COVID 19 IN STYLE
Since the world is turning upside down, we are still some travelers who preferred to survive in a tropical paradise, rather than pronouncing (or coughing...) our very last words in the grey suburbs of a European city... The crisis can be lived with some elegance, and entertainment, rather than gaining weight and losing hope secluded in a two rooms apartment...
Staying in Thailand, where we have already spent two pleasant weeks? No way! We don't want to be called “corona” anymore by the locals, scared of the once blessed “walking ATMs” (nickname to the white « Farang »). This country has suddenly lost 70% of its tourists, who may not come back before one year or two. Even the king escaped to Germany with his 20 women personal harem! Cambodia? Forget it: Siem Reap, once a haunt for Chinese mass tourism, is now a black hole over the map of a country that let the passengers from an infested cruise boat spread the virus from Sihanoukville to a bit everywhere in the Kingdom... and the rest of the world. Vietnam, why not? We love this destination. The cuisine is the most sophisticated in Southeast Asia. People are charming, and hard working. Girls are the most appealing in the region, only competing with Korean and Japanese. We, therefore, took one of the last Vietnam Airlines flights to Phu Quoc island until Vietnam would stop issuing visas...
Located in the Gulf of Thailand, off the coast of Cambodia, this large, 574 square kilometers island still keeps (for a few years...) a bit of what Samui and Phuket, in Thailand, have totally lost since decades. Amazing beaches (Sao, Khem...), ample wildlife parks (Vinpearl Land Safari...), and a splendid national park. Targetting mid-range tourism with the recent mushrooming of resorts, this isn't our favorite island in Vietnam anymore. We prefer the more distinguished Con Dao, its former French prison, immaculate beaches with crystal clear water, and one of the top five best seaside resorts in Southeast Asia; the Six Senses. But cash must be spared in those hard times, as we never know when the ATM will eventually stop splitting the voluptuous Vietnamese Dong: the key to success and dolce vita in Vietnam.
Arriving at the airport, we noticed that there were almost no tourists. Thus, for those still at leisure in Phu Quoc, life goes on as before the “Corona Parano”. Slowly and exquisitely. No panic. No confinement in barracks, as scammed by those who tried to refrain us from visiting Vietnam. Few masked people compared with Hanoi and Saigon, where it is a part of the uniform, and where life lost much of its madness.
The two large metropolitan areas, so entertaining just a few weeks ago, now deal with containment, fear, and rejection of the Caucasian who, in the collective unconscious, is the source and vector of the virus! Together with the traditionally hated Chinese, of course! Police checks everyone, everywhere in large cities. Traveling, or just moving a bit, is becoming an increasing challenge. In short, it is not good to be in Vietnam these days: except on this enchanting island!
We'd like to stay again at Sofitel or Melia. Both are classy, and a good value for the money... which might eventually run out fast if we need to stay a few months in a five-star hotel. It moreover could, as 90% of the middle-sized and large hotels already did, close down without notice. Let's be prudent, and rather stay in a very comfortable and super clean family-owned three-star hotel with a swimming pool, room service, and good restaurant. Our room has a balcony, with a one million dollars view of a wild forest. Only seven euros per night! We are on a peak season; wouldn't it be the coronavirus, we would have been charged at least 50 dollars instead.
Ready for a few months' exile (until June or July, by the soonest, according to the rumor), let's try to make the experience sexy! Unless the rest of the hotels eventually close, we hopefully won't be “hosted” in the crampy barracks of Uncle Ho's army. That would be, for the expatriates and travelers sharing our fate, our first experience in a developing country refugee camp... With everything working upside down, who knows what might happen?
The Western media shows the mobs of those, panicked, who would like to travel back to Europe or the USA. Those are tourists; not travelers nor expatriates. Besides the hefty price asked by some airlines to «assist», returning to Europe is out of the question The airport will be 100% closed tomorrow morning. there are no more boat connections on the continent. We like adventure, and here it comes. The airport is 100% closed, and there are no more boat connections with the continent. We are ready to be the last Caucasians living on Phu Quoc Island!
