Seven months ago, it would’ve been impossible for almost anyone to predict the kind of changes the world had in store. I was traveling through Southeast Asia, conducting interviews for my next teaching contract, and had just returned to Vietnam from Laos. When I’d arrived in Ho Chi Minh City six weeks earlier there were stories about a new plague that had broken out in China, but no one was talking about it in Vietnam at that point or taking any precautions. It was the same thing traveling through Cambodia and Laos. No one was wearing a mask. No one was doing any social distancing. I was aware that the virus that they were calling COVID-19 had somehow spread to Europe, and that Italy and Spain had been badly infected, but it still seemed like a distant concern.
On March 12th, I traveled on the night bus from Luang Prabang to Hanoi, and when we reached the border, we all had to submit health declarations and have our temperatures taken before we were allowed into Vietnam. The officials weren’t smiling. The atmosphere was tense. When we arrived in Hanoi that night, I paid a woman with a scooter to take me to my hotel which was a few blocks from Hoan Kiem Lake, in the historic part of the city. Upon checking in, the receptionist asked to see my passport and health declaration and I assumed that would be enough.
In the next few days things began to tighten up considerably, however, and it now appeared that in the span of about ten days the virus had spread to nearly every country in the world. One wonders how that could’ve happened. Countries began to close their borders and lockdowns were being enforced across the globe. In Hanoi, the manager of the hotel I was staying demanded that I go online and fill out a comprehensive security form, listing all the places I’d traveled to in the past month, the mode of transportation, and the number assigned to the vehicles I’d traveled in. It was almost impossible to recall all the buses I’d ridden in, since I’d been all over Cambodia and Laos in them, and buses aren’t like planes with designated flight numbers. I had to get creative and then worried about being caught in a lie. The officials were nothing if they weren’t thorough, and that’s why almost no one had died in Vietnam. Meanwhile, I read that the virus had jumped to the United States and Americans were beginning to drop like flies.
I’d been in Hanoi twice before, and was only planning on being there for a few days before establishing a temporary base at Halong Bay. All at once I was in the middle of a lockdown, trapped where I was at. Halong Bay shut down for tourism. The mountains of Sapa in the north were no longer accessible. I booked a train to Hue, but on the afternoon of its departure received a message from the hotel where I’d reserved a room, warning me not to come. There was nowhere to go. At the same time, all the attractions in Hanoi closed down until further notice, face masks and social distancing now became mandatory, and some of the restaurants stopped serving foreigners. The only thing to do was walk around the lake. When there is not a pandemic going on, that is an ideal way to spend one or two days, paying a visit to the giant soft-shell turtle enshrined in Ngoc Son Temple, perhaps watching a performance at the Water Puppet Theater. Ten days of walking around the lake in a row, however, wearing a mask, as the police patrolled the streets screaming emergency directives through loudspeakers, was nobody’s idea of a dream vacation. It was claustrophobic, intimidating, and things were only getting worse.