MASKED. A Coronavirus Journey
My Viet Nam visa was going to expire in early April, 2020. Then near the end of January rumors of a dangerous virus began to circulate on the media and in conversations and the authority had started advising peope to wear face masks. Before this I had thought of visiting the northwestern region of the country. I had the itinerary mapped out. From Da Nang I would first stop in Vinh, then Ha Noi, and after that came Dien Bien Phu, Lai Chau, and Lao Cai. The trip would take two weeks. At this time, the Covid situation in the country was still relatively calm.
So one morning of in the middle of March I packed my bag and said to my brother I was going north. By now the masks had become a familiar sight on people's faces. The smiles disappeared. The day before I had bought a train ticket for Vinh. I went to the Da Nang station at around 9 o'clock and sat and waited. The train was scheduled to arrive at 9:57, stopped for 15 minutes, then continued northward.
This was the train station of my wandering youth, those years when I was a teenager, lost, confused, depressed, angry, and suicidal. Back then, this place was a scene of extreme misery, the years after the end of the American war. People took to the railroad to buy and sell, trying to make a living, practically living hand to mouth. All essentials of daily life were rationed by the state and everyone was hungry. Along with hundreds of people, I slept on the floor of the station, waiting for the train, day or night, and when it came, pandemonium! Everyone fought one another to get on the train, trampling on each other, stepping on each other, screaming and yelling. I was caught in the frenzy, but I was unfazed, because I was 18 years old, damn it. At that age, I was unstoppable. One evening I witnessed a grown man violating a small girl inside the public toilet at the station. It was dark. I only saw two shadowy figures engaging in the act but I could tell it was an old guy and a very young girl who wasn't even a teenager. It shocked me because the sight was strange to me, but I don't remember if I had any emotional reactions. Thinking back, the girl must have been hungry and lost, perhaps an orphan, and was brutally taken advantage of.
The station was different now: clean, spacious, and well-organized. Gone were the crowds and the misery. Then at exactly 9:35 the train arrived and they made an announcement, inviting passengers to board. Leisurely, I handed my ticket to the girl at the gate and she scanned it at the turnstile and I walked onto the platform. From the outside, the train looked like a junkyard piece, all dusty and rusty, but inside it was different. The seats were soft and comfortable and their backs could be adjusted for sitting up straight or reclining. And the car was air-conditioned.
At 9:57 the train shook gently then slowly moved out of the station. From my seat I looked out the window at the houses, the trees, the fences, the dogs, the chickens, the children, the motorbikes, all mangled and thrown together like an unfinished Picasso painting, and I further thought I am looking at the sight of poverty. Economically, the country is still stuck in the "developing" phase and everything looked old, un-manicured and disorganized.
An hour after the train left the Da Nang station, I got up and walked to one end of the car and looked at the scenery. On the horizon were the mountains and rice fields. Suddenly I felt fine, almost a relief, that I was on the road, that my body was moving and not stuck in a room. What was this I was experiencing? Wanderlust. I had no responsibilities, so nothing and nobody could stop me from going anywhere I wanted. Well, actually somebody somewhere could stop me from going somewhere for some reason—the medical authority, for instance, and the fashionable reason now was you might be a Covid suspect that must be stopped and quarantined.
The train was slow climbing the slopes of the Hai Van mountains, then it passed Lang Co, then stopped in Hue for 15 minutes then went on. I sat in the dinning car and I saw wooden benches, dirty floor, everything was untidy, old and rough, and it reminded you that were in a poor, "developing" country. But what was I comparing it to? What was my point of reference? I thought I knew. I had lived in a "developed" capitalist country for most of my adult life, and my eyes were accustomed to things organized, polished, sanitized—all well and good, albeit it was "air-conditioned nightmare," to borrow an American author's phrase. Do I want this country to look like Japan or Singapore? At least as far as affluence is concerned, my answer would be a cautious yes.
A little after 8 o'clock in the evening, the train pulled into the Vinh station. Using Google maps, I had located the position of the hotel and decided that I could walk there, about one kilometer from the station. I got off the train. The taxi drivers offered me rides but I shook my head. Outside the station, I turned left into a dark street and the farther I walked the more desolated the street became. Then I found the hotel, Thanh Dat 2. I walked through the entrance and saw two Caucasian males standing and smoking. I walked into the lobby. There was no one at the reception and the place looked like an abandoned garage. And the light was low. I knocked on the counter and out of a deep hallway a man and a woman appeared and slowly approached me. I told them I had reserved a room. The woman, who was wearing a bandaged pair of thick glasses, walked behind the counter and looked at a piece of paper and nodded her head.
"Thien Ho?" she said.
"Ho Thien," I corrected her.
She asked for my ID and I handed her my passport.
