Stuck in Vietnam a stroke of luck

By Viet Anh   November 23, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
Pros heavily outweigh cons as foreigners talk about their experiences of an unexpected, prolonged Vietnam sojourn courtesy of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Bored, lonely and frustrating.

That has been Danny Flood’s experience after he was stranded by Vietnam’s social distancing response to its first Covid-19 outbreak.

When Flood, who’d reached Vietnam mid-February as part of a trip to several countries, was grounded unexpectedly, he fully expected the crisis to blow over soon.

Flood, an American author and a digital nomad, came to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) from Thailand and planned to stay for around six weeks. On March 22, he was informed that Vietnam would shut its borders and suspend all international flights on March 25 as a measure to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

"The first thought I had was that this was going to be a temporary measure, for a couple of weeks or maybe a month. After pausing and considering my options, I assumed I could go to Hanoi and try to travel to Laos so as to stay within the terms allowed by my visa," Flood told VnExpress International. He guessed most people shared similar thoughts that the global pandemic would be curtailed in the spring once the "curve was flattened" and life could return to some sense of normalcy.

Flood’s guess was way off.

Vietnam had swung into energetic action as soon as it detected its first Covid-19 cases - villages and major hospitals were locked down, school reopenings after the Lunar New Year break were put off by months, public gatherings were banned, people were encouraged to work from home, bars and restaurants were closed and all flights were canceled.

He had broken up with his girlfriend before those measures were adopted, she returned to Bangkok and he wrestled with constant thoughts of frustration and loneliness. With few friends in the city to talk to because of the social distancing, he remembers talking to the ceiling.

When domestic travel resumed, Flood was able to visit other cities like Hanoi, Da Nang, Sa Pa and Nha Trang, and enjoy low hotel prices. He was able to work online because he owns his business.

Flood was in Sapa, Lao Cai, in September, 2020. Photo courtesy of Flood.

American author Danny Flood in Sa Pa, Lao Cai Province, in September 2020. Photo by Danny Flood.

However, he was also pickpocketed twice in Hanoi, losing his wallet and a phone. The experience made him wary about strangers approaching him in crowded spaces, especially around the Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi and Bui Vien Street in HCMC.

His bigger problem, though, was the absence of international flights. He’d made plans to go to Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan after Vietnam for business, but he found out that it was not easy to get out of Vietnam. Quarantine, exorbitant flight prices, and complicated visa requirements have made travel in Asia a confusing and perplexing process, he said.

While considering a flight to Seoul, he was turned off by the mandatory two weeks quarantine with the $1,600 price tag attached. Cambodia was an option if he was willing to jump through some hoops and make a large deposit, but Flood had no desire to get stuck there for a long time. He has a 10-year tourist visa for China but no one but citizens are allowed in. Virtually every country has shut its doors to foreigners.

An avid traveler, Flood said he had never spent more than six months in a country for more than a decade. But now he was truly stuck.

"I couldn't follow through on any of my travel plans. So I've decided to stop worrying about it and let whatever happens happen. It's been about nine months now."

The hardest part of being stuck in Vietnam, he said, was the feeling that he no longer had control over his life. He had come in with a one month visa, and has had to keep extending it and keep looking for new information.

"I didn't think that it was going to be this whole, dramatic kind of thing where we're still dealing with this pandemic.

"I don't have a lot of options right now. So it's very difficult to plan for the future. My life is at the mercy of everything going on in the rest of the world right now."

Though he has been to Vietnam about 10 times and has been traveling the world since 2008, this experience is totally new to Flood.

For the moment, Flood wishes that some traveling opens up between Vietnam and other safe locations like Thailand, Laos, or Taiwan.

"I’m hoping that governments in this region could soon reach some agreements to allow travel between them, so we could all have some certainty and clarity at last. I'm just depending on the free extensions from the government. Like many others around the world, my personal situation has not felt secure this year.

"2020 has been a year of learning and growth, where I’ve had to face things that I never had to before, so for that opportunity I’m grateful."

Actually, it’s safer here

Timothy Bandors, another American, has a very different experience of Covid-19. He chose to stay back in Vietnam on safety considerations.

Bandors, who runs a small internet security company, came to HCMC in September 2019 after some people invited him. He noticed foreigners begin to leave as news of the novel coronavirus broke out, even before Vietnam's March lockdown.

"At first, I thought of leaving too. But, after comparing the situation in both countries, I decided to stay. I realized that Vietnam was a safer place," he said.

