Sometimes life can be a little surreal.
As if what’s going on in other parts of the world is just a made-up TV series. That’s similar to how we felt watching the whole COVID-19 pandemic unfurl. Until, that is, it became very real for us…
We had been in Da Nang, Vietnam since late December 2019. Da Nang is a relatively large city situated on one of the top 10 beaches in the world. Imagine white sand beach for miles upon miles. In a way, it reminded us of the Lake Michigan shore — on the Michigan side. Minus the sand dunes. With salt water. And WARM water! (In case you have never been, the water in Lake Michigan is swimmable for MAYBE two months out of the year).
All this to say that we were in this beautiful spot and really enjoying being able to see the beach from our balcony and walk there in 2 minutes.
And then the virus hit. Although it wasn’t like it “hit” in Vietnam. We really only knew about it from reading the world news and watching what was happening to our friends in other parts of the world.
In time, though, we noticed that one of the local hotels which was usually streaming with Asian tourists was increasingly empty.
We also noticed that the local elementary school was closed.
And our favorite bakery, which was part of a school for mentally challenged children, remained closed after the Vietnamese New Year.
Still, little was “happening” in our part of the world. We would scan the news and talk to family back home, but we were essentially unaffected.
Why Didn’t The Virus Affect Vietnam?
At the time, we were unaware of all of the actions behind the scenes, but looking back there are definite reasons why Vietnam did not share the same outcome of COVID-19 as many other countries.
Having a land border with China and a population of 95 million, it would seem that Vietnam was a prime location for the virus to prosper. So what did they do differently?
The Vietnamese government reacted very quickly. After only 27 cases in China, the Vietnamese health ministry met and issued guidelines to monitor borders and to prevent the spread of infections.
Just 2 days after the first death was reported in China from COVID-19, the government tightened the medical control at all borders and airports.
Before closing their borders, Vietnam had already instituted strict contact-tracing measures; this involved isolating infected people and tracing their second and third-hand contacts (tracked through their cell phones).
The government was quick to assure its citizens that all COVID-19 treatment would be free of charge, thereby eliminating any issue of not seeking medical services due to cost.
Once cases were identified, anyone who the infected person had been in contact with was identified, tested and then monitored — all to prevent the further spread of the virus.
Additionally, they developed a real-time online reporting system for all confirmed and suspected cases as well as people who had been in contact with them.
While all of this may sound like oppressive government oversight, it is hard to argue with the numbers. At the time of this writing, there have been fewer than 300 reported cases of the virus, with zero deaths.
Yes, you might question the validity of the numbers, but living here, we have seen first-hand how consistently the rules are followed and little evidence to suggest that the virus ravaged this country.
Until we were affected…
Until the night of March 16th. A friend of ours and her two girls had left Da Nang that day, flew to Singapore and then travelled across the bridge into Malaysia. We had been planning to meet up with them in a couple of weeks after we flew to Kuala Lumpur on March 25th (we had purchased the tickets a couple months previously). However, after they had made their way into Malaysia they found out that Malaysia would be closing their borders the next day at midnight.
What to do??
There was one flight, the following day, from Da Nang to Kuala Lumpur. But we had our flight scheduled a week and a half later and the airline wasn’t giving us any kind of break on rescheduling — we would have to buy all new tickets.
To make matters worse — much worse — another friend of ours who was living in the same highrise building let us know that there was a suspected case of COVID-19 in OUR building and the rumor was that they were going to quarantine the entire building for 14 days! Yikes!! As much as we liked where we were staying, the thought of being stuck there for 14 days was torturous.
We fled like refugees in the night
So at 11pm, we woke Trevor up and asked him to help us pack up everything that we own. We frantically got online and found a cheap hotel nearby and by 1am, we loaded all of our bags into a cab and headed out like fleeing refugees.
Wow. That will make the virus real all of a sudden. We still had to make a choice: pay the price to leave early and get into Malaysia the next day (knowing that we would be heading into a lockdown), or stay and try to extend our visa in Vietnam.
John and I didn’t get much sleep and the next day found us scrambling, trying to figure out the best move for our family. Fortunately, we were able to get ahold of our landlord and he agreed to meet us early and return our deposit to us since we had vacated the apartment. The immigration office in Da Nang had already been closed because of the virus, which meant that we had to find a visa agency to determine if there was any chance of extending our stay (the visa we held ended on March 25th, so we didn’t have much time). We were finally able to track down an agent who told us that he could take all of our information and would likely be able to let us know that evening if we could get an extension (he assured us that as long as we weren’t criminals, it usually wasn’t a problem).
Well this presented us with a bit of a dilemma — if we waited to find out about our visas, there was no way that we could get into Malaysia because the flight was in the early afternoon.
A quick decision under stress
After a relatively quick discussion (we didn’t have much time), John and I decided that we would put our trust in the immigration agency and hope that we were able to get an extension.
The news was delivered later that night. Yes, we were able to get an extension. But not the 90 day extension that we were hoping for. We could get 30 days. But for a price — 6 times MORE than we paid for a 90 day visa when we had entered the country. YIKES! But what else were we to do? A lot of countries were now announcing border closures, so where could we even go?
We chose to pay the fee and stay in Vietnam. As I said before, the location is beautiful.
But we were unwilling to go back to the highrise building that we had fled in the night. Although they never ended up quarantining the building, the thought of that possibility (and the number of people using the elevator each day) left us searching for other options.