"I will make a copy and give it back to you," she said.
"No, you keep it," I said.
I wanted them to keep the passport for me because I didn't want to walk around with it. It is bulky and uncomfortable in the pockets, and what if I lost it? She hesitated at my suggestion but then changed the subject.
"Pay now," she said.
"I will pay when I check out and get my passport back."
"Hmm ... I would rather have you pay me now."
"Why? Have you got people who stayed and run"
"No, but please pay now. You are staying for two nights, right?"
She spoke very softly and I said to myself it's no use arguing with her so I paid. Two nights. She took the money and handed me the key to the room—and the passport.
"No, you keep it for me," I said.
And she casually tossed it into the drawer under the counter. I hoped she didn't lose it or give it to the wrong person.
I took the elevator up to my room. Inside, there wasn't a minibar and there was no telephone to call downstairs. So I came back down to the lobby and said to the woman I wanted some water. She pointed to the soda cabinet at the corner and I walked there and yanked the door but it was locked.
"It's locked," I said.
The man who was with her came out from behind the counter and opened the door of the cabinet and I removed two bottles of water. I wondered why they locked the soda cabinet.
"Twenty thousands," the woman said.
"Put it on my bill," I said.
"Pay now," she said.
Apparently, theft had happened at this hotel. I paid for the water then took the elevator back to the room. Someone, perhaps emotionally disturbed, was yelling downstairs outside the window with a voice that sounded like a goat whose throat was being cut. I double checked to make sure the door was locked then went to bed.
In the morning I went down to the lobby and asked the woman for my passport back. I had thought about this last night before falling asleep and decided that these people could not safeguard my passport given the way they conducted business: casual, inattentive, and disorganized. Bad things might happen and I felt that I had to be on the safe side. So I said to the woman I wanted it back. And she gave it to me—happily.
Then I walked to the train station to buy a ticket for Ha Noi for the next day. I entered the ticket office and read the schedule and the girl at the counter from 30 feet away said loudly when I was still having my back to her, "Where do you want to go?" I turned around, walked to the counter and said I wanted a ticket for Ha Noi for tomorrow morning. She asked for my ID and I showed her my passport and she sold me a ticket. Then I walked out and at the gate I saw a group of motorbike drivers and one of them made a hand signal to me and I nodded and walked toward him. I said I wanted to go Uncle Ho's village where he was born and it would be a roundtrip. How much, I said. One hundred thousand, he said. And I said ok and we rode away.
I sat behind the driver and observed the scenery on both sides of the road. Houses and rice fields. A monotonous landscape under a cloudy sky. Vinh is in the middle of the country in Nghe An province. The driver took me first to the village of Uncle Ho's mother and I found that this place was also a tourist trap. But I was the only one there when we arrived. The houses were well-preserved. Viet Nam was a traditional agricultural society where most people lived off the land, and these were the traditional houses, with thatched roofs, mud walls and earthen floors. And they were so low I had to bend my back forward to enter. The flower gardens were well manicured. There were signs and descriptions of various objects and their histories. I made a quick walk-around then returned to where the driver was waiting and we continued to the next site which was the village where the Uncle was born. A guard at the memorial complex stopped me and asked me to wear a mask. I didn't have a mask. So the driver and I went around to look for one and found it in a pharmacy. I put the rag on my face and walked in. So this was the place where modern Vietnamese history started.
It was near noon when I left the village and on the way back to town the driver lost his way. He had to make a detour and the trip ended up 15 kilometers longer. But I didn't mind, because the mishap allowed me to see more of the area. And not only losing his way, the driver was also stopped by traffic cops for making an "illegal" right turn and he had to shove 350,000 dongs down the cops' throats to avoid a 3,000,000 dongs summons and suspension of his driver's license. I told the driver I would compensate him at the end of the trip, or rather, reimburse him for his bad luck. We rode on to a Buddhist temple on the edge of town. Then I paid him the agreed-upon fare plus the money he bribed the cops with. And he was all right. Indeed, driving a motorbike for a living is insecure work and one's economic situation is very precarious. I walked into the temple, hung out for an hour, then walked to the center of town for some sightseeing then returned to the hotel in the late afternoon. The highlight of the day was the trip to Uncle Ho's birthplace and that incident with the traffic cops. I was going to Ha Noi tomorrow.
In the morning, ticket already bought, I walked to the Vinh train station, one kilometer from the hotel. I sat in the courtyard of the station and waited. Then I heard announcement telling people to go and wait on the platform for the arriving train. I walked through the waiting room, onto the platform and looked around me. This station absolutely needed a major facelift because it was a disaster: broken floor, old and mossy walls, peeling paint, holes and gaps everywhere. The sky seemed to get darker. I had not seen a sunny day since before I left Da Nang. Then the train came and I boarded, looking for my seat. "Air conditioned soft seat," as written on the ticket. It was what it said: soft seat in an air-conditioned car. I situated myself and the train rolled. Northward. After 30 minutes, I walked to the area between the cars and stood by a window and looked at the landscape rushing by. Endless rice fields and mountains in the distance.
