Travelling in Vietnam During COVID-19

Almost six months have passed since we came to Vietnam, double the time we planned. It’s funny because right before the start of our trip, I joked with my family and friends about how we would be able to say that we lived in Vietnam. Little did I know that my statement would actually come true!

Hoi An, Vietnam
We never thought we would be living in Vietnam!

At the end of January, my boyfriend Matej and I put our huge matching backpacks on. We were ready to start a new chapter of our lives and embark on the travel lifestyle (AKA full-time travel).

Here’s a fun fact: right before we left, Matej’s dad asked us how much he would have to pay us to stay home because he was scared of the coronavirus that was spreading in China. We assured him that everything would be fine. Nobody foresaw that the virus in China would become the world’s most significant problem just two months later!

Pre-Virus Travel Plans

We were supposed to be in Asia for seven months and then head back home in September for Matej’s brother’s wedding. After that, we’d probably go back to Asia again.

We started our journey in Bali as we had both visited before, and there is perhaps no better place to start our new travel lifestyle than in laid-back Bali!

We took it pretty easy there as the next six months were going to be pretty intense. Our original Southeast Asia itinerary included Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Java in Indonesia and then back to Bali where we would fly home.

However, our adventure was put on hold when we just got started in Vietnam, only 2 weeks in. During that time, we visited Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, and Mui Ne.

Girl walks through Ho Chi Minh City
Exploring Ho Chi Minh City.

Travelling in Vietnam During a Pandemic

When we arrived in Vietnam, there was no sign of the virus at all.

Previously, the country had 16 cases, and all of those people had recovered. Life was normal, and the only ‘weird’ thing was the temperature check at the entrance to the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

Measuring temperature War museum
Temperature check before entering the War Museum in HCMC.

While we were in the coastal town of Mui Ne, However, things started to change. First, the outbreak began in Europe. It felt so surreal as everyone in Europe (including us) thought of the virus as a faraway problem which was unlikely to spread that much. Oh, how wrong we were!

Just a few days later, a new case was reported in Phan Thiet City, only 17 kilometers from our hotel. Mui Ne, known as a lively tourist island, slowly started closing down. First restaurants closed, then hotels stopped accepting new guests and before we knew it, there were fewer people on the streets.

Tents right on the beach at Longson Mui Ne Campground Resort
The beach at Mui Ne, Vietnam.

As the situation in Vietnam was still under control, we followed our original plan and continued to Dalat. That’s when reality hit. Cases slowly started increasing, locals started panicking and becoming more wary of foreigners.

We were denied entry to one local restaurant and people on the street started to put their masks up when we passed by. Many new cases came from abroad (whether it was from foreigners or Vietnamese locals coming back from overseas), so I can partially understand their behaviour. However, the whole situation made us feel unwelcome, and we also had to deal with problems of our own. We spent a week inside, trying to figure out our next move.

The situation changed rapidly: the borders started closing, the situation in Europe was out of control, there were fewer and fewer flights each day, and our insurance no longer covered coronavirus.

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The time had come to make one of the hardest decisions of our lives; to stay in Vietnam or go home as soon as possible. After long talks with our families and colleagues in the same situation, we decided the safest option for us was to stay in Vietnam. 

Couple posing outside building in Vietnam
We made the decision to stay in Vietnam.

It was clear that a lockdown would happen soon, so we had to act fast and find a place “to get stuck.” We wanted to be in a city where we would feel safe and wouldn’t be the only foreigners. That’s why we chose Da Nang, a beautiful coastal town known for its expat community.

It was a long journey. First, we took a bus to Nha Trang, and then a train to Da Nang. A new set of measures had just come in, so we had to be careful. Masks were mandatory and there were temperature checks as well as requirements to disinfect our hands regularly.

Stuck in Vietnam: What is Travel Like During COVID-19?
Masks were mandatory inside and outside throughout the country.

