Three weeks into a two-month trip throughout Asia, it is impossible not to have travel plans affected by the deadly coronavirus COVID-19.
- Three weeks into a two-month trip throughout Asia, it has been impossible not to have travel plans disrupted by the deadly coronavirus COVID-19.
- With a relatively low rate of confirmed cases outside China, fears about catching the coronavirus are not keeping me up at night.
- Instead, concerns about quarantines, travel bans, and racist backlash have forced me to be more flexible as I travel through Asia.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — COVID-19 is the first thing most people want to talk about if you're an American traveling in Asia right now.
When hailing a taxi in Seoul or calling a Grab rideshare in Ho Chi Minh City, the coronavirus is the go-to conversation starter. As I was leaving South Korea last week, my driver apologized that my first trip to the country had happened during the outbreak. And as I arrived in Vietnam six hours later, my new driver pointed to his surgical mask and blamed Chinese visitors for spreading the coronavirus.
As of Monday, there were more than 71,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in 26 countries and more than 1,770 deaths. The vast majority of those cases have been in China. South Korea has reported 30 cases and Vietnam 16.
I was recently in South Korea for two weeks and am now in Vietnam. In the coming weeks I plan to visit Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore — all countries with one or more confirmed cases.
Statistically, it is still extremely unlikely that I will catch the coronavirus. But the outbreak has fundamentally changed my trip, creating problems beyond the possibility of catching the disease.
Five flights, two countries, and innumerable subway, bus, taxi, and Grab rides into my trip, here is what it is like to travel in Asia during the coronavirus outbreak.
Masks are selling out in South Korea and Vietnam.
It is easy to spot a pharmacy or store that has N95 masks in stock by the long lines and crowds. Surgical masks were a bestseller at a Costco warehouse in Seoul in late January. As I was driving by a Ho Chi Minh City pharmacy last week, I saw a crowd spilling out into the street at 8 p.m.
Governments are being forced to take action against scammers.
South Korea is threatening fines of up to $42,108 or two years in prison for people convicted of hoarding protective masks and hand sanitizers. And, in Vietnam, a company that was discovered to be making masks out of toilet paper is facing heavy fines.
In Seoul, signs asking people to wear masks in public are inescapable.
Tourist sites, museums, and other public places all have massive signs telling people to wash their hands and wear masks.
Ho Chi Minh City has fewer signs in public places, but some businesses that I visited would not allow people to enter without wearing a mask.
While visiting a real-estate company, I was informed I would not be allowed on the elevator until I put on a mask. Two factories that I visited had similar rules.
I had my temperature taken at both factories, as well as when I checked into my hotel.
In every case, my temperature was deemed to be safe. However, the thermometer guns are unreliable tools.
"These devices are notoriously not accurate and reliable," James Lawler, MD, of the University of Nebraska's Global Center for Health Security, recently told The New York Times. "Some of it is quite frankly for show."
I feel more uneasy about getting quarantined for hours or days because of a false positive from a thermometer gun or another sickness I catch while traveling.
Thousands of people in Vietnam have been quarantined, including a 20-day quarantine of a community of 10,000 people near Hanoi. Schools in Ho Chi Minh City and other cities remain closed, as the government continues to extend breaks to prevent the spread of the virus.
These quarantines fueled fears that I would end up quarantined in Vietnam or some other country — either as part of a mass quarantine effort or because I show symptoms of the coronavirus.
I plan to travel around Asia for nine weeks. Frankly, going nine weeks without catching any kind of cold would be a pretty impressive achievement. I'm taking zinc and vitamin C, and constantly washing my hands to hopefully pull it off.
The threat of being quarantined while visiting a new area or being barred from entering a country because of past travels is also a concern.
Countries including the US, South Korea, and Singapore have barred certain groups of people who have recently visited China or specific parts of China from entering the country.
Without knowing how the outbreak will progress, it is possible that countries could still enact new travel bans. In late January, I was considering taking a weekend trip to Taiwan to visit a friend. I called off the trip due to coronavirus fears — which ended up being a good decision as numerous countries have banned the entry of passengers who had visited Taiwan in the past 14 days.
On the other hand, my actual experience going from one country to another — flying from South Korea to Vietnam — was shockingly easy. My biggest issue was not the coronavirus or quarantines, but figuring out how to get a journalist visa.