The train was scheduled to arrive in Ha Noi in the afternoon at around 3 o'clock. Now what to do but sit back and enjoy the scenery. It was beautiful but monotonous. Ranges of mountains on one side of the track and rice fields on the other. And the farther north it went, the less green the scenery became and the landscape slowly turned brown and dusty. When the train was going through a small town I saw a man on a motorbike slip because of the wet surface and lose control of his bike and the bike was crushed by a speeding truck. The man was thrown off the bike and barely escaped the big wheels of the truck. It was a very very close brush with death and he was a very very lucky man. Well, I guessed his time hadn't come yet. Traffic in this country is a dangerous adventure for everyone who participates in it and that was why I had given up driving a motorbike. I don't want to be part of the traffic insanity of this country. Then the closer the train got to Ha Noi, the more chaotic the scenery became on both sides of the track. More people, more houses densely packed together and things look grimier and grimier.
The train pulled into the Ha Noi station, the last stop, almost exactly on schedule. I walked to the Vietnam Airlines office building about a kilometer away and told the masked woman I wanted a ticket to Dien Bien Phu for the day after tomorrow, and she sold me the ticket. Then I walked out, heading toward the ancient quarter of the city where I had booked a hotel. After checking in I locked myself in the room. I was familiar with this town because I had been here before so I didn't feel the need to go out. I just wanted to stay in the room for some peace and quiet.
Then as if against my will, I thought about going to Hai Phong—a coastal city 100 kilometers east of Ha Noi—for a day trip tomorrow. I had never been to Hai Phong before and this was my chance.
As it got dark, I took the elevator down and walked out to look for food. I walked west one block then east one block then north one block then south one block and found a convenience store. I walked in and lifted two packs of instant noodles off the shelves. At the counter the girl spoke English to me and I wondered why. I had been in the country for almost six months and my face remained Mongoloid and was burned by the sun but some people still mistook me for a foreigner. Was it the way I talked? My altered accent, my uncommitted attitude and unbalanced conduct, or was it the lost and vacant look in my eyes? I paid for the noodles and walked back to the hotel. I had my food. That night was a very peaceful night and I didn't remember if I had dreamed of anything in my sleep. Perhaps not.
In the morning I went to the bus terminal and took a bus to Hai Phong. There were 5 or 6 people on the bus and all had to fill out a form giving their names, addresses, phone numbers, ages, and destinations. This was something new and it could only be blamed on the virus. The ride was smooth. Another overcast day. In Hai Phong I walked around for about 2 hours. It was a quiet medium-sized city with narrow tree-lined streets and many old and decrepit colonial buildings. The city had a cozy, homely feel and a laidback atmosphere. I ended my visit early and went back to Ha Noi even before four o'clock in the afternoon.
Another quiet night in Ha Noi. Tomorrow I would be in Dien Bien Phu.
The next morning I went to the airport for the flight to Dien Bien Phu. The road to the airport had been vastly improved since the last time I was there which was about 15 years ago. It was a three-lane highway and the airport itself was larger, cleaner, and better organized. I had two hours to kill so I sat down and ate and smoked. And I wore a mask. Just to look alike. I looked at the sky. Still the same dark cloudy sky of the last few days. Persistent overcast. And wet, not because of rain, for there was no rain, but because of the moisture in the air.
Then the check-in counter opened and I lined up with 15 other people. That was all: only 15 people for the entire flight. Behind me a man carrying a briefcase moved up so close that I told him to keep his distance and he stepped back, reluctantly. He might have no concept of "personal space" but then, such might just be a culture thing. Thi man later would ride a van reserved exclusively for "business class" passengers and he was the only one on that van while everyone else was herded into a public bus for the ride from the waiting room to the airplane on the tarmac. Then the plane took off. All I saw outside the window was a dense gray color. It was going to be a fateful flight.
