It seems like the writing is on the wall. Not enough people in the US are taking the COVID-19 virus seriously. Up until very recently, officials and hospitals didn’t have enough testing kits and were only testing people exhibiting the worst symptoms. Even people with direct exposure to confirmed cases were being denied testing if they weren’t showing symptoms. Due to this ineptitude and the exponential nature of the virus spread, it seems like it’s only a matter of time until the number of cases in the US explodes. When that happens, even those of us 7000 miles away will be impacted.
We are not particularly worried about catching COVID-19 here in Vietnam. I feel less at risk here than I would in the US. The vast majority of people are taking the outbreak seriously. Everyone is wearing masks while indoors (and mostly outdoors too) and getting their hands sanitized prior to entering buildings and stores. Many businesses in Danang are closed as a precaution, although the grocery stores are still open and fully stocked.
As of mid-March, the number of confirmed cases in Santa Clara County (where we lived prior to retirement) was greater than in the entire country of Vietnam. And that’s with very limited US testing, so it’s likely much more widespread in the Bay Area than the official numbers suggest. So while it’s naturally a bit unnerving being a stranger in a strange land during a global pandemic, the raw numbers and social attitudes tell me that I’m safer here.
Katie and I also practice all of the recommended tips for avoiding transmission of the Coronavirus as a natural result of our lifestyle. We aren’t gathering with friends or family. We’re rarely in crowds and try to avoid them as a general rule. We have been practicing social distancing since before we even knew the official term for it. We’ve added face masks, hand sanitizer, and more frequent hand washing to our routine to decrease the chances of infection even more.
Travel Restrictions And Border Closings
So while contracting the virus is a concern, it’s not our main one. The travel restrictions that are being implemented everywhere are a much greater worry for us. As we watched the COVID-19 outbreak spread, it became clear how countries would handle the issue. The first step every country took was to shut their borders to travelers from the heavily infected areas.
Chinese travelers were the first to be banned entry by most countries. That was followed shortly afterwards by South Korean and Japanese travelers. More recently, Italian and Iranian nationals have also been banned. As I was writing this paragraph on 3/16/2020, the vast majority of countries in the world have banned entry to nationals or travelers from the above countries where the outbreak was the worst. 25 countries went for the nuclear option and instituted a global travel ban to any non-residents. Those numbers are increasing everyday.
So even though we’ve been nowhere near the US since June 2019, we are having real fears of the outbreak in the US becoming widespread and countries (sensibly) restricting entry from all US passport holders. If that happened, we’d basically be left with only one option when our Vietnam visa runs out next month: travel back to the US in the middle of a pandemic.
It should be noted that while we have travel insurance that covers us internationally, we have no US health insurance. At this point, we don’t have the ability to buy any that would cover COVID-19 either. As such, the idea of being forced to return to the country with the most expensive medical care in the world without insurance during a full blown pandemic is panic-inducing. Hello for-profit health care, good bye early retirement.
Due to the exponential nature of the spread and the fact that testing has just recently begun in earnest in most of the US, I fully expect most other countries to hand down travel restrictions that affect us very soon. Therefore, if we want to avoid the above nightmare scenario, we need to find a place to hunker down and (hopefully) let this blow over. We don’t want to be traveling around right now. In the off chance that we have caught the virus but are asymptomatic, we don’t want to be unknowing spreaders. We want to be responsible world citizens and avoid negatively impacting local communities. But we need to balance that with the fact that forced-travel back to the US in the near future is a terrible alternative.
Planning Our Escape
Instead of waiting around for these inevitable travel restrictions to be implemented, and since we’re still healthy, we decided to make a run for it. We made a plan to leave our Airbnb in Danang 3 weeks early and bought flights to Penang. The idea was that we’d be able to get to Malaysia prior to any travel restrictions for US residents being implemented. Then once in Malaysia, we could stay for 90 days visa free. We would pick one place and stay put for a while, avoiding any unnecessary travel.
We chose Penang for a few reasons. The 90 day tourist stamp is the longest stay available in the area. Second, we’ve been there before so we have familiarity with the city. We already know where we can find things we need, like groceries and other supplies. Lastly, nearly everyone speaks English. At a time when communication is important and situations can change in a heartbeat, being able read and understand official communication is important. If we were to need medical treatment, I have no doubt that we’d be able to communicate with Malaysian doctors without resorting to the use of Google Translate.
So while pulling the plug on our last month in Vietnam would cause us to lose out on a flight and a few weeks of pre-paid stays, it seemed worth the cost. On Monday 3/16/2020, we booked our flights to Penang, flying out on Wednesday 3/18/2020. Right before we were about to go to bed that night, we found out that Malaysia decided to close their borders to all tourists, effective the day of our prospective arrival, 3/18/2020. Fuck. There goes that plan. After panicking for a bit, we decided to sleep on it and figure out our next best option in the morning.
Pivoting To Plan B
On Tuesday 3/17/2020, we regrouped and decided that we would go to Taiwan instead. Taiwan also offers a 90 day visa free stay. While we wouldn’t necessarily have the comfort level (we haven’t been there before) or ease of communication, it was still a good option. As of Tuesday, they had very few COVID-19 cases and were one of the first countries to identify the fact that something was happening in their neighbor to the west and take proactive measures. In short, it seemed like they had their shit together.
We booked flights to Taipei leaving the next day. On Tuesday night, we learned that effective immediately, all arrivals from Vietnam (among others) would be subject to a mandatory 14 day quarantine. Having no idea what that entailed, we cancelled those flights too. One day later, Taiwan banned all foreign visitors too.
Few Options Remain
So while it feels like we read the situation correctly, we keep coming up short in our attempts to leave. We missed it by literally one day in two different plans. Since it seems like it’s going to be nearly impossible to leave for a while, Plan C is to try to extend our stay in Vietnam. We still have 3.5 weeks left on our original 3 month visa. In normal times, they offer visa extensions that add another 3 months. These are not normal times though.
I recently read that the 3 month extension was removed as an option by the immigration office, but other places seem to think it’s still available. Things are changing so rapidly that it’s hard to know for sure. They supposedly still offer a 1 month extension that we could get. I think. I just reached out to a few different visa agencies and the answers seem promising on both the 1 and 3 month extensions, but that could change at any point. Due to processing times, we won’t definitively know for at least 2 weeks whether our visas can actually get extended.
Of course, even if we secure the visa extension, we could find ourselves in the exact same position that we’re trying to avoid in a couple of months. If at that time we’re left with no other options than to return to the US, my hope is that by then things will be improving as opposed to deteriorating like they are currently.
In the meantime, wish us luck and please, please take this pandemic seriously. Wash your hands frequently and avoid contact with other people as much as possible. We need everyone’s cooperation to quell the spread of this disease and the associated panic.
March 23rd Update: We sent out a number of inquiries and decided on a broker to help us through the process. She is confident that we can get the 3 month visa extension. After paying $760 (compared to $100 for the first 3 months), she sent someone to pick up our passports from our apartment. We handed them over and now we wait about a week to see if it worked.