The award-winning 7 Bridges brewery sits along the Hàn River in Danang with a bird’s eye view of the Dragon Bridge. It’s the second Sunday in March, and the pub’s fourth-floor rooftop is fully packed. I make it halfway through a Double IPA when the owner arrives and asks for everyone’s attention.
“Go ahead and finish your drinks, but I need to close early and ask everyone to leave,” says the American expat — a Navy vet from Indiana — who opened 7 Bridges three years ago.
Someone infected with the virus flew into Hanoi that morning, and passengers on her flight continued on to Danang. According to the authorities, two of the passengers visited the brewery earlier that evening. After answering a few questions from the group, the owner walks over and speaks with me directly.
“What I fear is that the Vietnamese authorities are going to show up, ask for everyone’s passports and put you in quarantine for 14 days,” he explains. “That could ruin a lot of people’s trips.”
All the other businesses they visited that day had already shut down for the night, and for all the owner knew, the authorities were already on their way to 7 Bridges to round us up. Like Dorothy realizing she’s not in Kansas anymore, the threat reminds me that my rights are very different in Vietnam, and saying “I’m an American” will not grant me special privileges in a country we bombed to hell.
My wife and I make a beeline for the exit.
What am I doing in Asia in the middle of a global pandemic? All bullshit aside, I took a calculated risk to feed my travel addiction, and I’m still uncertain what the final cost might be.
You see, I booked the 18-day trip to Vietnam (Danang, Hanoi, Hoi An) and Taiwan (Taipei) well before the Wuhan “wet market” officially fucked things up. As the virus du jour started picking up steam in late February, most people canceled their travel plans, but we did not. My wife and I didn’t believe Trump’s claims that the “flu” situation was “very much under control,” but we assumed he knew enough not to call it a “hoax” on the eve of viral Armageddon. Fittingly, the first U.S. death from COVID-19 occurred (but wasn’t announced) the day we headed to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) airport.
“This place is almost empty,” I tell my wife as we step inside the Tom Bradley International Terminal. “This is absolutely surreal.”
The international terminal is usually busier than Disneyland on a school holiday, but we only passed a few people on our way to the China Airlines counters. There was no one in line, and our flight (to Hanoi via Taipei) was almost entirely empty. We encountered a few precautions along the way — a lounge at Taoyuan International Airport (TPE) in Taipei checked our temperatures, and airport staff repeatedly asked if we’d visited China, South Korea or Hong Kong — but we made it to Hanoi without a hitch.
When we flew to the central coast three days later, Vietnam still only had 16 confirmed cases and the U.S. only two fatalities, but travelers were already acting tense. An elderly Vietnamese woman yelled at my wife on the plane for not wearing a mask, and my sneeze literally cleared a row of passengers sitting one aisle over. Plus, the few flights that weren’t canceled were mostly empty (see Tokyo-based chef Zaiyu Hasegawa‘s Instagram photo below), and the $100 tickets we bought to Danang were now selling for 10 bucks.
On the central coast, we started in Hoi An, a UNESCO-inscribed town 20 miles south of Danang, that’s typically overrun by tourists during the high season (February to April). Not this time.
“We should be busy, but no one’s around,” says a woman who runs an all-purpose shop that offers massage, nails, tours, cooking classes and laundry service. “There’s a chain of spas with 10 locations in Hoi An and Danang, and they’ve already closed eight of them in the past few weeks.”
Many spas resorted to heavily discounted “happy hour” prices and aggressive solicitation, and a young German couple we met said they were alone in their hostel. We stayed at a popular hotel that put all of us on the same floor, and its rooftop bar often had no customers. Back home, where many U.S. politicians still downplayed the threat, the news showed one congressman mock the situation by wearing a gas mask on the House floor. A few days later, one of his constituents died, and he was in quarantine.
“Why weren’t you afraid to come to Vietnam?” asks chef Tu Nguyen of the Red Dragon Restaurant. Tables are normally in high demand at his farm-to-table restaurant, but it’s empty when we visit.
“I am afraid, but my fear isn’t the virus itself, it’s how governments and businesses might respond,” I explain, not yet fully grasping the health threat. “Will my flight get canceled? Will there be a travel ban? Can I get back into the U.S. after being in Asia? What if we get sick? Will we have to be quarantined here? It’s the uncertainty that makes me scared.”
The uncertainty got worse that night when I got this text message from an associate: “I’m getting worried about this coronavirus spreading all over. I’ve been working for a high profile client who happens to be in the White House and they advised me to prepare.” This is a hot potato that I don’t want to touch, but it’s worth noting that New York state only had 13 known cases at the time of the text. Two weeks later, that number topped 10,000.
After Hoi An, we headed to Danang and stayed in a massive 258-room resort that maybe had a dozen guests total. We had to flee the 7 Bridges brewery on our first night, and the global situation only got worse from there. This is the week the shit hit the fan.
Over the next few days, Italy shut down the entire country, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Europe the new epicenter, and events like Coachella and South by Southwest were pushed back or canceled. China’s woes continued to mount as a quarantine hotel collapsed killing several patients, and the NBA dashed my hopes of another Lakers title by postponing the season. WHO pop-ups (like the one below) appeared in my browser every time I turned on my computer.
