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Delivery apps rise and fall on Vietnam COVID roller coaster

Fortunes swing wildly as lockdown spurs demand but cuts mobility

Delivery platforms in Vietnam, including MarketOi, saw a rush of orders from customers in COVID lockdown but face a volatile landscape as rules change daily.   © MarketOi

HO CHI MINH CITY -- Some families in Vietnam woke up last week to find blue vouchers on their doorsteps notifying them when they could go to the supermarket. Almost instantly, grocery orders shot up at MarketOi, a delivery startup based in Ho Chi Minh City.

With Vietnam's toughest COVID wave yet closing many offices, doing business has become a roller coaster even for delivery services, one of the few commercial activities still permitted in lockdown. 

MarketOi had a windfall of customers stuck at home and limited to two shopping vouchers a week -- but its third-party drivers must contend with roadblocks, checkpoints and food shortages.

"In general there have been challenges," CEO Chi Do told Nikkei Asia on a recent busy morning. "But it feels good to deliver to people, because this is beneficial for the community."

She said delivery, once a luxury, has become critical now that dozens of cities and provinces have stay-home orders.

MarketOi is not the only one struggling to keep pace as COVID-related restrictions change almost daily and calls grow to vaccinate drivers.

Ride-hailing services Grab, Gojek and Vietnam's Be Group all shifted focus to delivery after providing rides was banned at different times in big cities. All three enjoyed a boom in orders, especially for groceries and parcels after restaurant takeout was prohibited, but then were forced to reduce services. Be, for example, said order demand rose tenfold in mid-July. But two weeks later, it suspended operations.

"After strictly and carefully considering all factors at this time, we decided to temporarily turn off services to prioritize preventing COVID-19 and organize vaccination campaigns for drivers," a Be spokesman told Nikkei.

Grab and Gojek also halted all services in Hanoi, with only limited motorbike delivery in Ho Chi Minh City, as Vietnam exceeded 160,000 COVID cases with 1,881 deaths for all of the pandemic as of Tuesday.

Supermarkets have turned to the superapps and are also trying more creative solutions, such as setting up sidewalk stalls so people can shop outdoors. Even buses that used to ferry passengers are now cruising the streets selling vegetables.

Thailand's Central Retail, meanwhile, told Nikkei that it has put its stores on Tiki, the largest Vietnamese e-commerce site, and Zalo Shop, linked to the country's biggest messaging app

Central Retail owns Go!, Big C and Tops Market. It also delivers via Grab and Gojek, the Indonesian unicorn that shifted investment to Vietnam after selling its Thai business to Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia.

Gojek said it is working to get drivers vaccinated, while Grab told Nikkei it has done so already.

"We are continuously improving our services to fulfill the consumers' requirements as best as we can, since the delivery demands are significantly increasing these days," a Grab spokesman said. 

E-commerce and logistics more broadly also have been hit by unevenly applied curbs, such as limiting delivery drivers' movements between cities or even districts within cities. 

Lazada, owned by China's Alibaba Group Holding, has responded by grouping logistics workers in different shifts and urging shoppers to order from merchants near them. It told Nikkei that "social distancing may cause delivery delays."

"We hope to receive the cooperation of sellers in prioritizing the supply of essential goods for people in epidemic areas," a spokeswoman said. 

Other businesses are also putting attention on staple items, with pharmacies and even craft breweries stepping in to sell bananas, baguettes and other food.

Delivery drivers, meanwhile, continue to bear the brunt of the regulatory volatility. One day they are trying to deliver to a neighborhood that turns out to be cordoned off, another they are having vehicles confiscated by officers who deem their products nonessential, according to local media. After reports emerged that people were posing as couriers to violate stay-home orders, city authorities began requiring drivers to wear armbands and be able to show QR codes providing details of their delivery.

Last year countries in lockdown such as the U.S. came to see grocery store workers and delivery drivers as essential workers. That realization is now coming to Vietnam.

"Driver partners are the 'heroes' of the streets during the pandemic," Gojek said in a statement last Wednesday. "They help people stay secure at home, ensuring compliance with social-distancing requirements."

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