We arrived in Da Nang at the last moment, just a day before the whole country went into lockdown. The scariest thing happened around 11 pm that night when we arrived at Da Nang train station. People in full-on blue suits accompanied by the police were waiting for us. Hearing all kinds of scary stories about other quarantines in Vietnam, I was terrified. The first thing that came out of my mouth was: “What will they do to us? ” 

As the only foreigners on the train, we were pulled aside. Luckily, other than a standard safety and document check, the only extra thing we were required to do was fill in some forms about our travel history and personal information. The government workers were kind and explained what was happening, so, fortunately, it wasn’t that scary after all.

Life During the Lockdown in Da Nang

During the lockdown, we lived in one of the big row houses, so there was plenty of space. This helped us to not to go crazy by staying in the whole time! As we came last minute, it was hard to find an apartment because many landlords had already stopped taking new guests. That was the government’s order, and it served as a way to prevent unnecessary movement across the country. 

Houses in Da Nang
Our home for two months.

The rules were very strict, especially in Da Nang, where food delivery wasn’t allowed (unlike in other cities). Luckily, we had a kitchen, so we cooked by ourselves every day. The beach was closed, as well as all non-essential shops. Some parts of the city were blocked and there were police patrolling these areas.

Masks were mandatory, taxis were forbidden, temperature checks and the disinfection of hands were a must. We almost didn’t go out at all. Around once a week, we’d go for groceries and sometimes for a night walk when there was no one around. 

The social distancing lasted 3 weeks, but time passed quite fast. For us, it turned out to be a great thing. We started working on our website, and I finally took social media a bit more seriously and started posting and doing stories. I also wrote some articles for the media in my country as they were all interested in our story. I tried to maximize my free time, so I could teach myself as many new things as possible. Many companies and creators had free courses about SEO, social media, blogging, photography, etc., so I used my time wisely. 

We Became Famous in Vietnam!

Okay, this is maybe a bit exaggerated… Still, our story went to many media outlets in Vietnam, both in English and Vietnamese. The first time my story was picked up in Vietnam was during lockdown when they found an article I’d written for a Croatian publication. It was written in English, so they translated it. Right away, I started getting new followers, friend requests, and messages of support. Everyone was kind, and they even apologized for that one bad experience with the restaurant in Dalat. 

The second time we got into the Vietnamese media was when they found my tweet stating how lucky we felt staying in Vietnam, and that we planned to extend for three more months. There’s a funny story behind that too. 

The day that we went to Hoi An to start the visa extension process, I got a message from a Vietnamese local saying: “I saw you in the news today. Good luck.” I froze. The worst thoughts went through my mind. I couldn’t understand the tone of the message and whether if it meant something good or bad. In my mind, I was already getting deported. 

Right away we Googled my name, and there were already many new articles published. Luckily, it was all positive. They had written about my experience in Vietnam during the lockdown so far. After that, we did become a bit famous, at least in Da Nang, where some people recognized us from the news. I even did one interview for the Vietnamese media! 

Arijana being a Vietnamese celebrity!
Arijana being a Vietnamese celebrity!

100 Days Virus Free!

Soon after the lockdown, new cases started dropping and many of those who already had the virus started recovering. To be sure that it was safe, we stayed in our rented house for an additional month.

During that time, everything opened up again, and tourism sites offered significant discounts or even free tickets to drive the industry. Of course, we had to use that opportunity, so we slowly started exploring nearby places. And the best thing was there were no crowds. We had almost every place to ourselves!

Couple on Hai Van Pass
We had the country to ourselves!

This amazing situation continued for 100 days straight! For the last few months, we lived in a country where we completely forgot that the virus exists. Everyone got back to their normal lives, people weren’t scared anymore and the rules were relaxed. During this time, we traveled through Da Nang, Hoi An, Tam Ky, Hue, and Ninh Binh

Friendly locals in Ninh Binh.
Friendly locals in Ninh Binh.

In Ninh Binh alone, we spent a full three weeks. People thought we’re crazy, but we enjoyed every minute and didn’t need to rush at all. After all, why would we? We were in a country with no fear of the virus and had all those beautiful places for ourselves.

