Locked Down in Vietnam in 2020

In the Summer of 2019, I had my phone stolen while on holiday in Nice. This set off a chain of events that culminated in me and a friend booking a three-month holiday to Vietnam, leaving in February 2020. I am writing this in late September, with the Covid pandemic allowing us to spend the rest of the year in this amazing country.

To celebrate finishing our A levels, a group of friends and I went inter-railing in Europe. While quite drunk on a beach in Nice, my phone went missing, resulting in me having to defer from university due to missing an email about accommodation. With the next year freed up, me and my friend Harry decided to go travelling. Vietnam seemed like the obvious choice, with encouragement from friends and family who had been before. We decided to go for three months and earn our keep by volunteering at English centres around the country.

We booked our flights with Fair Wise Travel in Hungerford. Veronica helped us with everything and made the process very easy for us. She helped us with the flights, visas and insurance, and gave us lots of helpful advice for what was quickly becoming a fairly daunting process as we were unsure of how the pandemic would progress. We booked our tickets in late 2019, to leave on the 21 February 2020 with a stop-off in Wuhan. Within the next two weeks, Wuhan was locked down and our flights were cancelled. We rebooked, and left on 23 February, stopping off in Istanbul instead. 

Veronica was also able to offer help and advice to us over the next few months as our plans changed, then changed again. I’m sure that we would, somehow, have been able to sort things out for ourselves but it was a lot easier , and very reassuring, to have an expert professional on our side. This is rarely something you get when booking online.

When we left the UK, Covid was still a relatively minor issue: in Ho Chi Minh City, however, the situation was being taken a lot more seriously. Due to the large population and mix of various nationalities, some of whom had come from badly-affected countries, there was a lot of warranted concern among the locals. The country had also dealt with this kind of thing in the shape of SARS and MERS several times before. Shortly after we had previously planned to leave, a government issue closed English centres and schools across the country. Luckily, we were able to cross the border to spend a few days in Cambodia before heading North, via Hanoi to the mountain city Ha Giang.

When we arrived in Ha Giang we realized that the North had been affected much worse than the South. The attitude towards Westerners was worse, due to many of the Vietnamese cases being infected by Western tourists. One of the reasons we went to Ha Giang was the famous Ha Giang Loop, a legendary bike route through the mountains North of the city. Harry was a competent rider, having had his own bike in the UK. I, on the other hand, had passed the CBT over a year prior, and had never ridden a bike until then. I confidently assumed that I would be able to tackle the loop, despite my lack of experience, and for the first 20 minutes, it seemed I was right. However, the inevitable came to pass and I drove into a barrier, flying over the handlebars. Harry, unaware of how severe my injuries were, rode the normally four-day route in 12 hours, riding into the night to get back.

Luckily, both my injuries and the damage to the bike was minor, but the shock made me feel like something was broken. I was picked up by the father of the family whose homestay we were at and was driven to the hospital. I received an X-ray, was reassured that everything was fine, and sent back home. I was incredibly lucky to have received very minor injuries that prevented me from continuing and potentially getting hurt much worse. As a Westerner in a hospital during a pandemic, I could feel lots of eyes on me. Thankfully I was in and out pretty quickly.

Shortly after this incident, we were told that we wouldn’t be able to leave the city. A few days later we were advised against leaving the hostel. We spent three weeks in limbo; we weren’t strictly forced to stay inside, and some shops were still open, but the lack of anything to do in the tiny mountain town meant that we spent most of our time in the homestay. The family which ran the place was very welcoming to us and the other foreigners. Where hostels in other cities – and likely in Ha Giang – were turning westerners away, we were allowed to stay and were largely unbothered. 

The time spent inside for three weeks was bizarre; Harry adopted a nocturnal schedule so we only saw each other in the mornings and evenings, where we’d eat our dinner and breakfast together. We were able to cook our own food, and experimented with unknown Vietnamese ingredients, with mixed results. Eventually, restrictions were loosened and we were able to fly south, where the situation was much less severe.

Once back south again, other than a very unpleasant test in the airport, it was as if Covid didn’t exist. Due to the quick and vigilant action of the Vietnamese government and people, the outbreak was contained to a few hundred cases and no deaths. This meant that life returned to normal, apart from a dramatic reduction in the number of tourists. We also found that there didn’t seem to be any of the animosity against Westerners that we experienced in Ha Giang. The only major way that we were affected was that our return flights were cancelled. 

Up until this point, I was planning on starting university upon my return to the UK, but after our rebooked flights were cancelled, we decided to extend our trip. Being in Vietnam, where the virus is a distant threat, we weren’t particularly motivated to get on a plane and return to the UK, where we would be more at risk. Also, with universities unsure of what the first term will look like I decided to postpone my education by another year. It soon became clear that this was a wise decision. 

We spent two weeks in the coastal town of Vung Tau, meeting a strange mixture of foreign teachers, before heading to the beautiful Phu Quoc island for Harry’s birthday. From there, we planned to go to another mountain town, Dalat, to look for more volunteer work. After browsing Workaway, a website for people in our exact situation, I found a hostel called Brew & Breakfast that was owned by a British-American couple. We visited it on our first day and moved in the next. We ended up spending three months in Da Lat, falling in love with the quiet, beautiful city with its temperate climate, a welcome change from the blistering heat of the rest of the south.

Eventually, with the increasingly few western tourists, on whom the business relied, the owner, Nick, was forced to close the hostel, leaving the café and bar open. At this time, we had been getting our TEFL (teaching English as a foreign language) certification in preparation to move to Hanoi and start teaching. We arrived in Hanoi in mid-September and started work before the end of the month.

Over the past seven months we have watched the pandemic cross the globe from a safe seat and it has been a very surreal experience. Knowing that we are in the midst of a historical event but seeing very little evidence of it around us makes it hard to fully grasp the severity of the situation. We are aware of how lucky we are to have avoided the pandemic but credit is due to the Vietnamese people and government who have displayed incredible resilience and solidarity in combatting the virus.

It has been an incredible, transformative experience and keeps getting better. I have learnt a huge amount about the world, humanity, and myself. Each day holds a new experience and I am constantly experiencing things that completely blow my mind. I am incredibly grateful to all the people, both in Vietnam and England, who have made this trip possible and successful, as well as the long string of both good and bad luck that have ultimately led us to where we are. Returning to the UK will be hard, but I am constantly reminded of all the amazing things about living there that I took for granted.

As I am writing this, we have started settling in to life in Hanoi. We have gone from travellers to temporary residents. We have become familiar with the Vietnamese way of life and have fallen in love with both the country and its people. We are very excited for what the future holds and look forward to the new things we can learn and experience here.

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