Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai: How I Travelled to Vietnam Amid the Coronavirus Scare


Darr Ke Aage Jeet Hai: How I Travelled to Vietnam Amid the Coronavirus Scare

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

I’m stalking the Vietnamese government site for the latest coronavirus updates. Yes, I am one of those doomed souls who have made travel plans. The count is 16 now. Their tone is placatory. “Look lady, we are doing a wonderful job of containing this outbreak. In fact we are a miracle nation that has cured all its infected patients. Can you please save your panic attacks for the next time your PM makes an 8pm announcement?”

My newly acquired worry lines refuse to listen to logical reasoning. They have been multiplying faster than the number of coronavirus conspiracy theories and have fallen in love with my forehead.

Coronavirus is the newest “made in China” global sensation and is galloping across continents at an alarming speed. So typical of China. Since everyone loves an outbreak, social media has gone on a panic-spreading spree, sharing misinformation with manic zeal. And I have taken it upon myself to believe every single one of them. That’s why while everyone is busy hoarding hand sanitisers and masks, I’m banking on my 1 litre bottle of pure, fresh desi gaumutra.

A few months back, a vacation in Vietnam with my adult daughter seemed like the best idea ever. It was going to be our “cool maa-beti thing.” We were going to traverse the country on cheap flights, make multiple stops and gorge on Pho, Bun cha, Cao Lau noodles, recharge ourselves on Vietnamese coffee, get adventurous, meet new people and come back with enough Instagrammable material to make the whole of Gurugram envious.

But our giddy-with-excitement phase has lasted as long as our hopes for acche din. People’s reactions have gone from ‘‘Wow, you two are going to Vietnam” to ‘‘Oh god, you are going to Vietnam,” faster than toilet paper disappeared from the shelves in a Sydney supermarket. It is heartening to discover that so many of my acquaintances don’t want me to go coughing and wheezing to my grave. Their concern has made me more nervous than the virus, yet I put on a brave face.

It is heartening to discover that so many of my acquaintances don’t want me to go coughing and wheezing to my grave.

I blame Beti Ray. She held me by my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “Mum, chill, it’s not as bad as it sounds.” Also, I’d rather die than throw our hard-earned money down the drain with all the cancellations. So, we don’t cancel and carry on. It helps that I have that one friend who always says the things you need to hear, “Hey, more people die of pneumonia in the US every year.”

Both of us set out on our first mom-daughter adventure in years not like backpackers but more like warriors – armed with masks, hand sanitisers, medicines, our necks drooping under the weight of bravery medals and a steely resolve to have a good time. After all, we are Indian women who effortlessly carry the weight of others’ expectations, hang precariously from rods in the Metro, deal with condescending men and their bad jokes, body odour, patriarchy. If we can survive all of that and the trolls on Twitter, surely a “Made in China” virus will be a cakewalk for us. And to be honest, we are more scared of being quarantined in Manesar than contracting Covid-19.

We land in Hanoi at 3am. The eerily empty airport and the city makes our hearts sink faster than the Titanic. But anything to get away from the incessant honking on NH-48. Finally, there’s peace.

There is… for precisely 1 hour 20 minutes. Waking up to noisy chatter on the street right beneath our hotel room and the insistent hum of an electric drill in the vicinity, we decide to step out with our faces covered in masks, a little worried about our Instagram domination plans. We explore the many streets of Hanoi’s Old quarters, each dating back 1,000 years, as we try to maintain the prescribed two metres distance. Of course the silks, handicrafts, and herbs make coronavirus fear a fading memory. The masks slip from time to time and the distances between people don’t matter. We do a superb job of dodging a cavalcade of two wheelers, aggressive vendors, pedestrians – mostly white tourists, none of them in masks.

Our resolve not to take a cruise in Halong Bay melts faster than the polar caps as our hotel manager aggressively works on chipping away our fears. We don’t regret it for even a second. We explore caves, trek to the top of an island for breathtaking views of the bay, and I film my daughter kayaking in its dazzling waters. Our N-99 masks, hand sanitisers that smell strongly like tequila shots because of the alcohol are our constant companions. We are even carrying spares in case we lose one. And I dutifully do, within three days of our arrival.

We are on our toes. I had memorised the dos and don’ts – don’t touch surfaces, don’t touch your face constantly, and whatnot. By now, we have mastered the art of climbing stairs without holding on to the bannisters, keeping our hands safely tucked under our arms as we board airport buses, cabs; we rely on our elbows to poke at buttons, wash our hands with soap and water with maniacal zeal for 20 seconds whenever we get the chance. For once, I feel a deep kinship with those with OCD and their fear of germs.

But when do you stop freaking out and start holidaying?

Of the six days we are in Vietnam, we spend four days in transit. Airports make us wary – we treat everyone like a potential Covid-19 carrier and maintain our distance. Give nasty stares to the man sneezing in the line for coffee. Receive nasty stares every time any of us clears our throats or lets off a cough. But most of us cover our faces. We know the rules.

It’s just when you start having the time of your life, you are reminded of the outbreak. “Will this be my last egg coffee,” I think as I sip the delightfully creamy concoction with a dash of rum. “Why is the woman serving Banh Mi sniffling so much? Does she… oh my god, this Banh Mi is the best thing I’ve ever tasted!”

But when do you stop freaking out and start holidaying? When do you stop paying attention to the man who just sneezed and start enjoying the breeze on your face on the pristine beaches of Hoi Aan? Six days on, I don’t have the answers yet. The truth is, I will recommend Vietnam to everyone, minus the existential crisis I experience every few hours.

But now I’m back home and not under quarantine. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have sneezed and coughed around me in the two days that I’ve been here. As I  continue to be bombarded with alarmist pieces and coronavirus cures from WhatsApp university, I long for the buzz of Ho Chi Minh and the delightful meals in Nam.

The virus has come to Gurugram and I’m quaking in my chappals. But then I read about a survival kit – cow-dung cakes. Let’s get this party started. I’ll bring my own gaumutra.