For weeks, as China was struggling to contain coronavirus in January and early February, Viet Nam took pride in the fact that the number of cases in country could be counted on fingers and toes.
Viet Nam took action to shut down travel from China even earlier than the United States. It stopped all flights from China on February 1.
Things were going good for them with weeks of no new cases. On February 28, the government announced all 16 cases had been treated and discharged from the hospital.
On February 12, its tourism chairman put out a letter stating, “Since the first day when the disease was recognized until the epidemic was officially announced by the Government of Viet Nam on February 1st, 2020 and now, Viet Nam has controlled the situation very well by promoting infection prevention, while isolating and quarantining Vietnamese citizens, who have travel history to China…”
“At present, attractions, heritage sites and restaurants are still open for tourists as usual,” the letter continued.
Now that is not so true.
Things changed on March 6. A 27-year old Hà Nội woman returned from Europe last week, after traipsing around France, Italy, and England, before returning to Việt Nam and walking the streets of Hà Nội. She was confirmed to be infected with coronavirus on Friday.
By then, at least three other people had been infected by transmission from the woman, Patient #17, who was referred to as “N.H.N.” in newspapers, and 27 others had to be isolated, although they tested negative. She met one person who was later infected at Milan Fashion week.
Vietnamese people began attacking N.H.N. They called her a spoiled rich girl. They accused her of being irresponsible, of moving around on the airplane and switching seats four times (I have found no confirmation of that rumor). They discovered and published her full name, and supposedly she doesn’t like to look at her phone now, while she’s in the hospital.
More here: says the patient met Case #17 at Milan Fashion Week and they also interacted in London. If nothing else, this is shining a spotlight on Vietnam’s jet-setter class. https://t.co/Leow7BH7VT— Michael Tatarski (@miketatarski) March 10, 2020
I thought of similar cases in other countries. In South Korea, Patient #31, went from Seoul to Daegu, attended the Shincheonji church cult, refused to heed a doctor’s request that she get tested, and then hit up a hotel buffet, before finally testing positive a few days later. In New Hampshire, USA, a medical worker ignored doctors’ warnings and attended a networking event.
N.H.N. may have been irresponsible, but the virus is so widespread now, and there are so many unknown cases transmitting undetected, that there’s little that can be done to stop it, short of maybe shutting down whole countries.
There’s been more and more people coming into Viet Nam, both for travel and returning from travel abroad. The Vietnamese government tried to keep matters calm at the beginning. Tour agents announced that there was no reason to avoid Viet Nam. Now those who arrive are finding hotels closed, streets empty, even being stuck on islands with their flights canceled!
Over 240 Norwegian travelers were stuck on Phú Quốc Island after Viet Nam suspended visa-free travel for Norway, resulting in flights being stopped.
Cát Bà, the most popular island in Hạ Long Bay is shut down. Tourists who visited the coastal area of Hạ Long Bay said it was a ghost town.
In Hội An, the coastal “ancient-style” “Lijiang-of-Vietnam” town with lantern-strung streets, half of the hotels are closed.
Sa Pa, a trekking base, has also been affected.
There are still tourists walking the streets of Hà Nội Old Quarter, but nowhere near as many as usual, and a report out of Hue yesterday said the tourism areas were still active. But things can change at any instant.
One tourism professional says that hotels and cruises and such are closing because of lack of demand, “not because of fear of the virus.” “Majority of travelers coming here are from China, Korea and domestic Vietnamese. The virus really affects their business.” (Now all entries from China are blocked, as are entries from Korea who transited through Daegu or South Gyeongsang province.)
But in the end, if businesses are closed, and if people cannot find accommodations, fewer people will want to travel. The effect becomes a vicious cycle.
already had one expat friend refused entry to a restaurant yesterday for being a foreigner…— Mallory Graves (@Mal_Graves) March 10, 2020
Travelers to many countries at this time have to put up with annoyances. In Viet Nam, they seem to be taking a much more aggressive response towards limiting the virus than many other countries. The government has ordered everyone living in the country to submit regular health declarations. You can even hear the old propaganda speakers announcing virus-prevention information.
There’s the catch-22 facing tourism boards in a time of pandemic. If a country does a good job protecting itself, keeping cases down, they can go out and market their tourism to try to keep their economy up. But if tourists come, coronavirus is going to come. The only way to keep the country perfectly safe is to limit travel.
Viet Nam still has low numbers–34 cases in a country of 95 million people–but disruptions to Viet Nam’s school systems and leisure activities have not been avoided.
It is a beautiful country with waterfalls, caves, rice paddies, forests, and rivers. There are places where a traveler could get away from other people, where the lack of commerce in downtown Saïgon doesn’t matter to them.
But for me, when I visited Viet Nam, what I loved most were the streets crowded with tables and plastic chairs, where you could drink beer and juice; the street stall bánh mìs; motorbikes crowding the streets, and students trying to practice English with you in the park.
Not to say that such things are completely gone. People are still living their daily lives. Maybe if your goal is to hang around Hà Nội and Saïgon and take in daily life, you are less affected that if you planned to visit a tourism-oriented town on the coast. For now, anyway. Let’s hope it stays that way.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.