In less than an hour, the plane landed in Dien Bien Phu and everyone walked to the terminal. The plane parked very close to the waiting room so no transport from the tarmac was needed. When I was waiting for my bag I saw a man and a woman being questioned by the police. The man's face was as red as a cooked lobster. Did he have a fever and therefore was stopped? After retrieving my bag I walked into the parking lot. A taxi approached and I took it into town, a short ride away. I knew what I was going to do in this town: visiting the battlefield. Yes, the famous battle of Dien Bien Phu which decisively ended French colonialism in Indochina. But I was already on the battlefield because the whole town had been built on top of it. Still, there were a few specific places I wanted to visit. I walked into the hotel lobby: empty and dark, and I saw a woman behind the desk. I said I had a reservation and she looked at the computer then gave me a key. I took the elevator to the 4th floor and opened the door and entered the room. It was clean and spacious and had a large bed and a window looking down to the street below. The place seemed brand new, or perhaps newly renovated. I was going to stay in this hotel for two nights. I took a shower then lay down then near 4 o'clock I walked out. I walked to the bus station, four blocks away, and asked the woman for bus information to Lai Chau, my next stop. I like to be prepared. I don't want to deal with anything at the last minute.
"I want a ticket for Lai Chau the day after tomorrow," I said to the woman:
"Come 30 minutes before departure on the day you want and buy your ticket then."
Fair enough. I asked her for the timetable then walked out of the station. I strolled to the center of town and saw a giant memorial dedicated to the fallen soldiers of the battle. It was built on top of a very steep hill. I inched my way up the staircase and stopped every 30 steps to catch my breaths. Hills and I don't agree. Eventually I made it to the top and I looked around me. Right in the middle of the memorial complex was a large statue of a soldier with an AK47. And surrounding the hill was a flat terrain and I saw clusters of roofs in the distance. Fierce fighting had taken place at this hill which had been named by the French commander after one of his mistresses. Was it Beatrice? The sun was setting and darkness was approaching. A bunch of young women ran past me laughing. Then I descended. Tomorrow I was going to visit a couple of places, all related to the battle.
It was another peaceful night even though someone was making sporadic noise on the other side of the bathroom wall.
In the morning I looked at Google map and and found that the places I wanted to go were all within walking distances. The farthest was only 4 kilometers from the hotel. So I would walk and I was going to walk very slowly. First I was going to walk to the De Castries bunker. De Castries was the commander of the French force defending the base. And of course he and his mercenaries had their ass whipped bloody good by the Viet Minh during the 2-month siege. On the way to the bunker, I walked by a wet market. Wooden and bamboo stalls lined up along a dusty road and woman vendors squatting on the ground and selling meats and vegetables and fish and all kinds of provisions. Near the end of the market was a narrow bridge. The description said this bridge was on one of the routes over which French troops marched and transported their hardwares to the battlefield. On this end of the span, which was all rusty metal and rotten wood, there was a sign that said "Historical Site. No Market." But right where the sign was, a large number of people did just that: squatting with their baskets of goods, buying and selling, it was an extension of the wet market --- nostalgia for history could not override economic concerns. I took my time walking over the bridge to the other side. It was a short walk and right at the other end I saw an exhibit that consisted of a WWII tank and a few pieces of artillery. The display was in the middle of a flower garden. I walked in and looked at the tank, a rusty olive pile of mangled steel. Then I circled site and looked at the big guns, same thing: rusty metal. And I read the description that said basically ... "On the morning of such and such a date, the people's armed forces destroyed these instruments of war ".
Then I looked at Google maps and found that the De Castries bunker was less than 100 meters away, somewhere behind those bushes. I walked in the direction the map showed me and arrived at the bunker and the woman sitting at the booth looked at me with inquiring eyes and I understood that she wanted me to buy a ticket. I was the only visitor.
So this was where the loser De Castries sat, underground and under layers of sandbags, with bottles and bottles of wine, dreamed of Paris and the girlfriends he had left behind who might be having other affairs while he was trapped in this hell hole on the other side of the earth, fighting for the dying glory of the French empire, scared shitless under the relentless bombardment of Viet Minh artillery day after day after day after day.
I walked around the bunker, an array of blocks of mossy concrete, a reconstruction of what had been there, then down into the ground where De Castries had his desk and chairs and maps and radios and other things. Then I walked farther out from the bunker and suddenly I saw a strange flower tree. It was a trunk of the tree sprouted with branches on which grew a kind of white and pink flowers. Delicate and beautiful. I had never seen this flower before. Later I discovered that this flower tree was native to this region and it was called Hoa Ban and every year people held a festival celebrating this flower.
In the afternoon I walked to the museum of the Dien Bien Phu Victory. The woman at the ticket booth had just waken up from her midday nap and she sold me a ticket in a very slow and sleepy motion. It was warm and humid. I entered the building and again I was the only visitor. Like every museum in the country dedicated to history and victories this one was also a collection of black and white pictures and war-related objects like weapons and uniforms. One object that caught my attention was a bathtub that was supposed to have belonged to De Castries and had been found in his bunker. A bathtub in the middle of a battlefield? I wanted to laugh. The pampered bourgeoisie general really had a sense of humor. But then, a bathtub right in the middle of a battlefield was a sure way to secure defeat. Monsieur De Castries must also have had hot water boiled for him every time he took a bath and also servants to scrub his back when he wasn't busy defending the base.
