The Adventures of The Roving Route #26
Our week had a whole bunch of ups and downs as did probably most. The ever-growing Coronavirus concerns are rapidly changing the tourism outlook in Vietnam and of course the entire world. Vietnam has essentially shut down all tourist attractions in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. The plus side is that it seems to be helping to limit the spread though it is at the expense of the many tourism-based businesses here.
Vietnam has about 90 million people but has less than 100 total cases even though they share a border with China. When the virus first broke out, they closed all schools, public gatherings, and tourist sites. Though the virus spread to 16 people quickly, they imposed strict quarantine measures and were successfully the first country to cure all their infected people. That’s when they opened up their doors again to tourists and the virus has reemerged. With this, the country has shut down all foreign tourism and shut every government-owned attraction including Halong Bay, Tam Coc, the old districts in Hue and Hoi An, and entire neighbourhoods in both Ho Chi Minh and Hanoi. Luckily for us, we are still keeping calm-ish and are able to remain in this small town that has yet to have any cases and isn't facing the fear and shortages that the western world is dealing with.
That said, like the rest of the world, everything is changing on a moment's notice as new information arises. The family at our current homestay, Thao Nguyen, has been absolutely amazing and is helping us at every step. They are letting us stay and are even feeding us as many of the restaurants have closed due to lack of business and concerns about contracting the virus.
This homestay is also stunning. We have a corner suite on the top floor facing towards a massive cliff face with mountains on either side. We often have a large tribe of goats wander past our windows eating the shrubs and plants on the mountainside. We honestly can't ask for a nicer place at this moment of uncertainty.
Our first day at this homestay had stunning weather. Full sun, no wind, and an awesome pool to lounge around. Linh quickly insisted that we take the day off and just relax as we had lots of time to do our work for him. We of course gladly took him up on this as it was the first hot day in a while. We were even more surprised when he invited us to dinner at one of his favourite restaurants in the area. Just outside the city and on a small hill with farms surrounding it, we sat and watched the sunset while he ordered us the house special - a full fire-grilled chicken and sticky rice! Digging in with our hands it tasted awesome and was a great way to finish the day! To top it all off, we get up to pay to find that he had already taken care of the bill. Just another example of the amazing hospitality that seems to be ingrained in all Vietnamese people!
We also had one of the coolest "locals" experiences we have ever had. Walking down one day, the homestay had a strong incense and fire smell which was quite a surprise. We get to the lobby and find it all set up with a massive offering table, prayer rug, and a joyful monk smoking a cigarette. This monk, along with two associates, tours through local areas to complete an offering and prayer for the family. Sitting on the floor behind him and having a brief introduction by Linh and his brother, we were told how this man prays for everything from the security of the house to the health of the family and even the safety of the vehicles they own. Each member of the family requests people or things to be protected which are then blessed by the monk and burned. It was a really interesting thing to watch as it is based on Buddhism but with local religious aspects mixed in. This ceremony only happens once a year and we were able to experience and be a part of it. It felt like it was meant to be as this blessing comes at a time with such uncertainty and increased health risks. He ended the prayers by blessing a bowl of water which the family then took turns washing their face with as an act of clearing and cleansing yourself. Surprisingly, he then asked us to join in and wash our faces as well which was a very touching gesture.
With the ever-changing conditions and lots of misinformation, our hotel was actually due to close this upcoming week but just a few days later that changed. As it is a homestay, there are 3 generations living here with a 55+ year spread. Fearing for the 4-year-old niece and his pregnant sister in law, our host, Linh, had decided to close down. After seeing so many other places close, he has decided that he feels better to become a sort of sanctuary for any foreigners who may be stuck here without accommodation and has had these vulnerable family members move to another home. This homestay is lucky enough to have managed a contract with an Australian tour company that passes through Phong Nha several times a month. As the tour guide joined us for meals it was interesting to talk to someone who was directly involved in another aspect of the tourism industry. He was commenting on how much his tours are changing every day with mass closures, visa restrictions, and people canceling their trips. A few of his guests on his tour stayed behind for another bus that came a few days later so we also talked to them about how their trips had all been impacted by the virus. Many had future plans after Vietnam but mandatory quarantines in many Asian countries have altered them. Keeping a keen eye on any Canadian announcements our plans have been very fluid. Though the government has called for us to return, we believe that our safest plan right now is stay put though that could change at a moment's notice. To get home from here, it would take 4 flights, 3 countries, and many hours in airports/planes. Vietnam has done an amazing job containing the virus so let's hope that continues to be the case. We have spoken to the Canadian Embassy and our health insurance provider and feel this is our best course of action. It looks like we will come home at the perfect time to self-quarantine at LOTW for 2 weeks!
As we have spent a few weeks in this town we have a few favourite restaurants that we have eaten at. One of them is a small bakery/kebab shop up the road that is run by a young couple. They very quickly started to recognize us and even after a week where we did not visit them, they remembered us when we stopped by this week. We had ordered a few kebabs when the gentleman came out and pulled up a chair. Though he spoke pretty much no English, using google translate we were able to have a full conversation. After a few minutes, he told us that he also works as a porter taking people into Hang Son Doong, the world's largest cave! He goes in 3 times a month along with 20+ other staff for just 10 guests. He showed us a bunch of pictures and told us a few stories about the cave which were really cool. Even though we had dinner in front of us, he invited us in to eat with his wife. Though we said no to any more food as we had our own, they still brought out soup and we are very happy they did. It was by far the best soup we have had in Vietnam so far! It's amazing just how much you can communicate using technology today.
As we said, we are trying to be as flexible as possible. While we understand that most countries are closing their borders we constantly go back and forth whether it is worth risking time, money, and health to get home. Our biggest fear is that we are stranded while we are on the road. That being said, we hope that waiting off on our trip home won't come to bite us in the bum later on.
Cheers from Phong Nha, The Roving Route