Extracts from my diary……….
26th February 2020
Coronavirus is ever present in the news and conversations. My Italian friend messages me with news from Florence. The city and her AirBnB are empty. She feels the world is blaming the Italians for spreading the virus. She feels discrimination in the same way as the Chinese suffered. The reality is that the stats are flawed – only if everyone is tested will we see the true amount of cases per country. The reality. Italy’s Covid19 case numbers are high because they’ve tested many more people than other countries. Almost three times more people than the UK and more than twenty times more people than Vietnam. And Cambodia’s cases are low as they, well they basically don’t test. The Philippines has a population of over 100 million and I understand, only 4500 test kits, so they’re never going to have more than 4500 cases unless they swiftly get their act together and restock.
And then there’s the people who have the virus who are asymptomatic or who are a bit poorly, not realising they have a mild dose of it and are recovering at home. Only if everyone is tested regularly will we have a true global picture and that’s impossible. I feel for Italy and China.
We’ve been lucky so far. We’ve spent four months travelling and the virus has had little impact on us thus far. Whilst we wish it had not occurred, the fact is that it has had positive results for us. It’s been easy to get good accommodation and Asia is quiet. Places that are normally overwhelmed by tourists such as Angkor Wat have been a pleasure.
We are aware of the risks, but as it’s a global issue, we feel that we are at risk in any country. If we believe official statistics, it seems we are less likely to get infected here than in Europe at the moment and so we have decided to continue to travel responsibly. Keeping our hands clean and should we feel ill, we will immediately contact the authorities.
We are planning to take 30 days to travel from the South to the North of Vietnam and to fly to Bangkok in Thailand from Hanoi on 27th March. Flights from Hanoi to Bangkok and then from Bangkok to London are booked and paid for.
However, today we feel a change in the air. We travel by boat from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, across the border to Chau Doc in Vietnam. At our hotel, we are asked if we have had our temperatures taken. It is a requirement upon entering the country and our host would have to call a doctor if we have not been checked. We had not been assessed upon entering the country, but luckily the security guard at a restaurant/hotel in Chau Doc, where we stopped for coffee took our temperatures and we were well.
Over the next few days we use the Futa bus and travel to and enjoy Ho Chi Minh City. All is good. Although our temperatures are checked again at museums, there’s little evidence that the virus is having an effect on businesses or the people. All Vietnam’s recorded cases of coronavirus have recovered.
6th March 2020
We spend the day on the beach of Nha Trang and then catch another of our favourite Futa lines night buses to Hoi An.
7th March 2020
Arriving at the Vina House bus stop at 0630am, we share a taxi with two young Netherlanders into Hoi An. We drop bags at our hotel and walk to town for breakfast at cafe Mia. Hoi An is a beautiful town. Ancient houses with shutters all a mustard colour on quiet lanes next to a river. We stop at the Japanese covered bridge and have a fantastic day wandering the streets and alleys. Famous for its tailors and rapid dressmaking, I impulsively buy a dress and shoes, or rather get measured up and have them made to my design and fit. We’ll return tomorrow for a fitting. We eat the local speciality, Cau Lau a dish of pork and noodles and drink the local wine from Da Lat.
Hoi An is delightful. Lots of tourists are missing as people are cancelling holidays, due to the coronavirus, but the mood is good.
8th March 2020
What a difference a day makes. I return to collect my dress and my tailor, Chi, warns me not to go to Hanoi. News of an outbreak has caused ripples. Many locals are in masks. There’s tension in the town. Staff at cafes check our temperature before we enter.
I have a catch up video call with my family in the UK and they tell stories of panic buying and empty shelves in the supermarkets. They tell me there’s no toilet roll to be found. I explain to them the Asian ‘ass shower’. No need for toilet roll. There’s always water. Trying to make light of situation, but feeling concern for how they are coping with such a strange situation.
10th March 2020
The virus begins to affect our travel plans. We have booked to travel by local ferry and stay on the Cham Islands tomorrow, but today the government has closed them off to visitors. We understand. They need to protect the isolated places. We then hear that Visas exemption entry to Vietnam has ceased. Our homestay host tells us she is no longer accepting guests. She will close for a month when we leave. The idea suggested by the government being that if hotels close, it will hinder the spread of virus.
We are trying to enjoy our stay in Hoi An. We eat delicious seafood, cycle to the beach, have a Margarita or two, but we start to feel flat. There are only 35 cases of infection in a country of 97 million people, but Vietnam is closing down. Our plans to visit the north are no more. Hanoi’s main attractions and many areas of Sapa, Halong Bay and Ninh Binh are now closed to foreigners. We hear that the ancient houses we visited in Hoi An will close shortly.
11th March 2020
Instead of the Cham Islands, we take a cheap, local bus to Da Nang, a beach town. Yesterday we booked a hotel via booking.com, but when we arrive outside, we find it closed. A note on the door tells us it has closed to avoid coronavirus. We are not allowed in. We find another hotel nearby, but they tell us that they intend to close in a few days too. We can only stay until the 14th.
We find out that a local woman has caught the virus from an English couple staying in Da Nang. They were infected on flight from London to Hanoi from a Vietnamese socialite who had been touring the catwalks and fashion houses of Milan, Paris and London.
Everyone in Da Nang seems nervous. Despite it being sanitised, we are warned not to go to a supermarket that’s down the street, where those infected may have visited.