While Vietnam appeared to have the situation well under control with most people complying with the authorities’ advice and instructions (wearing masks, staying at home, social distancing, etc.), the number of cases was increasingly dramatically in the U.S. Many people were refusing to follow rules.

As of Tuesday, more than 12.7 million people in the U.S. have been infected with coronavirus, and more than 263,500 people died.

"We did not know how bad it's gonna be," said Bandors.

In HCMC, Bandors enjoys the low cost of living. He also sees less worry about the virus among foreigners. Locals are friendly. They know he has been in the country from the time flight restrictions were imposed and other tourists are not being allowed in.

Bandors was at a place outside HCMC Hall in 2020. Photo courtesy by Bandors.

American Timothy Bandors sits at a fountain on Nguyen Hue walking street in HCMC in 2020. Photo courtesy of Timothy Bandors.

‘Cannot be better’

Julien Le Bouter, a Frenchman, measures that his stay in Vietnam happened "50 percent because of Covid-19." He came to Vietnam in early March as part of a world trip that started in November 2019. He had been to Nepal, India, and the Philippines before he got here.

After the quarantine, he didn’t want to return to France, so decided to stay and travel within Vietnam and to other countries. Then, he found a job in Hanoi as a consultant for a Vietnamese market survey company. He decided to take advantage of the chance to acquire some professional experience abroad.

Bouter said it was "pretty easy" to live in Vietnam despite its traffic and pollution problems. He said Vietnamese people are more relaxed than their brethren elsewhere. Even the pandemic situation in Vietnam "cannot be better. Everything is open, people can go anywhere they want."

"I don't want to leave Vietnam because the situation in France is still bad, and it’s still difficult to travel at this time."

France in particular and Europe in general are having a tough time. The number of confirmed Covid-19 cases has crossed 2.1 million, and that of deaths has risen to more than 49,200 in France. Europe as a whole has reported more than 15.8 million infections and over 359,000 deaths, accounting for a quarter of global infections and deaths reported.

Though Bouter wants to see his family and friends, he does not want to get stuck in France, because he may not have flights to return to Vietnam.

He also does not want to live in a stressed atmosphere where everyone talks about the pandemic and government decisions; so he has decided to stay in Vietnam at least until 2021.

"I have a good situation here, so I still want to enjoy it,'' he said.

Vietnam’s Covid-19 tally is now 1,312. The second outbreak of the virus saw 35 people die, many of them elderly citizens with pre-existing conditions like diabetes and kidney failure. There has been no community transmission for more than 80 days now.

Bouter was at West Lake, Hanoi, in 2020. Photo courtesy by Bouter.

Frenchman Julien Le Bouter is at the West Lake, Hanoi, in 2020. Photo courtesy of Julien Le Bouter.

Staying put, not leaving

Canadian Victoria Kellestine, in Hanoi, has made the same calculations as Bouter. She said it would be really frustrating to go home and see people not following basic guidelines.

Her family members in Canada are still fluctuating between the different stages of opening up and getting back to normal, while Vietnam is handling the pandemic much better, becoming one of the safer places to be at the moment.

Kellestine feels lucky that she is able to go out safely, as she pleases, without having to worry. She said she will not leave the country in the foreseeable future.

The English teacher, who has been in Vietnam for four years, did not think the pandemic was going to be such a big crisis when it broke out late in 2019. She actually thought Vietnam had overreacted and blown the issue out of proportion. But, in hindsight, she said she is very grateful. She and her boyfriend do feel a bit stuck as they have not been able to carry out their travel plans for this year, but they are also aware that they could be separated if they leave Vietnam, because they are from different countries.

"It’s important for us to stay at the moment, we are very lucky that we are both able to work here," Kellestine said.

American Bandors had tried to leave once in March, because another country, Georgia, offered a two-year visa on arrival, and he would not have to undergo all the visa fuss in Vietnam, where only one-month renewals are allowed.

However, Georgia's pandemic situation worsened and flights got canceled. Bandors finds that Vietnam and New Zealand are the safe places to go to right now.

Bandors is also astonished that Vietnam has managed to contain the pandemic not once, but twice. He has decided that he will stay in Vietnam through 2021, at least until the pandemic is over.

"I'm definitely not going to leave and regret it like all my friends who left in March. I am going to stay here for as long as the government allows me to keep renewing my tourist visa."

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