After an hour in the museum, I walked out. Then I saw a sign that said " A1 Historical Site". This was another hill that was part of the Dien Bien Phu base. I entered, paid the fee, then explored. Same layout as the De Castries bunker but there were also trenches. When I was standing on the top of the hill and surveying the scene, an old man approached and asked where I came from. Then he said he was a veteran and had fought in the battle. Hearing what he had said I immediately thought he was kidding me. The battle took place 66 years ago for god's sake. So I asked him how old he was and he said he was 85. Did he look 85? I looked hard at his wrinkled face but still I could not tell. He did look old though, even very old. And he said, pointing to a grave a short distance away: "Go offer incence to the fallen comrades, over there." I said yes and walked away. Maybe he was really a veteran of the battle. Then I descended the hill and left the compound. It was late afternoon. There wasn't any place else to go so I went back to the hotel. They left my room key on the counter and there was no one around. I picked up the key and went up to the room. Tomorrow I was going to Lai Chau, the next stop on my northwest itinerary. It would be a 240-kilometer ride through a rough terrain, according to the map.
That night while I was semi-conscious and about to fall asleep I heard knocks. I opened the door and in came two cops and a woman who dressed like a nurse. They all wore face masks. One cop had my passport in his hand and asked me where I came from and how I arrived in Dien Bien Phu. I told him I had flown in from Ha Noi. Then the nurse pointed a temperature gun at my forehead and said "normal". And they walked out. I wondered what was going on. Then a thought hit me: I am in a communist country and this was perhaps a routine security check. And not only that, there was also the virus and the fear and that explained the temperature check. That night I slept peacefully.
I got up early the next morning and walked down to the lobby. The guy was still sleeping on the couch. I knocked on the counter and he woke up and gave me back my passport and I walked to the bus station. It was already daylight. I wanted to leave early because it was going to be a long ride, 240 km, and it would take at least 5 hours. At the station I approached the ticket counter and said to the woman I wanted to go to Lai Chau and I gave her the money and she gave me a ticket. Out in the lot I found the bus and showed the driver my ticket and the first thing he said was "Where's your mask?" I put my mask on. Then he said I was at the right bus and it would depart in 30 minutes.
"You got time for breakfast," he said.
Another dark and cloudy day. It was the kind of day that makes you feel the whole weight of the earth was coming down on you. Perhaps I should forget there was a thing called the sun. At 7:30 I climbed into the bus. It was actually a big van, not a full-sized bus. A man got in after me, then a woman, then two young girls. Then the van rolled out of the station. It stopped here and there to pick up not passengers but boxes and boxes of all kinds of merchandise. Then it started to climb the mountains and the landscape shifted from flat terrain to rugged slopes and mountain peaks. The driver passed down a piece of paper on which the few passengers filled out their names and addresses and phone numbers and their destinations. This was part of the war on the virus: the authorities wanted to know your movements.
The van climbed higher and higher in the mountains and slowly the spectacular scenery revealed itself. The van traversed the mountains pass, a long and winding and seemingly endless stretch of road. One one side of the road was rock walls and on the other was cliffs and valleys and a river. The view was breathtaking, I had never been inside this type of landscape before. I leaned back and relaxed. It was a feast for the eyes that lasted for almost 200 km — until the van arrived in Lai Chau.
It was one in the afternoon and as I walked out of the Lai Chau bus station, a man motioned to me to wear my mask. This small city looked like an American frontier town back in the days of the wild wild west: dusty, hot, silent, drowsy, and here and there one or two stray dogs with their tongues hanging out roamed the empty streets. Perhaps I had watched too many spaghetti westerns.
I was hungry, and not far from the bus station, I found a restaurant. A man appeared and I said to him I wanted rice and chicken. I was the only customer. The man brought the food and I ate. I felt a little light-headed. Maybe because of the long ride from Dien Bien Phu. So now I was in Lai Chau, another place on earth. I had planned to be here and now I was. According to the research I had done there wasn't much to see in this town, no historical sites, no tourist attractions, nothing special to lure visitors. So what I would do was check into a hotel, then walk around a little bit, then in the late afternoon go back to the hotel to chill out and prepare for the trip to Lao Cai the following morning.
When I finished the meal and left the restaurant the man promptly closed its door. Looked like I was the last customer of the day even though it was only 2 o'clock in the afternoon. The hotel I had in mind was only a short walk from the restaurant, according to the map. A female dog bared her teeth at me and growled in a threatening manner and followed me. I stopped and felt very tense. She might attack. I stood very still, holding my breath. The dog stopped also and stared at me with the same vicious look. Then I took a very slow and quiet step, then another step, then another step, fixing my eyes on the animal. She kept looking at me with her wild eyes, then slowly turned and trotted away. That was close. Had I made a sudden move, the dog might have snapped and attacked.