Thankfully, just down the road from the hotel room we were staying in was a pizza stand that had a sign offering a “room for rent”. We had eaten there before and the couple who ran it were very nice and had their daughter come out and meet ours as they were the same age.
Landing on our feet
Not thinking anything would come of it, we asked if they had a room available and it turned out to be a great place — two bedrooms, two bathrooms — with a bathtub, no less!! (We had not seen a bathtub that I might actually sit in since leaving the states!) And with only 5 apartments (one of which was occupied by the owners), there were very few people who might spread the virus (unlike the 41 floors of 30+ apartments each at the previous building).
We walked our stuff down the street the next day and quickly settled in. Beyond our flight from possible quarantine in the middle of the night, we were essentially “untouched” by the virus until March 23 when we all visited a new grocery store for the first time.
Before entering, they insisted that we all have face masks (which they happily sold us for about 25 cents each) and they wanted to take our temperatures before we were allowed to enter. It felt eerie walking around the store (which had very few people in it — it was the middle of the day on a Monday) all wearing face masks. But it was also strikingly obvious to us that the hoarding that was taking place in the US and elsewhere was NOT happening in Vietnam. There were stacks of toilet paper and the shelves were full of food.
Lots of potential reasons for this that come to mind quickly:
Vietnam is not a rich country. “Stocking up” is not something that many of them can afford to do (the average monthly salary is less than $150), nor do many of them have the extra space to store groceries
The Vietnamese government warned against stockpiling and price gouging.
The country (at least in Da Nang) still appeared relatively unaffected by the virus, although news stories coming out of Hanoi suggested a different atmosphere of virus awareness. Everyone in Da Nang seemed to be going about their business as usual.
Lockdown in Vietnam
Fast forward another week. Reports from Europe and North America were painting a grim picture. The virus was spreading quickly and most countries were in some form of lockdown. But it wasn’t until April 1st that Vietnam issued guidelines for everyone non-essential to stay at home. The restaurants that were still open (many had closed due to lack of tourism) were instantly shuttered and signs were posted on the beach along with tape barring access at common points. Masks were to be worn by everyone in public and you were subject to a fine if you weren’t wearing one.
Being avid beach walkers, we carefully read the signs which indicated that the beach was closed for swimming activities, all businesses along the beach were to be closed and there were to be no gatherings of more than two people. There was nothing said about walking on the beach, so for the first couple of days, we headed out for our typical mid-day walk. It wasn’t until a few days later when we attempted to go for a walk around 4 pm (the time when a lot of Vietnamese families typically gather on the beach) that we were turned away by police.
Daily Walks Curtailed
We decided to forgo our daily walks on the beach (the police had no problem if you walked around the streets, only the beach — likely because it is a traditional gathering spot for families), although there were a couple of evenings when the confines of our apartment were getting a little too small, that we all snuck onto the beach for a nighttime walk.
The initial two weeks of isolation passed, and the government extended the order for another week. We were getting a little tired of always cooking (it had become very difficult to find any restaurants that were open even for carryout, and our favorite delivery service — think Uber food delivery — had been completely shut down) and we were definitely missing our daily walks.
A Very Quiet Town
John and Trevor made a couple of trips to the grocery store borrowing a scooter from our landlords who were extremely generous. They came back with stories of how deserted the normally teeming streets were; of how all of the little shops lining the road to the grocery store were locked up; of crossing the bridges and seeing no other scooters or cars; of finding very few people in the grocery stores, but plenty of food; of glass partitions separating the grocery cashiers from the customers. It seemed surreal, otherworldly.
Back to Normal??
And just like that, the third week of isolation passed and the stay-at-home orders were lifted. Overnight the country came back to life. The restaurants reopened (although they were encouraged to provide carryout service or to space tables 6 ft apart — this was not mandated) and most businesses once again opened their doors (some businesses like massage parlors, bars and karaoke were not allowed to reopen). The beach was open and swimming again permitted.
It really struck us after the fact how much the Vietnamese people abided by the rules set out by the government. When they were told to stay at home, the people stayed at home. When the restaurants were told to close their doors, they closed their doors. The people followed the rules and didn’t seem overly anxious about having to know when the orders would be lifted.
Yes, Vietnam is a communist country. In my opinion, that fact alone doesn’t seem to explain the citizens’ willingness to comply with the government’s orders to the extent that they did. Perhaps it is all the news of protests coming out of the US that has me appreciating the acceptance of the Vietnamese people to trust their government and abide by the rules set forth.
Regardless, with the restrictive orders lifted, things returned to normal. We still aren’t able to leave the country, as nearly every country (Vietnam included) still has not opened their borders to foreigners. We’re not sure when that will happen. We’ve had to extend our visas again (thankfully a letter from the US embassy allowed us to extend for only $10 each because we can’t go anywhere!) and just plan to ride this out until there are options to travel again.
We are extremely grateful to have been “stuck” in Vietnam where the virus seems to have had a very limited impact and we have a beautiful beach to enjoy on a daily basis. While we would love to see new places, we’ll just wait until all of the border closures lift and we can actually travel again.Here’s hoping that everyone is safe and taking care of themselves.
- Karen & John
Where were you during the pandemic? And if you could go back and choose where you would be “stuck”, where would you pick? Let us know in the comments below!