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Radio Free Asia

Vietnamese residents of Ukraine caught off guard by Russian invasion

2022.03.04 -- Thousands of Vietnamese people living in Ukraine were caught off guard by the Russian military's invasion last week after their ambassador downplayed the likelihood of conflict between the countries.

According to Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, around 7,000 Vietnamese lived in Ukraine before war broke out on Feb. 24, just one month after Hanoi and Kyiv celebrated 30 years of diplomatic relations.

Prior to the invasion, Ambassador Nguyen Hong Thach assured Vietnamese citizens that the embassy was closely monitoring the situation and that war between the two former Soviet Republics would not occur, a Vietnamese citizen living in Kharkiv, close to the Russian border, told RFA's Vietnamese Service on condition of anonymity.

As a result, most of the Vietnamese were not prepared to evacuate and remained in Ukraine when the Russian forces struck, he said.

"Bombs were exploding very close to our place shaking us from head to toe," said the source, whose family has been living in Ukraine for decades. "The Vietnamese government's efforts to protect its citizens here are really slow and ineffective."

The source said the community learned of Vietnam's plan to use the country's major airlines to evacuate citizens from Ukraine from state-media, not the embassy.

"It's a plan we saw in newspapers only. In reality, we haven't received anything from the embassy," he said. "In fact, there are no commitments on providing transportation for us... The embassy hasn't made any decisions or commitments to evacuate us from Ukraine."

Even if rescue flights were to be organized, the source said he is doubtful that his family would be able to secure seats, likening the situation to Hanoi's attempt last year to evacuate Vietnamese during severe COVID outbreaks.

"The most important thing would be whether we can win a place on a flight or not. In the recent COVID scare, most of Vietnamese in Kharkiv could not return to Vietnam without paying a fortune," the source said.

"A ticket on a commercial flight often costs US $1,000, but we would have had to pay up to $6,000 for a ticket on a rescue flight. At present, we have no hope at all of being evacuated on flights," he said.

The family instead may flee west to Poland over land, a plan the source said he is also hesitant about.

"I want to see first how it goes for the Vietnamese who have already left for Poland, how things are there, and whether they are becoming victims of robbing and looting along the way. I have to watch first as robberies often occur in situations like this," he said.

"If it is not safe, we'll have no choice but to shelter here. My friends evacuated in four separate cars. We are still in contact with two of the cars but lost contact with the other two, so we are extremely worried," the Kharkiv man said.

Others who have signed up for repatriation do not know where they should go to be picked up, Nguyen Khiem, another Vietnamese in Ukraine, told RFA.

"We have signed up, but how about a pick-up point? And how dangerous is it to get there? Really, in this situation we really can't know how dangerous it will be until we're there," Khiem said.

"We're also thinking that if we should go to Poland, it is 1,200 km [745 miles] from us. All we can do over here is to listen to those of our brothers and sisters who have made the journey already and are familiar with what could happen," Khiem said.

"I myself never thought Russia would attack Ukraine. We were unprepared. The guidance from the Vietnamese government is just there for us to be aware, so we will actually have to fend for ourselves," Khiem said.

RFA attempted to contact the Vietnamese Embassy in Ukraine many times but was unsuccessful.

Westward escape

Since the Feb. 24 invasion, more than 1 million people have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries, and many of Ukraine's Vietnamese population were among them.

Vietnamese communities in countries like Poland, Romania and the Czech Republic have offered food, financial assistance, transportation and housing to Vietnamese fleeing Ukraine.

Facebook has become a key platform for connecting the communities, sources said.

"Members of the Vietnamese community here in Poland are trying to do whatever we can to help," Phan Chau Thanh, a Vietnamese businessman there, told RFA. "Whoever has a house will offer accommodation. Whoever has a car and time will offer pick-ups."

"In general, a lot of people in the community have chipped in. Specifically, out of around 25,000 Vietnamese people in Poland, around 7,000 to 8,000 have already participated in this campaign," he said.

Thanh himself is managing assistance activities at one of the border gates between the two countries.

In Romania, it isn't just the Vietnamese community that is helping its own, a Vietnamese Bucharest resident identified only as Hai told RFA.

"All of Romania is also willing to provide assistance to Vietnamese or other people coming from Ukraine. You can contact any member of the Vietnamese community in Romania and get our maximum support," she said.

"If you need to stay somewhere for a couple of days, we can help find a place or offer free accommodation if necessary. Right now, many have come, and spare accommodation is no longer available, but the community is renting budget rooms at hotels or local residences for Vietnamese people from Ukraine to take refuge," she said.

The Czech Republic does not border Ukraine, but Vietnamese there are collecting donations and relief goods and reaching out to refugees on social media to help.

Julie Phan said she has offered a place in her home to any Vietnamese who needs a place to stay.

"I did not have to think about it much. I know that wars create a lot of suffering. I burst into tears when I saw the footage of kids in bomb shelters. Here I am living in peace, and these kids ... many people have lost their lives and families were separated," she said. "I felt so sorry for them."

"We were deeply struck by the images of Ukrainians and Vietnamese standing in a 30-kilometer queue near the border with Poland and in a freezing weather to get a seal or permission to enter Poland. Therefore, we thought we must call for assistance for them," Phan said.

Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that as of midday Thursday, almost all the Vietnamese citizens in Kyiv and Odessa had fled and hundreds of others in Kharkiv had been evacuated from war zones.

The ministry also said that about 400 people had arrived in Moldova and were on their way to Romania. Another 140 people had arrived in Poland, 70 in Romania, 33 in Slovakia and 30 in Hungary.

On Thursday, 141 of the 193 members of the United Nations voted in favor of a motion demanding the immediate end to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Four countries, North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea, and Syria voted against the resolution alongside Russia, while 12 others, including Vietnam and Laos, abstained from the vote.

Nataliya Zhynkina, Ukraine's Chargé d'Affairs in Vietnam, voiced her displeasure in a Facebook post written in Vietnamese.

"Among all the ASEAN countries, only Vietnam and Laos abstained. Vietnam, my second homeland, I am very disappointed."

Translated by Chau Vu. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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