TRAVELING DURING THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC: Why we chose to be "STUCK" in VIETNAM
Updated: Jun 25
Before we left Canada, we planned for months in advance. From what to pack, where to go and how to budget, we researched and prepared almost obsessively. When the time came, we sold what we could, including our home, packed what was left, and took off on our travels last September. We thought we were, for the most part, pretty darn organized with all the nitty gritty logistic details of long term travel. But we admit, PANDEMIC PLANNING was not one of them!
By the time we heard about coronavirus, we were just getting settled in Hanoi. It was a concern that we took seriously, but the thought of going back home didn't once creep into our minds. With Vietnam bordering China, there was a sense of uneasiness for sure, but like the rest of the world, we felt that as long as we avoided going there, we would be fine. We continued on planning ahead for the summer, even prematurely booked flights and accommodation in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Georgia and all the way to Romania. Yes, in hindsight, this was a BIG MISTAKE!
A few Covid-19 cases started to sprout in northern Vietnam, some with no known travel history to China. Suddenly, we began to notice a shift in the entire city. Masks, sanitizing stations, public announcements and posters were everywhere. It was alarming, especially not knowing exactly what those announcements or posters said. But we got the gist. People were worried, and this was getting serious. Lots of confusion whether COVID-19 was airborne or droplet transmission, whether to mask or not mask, how long the incubation period was, whether hot climate countries were better protected, etc. Some answers are still unfolding as we speak.
Below: The guy sitting behind us had just left Wuhan, China, 48 hrs earlier, and was making arrangements to fly back to France. We shared our hand-sanitizer with him!
We got used to masking in public buses, sanitizing before and after getting on, the loud announcements in malls and in our airbnb building, as well as watching the security guards sanitizing the elevators and common areas three times a day. Schools closed indefinitely nationwide. We limited our outings into Hanoi and stayed mostly in our quiet Ecopark development, 30 mins outside the city.
Below: At an indoor play area, where the kids were asked to wear a mask, despite hardly any other children being there.
A month past, and we were headed to Ninh Binh on train. We arrived in this town surrounded by mountains and rice paddies 2 hours south of Hanoi, and it was like a breath of fresh air! As the country had gone several days with no new cases, people started to let their guards down. Most locals were unmasked, and there were tons of tourists out and about. We met so many friendly Vietnamese in Ninh Binh. What a difference it makes when you can see people's faces! It is hard enough without speaking the language, but it is so much harder to read people when half their faces are covered! You could almost forget about COVID-19 slowly wreaking havoc throughout the world. We were still cautious with hand washing and sanitizing but it was nice to relax and feel as though things were somewhat "normal" again.
After a 14-hour trip via rail, we arrived in Da Nang, a lovely coastal city in central Vietnam. Initially, it was quiet, with restaurants, bars and sights all open, albeit with very few tourists. Da Nang happens to be a popular destination for Koreans and Chinese tourists, both nationalities who were by now strictly banned from entering the country.
Just as we were admiring the beautiful beaches, enjoying the delicious food and getting oriented with our neighbourhood, a week and a half into our stay, things began to shift again. It happened almost overnight, as positive cases popped up in Vietnam, after more than 3 weeks with no new cases. Suddenly, all in one day, we received notifications of our Hoi An bamboo circus show and 2 flights in and out of Malaysia being cancelled. Many spas, tourist restaurants and even the night market shut down. Within a matter of days, a lot of businesses began closing, one by one.
Temperature checks became the norm at mall and supermarket entrances, and wearing masks in public places became strictly mandatory. While there was no sense of panic that we saw or felt since coming to Da Nang, locals were reportedly weary of foreigners, as the second wave of covid-19 in Vietnam had been predominantly from people coming from Europe.
THE BIG DECISION
We admit, it was a stressful few days trying to make one of the most difficult decisions we have ever had to make. With so many uncertainties, we went back and forth, contemplating every possible scenario. When our Canadian government officially issued a GLOBAL ADVISORY against all travel, one of the first things that came to mind was, would our insurance still cover us for Covid-19, should we choose to stay? The policy wording for World Nomads, our insurance company, was not crystal clear, and we couldn't get a hold of them by phone or email. We had to decide without knowing for sure.
