months later and now there are a lot of vaccines available. You can choose where you want to go and which vaccine you want. Pretty much any pharmacy will have availability and the vaccine is FREE!

After picking up our rental car, we drove straight to a CVS Pharmacy and they had Moderna vaccines available. 

We decided we wanted Pfizer so we drove 5 minutes away to a Walgreens close to our accommodations.

We didn’t have an appointment and just walked in to get our vaccine. It was great since it requires only 3 weeks of waiting between the first and second dosage. Pfizer was also recently the first COVID-19 vaccine to be FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) approved.

The pharmacist gathered the basic information about us and asked if we had health insurance. We have international health insurance coverage but nothing locally so we checked the box, “no.”

No problem! We still were able to get the first jab for free. 

The process was so quick and easy to do. We sat down for one minute total. The needle was really small and we barely felt anything.

Jackie Szeto, Life Of Doing, takes her first COVID-19 vaccine at Walgreens.

Although we were super tired from the long travels, we received our first vaccine!

We were thrilled to receive our vaccination card and sticker (the badge of honor). After waiting in the pharmacy area for 15 minutes for any side effects, we were on our way to return home.

We chose to stay away from people for the first three weeks until getting our second dosage. 

After three weeks, we returned to Walgreens and promptly received the second one. Walgreens also sent us a text reminder a few days before to return for the shot. At the time, the Delta variant started to spread further so we saw at least 5 people in line for the vaccine. 

Justin Huynh, Life Of Doing, receives his second COVID-19 vaccine at Walgreens.

WooHoo! We received our second COVID-19 vaccine three weeks later.

Luckily we didn’t get any major side effects after the two dosages. We received a sore arm but that went away after a few days. For me, the second dosage made me really exhausted and I couldn’t think properly for the entire day. After a good night’s sleep, I felt refreshed and felt back to normal. 

What’s Happening to Us Now?

When we first left Vietnam we were told it would take 7 weeks to get a return visa, but that changed due to the worsening COVID-19 situation.

At the time of publishing, Vietnam changed their visa policy for qualified “experts” (pilots and petroleum industry) a few weeks after we arrived in the U.S. So it requires us to wait a little longer to re-apply even with a business sponsorship. 

In the meantime, we’re still working remotely, taking advantage of our full vaccination, and slowly, safely seeing friends and family members. We’re still keeping our distance from crowded places but feel a lot safer going into certain restaurants and indoor places.

**Update as of December 2021: We returned to Vietnam and also completed our 8-night quarantine at Ibis Saigon Airport Hotel successfully!

Final Thoughts

We’ve noticed more foreigners in Vietnam returning to their home country, which is understandable with the current situation. 

For those working abroad or even those who have friends, family, or interest in coming to the U.S., COVID-19 vaccines are widely and readily available here. 

Hopefully, this post has provided some insight on what to expect and how to plan with returning home and encouragement to get your vaccine. Stay safe everyone!

If you’re curious about our experiences in Vietnam, check out some of our Vietnam posts below:

Featured photo credit: Joaquin Corbalan via Scopio Photos

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