Wander, Wonder, Write

Traveling in Times of Corona


The last time I wrote about our wanderings it was mid-February. Daniel and I were in Thailand. Everyone had heard about the corona virus by then, but the WHO had not yet called it a global pandemic. We were not worried, still in a holiday mood. 

On the day we left Koh Lanta, however, we noticed something new. People arriving on the island waited in line to get their temperature checked. Should we be worried?

Banners in a temple in Chiang Mai and one young monk.

In Chiang Mai, the decline in tourism became visible. The Chinese were no longer allowed to travel and the Westerners stayed away, afraid of the “Asian” virus. The beautiful Thai temples were pleasantly calm.

The Grand Palace in Bangkok, one of the world’s most visited tourist attractions, had no waiting line, no crowds. At the entrance of the Queen Sirikit Museum within the palace’s complex, my temperature was checked for the first time. 


We flew to Cambodia at the end of February. Before coming to Asia, I had been worried there would be too many people in Siem Reap. How could I appreciate Angkor Wat if I had to fight heat, mosquitos, and crowds? In reality, we were often the only ones climbing the ancient steps of the magnificent Khmer temples. We rode our bicycles through the stone gates and into the jungle, monkeys dodging away in front of our wheels.

The first real worries found us in early March. The virus was spreading in Europe, which meant: It could spread anywhere. We stopped being carefree and became alert. Traveling in times of Corona was a serious matter. By the time we were ready to leave Cambodia, the threat of a pandemic had become real. What should we do? Other travelers might have returned home and wait it out there. But we had no home to which to return. Where should we wait this out?

The message board at the Siem Reap airport. We were scheduled for the 19:05 one to Ha Noi.


We decided to skip Myanmar and Laos. It was getting too hot there anyway and we felt safer in a country such as Vietnam, where healthcare had a better reputation. There were only 54 verified cases in Vietnam and no deaths. We booked two nights in Hanoi and planned to travel to Hoi An after. We didn’t want to get stuck in a big city during what could become a lockdown. The ocean sounded better to us—more fresh air. 

Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam

Hoi An is a coastal town of 150,000 people, not counting the tourists. We arrived a day after the old town had closed its historic Chinese assembly halls and all group tours had been banned. We wore masks wherever we went. Not really for our own protection, but because we considered it polite. The locals feared us less when we wore masks. For them, the virus was European.

The Covid-19 cases were rising almost everywhere in the world, except for in Vietnam. What made me nervous regardless were the twice daily government announcements on the street loudspeakers. They were in Vietnamese and informed citizens of the new laws and restrictions. Our AirBnB host translated them for us as best as she could, but I felt out of touch with reality. I was in a country where I didn’t speak the language, didn’t know the customs. Could we trust the low virus case numbers in Vietnam? I didn’t know how to judge the situation. So I didn’t know how to act.

One evening, just before bed time, my Dutch embassy released a travel advice for Vietnam: Code Orange. It meant that they advised all non-essential travelers to go home while they still could. The code was given not because the virus was peaking, but because the embassy feared drastic measures from the Vietnamese authorities to prevent the peak from happening. Masks were already obligatory. Restaurants and public sites were shutting down. Soon, the country would likely close its borders with no flights coming in or out. Under unpredictable circumstances, we could be placed in a state facility for quarantine.

Where should we go?

I was scared. Where should we go? I checked our options, over and over. So many cancelled flights. So many stranded tourists everywhere. Going back to Europe would be expensive and complex, with transfers in countries where we might or might not be welcome. Imagine flying back through Moscow and seeing the last leg of your trip cancelled and Russia going into a lockdown. Escaping to Bangkok was still possible, but Thailand was said to change its travel restrictions at any moment. And was Thailand better than Vietnam? Traveling in times of Corona seemed like a stupid idea, a risk for us and others. And why go to Europe where the virus was so much more prevalent?

All night long, I worried. I wanted to believe that staying in Hoi An was the safer and saner option. But what if the pandemic didn’t ease in the next few weeks? Could food security become an issue? Would I get the proper medical care if I needed it? What if we could not prolong our 30 day visa and had to leave the country? What if we then had nowhere to go?

I asked many people for advice and we ultimately decided to stay in Hoi An. I hated gambling with my health and safety, yet I also didn’t want to rush home in a panic. There were still so many Western expats in Vietnam who were not in a hurry to leave. They knew the country better than I did. Perhaps I should trust their trust.