Even now, we’re not rushing. The situation is weird across the whole world, so we can’t really blame ourselves if we’re not in full-on exploration mode. After all, this is our life now, not just a trip.

Girl looks up at temple in Ninh Binh
We had beautiful places to ourselves!

I think we were luckiest when we were in Hoi An, at least that’s what everyone kept telling us! The town was completely tourist-free and I instantly fell in love, which probably wouldn’t have been the case ‘under normal conditions’ as I’m not a fan of crowds. We wandered through the old streets smiling at friendly locals, took plenty of photos everywhere without hoards of people, and even cycled through the town. 

The locals kept telling us how lucky we were for experiencing Vietnam this way.

After being there for a week, Hoi An was officially reopened, and the crowds of domestic tourists arrived. Many attractions had opened up again, so we had the opportunity to see the town alive and buzzing too. It was a win-win situation! We didn’t miss out on anything and we experienced something that many people won’t ever have a chance to.

Girl in yellow dress near Hoi An temple
I instantly fell in love with Hoi An and its surroundings.

What’s the COVID-19 Situation in Vietnam now?

Unfortunately, there has been a new outbreak of coronavirus recently in Da Nang. Straight away the city was put into lockdown, together with the surrounding area, including Hoi An. The measures across the whole country were tightened again after this outbreak. 

We have a couple of apps that help us to track the numbers and locations of cases, and we also have to regularly fill in Health Declaration forms. The situation became a bit tense again, especially with Vietnam recording its first deaths. Still, they are much better prepared than the first time. Vietnam reacted fast, so I believe everything will soon be okay again.

We can still freely move across the country, but we have to be careful, especially when using public transport. If someone has the virus, everyone on board will have to go to quarantine and that’s not something we want. Travel isn’t easy anywhere in the world right now. However, this may be our new normal, at least for a while.

Couple in Da Nang, Vietnam
Da Nang, the place we called home for two months. It will always have a special place in our hearts.

Keep up to date with COVID-19 regulations and border openings in Southeast Asia here!

Our Next Steps…

We arrived in Vietnam on a 3-month tourist visa, and we’ve already extended once. Now the plan is to extend for three months again. We want to stay in Vietnam, so that’s why we’re not using the free waivers (with those, you have to try to get out of the country before a specific date). 

We plan to travel across the whole country and explore as much as we can. But of course, following all the rules and precautions to keep us and the others safe. Currently, we’re in Phong Nha. The area has no recorded cases, and it’s a safe place to be now. Plus, the nature is breathtaking! 

We consider ourselves lucky to be able to travel at the moment and experience some places completely devoid of tourists. Still, there are some cons to this too. For example, not all of the attractions are open. To fully experience all the places we visit now, we will have to come back one day. But that’s okay, you can’t have it all!

Local lady riding bike in Hoi An.
We plan to return to Vietnam one day to explore what we can’t at the moment.

After Phong Nha, we plan to continue our trip up to the north of Vietnam. The best time for visiting the north starts in September, so we couldn’t be more excited about that. 

What will happen after we leave Vietnam, nobody knows. We’re hoping that some countries in Asia will open up so we can go there. If not, we’ll go to whichever countries are willing to accept tourists. In a few months, I expect some more countries to open up because I think it’s clear to everyone that coronavirus is not going away. I think we will have to learn to live with it. 

Until then, we won’t worry about that. The community in Vietnam during these tough times is amazing, and everyone is always ready to help. After all, not that many of us stayed to wait it out.

During our time here, we met many people that became our close friends and made the whole experience so much better. We love our life here and couldn’t be happier that we stayed.

Arijana Tkalčec | Shipped Away

I’m Arijana, a travel journalist. Since I was a kid I dreamed about travelling and having my own documentary show. I’ve travelled a lot so far, but 2020 was finally the year when I started travelling full-time and sharing my experiences on the way. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll make that documentary show.

Find me on: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

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