I also worry about racist backlash that is not officially sanctioned by local governments.
I haven't encountered anyone who has openly expressed concern that I am going to spread the coronavirus. Instead, tour guides and taxi drivers have been quick to blame Chinese tourists for the spread of COVID-19 and eager to say that Chinese tourists have not been in Southern Vietnam recently.
In Ho Chi Minh City, I spotted at least one bar in the busy District 1 barring Chinese customers.
A representative for the press center of Vietnam's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told me that the country would never encourage private businesses to bar Chinese people.
"Vietnam's government never supports or encourages any business in Vietnam to ban Chinese customers," former Vietnamese government adviser Le Dang Doanh said in an email. "Vietnam's government works consistently to treat all customers from all countries, including China, equally."
The New York Post reports similar signs have been spotted at a nail bar in Phu Quoc and a hotel in Danang. Doanh, who served as a member of the UN Committee for Development Policy from 2016 to 2018, said that the Vietnam provincial authorities in Danang and elsewhere have intervened to lift these bans. The bans were sparked by fears that Chinese customers could spread the virus and harm their business, according to Doanh.
Chinese and other people who are ethnically Asian around the world have faced racist harassment and assault as the number of COVID-19 cases has ballooned. At least two people in New York City have reportedly been verbally or physically abused on the subway; restaurants in South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong have refused to allow Chinese customers to enter.
As a white American traveler, this has not directly affected me. However, I have been planning to meet up with friends on this trip who could be affected. After witnessing people link the spread of the coronavirus to Chinese tourists, I don't want to expose my Asian American friends to anti-Chinese racism if they join me while traveling.
These fears and the inability to predict what will happen next have forced me to be far more flexible on this trip than I would usually be.
I decided to leave Vietnam earlier than planned and head to Cambodia, partly because of the uncertainty over how the virus might spread and what the Vietnamese government's response would be. Heading to a country with only one confirmed case seemed like a compelling alternative, though Cambodia seems to have some of its own issues detecting the coronavirus.
Some of my early-March plans to visit Thailand and Singapore are still up in the air. As someone who typically plans trips months in advance, this is far from my usual routine. But with the situation changing on what feels like a daily basis, the willingness to be a bit flexible is key.
Crowds have been noticeably small in some tourist hotspots.
Shopping malls in Seoul were significantly emptier than usual. And our Mekong Delta tour guide told us that her company had seen the effects of the coronavirus as well.
With most Asian countries relying on Chinese visitors to drive their tourism industries, both South Korea and Vietnam are likely to take an economic hit because of the coronavirus.
"Tourism in particular has seen a pretty dramatic impact," Stephen Wyatt, the country head of Jones Lang LaSalle Vietnam, told me last week.
"We've been talking to a number of the hotel groups and their numbers are down quite significantly — 30%, 40%, 50%, 60% down on year-over-year figures," in Vietnam, Wyatt said.
Doanh said that Vietnam's economy has been negatively affected across numerous sectors, including exports to and imports from China, tourism, and transportation services such as airlines and trains.
"The government still keeps the growth target unchanged," Doanh said. "But I think the GDP growth rate of Vietnam's economy in 2020 should be reduced by ca. 1% from the 6.9% target, maybe to around 6.0-5.9%."
I am ultimately unlikely to be quarantined for weeks or face racism as a tourist.
Traveling as a white American, I have not had to worry seriously about the coronavirus affecting my trip in a particularly dangerous manner. While there have been some unexpectedly stressful factors, I realize how lucky I am to be able to have flexibility and the choice to head back to the US if the situation changes.
So, for now, my travels continue.
To be honest, I have somewhat downplayed any worries I have while talking to friends, family, and coworkers back in the US. I don't want to unnecessarily worry anyone when things feel perfectly safe. And I don't want anyone to try to persuade me I should return to America.
I have thought once or twice about what factors might force me to cut the trip short. I do not know when I'd have another chance to travel for two months, and I don't want to give up this chance for an illness that I almost definitely won't catch. Plus, traveling during the outbreak as a journalist has given me an opportunity to report on the ground about how different regions have been affected.
If you're an American planning to visit Asia and are worried about the coronavirus, I cannot tell you what to do. But I can tell you that the chances of catching the coronavirus in most Asian countries are tiny at this point. I'm continuing to travel and would advise others to do the same — just stock up on surgical masks before leaving the US.