Tourism Is Slowing Down in Vietnam
Things are becoming still in Phong Nha. Tourism has come to a halt and most people are staying off the streets. Most businesses are now closed including many hotels, restaurants, and the entire national park. We are now the last people staying in this homestay so we are very thankful to Linh and his family for accommodating us for so long. The last group to stay at this homestay was a motorcycle tour from Australia led by an Aussie version of our good friend Pete! Talking with him felt like we were back home and gave us a chuckle that people could be so similar.
While the tour was to be running from Dalat in the south all the way up to the terraced mountains of Sapa in Northern Vietnam, Phong Nha was, unfortunately, the furthest they were able to get. Colin, the leader of the group, has created a seemingly successful business leading 3 tours through Vietnam per year and one in Myanmar exclusively for members of a 60,000 person strong motorcycle club in Australia. According to him, the Vietnamese government has closed the national park not in fear of the coronavirus getting spread to tourists but for fear of the local population that lives isolated in the high mountains. The remoteness and difficult to access mountains of the national park has created numerous small communities of ethnic minorities that choose to have as little contact with others outside their culture. Some of these groups though have gone the opposite direction as they understand the value of tourism and trade with the "outside world." As these communities have been cut off for many generations, the DNA variance is relatively low and there is no health care or basic hygiene capabilities. The government fears that if the coronavirus was to enter one of the communities, it would spread between them and wipe out one of the last remaining tribes in Vietnam. We have to commend the Vietnamese government for taking this step though it has been very disruptive to the local economy in Phong Nha.
Being one of the few tourists left in town, we are both a source of intrigue and fear. There are very few community spread cases of COVID-19 in Vietnam as almost all have been imported by tourists. While our homestay knows we do not have the virus as we have sat still for almost a month now, others are not aware of our situation. Social media in Vietnam has caused many locals to fear tourists just like it has caused instances of hate against Asians in many Western countries. That said, they are still very friendly to us but some have been a bit more reserved. This is especially true with many kids covering their faces when we bike past. It is a little unwelcoming but we understand that it is easier to teach kids to stay away then to teach the nuances of how to protect yourself against the virus. On one of our bike rides this week, our route took us along the main road connecting the town to one of the national park entrances. The 4 lane highway was completely devoid of people or cars leaving the stray dogs, goats, and wandering herds of cows to take over. One particular herd seemed to think they were now the rulers of the road when we biked up to them. Like a river around a rock, they passed unfazed by our presence though very intrigued by our phones.
Much of the week was dedicated to putting the last few touches on Thao Nguyen's website and deciding what to do with our remaining time in Vietnam. Thanks to Linh, we were put in contact with another hotel and tour agency in a town nearby who is looking for a website to be developed. After a nice meeting with the owner, it looks like we will be spending the next week along the beach in Dong Hoi! This website will be quite different as the hotel is only a small aspect of his company with more focus being put on being a small tour agency. He has created an awesome little company that offers a number of different stand-up paddleboard and kayak tours through the rivers and lakes that cut through the limestone mountains. As part of our arrangement, he has offered to take us and Linh out for a paddle on one of his favourite lakes. We look forward to spending some time on the beach and helping another company further its business development! Each of the websites that we have done has been different as has our involvement in the process. For Thao Nguyen, we were tasked to take all of the photos of the interior and exterior and while it takes a long time it can lead to some fun. As Linh manages much of the homestay himself with the other family members doing other things, he asked us to stage the rooms. While we do not usually do this we tried to recreate what we have seen in hotels in the past. Some rooms we made up with rose petals and towel hearts on the beds, while others with simple towel designs, but our favourite was our attempt at the stereotypical swan. With the help of Youtube, we gave one a go and to our amazement, it actually turned out on the first try! We could not have been more excited and now can add "towel artists" to the resume!
As the virus has been deemed a pandemic, and we will likely be in Vietnam for longer than expected, we figured we should actually become a bit more dedicated to learning Vietnamese. We are here to say that it is going terribly! It is a very tough language to sort out as the entire language boils down to inflections in your voice which apparently there are 4. Add in the fact that you do not pronounce the final letter in a word it becomes almost impossible to learn. We bought a few colouring books for the staff's kids who are often here which had both the English and Vietnamese words for many animals. Sitting with Huey, the cutest 10-year-old kid you will ever meet, we tried to learn a few of them. Simple words would take us 7 or 8 tries until he was satisfied while on others he just gave up on us completely. Then it came to him trying to say the English equivalent and we were absolutely crushed. Words as complicated as "alligator" were being said with surprising accuracy after just 2 tries. Clearly, we are doing something wrong when we are easily bested by a 10-year-old!
The last thing that needed to be added to the website this week was a family photo. Expecting a quick and easy picture, we set up the tripod and tried to corral the family and get them to sit still. As we do not know how to say cheese (or even if that would make sense to them) or count down from three, we tried to use our fingers to count down. The family did not understand that as each one of them raised their hand and counted down with us! It was quite a funny miscommunication! By this time, the little girl was not having it and was very antsy. We got a few good pictures off before she finally gave up and decided her thing was to take over the camera and do the photos herself! For being only 4 years old she was surprisingly good and we can see a future in photography for her!
Next Week As our new job is taking us to the beach, we look forward to a change of pace and scenery. Although it will be hard to leave this beautiful town and amazing homestay, we know that one day we will return back. We hope that everyone back home is safe and protecting yourself and your family from the virus. Our thoughts are with everyone through these turbulent times. If you are self-isolating and are wanting something to read, all of our newsletters have been updated on our website at www.throvingroute.com. You can also check out some of our country pages for further reading materials. Cheers from Phong Nha, The Roving Route