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Tone Determines What You Say

Thailand does not border China, right? People exaggerate; fear makes money. We count our pills, our vaccinations. It’s February and we fly.

The water is turquoise, the curry spicy. We worry, just the tiniest bit, about mosquitoes and dengue fever. But there is no illness in paradise. And even if there were, our island, although small, has a hospital.

I’m hot. Are you hot? They’re taking people’s temperatures, the new arrivals coming off the boat. The numbers are low in Thailand. Do people lie? We’re sweating like pigs in Chiang Mai. The air quality is so toxic it hurts our throats. In Bangkok, everybody coughs, especially on the crowded riverboats.

Our visas say: Your time is up. Does Cambodia border China? Officially, it’s not yet called a pandemic. With a surgical mask we fly.

We count our luck: reduced rates, pay one drink get one free. Our private tour of Angkor Wat lives up to its name. Have the curries lost their spice or is it me? At a school for an author talk, we wash our hands again and again. But nobody wears a mask.

The numbers, meanwhile, are going crazy. An infected cruise ship docks in Phnom Penh. How many hospitals does Laos have? Vietnam does not border Italy. It’s March and we fly.

Please wear a mask upon your arrival, asks our Ha Noi host. Coffeeshops are closed; streets, near-empty. We pay for our bed by the night, unsure whether we should stay in a country that feels so tense. Half of the waiters and shopkeepers send us away; a mask can cover a face, yet not a fear. The virus, we are told, is white—European.

We leave the capital with its massive population and arrive at the coast. Government speakers on the streets keep the fishermen and rice farmers informed of the new regulations. The water is cloudy instead of turquoise. Kites at sunset wave over the shore like dark omens.

Our embassies ring the alarms in the early morning. We’re at risk, they say, from unpredictable, authoritarian measures. Enforced quarantines. Fly while you still can, fly home, fly toward where the pandemic is at its worst!


We buy two kilos of cashews, move to a windier place. The government summons us to get a test, mandatory yet for free. We wear our masks in the stores. On the streets. On the beach. Until the beach becomes forbidden. We say “Thank you” in Vietnamese, and although we say it badly, nobody laughs.

Military helicopters circle overhead. Flights are canceled. Borders close. We read that draught threatens the food supply and stare at the coconut palms, ripe with fruit. Did we make the right call?

Peanut season comes and goes, rice season starts. The slashing of stalks, the burning of fields. Smoke and more smoke—who dares to cough now? We count the goods on the loaded shelves, the dozens of eggs we consume. We bask in our privilege. We pay for our bed by the week.

Once again, our visas say: Your time is up. Or not. Call it a travel agency. A certain system. A tailor. Handiwork. Don’t say out loud that corruption can work in your favor when visas expire in the middle of a pandemic. We pay for our bed by the month. It’s April and we do not fly.

The numbers, meanwhile, are going crazy. Up everywhere except here. The numbers must lie; people lie, remember? We take a tour on our bicycles. The town hospital is so quiet that you can hear the birds sing. In the stores, nobody coughs.

The Vietnamese language has five or six tones depending on where you live. Many words have multiple meanings: Tone determines what you say. Nobody has trouble laughing anymore when we open our mouths. It is May, June, July, August, September, and we do not fly. Kites at sunset wave over the shore like victory flags.

This essay was originally published in Love in the Time of Covid.

More about my time in Vietnam: quarantine stories and traveling in times of Corona.