Vietnam – My Covid Year

I’m in with the in crowd

There was only one place to be during 2020 and that was Vietnam. Whilst the rest of the world was being totally devastated by the Corona Virus, Vietnam remained almost untouched. Incredibly fast and decisive action on the part of the Vietnamese government meant that the borders were almost instantly sealed and the dreaded virus was mostly kept out. Indeed at the the end of 2020 the death toll stood at just 35. I’ll say now that for everywhere, Covid was a major game changer. I got to Vietnam in late 2019 before it all kicked off so I was lucky to have seen it before it changed.

With the borders locked super tight, there was no getting in. Not for love or even for money – unusual for Vietnam where money will usually get you most things. So if you were out, you were out and there was nothing you could to get in. But some of us were in.

As Bryan Ferry crooned …

I’m in with the “in” crowd
I go where the “in” crowd goes
I’m in with the “in” crowd
And I know what the “in” crowd knows (how to have fun!)

So apart from a few weeks of light lockdowns and social distancing we mostly just got on with what we’d all come here for, to party our butts off. Oh yes, we partied hard.

Johnny Kongo playing Crazy Cats in An Thoung, Da Nang

Vietnam is not a runty little country in South East Asia. Well its bigger than i always thought it was. There are almost 100 million people here. Its a tall skinny mofo, over 1000 miles tall and just 30 miles wide at its narrowest. This gives rise to quite large differences in climate and culture.

Up in the North it gets almost cold in the winter. In fact the mountains in Sapa are bloody freezing. Hanoi, the capital city, has IMHO a miserable climate, damp, damp and more damp. It’s a town of contrast between the old town area and the super modern newly developed areas. Traffic is heavy and so is the pollution. I liked Hanoi, but I couldn’t quite catch the party vibe I was looking for there.

A thousand miles down south and you’re in Ho Chi Minh City, what used to be know as Saigon before the north and south had their little spat and the south lost and Saigon lost its name. HCMC is crazy busy at around 9.5 million population its the largest city, beating Hanoi by a million. The pollution is thick, you can almost chew the air on a bad day. The climate is hot and very hot. It’s a great party town with a backpacker area rammed with bars of every kind. But still not quite the vibe I was looking for. If you just want to smash cheap beers all day and night, then its perfect. It also has some of the best food I found in Vietnam. But eating and drinking isn’t really enough to keep me amused by itself.

Due to being S shaped, Vietnam has over 2000 miles of coastline. Many almost untouched areas of stunning natural beauty. And many highly developed tourist beaches offering cuisine, bars and nightlife. Right slap in the middle of it I found what I was looking for, Da Nang. A city of just over a million people with a thriving (at that time) tourist industry. Once listed in Forbes Magazine as one of the ‘World’s Most Luxurious Beaches’ My Khe Beach is awesome. 20 miles of sand and surf and always sun. In fact, so much sun that mostly the locals actually go there in the early evening. Odd fact, despite the long coastline always within a short distance, less than a third of Vietnamese people can swim. Standing on the beach and look back, you see beautiful untouched mountains and wilderness. The air is clean with the sea breezes blowing away what little traffic pollution there is. It’s a beautiful city in an excellent location, but you already know me well enough to know that’s not the only attraction for me.

The Awesome fire breathing Dragon Bridge of Da Nang
AM:PM hosting a party at Sala Hotel

Da Nang had a fantastic social scene. It attracted a certain type of person although not totally in tune with my vibe, they were pretty close. The scene is focused in a small area that used to be a village on the east side coast, An Thoung, know these days as Cracker Town due to high concentration of westerners. It boasts a good arts scene which is quite rare in South East Asia (SEA). A number of small galleries and establishments displaying and facilitating art in various media. The Workshop is a fine example of the type of place I mean. An absolutely fantastic music scene giving rise to some excellent local bands and performing artists. Some of my favourites included Looney Tunes, the Da Nang Ska band and Johnny Kongo Trio playing Rock-a-Billy, one of my favourite genres. I spent many awesome nights being entertained by these people and many others. The venues span the whole gamut from luxurious rooftops with infinity pools and fantastic views across the town and beach to little traveller and hippy joints with people lounging about on furniture made from pallets watching bands. A South African crew, AM:PM Events, threw some fantastic parties using spectacular roof top venues like Sala Hotel and DJs like Sami Lee. You couldn’t ask for more and you got it for free and it came with cheap enough beer. My tastes usually lie further down the food chain, some of my best nights were had watching the aforementioned artists perform at dive bar venues like Crazy Cats and Heaven. Smashing down the 20k ($0.90) beer in a friendly and safe environment. I admit I often got so wasted that i have no idea how i got home (Actually using the Grab taxi bike service because i never drink and drive) but not once did i feel any concern for my safety or the safety of my property.

