[Author’s note from the future: This post has not been edited from it’s original text. However, please keep in mind the context in which it was written. At the time of publishing, COVID-19 was mostly contained to a single area of China and was nowhere near a global pandemic. The US CDC was not recommending that the general public wear masks, only medical professionals. Obviously that turned out to be a pretty egregious error, but that’s where we stood in mid-February 2020. We still followed a “when in Rome” policy and wore masks as requested, even if we were initially skeptical. With hindsight, these requirements turned out to be quite smart and effective . Also with hindsight, I probably would have used a softer term than “hysteria” to end the next paragraph.]
Upon arrival in Ha Long, we took a Grab taxi from the bus station to the high rise apartment building where our Airbnb was located. While waiting in the modern lobby, we noticed multiple signs in multiple languages about steps to prevent transmission of the coronavirus (COVID-19). After a few minutes, we were greeted by our host. She immediately grabbed two surgical face masks from the reception desk and had us put them on. We were then escorted to a back room. Once there, we were informed that we needed to have our temperature taken by a forehead scanner before gaining access to our rental apartment. Luckily, Katie and I both registered in the normal range. I’m unsure of what would’ve happened had we not. This was our introduction to the coronavirus hysteria.
Vietnam hosts millions of Chinese tourists each year and Ha Long is one of the most popular destinations. A third of the foreign tourists to Vietnam are from China, and nearly 6 million Chinese visited last year. This combined with the close proximity to the Chinese border seemed to put everyone on edge in Ha Long. The apartment building we stayed in was upscale new construction, so they could afford to pay staff to test people for fevers and supply hand sanitizer at the elevator banks. A couple days into our stay, they doubled down and rigged up a bottle of hand sanitizer inside each elevator as well.
While it’s common at any time of the year to see people in SE Asia wearing face masks, their prevalence has been turned up to eleven. Everywhere there are prominently displayed signs reminding people to wash their hands and asking them to wear a mask. The hand washing is much more effective at reducing the chance of catching the coronavirus, but the mask is helpful if you’re already infected. However, most of the local population seems to mistakenly believe that wearing a mask will prevent the transmission of the virus to them. Of course a paper mask that isn’t skin tight and you can easily breathe through doesn’t do much when it comes to prevention. But that fact is not commonly accepted.
I’m not really a big fan of the mask, as it’s too hot and makes my beard itchy. I prefer trying not to touch my face and washing my hands often, especially upon returning from outside. This is actually the main recommendation of health professionals. But even I took to wearing a face mask briefly when entering and exiting the apartment building and in other crowded areas. There seems to be a greater comfort level among locals when they see other people wearing it. In fact, Katie and I both bought more durable cloth masks to wear as we see fit. They actually seemed to help a bit when filtering out smokey and unpleasant air. So at least they do something for those of us who aren’t carriers.
I’m not really sure why the face mask offers such a comfort though. Everyone is always removing theirs for some reason. Sometimes it’s to eat or drink. Other times it’s to get a selfie or Insta photo taken. Many people are still smoking cigarettes. It’s also very common to see someone with their mask only covering their mouth and not their nose. Talk about a wasted effort. However, the worst offender was our cruise on Ha Long Bay.
Throughout the cruise terminal, there are warning signs asking people to wear face masks. Before boarding the ship, we were reminded to not shake hands with others and to wash our own hands frequently. And then we get out to sea and lunch is served. It’s communal style, so they bring 6 or 7 dishes of different foods to share. Except that there’s no serving spoon. You’re just supposed to grab a bite-sized portion or two of whatever you want to eat with your chopsticks and put it into your bowl of rice. So here we are, getting constantly bombarded with warnings about protecting ourselves from the killer coronavirus, and our lunch is served in the style that has 6 people sticking their chopsticks into their mouths and then those same chopsticks back into communal food plates. But yeah, make sure you wear a loose paper mask.
The virus scare didn’t really have a negative impact on our stay. We did exercise more caution than normal and I did my best to not touch things in public with my hands. Since it was still mostly cold, I was able to open doors or press elevator buttons with my scarf or sleeve instead of my hands. We were offered hand sanitizer (in a way that felt mandatory) when entering the mall where our grocery store was located. But only at the main entrance. The side entrances were unmanned. We actually attempted to buy hand sanitizer the day prior to taking our Ha Long Bay Cruise only to find that it was completely sold out across the city. So that shows that people are taking precautions, even if they aren’t always the right ones. (We took some liquid soap in a travel bottle just in case, although our ship had soap available.)
I’m pretty sure that we saw one coffee shop with a sign that was refusing service to Chinese patrons. It was in broken English, and my first thought after reading it was that they didn’t want Chinese people to offer to buy their business from them. (There is a lot of Chinese money flowing into parts of Asia, especially tourist zones.) But after seeing some other cases online, I’m reasonably sure that it was intended to dissuade potential Chinese coffee or tea drinkers from entering. A different coffee shop had a box of face masks sitting out for anyone to take one who needed it. So at least some common courtesy is prevailing.
What We Did
Aside from the Ha Long Bay cruise, which was our main reason for coming to Ha Long, we didn’t actually do a whole lot that’s worth mentioning. Overall, we enjoyed our short (for us) stay here. We walked along the shore many times, as we were able to soak in the bay’s cool atmosphere from land. There were multiple city parks that we strolled through too. Like in Hanoi and Chiang Mai, we had a few bad air days again, so that limited our activity some, but it was a definite improvement over the worst days there. And while I doubt the face masks alone are keeping us from catching a contagious virus, we did discover that they help alleviate some of the symptoms of a sore throat and unhappy lungs caused by air pollution.
Where We Stayed
The city of Ha Long is split in two sides separated by water. The west side is Bai Chay where most of the tourist hotels are and where our Ha Long Bay tour boat departed from. But after looking at the google maps street view, we chose to say on the east side. The Hon Gai area caters less to tourists, but the gorgeous features of Ha Long Bay are right off the shore here. We picked an Airbnb in an upscale building that’s brand new construction. It’s actually the most we’ve spent per night in any accommodation so far. It was pretty nice and we were happy with both our neighborhood and specific apartment.
What We Spent
Ha Long was one of our more expensive stops so far, but it was a short stay and we were happy with it. As mentioned, we did the tourist cruise and picked the fancy upscale apartment to stay in. We also had a travel adventure that cost us a day and an extra ~$125, so that drove the costs up a little more too. (More on this in my next post.) We spent $638.01 or $70.89 per day in Ha Long. Adding in our prorated bills like health insurance and cell phones, that brought our total amount spent to $683.40 and $75.93 per day.
Overall, the reactions to the COVID-19 coronavirus are extremely varied here in Vietnam. Aside from a few extra masks, we didn’t notice much when we were in Hanoi. Once we moved to Ha Long, we started seeing signs mentioning the outbreak and how to prevent it all over the place. More than 90% of people were wearing masks. We’re currently in Hoi An, another very popular tourist destination. In contrast, here we’ve only seen a couple of private signs and the response is mostly muted compared to Ha Long.
It’s been interesting to observe the contrast in approaches, not only among cities but also private businesses. The outbreak hasn’t caused us to change any plans though. We focus on more frequent hand washing, but otherwise live life as normal. Well, we’re also going to do our best to avoid eating from communal dishes where random people are double dipping. But that’s a year round thing and not a reaction to the coronavirus.