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25 May 2020

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Vietnam in the Time of Corona Virus

Today, when I was doing my usual early morning scroll through Facebook, my attention was drawn to two graphs, side by side. The first was labelled “Plans for 2020,” and consisted of a perfectly straight line veering ever upward at a 45 degree angle. The second, showing, “How 2020 is really unfolding,” was a series of tumbling spirals that rose and fell and bounced back onto themselves. The perfect encapsulation, I thought, of how we’d planned the year 2020, and how it has actually been turning out since the advent of corona virus in early March.

Although my husband, Ross, and I travel a lot, it is usually by the seat of our pants. We nominate a time to return to Australia, because the airlines insist on it, but it invariably changes. We go to our base, usually in France or Vietnam and see what comes up. We might be offered a home exchange somewhere interesting or we might find a cheap river cruise or flight to Egypt or Morocco for instance, or we might decide to camp in Spain. We’re in awe of people who can actually commit to a plan designating what they will be doing at any given time in the future. Scary! What if something more interesting popped up when the time came?

Well, in 2020, due to limitations imposed by health issues and with energy levels reduced somewhat by age, we were about to join the ranks of those who meticulously plan their travel. We were going to throw in a few bucket list destinations that might soon be out of reach and, to achieve this, we needed to be more organised. The itinerary ran, Vietnam to visit my son and daughter in law’s Farmstay, followed by Austria, France, Turkey, Iran and Mongolia, with a wedding in Prague at the end of May. It wasn’t exactly meticulous planning, but it was unusually organised for us. Flights booked, tours paid for, and accommodation organised. What could possibly go wrong?

Much to my surprise, the plane from Sydney to Ho Chi Minh in early February was only half full. There were rumours of the virus, but they were easy to dismiss as alarmist. By early March things had changed. Flights to Iran and Turkey were cancelled and getting into Austria was looking doubtful. Ross decided to go on to France to spend time with his son, and I opted to stay with my son and family in Vietnam, for another few weeks before joining Ross.

Vietnam, ever wary of China’s intentions and rhetoric, based on thousands of years of conflict between the two countries, and having experienced the SARS epidemic in 2003, had recognised from the first cases, that this was far more serious than a mere flu epidemic.  Vietnamese schools did not resume lessons after the Tet (Vietnamese New Year) holiday, all flights from China were suspended and the border with China closed. Intensive tracing of second and third hand contacts with quarantining at Government expense, were implemented.  Due to early decisive action, as of today, there have been just 320 cases registered in the country and no deaths.  Vietnam has a population of around 95 million. 

By the middle of March, the Vietnamese military and security machine was in full swing to keep this foreign pestilence contained, and that they did, very successfully. We found it quite amusing at first, when a friend was quarantined in a brewery for two weeks in Danang, and then a whole tour group, that had just returned from a caving adventure, staff as well as tourists, was locked down in a house in our town, Phong Nha, because one of them had come into contact with someone who had been on a plane with someone who had tested positive.

But then! Shock! Horror! The threat of infection reached us at Phong Nha Farmstay. Being nestled in the rice fields at the edge of the tiny rural village of Cu Nam, well out of town, we considered ourselves fairly safe. At this point everybody coming into the country was being tested and a positive result had been found on a plane from Europe, the new epicentre of infection. All passengers on that plane had been traced and quarantined along with all of their contacts. Two of those passengers were staying with us at the Farmstay. We were herded onto the Farmstay property, sprayed with nasty smelling disinfectant that left a film over everything, and told not to leave the premises. The suspected couple, two German Doctors, who assured us all, that they would know if they were infected, were confined to a room and had their temperature checked each morning for the duration.

Quarantine over, all guests left to hassle their various Embassies to get them out of the country and home, the best way they could.  Too many pesky foreigners had brought the virus from Europe, the US and UK.  Flights had been stopped and the borders were completely closed.