Our choices were: find another "safe" country to hunker down if we can't extend our visa, stay where we are if we can extend, or go home. The latter was a serious contender for about 48 hrs. Viable options to fly to another country were limited at this point, due to restricted entry and/or rising covid-19 cases. The pressure was mounting, and the indecision itself was the most stressful part. We lost some sleep weighing our options carefully, all while trying to cancel whatever we had booked ahead. (Thankfully, we got most of our money refunded, with some still pending)
In the end, we chose to stay right where we were, in Da Nang, Vietnam, well aware that we may not be able to return to Canada any time soon.
WHY WE DECIDED TO STAY:
1) WE ARE NOT ON VACATION
We are somewhere between short-term vacationers and long-term expats. It is a unique position to be in. It certainly makes sense to return home for those who planned on a short trip and can't stay away from work or home indefinitely. We weren't planning on returning until the end of 2020 at the earliest, so we have time on our side. We are fortunate to be able to afford staying put, and it helps that cost of living in VIetnam is very reasonable.
2) RETURNING HOME HAS ITS RISKS TOO
Numbers alone may not tell the whole story, but as far as we knew, cases in Canada were rising at a much more alarming rate than Vietnam. Reports of toilet paper hoarding, mask theft from hospitals, empty store shelves, and ridiculous Costco line-ups were not comforting news to hear about with the potential of our return. Also, flying 15+ hours with at least one stopover and intermingling in close proximity with other passengers on the airplane and in the airports poses such a big risk of transmission.
3) WE HAVE NO HOME TO GO BACK TO
We sold our house before our travels. "Home" is wherever we are at the moment. Self quarantining on arrival for 14 days without possible exposure and transmission to others would be a challenge to arrange straight from the airport. Staying in Danang, despite the hefty VISA extension fee, is still much cheaper than paying rent in Vancouver.
4) OUR TRAVEL INSURANCE COVERS US FOR COVID-19
We had contacted WORLD NOMADS since back in January, when COVID-19 first revealed itself to the world. Our policy was purchased last September, and doesn't expire for another 6 months. The big question was whether or not Covid-19 was covered should we choose to remain outside the country despite a ban against all travel from the government of Canada. The answer, which came after much persistence, was YES. (NOTE: This all depends on many things, including when and which country you purchased your policy from, so it isn't a universal yes)
5) VIETNAM IS TAKING THIS SERIOUSLY
Vietnam's battle against COVID-19 started early, with border closures, school suspensions, aggressive quarantine and entry restrictions from the first few cases back in January. This included a mandatory, 14-day centralized quarantine protocol for anyone entering the country, regardless of whether or not they are/were symptomatic. They all get tested and provided with food, basic supplies and shelter at one of the military bases or university dorms just outside the city. Contacts are quickly traced, cases are tracked and personal details are publicly disclosed.
The lack of privacy policies would not fare well in the western world, but arguably, it has proven to be effective in places like China and Korea. These are perhaps questionable compromises, but as a communist society that values the safety and well being of the greater populous over individual rights and freedom, these extreme measures may have been what it took to take hold of this virus.
As the third most populated country in South East Asia, with 96 MILLION inhabitants, cases could have easily surged out of control. However, compared to some countries, where much less was being done, we felt reassured that Vietnam was, at the very least, doing all they could to keep the numbers at bay.
People may be quick to judge developing countries as unsafe or worse off than its western counterparts. You can be one of the richest countries in the world, but without the leadership, the commitment to work together and abide by the rules for the greater good, the pooling of resources and the ability to take action quickly and efficiently, it will not make a difference. Money alone will not be the deciding factor in which country succeeds or fails in the battle against contagion.
When we decided to travel, we already knew there were real risks associated with that as we were headed to mostly developing countries. These are unprecedented times, never before seen or experienced, and it is difficult to predict the trajectory of this new virus. We don't take any of it lightly. We may not have been specifically prepared for a pandemic, but when you travel, you naturally encounter all kinds of unforeseen challenges. You learn to expect the unexpected and try to adapt as necessary. Hard to say for sure if we made the right call, but for the time being, we feel safe here and we are prepared to ride it out in Vietnam for as long as it takes.
Stay safe everyone! Look out for each other, support your health care workers, practice strict social distancing like you are already sick, and WASH YOUR HANDS!