On our 14th and final day in Vietnam, the U.S. death toll hit 41, and the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic.
Taking yet another near-empty flight, we arrive in Taipei on March 12, and the crisis nearly hit home in the immigration line at TPE airport.
“Were you in Italy recently?” asks the immigration officer in a non-causal tone.
“No, not since 2010,” I reply.
I then notice the officer is taking a close look at my passport page, in particular the immigration stamps for Spain, Japan and South Korea. We visited all three countries in the past year, and one of the stamps appears a bit smudged. The entry/exit dates may not be clear. My heart starts racing.
“I visited Japan and South Korea a year ago and Spain in November,” I add. “I have only been in the U.S. and Vietnam this year.”
Several seconds of silence. The immigration officer flashes a concerned face. I’m doing everything I can to hide my fear. Finally, he stamps my passport and let’s me through, but my relief only lasts until we arrive in our hotel room and check the news.
During our flight, Trump shocked the world with a poorly articulated travel ban for most European countries. The next day, the Dow Jones Industrial Average closed 2,352 points down, setting a record for the biggest one-day point drop in the index’s history. The record only lasted four days.
A week after saying he’s not concerned at all and that the risk is low to the average American, Trump declared a national emergency.
Taiwan — which sits just 81 miles off the coast of mainland China — might not sound like the ideal location to ride out the last four days of our trip, but it might’ve been the safest. In early March, The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study on the Taiwanese response that it called “an example of how a society can respond quickly to a crisis and protect the interests of its citizens.” As of March 18, Taiwan had 100 cases to China’s 80,000.
Time summarized the response as follows: “In the first five weeks of the outbreak [Taiwan] took 124 actions ranging from issuing travel alerts and bans, allocating resources for face masks with 4 million being produced every day by the end of January and guidelines for schools…. Daily press briefings were given and regular public service broadcasts were issued from the President’s office, and simple messaging about hand washing, face masks and the dangers of hoarding were effective.”
As the television aired chaotic scenes from supermarkets and airports back home, Taipei welcomed us with restaurants, malls, museums and movie theaters that were all open. We easily bought hand sanitizer — which, like bath tissue, was available everywhere — to take home. Rather than lock down the city, officials asked businesses to provide hand sanitizer and temperature checks at the door, and every public space, from hotels to metro stations, had people wiping down surfaces all day long. The contrast to what I saw happening in the U.S. was striking.
“It must be nice to have a competent female president,” I think to myself.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV), a different iteration of coronavirus, severely affected Taiwan, China and Hong Kong from 2002 to 2004. To address future outbreaks, Taiwan established the National Health Command Center (NHCC) to manage the national response to large-scale outbreaks. The Taiwanese government took action the moment it learned of unexplained pneumonia cases in Wuhan.
“We had to deal with something like this before with SARS,” says a senior executive at one of the city’s top restaurant groups. “People were very afraid back then, much like America seems to be now, but we learned a lot about how to deal with the situation. The country was better prepared this time.”
Over the next three days, we did everything we wanted, from visiting museums and restaurants to standing atop the Taipei 101 tower, without incident. Entering the hotel the day before our flight home, however, the streak snapped.
“Oh!” says the hotel employee after taking my temperature. “You’re 37.1 [C].”
“Is that bad?” I ask, looking like a deer caught in headlights.
“37.5 is bad,” she responds.
In other words, I’m close.
“We could be trapped here if my temperature goes up more,” I tell my wife back at the room. “I hope we make it through the next 24 hours. It’s definitely time to go home.”
A few days earlier, the hotel forwarded a notice from the Taiwan Centers for Disease Control that described mandatory quarantines, so we were naturally worried. We started researching quarantine rules and COVID-19 symptoms, and at one point, I felt on the verge of a panic attack and feared the stress might make me appear ill. Six hours later, the hotel tested us again.
“36.5,” the hotel employee says. “You’re fine.”
Though the regular heat checks now made me anxious, our temps never spiked again. I asked a hotel employee about it when we checked out, and she said a high temp (checked twice, 10 minutes apart) would have prevented me from entering the hotel. I could only return after a doctor gave me a certificate that confirmed I’m virus free. Not sure how quickly I could have done that on a Sunday night.
Back at TPE airport on March 16, we saw cancellations across most of the flight board. Our route was not one of them, but several people from other flights had been moved onto ours. We didn’t know what to expect at LAX (long lines?), the supermarkets (empty shelves?) or even at home (our car was vandalized). By the time our flight touched down in Los Angeles, the Dow Jones had set a new single-day record by dropping nearly 3,000 points.
Two days after we arrived home, Taiwan announced a ban on tourists entering the country and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for returning locals. Three days later, Vietnam suspended all inbound international flights and banned foreign travelers. We’re currently in self-quarantine in Los Angeles.
Was the trip worth the risk? Not with the risks this high. Our decision to go was irresponsible, and I hope you won’t take the same risks we did. Please stay informed and follow all the safety recommendations.
David Jenison (firstname.lastname@example.org) is Editor-in-Chief of PRØHBTD.