Not sure whether the last tourists remaining on the island share our philosophy, or not: 90% of them are dulled middle-class Russian families with children. Those lost souls, deserted by their travel guides back to the continent, transfer their vesperal spleen to the pedestrian streets. Drunk from sunrise until sunset, intoxicated by the dreadful «Dalat» white rum, and other dubious local liquors, they countdown the days until Vladimir will send them an Ilyushin back to the motherland. The appalling Soviet disco from the 1980s, broadcasted via antique loudspeakers by the authorities from 7 until 10 pm, to give them the illusion that they got back to « civilization », isn't enough to light up their murky faces...
Westerners are mostly Europeans. With a lot of French, happy like Ulysses when Ricard and Saigon beer pairs their big portion of sappy seafood. In Phu Quoc, 5 dollars is enough to feed a gourmand!
Is there any amateur for dog meat? Since beef is getting harder to find, stray dogs tend to disapear from the streets. To the satisfaction of the locals, the delight of the gourmets, and the sexual activity of the demanding lovers (dog is considered a powerful aphrodisiac in China and Southeast Asia)!
Unlike anywhere else in Vietnam, few local people use a mask. We don't, neither. Except for some intrepid young studs, most of the Vietnamese around us are waiters and hotel staff. No one living on the island dares to venture in this touristy area, considered the epicenter of the virus. Not even the cops! Anyhow, all the shops closed down: no shopping, no Vietnamese! All this gives a surreal atmosphere! We love it, and won't get tired of it.
The day after we wrote up our first impressions, the place suddenly turned into Ground Zero: the pedestrian street closed without notice! Fortunately, a family of fishermen who recently purchased an apartment turned it into a clandestine restaurant... We pay now only 3 dollars for the same portion of mouth-watering seafood! God bless the genetically reactive, business-oriented Vietnamese! There is, in this blessed country, solutions for every need. It just costs a handful of Dongs. A small tip was enough to be the last guests in our ghost hotel. According to the locals, the virus spreads from the resorts to the rest of the island. Everyone fled. Even the hotel staff! The most courageous still do their job. Only for us... They leave at 8:00 p.m. and return at 6:00 a.m. Shall we stay here until the army in an NBC suit dislodge us? Wait and see...
Each problem finds a solution in Vietnam: the situation changed within 24 hours, suddenly playing out in our favor. All visas could be renewed (at a cost: we are in Asia!), and we could stay as much as we'd like. All domestic flights resumed, from Phu Quoc to most of the destinations. Let's travel back to Saigon.
The large avenues, from Tan Son Nhat International airport to our residence in the historic heart of District 1, were relatively quiet, and downtown surprinsingly deserted.
We felt an unexpected yesteryears atmosphere: when Saigon was still the capital city of South Vietnam. Parking at twilight in from of the legendary Continental Hotel, we faced a jet-shaped, long-winged Cadillac from the 1950s. Certainly left behind by the American in 1975, it strengthened the illusion of traveling back in time...
A lot of restaurants were closed. They would reopen less than one month, as Covid couldn't block the economy of such a dynamic country like Vietnam, but Saigon without its gastronomic life looked so... communist. Shouldn't it be with the red flags and propaganda posters featuring Uncle Ho and his victorious army, we never really felt like staying in a Marxist-Leninist, neo-Maoist city before. The large, empty avenues and squares, suddenly remembered us of our 1980s repeated trips in Eastern Europe. But the illusion was short, as it took less than a month to see the Saigon resuscitating, with unmasked people in the streets celebrating the winter 2020 -2021 festivals.
Massive tests, a severe tracking of infected people, associated with a revolutionary antibody-rich plasma treatment from recovered COVID-19 patients, made Vietnam an (officially...) zero death zone. The reality was different, at least until April 2021 (when we updated this story). The public hospitals were flooded, before a quick improvement of the situation. While Cambodia is preparing its population for the saddest Khmer New Year, with who knows how many victims of Covid-19 and a complete lockdown, Saigon and the rest of Vietnam are coming back to life, celebrating the Chinese New Year in full pubs and terraces, drinking Saigon Beer or infamous "Emmanuel Macron Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux"...made in China!
Buses, trains, and flights resumed almost like before (the total absence of foreign visitors induced less traffic), and we could travel each weekend to the leading destinations not too far from Saigon: Mui-Ne, Dalat, Vung Tau... Vietnam is back to life !!!!!!
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