We wander the town and I am enthralled by the colour changing, Dragon Bridge. It cheers up a flat day and makes up for the disappointment of missing the Golden bridge in the Ba Na hills (which we assessed was out of our budget at $30 plus travel costs each to visit).
We eat cheap BBQ squid and pork, but it’s evident that the locals are cautious of us. I feel we are being avoided.
12th March 2020
Coronavirus hysteria in Da Nang. The Vietnamese are now terrified of foreigners. I feel like a leper. As I walk, I see people move away or put on their masks. They pull up their T shirts over their nose and mouth. I again try to make light of it. It’s like school days when somebody does a massive stinky fart, but it’s no joke. Some hotels and restaurants have closed. Our favourite Futa bus company is no longer allowing foreigners onboard. We wonder how we are going to get about.
We catch a local bus to the marble Mountains. As we get on, we are instructed to sit at the back of the bus and even then, a woman moves from the middle of the bus to the front to avoid us and has a fit when two more foreign passengers get on and sit near her. She asks the conductor to move the Spaniards to the back with us.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve never before felt such discrimination, such racism. I can tell you that it feels very unpleasant. The town now feels unfriendly. I can now feel what the Italians and the Chinese has suffered.
Cambodia closes the river border crossing, Phnom Penh to Chau Doc.
We have read that wearing a mask does not really protect from the virus or stop transmission and that surgical masks should be saved for those in the health profession. As a result, we have not been inclined to cover up.
However, I now see that the people of Vietnam believe in masks, like they are some sort of force field. They wish us to wear one. I tell Armand that I will get one and wear one out of respect for the people, even if they do little but reduce fear. The people of Da Nang are hysterical at present and if it makes them feel more comfortable and more likely to be friendly towards us then it will be worth wearing one. In my mind it’s the same as dressing respectfully when visiting a religious shrine, even though I’m not personally religious. If it’s what the local people require then I’ll do it. Right now, with tensions so high, it’s the right thing to do.
Friday 13th March 2020
We catch the three hour train north to Hue intending to stay a couple of days and plan. Erring on the side of caution, we may then return to Da Nang and get a flight to Thailand early. (Just in case Thailand introduces restrictions to entry visas for UK citizens).
At the cafe opposite the train ticket office we meet a nice man called Hai. Happy to shake my hand and talk without a mask he restores my faith in the people of Da Nang. Of course it’s possible he’s friendly purely because he wants to sell us a tour. He talks sense, recommending a trip to the Phong Nha Ke-Bang national park in the mountainous north west of Hue to escape the city and its hysteria surrounding coronavirus. This plan was already in our mind. We take his card.
We provide our passports at the ticket office and details are recorded. We believe that this will enable us to be traced should it later transpire that we travelled with an infected person. We like our freedom and privacy, but on this occasion, I’m pleased with how effective the Vietnamese are in implementing this tracing technique. Swiftly tracing those at risk will hinder the spread of the virus and increase survival if infected. I’m not sure the UK will be as swift to introduce such good methods of control.
On the train everyone is in masks and you can see the flinches as there’s a sneeze or cough.
The unpleasant atmosphere and negativity in Da Nang rubs off on us. We make plans for being turned away from hotels. We may have to buy a tent and sleep on the beach if we can’t get rooms. We may get stuck as the government starts to restrict travel to hinder the spread of the virus. Thailand may not let us in to catch our flight from Bangkok home. Everything is up in the air. Should we change our plans and go to Thailand early before it denies UK citizens entry? How will we self quarantine when we get home? Will we stay well? One things for sure, our last weeks of our trip will not be what we expected.
To avoid the cloud of doom caused by the virus, Armand and I have agreed not to talk of it for the rest of the day. That way we can attempt to enjoy the train ride along the beautiful coast and between mountains and have a swim at the hotel before walking around Hue’s ancient citadel, like the good old days before the gloom. We will just take one day at a time……
1pm. Hue. Just a few hours from Da Nang and a world apart. Warmly welcomed by the staff of the hotel. Open spaces. Happy faces. We may extend our stay in Hue and attempt to get to the National Park and nearby beaches and hope that the tensions in the rest of the country ease after this initial reactionary panic.
9pm. I am keeping in touch with my friend in Italy, a country in lockdown. Social distancing is working to hinder the spread of the virus and support the health system. I feel it’s what the UK should do. I feel it’s what I should do. I love to travel, but right now the responsible thing to do would be to stop travelling. Stop movement.
Another video call with the family in UK reveals an increasingly chaotic situation. I want to be home with my family to be with them through this difficult time. I talk to Armand and tell him that I feel we should return. Although it’s not required of us (as we have no symptoms), I feel we should self quarantine ourselves as a precaution. I would not wish to unknowingly pass on an infection and we are taking a long flight home which has its risks.
Armand is initially resistant as we have three weeks left of our planned five months before our booked flights, the cost of which we will lose. He researches the need for social distancing and agrees that it’s the right thing to do. Pack up and haul up.
Our travel plans are on hold for the foreseeable future. I never expected to be writing that. There are difficult times ahead. I have a huge respect to those in the health profession that will bare the brunt of the situation. My heart goes out to them.
Throughout this dark time, I hope that we can all stay calm and kind. I have an overwhelming sense that this global event will make us appreciate the things we take for granted. The people we love, the friends we have, the freedoms we enjoy, the food on the table, the ability to move and travel. For now, I’ll be returning home to the simple pleasures of reading and I’ll write. Perhaps sort all those photographs I’ve been meaning to organise and I’ll remember all the wonderful people we’ve met………