Then I found the hotel and walked in. All quiet ... and the light was low. I approached the front desk and saw a woman, in fact, a girl, because she looked like a teenager. I said I wanted a room and she asked for my ID and I showed her my passport. She scrutinized it for a few seconds then asked me if I had another ID. I said no. Then she gave me the key and I took the elevator up to the fourth floor and found the room. It had two large windows, one looked out to a building that I later found out was the town's traffic police headquarters; and the other window, even larger, looked out to the province general hospital. The room was nice, clean, and there was even a tea kettle which made me smile. I took a shower then lay down and I heard knocks on the door and it was the girl from the front desk.
"Do you have another ID?" she asked with a confused look in her eyes.
"No, my passport is the only thing you need, I assure you, don't worry," I said.
She walked away, apparently unconvinced. I wondered ... perhaps she had never seen a foreign passport before?
It was late afternoon. As I was slowly drifting into unconsciousness the phone rang and I looked at it and saw a number I didn't recognize. So I ignored it and closed my eyes again. And I lay there, listening to the sporadic and faint noises of the motorbikes down on the streets. Then the phone rang again. That same strange number. Can you just leave me alone? I closed my eyes, ignored the phone, but minutes later it rang again. What is this? Some emergency? I picked up the phone.
"Mr Thien?" a male voice on the other end said.
"Yes," I said.
"Were you on the flight from Ha Noi to Dien Bien Phu on the 15th of March?"
"Who are you?"
"We're the Dien Bien Phu police. Please answer the question."
"Yes, I was. Why?"
"There was a suspected Covid-19 case on that flight and you might have been exposed. Where are you?"
"I'm in Lai Chau."
"Lai Chau? Where were you the last two days?"
"I was in Dien Bien Phu."
"Where did you stay in Dien Bien Phu?"
I told the man the name of the hotel I had been at.
"There's nothing to worry about. We will call you again. What we are doing right now is only precaution," the man said and hung up.
I sat down, wondering what was going on but obviously it had to do with the damn virus. Ten minutes later, the phone rang again.
"Mr Thien?" this time it was a female voice.
"Yes," I said.
"This is Lai Chau police. Where are you staying?"
I told the woman the name of the hotel.
"There's nothing to worry about but you were on a flight from Ha Noi to Dien Bien Phu with a suspected Covid case who had been on a flight from Singapore with a confirmed case," the woman said.
"What's going to happen now?" I asked.
"We'll call you again," the woman said and hung up.
I stood up, paced the room and told myself get ready to be quarantined. I was prepared—mentally, at least. It didn't matter to me one way or another. I made some tea and as I sip the hot liquid I felt that whatever plan I had for my travels would have to be really put on hold now. Because of the virus. And that was fine with me. Why this sudden surrender and acceptance? Because I knew resistance was futile. And besides, if they quarantined me, they would be doing what they believed to be right and they had the authority to impose their will on me.
Thirty minutes later, the phone rang again. This time it was from the province CDC and the conversation was the same. Then silence for the rest of the afternoon. At dusk, I came out to buy dinner then back to the hotel and it felt as if I was going to have a very peaceful night—had those people forgotten about me? So I sat and ate and suddenly I heard knocks on the door. It was that girl from reception again.
"What's up?" I said.
"Can you go downstairs please," she said.
She didn't answer my questions but repeated her request.
"I am eating," I said.
"Can you go downstairs after you finish your meal?"
I closed the door and resumed eating. Hadn't the slightest idea what the girl wanted. Done with dinner, I lay in bed for a few minutes then got up and took the elevator down to the lobby. It was now completely dark. I saw six people sitting and standing around a couch and when they saw me one of them asked me to sit. Three women in civilian clothes and three uniformed cops whose faces were all masked. After everyone had seated, one of the women said she was from the health department and began asking me questions. One started taking notes. The three cops kept their social distance and their mouths shut. They wanted to know my whereabouts for the last three days and who I had come into contact with. Now, it was clear that the virus was the reason for this meeting. I answered all of their questions and sometimes I even found myself volunteering information. They took it all down. It was a friendly interrogation and when it ended the woman from the health department, who seemed to be in charge, told me to prepare to go into quarantine at an army camp not too far from here. I was designated an F2 who had been exposed to an F1 who in turn had been exposed to an F0 who was positive for the virus. That F0 was now being treated in a hospital in Ha Noi. The F1, who had been on the flight to Dien Bien Phu with me three days prior, was already quarantined, and now they found me and it was my turn.
