On March 15 I was in a hotel in Hanoi, full of nervous energy and the fear that a staff member or another guest would exhibit symptoms of Coronavirus and the Vietnamese government would lock down the hotel until they could figure out the scope of the virus there, and Steve and I would miss our urgently-rescheduled flight back to the United States.
Of course, we had been monitoring the situation throughout our travels in Southeast Asia. The first cases of the virus had been reported in China shortly after we arrived in Indonesia, but it seemed unlikely to affect us. Apart from seeing a lot of locals wearing masks in Singapore and Thailand, something which is common practice in Asia anyway after the SARS outbreak, it was business as usual. We even went to a Lunar New Year in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and any fears of the virus were outnumbered by excitement for the holiday from both locals and tourists.
Laos and Cambodia were more or less non-entities when it came to countries suffering from cases, and by the time we got to Vietnam we had hoped that we had gotten lucky and would not have to alter our trip plans–a month in Hanoi from 27 February to 25 March, then a week and a half in Seattle and Vancouver visiting friends, then arriving in Philadelphia on 6 April for a month visit before we left for Ireland on 8 May.
Things changed quickly. Our time in Saigon was relaxed and wonderful, visiting our friends and their new daughter, and taking trips to see tourist sites like the Cu Chi Tunnels and the War Remnants Museum. While the schools had been closed since Tet (Lunar New Year) because of the virus, and an entire village had even been quarantined in the north, aside from that everything was bustling and business as usual. There hadn’t been a new case reported in Vietnam in almost two weeks, and it seemed like their rapid response had staved off anything more serious.
We made our way north to Hoi An, where we did our Advanced Open Water SCUBA certifications, and Hue, the ancient capitol (I’ll cover these all in more detail in a future post). It was while we were in Hue that more cases were reported, including one in the city itself. Suddenly, the atmosphere was different. Restaurants and bars closed early and the streets were disinfected with cars spraying sanitiser over the sidewalks. We saw a group of people in hazmat suits going into a hotel, which we assumed was the one where a case had been reported.
Elsewhere in the world, things were also starting to get more serious, with outbreaks in the United States and Canada, and while we still weren’t quite ready to call time on our trip, we started to consider it as a serious possibility. It was the main thing anyone we met started to talk about, when we got to our next destination of Phong Nha–the tourist attractions that were closed or closing, the restaurants that wouldn’t serve foreigners without masks or the hostels that had stopped accepting backpackers regardless.
We arrived in Phong Nha on Monday for a few days of exploration and relaxation before a caving and trekking tour on Friday, and we decided we would come to a decision before the tour. By Thursday, it was clear that the rest of our trip would not be going ahead as planned. Most of the tourist attractions and areas we wanted to see in the north had been shut to visitors–Ha Long Bay, Cat Ba Island, Ninh Binh–and there were rumours that flights would soon be limited in and out of the country. Our tour would finish on Saturday evening and we had booked a night bus that would arrive in Hanoi on Sunday, so we bought new flights for Monday afternoon, forgoing our planned Vietnam-Vancouver/Seattle-Philadelphia route to flights straight back to the East Coast.
There was a palpable change in the atmosphere by the time we finished our tour. We bought masks from a corner shop and wore them on the bus; by the time we arrived in Hanoi the government had announced that they were now mandatory. All tourist attractions in Hanoi had been shut, and many shops had signs saying that they would not serve foreigners. While most people were still going about their day, there was an obvious air of uncertainty and discomfort.
We went to the airport four hours early the next day, not wanting to spend any more time in the city and risk coming in contact with the virus–we weren’t so worried about getting sick as we were ending up under lockdown and not being able to leave. It was good that we did arrive so early because it took ages to check in; the US had announced that visitors who had just been in Europe would not be permitted entry, and it seemed that this information had filtered through to airline workers as “no Europeans allowed.” It took a lot of convincing that Steve, who had not been in Ireland in years despite what it said on his passport, would be allowed in.
The flight was nine and a half hours to Qatar, and then we had a fourteen hour layover (the only flight we could find on such short notice that didn’t have either multiple layovers or cost $3000) before our twelve and a half hour flight to Philadelphia. “Social distancing” wasn’t a thing yet, and while some people wore masks the entire flight it wasn’t widespread. How quickly things changed.
We’ve been at my parents’ house in Philadelphia for a month and a half now, and our flights scheduled for Friday have been cancelled (the only routes United are flying from the US to Europe this month are to Frankfurt, Heathrow, and Tel Aviv, no Ireland). That’s fine, we had been planning to reschedule anyway to avoid travelling until we have to. Steve is allowed 90 days in the US, which gives him until mid-June, and hopefully we’ll get over to Ireland around then, but there’s a process for extending in an emergency.
We’re lucky: We’re not sick. We have a place to stay. We don’t have expenses thanks to the generosity of my parents letting us stay. We were on the tail end of our trip anyway, unlike some folks we met who were debating going (and probably ended up deciding to go) back to the UK only a month into their planned six-month trip. The cost of an extra plane ticket is not insurmountable.
Hopefully, when this is all over, we can go back to Vietnam one day. We’ll cruise in Ha Long Bay, hike in Sa Pa. We’ll eat bun cha at the restaurant where Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama, and we’ll ride a motorbike from Hanoi to Ninh Binh. But for now, this is where we are. And for now, this is where we’re staying.