A lockdown that lasted 22 days was now imposed in earnest for the whole country.  This had all happened so quickly that it was difficult to process. I don’t think that it actually registered that I was more or less imprisoned.  That is, until I suggested that I might just ride into town and get a cup of coffee.  It was quickly pointed out that no, I wasn’t going to do that, and anyway, there is no coffee because town has been shut down.  What!!  No cappuccino!!  Now this is serious!!

Veronika McInerney

``After lockdown coffee deprivation, the picturesque little village of Dong Van on the Ha Giang loop in North Vietnam, came up with the best cappuccino ever, despite the fact that there were no tourists besides me to appreciate it.``

Veronika McInerney

An Australian who has lived in Vietnam for extended periods since 2010

My 9 year old grandson in Year 4 had been doing intensive online lessons since January. In Vietnamese. I became his English teacher. The 5 year old had decided he needed to read and write. That became a full time job for me. He’s now just started back at his local school, well equipped with the English alphabet and eager to show off his new skills. He’s wondering why his Vietnamese teachers are not impressed by his wonderful newfound knowledge.

The enthusiasm of a 5 year old at discovering that it’s possible to decipher the written word.
The enthusiasm of a 5 year old at discovering that it’s possible to decipher the written word.

After the initial quarantine period, two guests, an Australian/American couple, Leah and David, found they were stuck in Vietnam and decided to stay on at the Farmstay. Being yoga teachers, we were very happy to have them. Yoga lessons are at 7 am each morning. What a bonus!

Yoga is for everyone at Phong Nha Farmstay.
Yoga is for everyone at Phong Nha Farmstay.

I know I’ve been very lucky. I am with my family in beautiful surroundings, plenty of space in an entire tourist resort without the tourists, abundant, fresh local food (it’s harvest time and the village gardens are full of fresh vegetables and fruit), yoga classes, rice fields to walk in and a swimming pool.

Phong Nha Farmstay complex Cu Nam Village Quang Binh
Phong Nha Farmstay complex Cu Nam Village Quang Binh

However, watching the impact on those around me has been extremely stressful. Ten years ago there was no tourism in this idyllic, peaceful, but impoverished, rural valley of rice farmers. My son and daughter in law built a small homestay. By 2019, tourism had grown to be the main employment provider for the area. Working with the locals, my son and daughter in law added to their businesses and expanded to Phong Nha town. With the lockdown, they laid off 150 staff. My son and daughter in law, like so many business owners in the Phong Nha Ke-Bang National Park area, and around the world, are dealing with the difficult decision of whether or not, and for how long, they can afford to hang in, without an income, hoping that borders will open soon. The streets of Phong Nha, bustling with tourists three months ago, are now empty.

This is the story throughout Vietnam which relies on tourism for 8 to 10% of its GDP. When the lockdown was lifted, at the beginning of May, my son and I did a two weeks road trip up to and along the Chinese border.  Spectacular impossibly high, jagged mountains and deep winding river valleys. We were the only guests in the Homestays but were greeted warmly.  They hadn’t seen another foreigner for three months but were hopeful that the tourists would come back soon.

Looking across the river from Vietnam to a Chinese tourist spot. No sign of life there either
Looking across the river from Vietnam to a Chinese tourist spot. No sign of life there either

It’s not known when there will be foreign tourists again. However, businesses are beginning to open tentatively, and local tourists are gradually coming back.

So many questions. So many unknowns. That second graph, labelled “How 2020 is really unfolding,” continues to rise, fall, loop the loop and tumble back on itself!

Author: Veronika McInerney

Le Mitchell Company would like to say how appreciative we are to the members of Vietnam’s government who have worked so effectively to fight the Covid-19. We’d also like to announce that Phong Nha Farmstay, Capture Cafe/Pizza Restaurant and Victory Road Villas are all open as of 29th May.
Also many other restaurants and the caves have reopened in Phong Nha, trying to make the most of the situation. If you are in Vietnam, it’s a great summer to visit Phong Nha. Try and stay a week, as Phong Nha will surprise you!