I went to my room to gather my things, then took the elevator back down to the lobby. I stopped at the reception to pay for the hours I had spent at the hotel, four in all, and I got my passport back then returned to the couch where those people were. The woman from the health department was talking on the phone, then she hung up and said headquarters had agreed that I could be isolated at the hotel because I was already here. The owner of the hotel, who was also at the meeting, loudly protested but she was put on the phone with the authority and was put back in her place and had no more objections. They told me to go back to my room and stay in for the next 14 days.
The next morning I called downstairs and asked the girl to bring me breakfast. This girl was designated my only contact with the outside world for the duration of the quarantine. I had three books, a phone, an internet connection and I knew I was going to be all right.
Near noon, a woman came and brought me a bunch of face masks and introduced herself as Hanh, a nurse from a local clinic. I couldn't see her face because of the mask she was wearing but through her voice I recognized her as one of the three women who had been at the meeting the night before in the hotel lobby. She asked me to sign an agreement that required me to abide by all the rules of the quarantine. I read the agreement and signed. Yes, I agreed to everything. A cop who had come with her and looked like he still needed his mama to wipe his nose for him stood outside and observed us through the open door. Then Hanh said "Whatever you need, just let me know." And she gave me her phone number. I told her I needed a notebook. Then she and the baby cop went away. I closed the door and looked out the window. Over there was the headquarters of the traffic police. And over there on the other side was the general hospital. Far away was the mountains and down there on the streets were people and dogs. These were the only sights I would see for the next 14 days.
In the late afternoon, Hanh came back by herself and gave me a notebook and some fruits.
"I didn't ask for the fruits," I said.
"They're for you."
"I'll bring you dinner," she said.
"You don't have to. I'll ask the girl downstairs to buy it for me."
But she insisted and I said fine, bring me dinner. Before leaving, she gave me a thermometer and told me to check my temperature twice a day and call her if I felt unwell or had any "symptoms".
"Like what?" I said.
"Like fever, cough, shortness of breaths," she said.
In the evening she brought dinner and I asked her to sit down and we talked. Already, I was impressed by her caring demeanor and kindness. She said she lived not too far from here, married and had two children. Her clinic wasn't far from where she lived so every day she went home to cook lunch for her husband and children.
"You have children?" she said.
"But you and your wife still love and care for each other," she said.
"That's the way it should be," she said.
We talked about other things but I didn't remember much. Then she stood up and quickly stepped toward the door, whispering "We talk too much." And she left.
For the days ahead she came every day to bring me food and things I needed. And I started to feel something for her but I also felt apprehensive about my daily contacts with her: was her husband asking questions about the dinner she brought me every evening? I never saw her face because it was always hidden behind a mask. All I saw was her two eyes and now I thought that they were not the doors into her soul. I needed to see all of her face.
After the conversation of the first night, I didn't ask her to sit and talk with me anymore, and she always rushed out of the room after placing the food on the table. But in the late evening, we would get on the messenger and chat. And before too long I started asking myself, what's going on? Are we getting involved in something? I was thrilled but at the same time I felt anxious, even fearful. What's going on between us? It was the food that she brought me every day and the late night chats that sometimes bordered on intimacy.
One evening she called and said she might be late. At 6 o'clock, I started to pace the room. That was the time she normally showed up with the food. 6:15, quiet. Then 6:30, still no knocks on the door. Then suddenly the rain came down, ferociously, and with it, strong wind, and my anxiety went up a notch. Then it felt cold. And I was hungry. At 6:45, I heard knocks and I opened the door and it was her. I wanted to hug her. She stepped into the room, placed the food on the table, and said "I hope you like the fish" and she walked out and I followed her to see her off. It was dark in the hallway.
"Are you cold?" I said.
"Be careful out there."
It was still raining and the wind still howled. I felt bad. I wonder why she did all this. She didn't have to bring me dinner every day. I could always ask the girl downstairs to buy it for me. Was it the kindness of her heart or was she only doing her duty as someone who was responsible for me during my quarantine? I didn't know. But the question kept bothering me and made me feel somewhat unease. However, despite all the apprehension, I had never declined any kind gestures from her. One day she brought me a new sweatshirt, the other day a pack of vitamin C, something every day. And I felt that I owned her a debt of gratitude.
Every morning I got up at around 6 o'clock, did some exercise, then took a shower, had tea, and at 7:30 the girl from reception brought me breakfast. Then I read. Then I stood at the windows and looked at the mountains and at the tattered people and the stray dogs below on the streets. And I waited for Hanh. I looked forward to the evening when she would be here, give me food then walked away, and always behind a mask.
One day two women in hazmat suits from the Lai Chau CDC came and took my blood and saliva samples. In the evening I told Hanh about this and she said if the result came back negative they might let me go sooner than the required 14 days.
On the morning of the eighth day of the quarantine Hanh sent me a message saying that the result was negative and they were considering letting me go.