Quiet An Bang Beach, Hoi An, Vietnam

Tra Que Village

We relocated to Tra Que Village, the island known for its vegetable gardens. Now we were closer to the ocean and in a property with space inside and out. We made sure to have enough cash and paracetamol, looked up where the best hospitals were, sent in the early extension-requests for our visas, received these extensions (hurray!), and stocked up on food essentials. 

As predicted, things changed quickly. Vietnam closed its borders to all foreigners. Most commercial planes stopped flying. Neighboring countries closed their borders, too, or announced mandatory 14-day quarantines upon arrival. Visa waivers to countries such as Japan were no longer valid.

This fish pond of our lockdown property

COVID-19 Tests

Late March, local authorities all over the country tracked down the foreigners still present in their provinces. Daniel and I had to provide exact information on where we had been for the past 30 days, flight numbers, taxis, addresses. We were also called up for a mandatory Covid-19 test. Symptoms or not, citizens and foreigners who had arrived into the country after March 8 were to be tested. 

A member of the hotel staff escorted us and two Germans to the testing facility. We rode on bicycles, single file along the rice paddies, to a hotel called “Sincerity.” A team of English speaking professionals welcomed us, checked our identities, and asked us to wait around the pool. Other people were lounging there. We couldn’t tell whether they were guests of the hotel or people like us, waiting to be tested.

Daniel and I were called in as a couple. The medics took blood samples, swabbed our throats, and probed our nostrils. None of it was painful. We were treated with care, patience, and respect. When we asked whether we could photograph our experience, nobody objected. But afterward someone said she wished we would refrain from posting the pictures on social media. Images of testing facilities with doctors in medical gear could cause unnecessary worries. We were done in ten minutes and were not charged any fees. 


A few days later, when confirmed virus cases in the country were climbing to over 200, the Vietnamese government announced a minimum two-week social distancing period. In reality, it was a semi-lockdown. All non-essential businesses closed, along with the beaches. Nobody was allowed to move houses or travel between provinces (unless for essential work). Citizens were forbidden to leave the house unless for food or medical care. Buses and taxis no longer ran. Domestic trains and flights were reduced to one a day, yet often got cancelled. 

The sky from our lockdown balcony

Life remained calm during the semi-lockdown, which lasted three weeks. Many agreed it was for the best and followed the rules. Nobody was panic shopping. Fresh food markets and supermarkets had no shortages. The only thing that made it eerie at times were the military helicopters circling overhead.

Daniel and I stayed on the property grounds and only made a few trips to a store. We focused on our writing projects and yoga practice. The three weeks passed quickly and now we are free again. There have been zero community-spread cases for the past 16 days. Today, the total tally is 270. We are still wearing masks and gatherings of over 20 people remain off limits, but restaurants and businesses have reopened, and children will go back to school tomorrow. 

Peanut season arrived in April. They are dried on the roads all over town.

Life in Vietnam has been good for us. I’m grateful to be in such a prepared country. The authorities did an amazing job in tracing cases and putting people in quarantine and taking strict measures early on. It remains unsure when Daniel and I can leave or how long we are allowed to stay. Our visa extensions expire in early June. But we will take it week by week. For the moment, we’re happily stranded. We’re healthy and writing and together and safe. What more can we wish for at times like these?

Stay safe everyone, wherever you are! Or, if you’ve fallen ill, I’m wishing you well!

P.S. Can you trust the numbers? people have asked. I know the Corona situation here almost sounds too good to be true. But from what I can see in Hoi An, there is no reason to doubt the official numbers. The hospital is calm. There are no sirens. We have not heard of anyone being ill. For people who are interested in how Vietnam dealt with the pandemic, please read this article in The Nation.

More about Vietnam:


  • James Borton

    Hi Claire, You and your husband exercised great judgment in staying in Hoi An. By the way, there’s a **** star international hospital in DaNang should it be needed. I am an ardent fan of Vietnam. Not sure if you need to venture from your hotel but should there be a safe window of opportunity travel to Cu Lao Cham. Stay safe and well. You can Google my name and Cu Lao Cham since I have written about the island. Cheers, James Borton

  • Claire Polders

    Thank you, James! We are hesitant to travel even within Vietnam, but that may change soon. We’ve seen too little of this beautiful country. I will look up Cu Lao Cham!