If I have something negative to say about beautiful Da Nang, its about the food. I’m so sorry, but I really don’t like Vietnamese food much. Yes, its crazy cheap, you can eat for practically nothing. A bowl of nourishing Pho can be bought for a dollar or less. But to me, its mostly gnarly stuff, all fat and gristle. The recipes for the various dishes are probably good, but the ingredients used do not cater to my western tastes. There are many western restaurants and food outlets here, but the standards drop quickly after the initial opening and the western owners step back from tight control of the staff actually running the places. My guess is that the sea food is probably excellent, it couldn’t be fresher, but unfortunately i just don’t like seafood or fish.

Good times, with good people

I’m sure you can tell that i loved that year in Da Nang. But Covid was a massive game changer. When i first arrived it was fun to interact with the tourists and travellers that were coming and going. Many times we drank all night with new found friends. When the bill arrived and we went to share it with them, they would convert it back to their currency “It’s only $20, let me get that for us” (That’s 500k so 25 beers) “Nice one Bro, we’ll take you to some great places tomorrow if you like”. But then Covid came (or tried to) and the borders closed, so no more new blood, just the static community. But still it was good crowd to be locked in with and for 2020 it was awesome. A year later and things have certainly changed. Da Nang is a thriving port and fishing town, but even so it was very dependant on the tourist industry with many major hotels and a plethora of smaller ones and hostels. Restaurants and bars all taking tourist dollars and feeding them into the general economy. But with the borders closed things got a lot tighter and many of the businesses closed causing money to get tight. The expat community is mostly English teachers, but with the schools closed even they were running out of money. Vietnam looked after those of us already here, they adopted a relaxed policy of allowing in-country visa renewals and then free extensions for tourists “stranded” here. But eventually every good thing must come to an end and this party is no different. Unscrupulous Visa Agents* (there are many here) arranged fake credentials for “experts” to enter the country on business visas. Inevitably they brought a new wave of Covid with them. So Vietnam decided to tighten its visa policies and unfortunately many good and law abiding people were caught up in this and became victims of Visa Agent* scams (they really are the villains of this situation and have a lot to answer for*). This was the Great Exodus. The bands broke up and went their separate ways. Friends and lovers had to separate. Pets had to be shipped at huge expense or found new homes. In my humble opinion, the situation was not handled as well as it could be and many people fell out of love with Vietnam. They had to leave the country with little notice and became bitter. Its a shame that they had to part like that but completely understandable to not be happy when you are uprooted. Why didn’t they see it coming? The writing was on the wall. Yes, and no. Nothing is ever certain in Vietnam. What is right today can very easily be the opposite tomorrow. So planning ahead is almost impossible, unless you just want to give up at the first hurdle. And if Vietnam taught us all anything, its not to give up too easily.

So what of the future? Currently its August 2021 and the new wave of Covid of spreading rapidly through Vietnam. The vaccination program here is way behind most other countries. Foreigners are being pushed out and others are running scared or, like me, just looking for a better party to go to. Many have sworn to never return and will go away to talk and blog about their bad experiences being ripped off by Visa Agents* and bad landlords. This will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the recovery of the tourist industry here. The tourist return rate here has always been woefully low when compared to places like Thailand. But nature abhors a vacuum, so all those empty hotel rooms and bars will fill up somehow. In a country that’s so incredibly cheap its hard to see how it can get cheaper. Support from the authorities with a better visa program and proper regulation of the loathsome Visa Agents would certainly help. Eventually the warmth and welcoming spirit of the average Vietnamese on the street will win the day for them. When I walk around here I feel very safe. People who don’t know me like to say hello and practice their English on me. Honestly I can barely go for my evening walk without being given free beer by groups of Vietnamese that want nothing more than just to chat. I truly and deeply love the neighbours that i have lived next door to for almost two years. When i go I will miss them so much. And the girls, so smooth, so soft, and with this gene thing that makes them almost hairless, you have to love the ladies of Vietnam.

RIP my dear friend Phuc “Ryan” Pham

This post is dedicated to the memory of a good friend Phuc “Ryan” Pham. A great guy taken from us far too young. The world is a darker place without his bright smile. Loved by everyone that met him. Missed by so many.

Please everyone learn from the mistakes of others …

DO NOT DRINK AND DRIVE!

* Visa Agents – When I first got here there were just a few and they were good and professional businesses. But as things changed so they multiplied like rats and roaches. It seemed like half the population of Vietnam had become a Visa Agent, though it was probably the same people in different guises. They openly advertised various iffy practices to help desperate people remain in the country they loved. Fake shelf companies were set up to sponsor business visas. Inevitably when some fake experts arrived bringing covid with them the authorities clamped down. People who had paid $1000 and more suddenly found they could not renew and had 14 days to pack up their lives and leave. Were they wrong to accept these dodgy deals? Yes. But really their only crime was wanting to stay. The real criminals were the ones that set it all up. But it seems that the only people that really suffered were the victims and not the criminal agents.

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