"We'll let you know when there's a decision and it may be as early as today," she said.
Was I happy? I couldn't answer myself. Perhaps the prisoner had become comfortable with his imprisonment and he felt indifferent at the prospect of freedom? Near noon the girl from reception brought me lunch but I didn't tell her I was about to be free and she would no longer need to do this.
At around one in the afternoon two women from the same clinic where Hanh worked came and gave me my release paper.
"Am I free now?" I said.
"Yes, you are," one of them said. Then they congratulated me and left.
Like a robot, I walked into the bathroom and took a shower then came downstairs and on my way out I stopped by the front desk and said to the girl:
"I am leaving tomorrow. Prepare my bill, please."
She looked at me with vacant eyes. I knew what I was going to do. There was an ATM up the street three blocks away. I needed cash to pay the hotel bill. A dog sniffed at my legs when I was at an intersection waiting for the light to change. After seven days of confinement it did feel strange to come out in the open and breathe the open air, and I was a little disoriented. My steps were slow and hesitant. The town was almost devoid of people and there was barely any traffic even though it was only two in the afternoon. After getting the cash, I walked back and before I reached the hotel my phone rang. It was Hanh and she said she would bring dinner tonight and we would go out. I stopped by the bus station and asked about buses for Ha Noi and the woman said because of the virus there was only one bus going in that direction and it would be at 2:30 pm every day.
"How about buses for Lao Cai?" I asked, knowing that from Lao Cai, 200 km away in the same mountainous region of the northwest, I could find transportation for Ha Noi.
"There are more," she said.
So early tomorrow morning I would just walk to the terminal and if there was a bus for Lao Cai I would just hop on and go. I wanted to leave Lai Chau as quickly as I could. I went back to the hotel, stopped by the front desk and paid my bill, then went up to the room and waited for Hanh. At 7:30 in the evening she came, carrying dinner. She wore a jumpsuit. A slim woman.
"Go ahead and eat. I'll come back in 30 minutes," she said.
I sat down and ate. It was that wild jungle vegetables again, stir fried with garlics. Last meal in Lai Chau. In the late afternoon I had gathered all my belongings, and my backpack was ready. I finished the food and sat and waited for her. A little after 8 o'clock I heard knocks on the door and it was her. She wasn't wearing a mask and now I could see all of her face. She sat on the chair and I sat on the edge of the bed and we talked. I had the music on to fill the gaps of silence during the conversation. I don't remember what we were talking about, nothing of consequence, I guess. Small talk. Talks about nothing. But what's important was she was in the room with me, just the two of us, and tonight she took her time. She was here to be with me on my last night in this forgotten corner of the world.
"Do you want to go out?" she said.
I didn't want the outside world to distract us. I wanted to be alone with her in this private space, closed off from a world going mad with fear. Thirty minutes, then forty minutes. Suddenly I realized that someone somewhere might be wondering where she was. Let her go, I thought, and I said "Isn't it time for you to go". And she stood up, took a small step toward the door.
"Let me see your hand," I said.
She showed me her hands, palms up. Ahhh ... those slender fingers. I looked at them and touched them with the tips of my fingers. We were almost brushing against each other and I felt the desire to wrap myself around her and hug her, even place a kiss on her lips. But of course I didn't do that. She is a married woman whose husband might be lurking somewhere in the background, watching her, threatening and menacing. She walked out into the dark hallway and I closed the door.
The next morning I went to the bus station and boarded a bus for Lao Cai. It was a three-hour ride through another spectacular mountainscape. Peaks and deep valleys and clouds and fogs and rain. Fifteen minutes out of Lai Chau I missed Hanh already and wanted to say so to her but didn't know if I should when my feeling for her was still vague. But then, why not say it when missing her right at that moment was your true feeling and you wanted it out of you chest? Life is short and what if the bus you were riding in suddenly lunged over the cliff? I took out the phone and sent her a message, "I left my heart in Lai Chau". And I felt much better.
Arriving in Lao Cai, on the border with China, I went straight to the train station but the woman said train services between Lao Cai and Ha Noi had been suspended indefinitely because of the virus. In the morning, before coming to the bus station in Lai Chau, I had thought I might stay in Lao Cai for an evening, but now the rain and the dark sky changed my mind. I didn't want to do anything or go anywhere anymore except getting back to Da Nang. The woman at the train station said I could take a bus from a station not too far from here. So I went there and luckily one was about to depart for Ha Noi. I boarded the bus and it was almost empty. Arriving in Ha Noi in the late afternoon I went straight to the train station and bought a ticket for Da Nang. The train would depart at 7 0'clock.
I made it back to Da Nang the following morning and just in time: two days later they locked down the whole country.
* * *