Navigating Mountain Roads and a Global Pandemic
CFIC Council Member Doug Skeggs was travelling in Asia as the story of Covid-19 unfolded. He has agreed to share a bit about that experience, as he enjoyed the beauty that Vietnam had to offer, while searching for reliable sources of information to keep him safe.
It was a lovely day in March. The sun was hot. The sky was clear and richly blue as I rode south down the coastal highway towards the city of Phan Rang.
The terrain was mostly flat with occasional small rolling hills. I had the South China Sea on my left and in the distance to the west, I could see hints of the rising foothills of the central highlands leading up to the hill towns of Buon Ma Thuot and Dalat.
I was thinking a great deal on that ride, oddly enough, about climate change. I was passing through an area dedicated to the production of renewable energy with hundreds of wind turbines and some of the largest solar farms I have ever seen. It was exhilarating, having the warm tropical wind in my face while literally watching that same wind produce electrical power for millions of people.
Phan Rang is a small coastal city, population 90,000, and the capital of Ninh Thuận province in south Vietnam. I had been here before, 25 years earlier, but I had no illusions that I would recognize anything. Vietnam has changed so much in that time.
My plan was to get a room for one or possibly two nights before continuing down the coast towards my eventual destination in Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as it is still warmly referred to by many people in south Vietnam. The night before, I had flagged a couple of Nhà Nghỉ along the main road through Phan Rang in Google Maps as possible accommodation options. Nhà Nghỉ are small, local, family-run guest houses offering generally comfy and notably inexpensive housing for travellers throughout Vietnam.
I was turned away at the first place I tried…”we’re full, try the place up the road”. Same story up the road, and across the road…”no rooms here”.
It was odd. Finding places to stay in Vietnam had never been a challenge. I changed tactics and headed off the main road down toward the beaches on the coast. Same story…”sorry we’re full, no room here.” Finally, a very nice elderly woman pointed me in the direction of a Nhà Nghỉ in the area where I could find accommodation.
I was in week seven of a planned 10-week solo motorcycle adventure in Vietnam. The trip-meter on my rental 400 cc Royal Enfield Himalayan had just clicked over 5,000 kms, and I was about 300 km from Saigon.
All of a sudden, things had changed.
While the rest of the world wrestled with and agonized over the novel coronavirus, and Covid-19 broke out of China and made its way through other parts of Asia and then to the Middle East and Europe, and was by then securing serious footholds in North America, Vietnam had managed to insulate itself. Probably because of swift early action in closing the border with China in January and closing schools country-wide, the virus never managed to achieve an early infiltration. There were a handful of contained cases. The government was incredibly vigilant in monitoring country-wide, and in catching and containing any potential infections.
I was nervous. It was an important part of my daily routine to monitor any and all news I could find on the coronavirus, to assess my risk in Vietnam. I was acutely aware that I might, any day, have to execute a hasty exit plan.
As a precaution, I had eliminated a chunk of my planned itinerary in Vietnam, deciding to avoid an enthusiastically anticipated run up towards the Chinese border to the town of Sapa and a four-day circular route around the beautifully mountainous Ha Giang Loop. I decided not to visit Hanoi and the magical karst islands of Ha Long Bay. I didn’t have any information feeding that decision. It was just my assessment that if Covid-19 began to take off in Vietnam, it would likely be in those northern areas.
Getting information was not an issue. I had a local sim card and a large data plan on my iPhone. And wifi internet connectivity in Vietnam is widespread and very fast. I could connect anywhere, even when stopping for coffee in a little shop in a small mountain village.
A lot has been said, and there is still much more to be said and written about how the global media, governments and the World Health Organization (WHO) responded to and communicated about Covid-19 as it grew into a pandemic.
As a discerning and painfully skeptical media consumer, while trying to assess my risk in Vietnam, I became convinced that governments and the WHO were not being completely open about the coronavirus. In my assessment, they were carefully managing information provided to the public, to some extent in an effort to reduce the potential for panic but mostly to minimize the impact of the coronavirus on the global economy.
But in the process, regardless of how defensible their actions may have appeared at the time, it seems clear that the WHO and governments around the world completely underestimated the incredible tenacity of the novel coronavirus, and the world is now paying a very steep price.
By tenacity, I mean two things. One, the very high transmissibility of the virus, the ability of the virus to get from one person to another. And two, the ability of asymptomatic people to pass the virus on to others. Both of these pieces of information were known at the time.
While travelling I was monitoring the WHO daily situation reports and mostly western media (CBC, Global News, CNN, MSNBC, BBC and Al Jazeera) and seeking English coverage of Vietnamese news twice a day. But I was also seeking alternative sources for information and found a couple of YouTube Channels that were incredibly helpful. I don’t think I could have confidently continued my Vietnam adventure if I had not been following these information sources.
Dr. John Campbell is a retired British academic and educator who specialized in emergency nursing. In January he began producing daily, low-tech YouTube videos on the novel coronavirus. Using WHO daily statistical information, reports from governments around the world detailing the spread of the virus, and medical science information from peer-reviewed journals, Dr. Campbell used his YouTube channel to explain, in plain language and with hand drawn charts and diagrams, what was known and unknown about the novel coronavirus, how it spreads, its pathways into the human respiratory system, and its sometimes lethal impact on lung function. He was and is often critical of the response of the WHO and governments to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dr. Campbell put a great deal of effort into helping ordinary people understand infection risks and how to mitigate them, for example by providing practical demonstrations of hand washing and the use of face masks.
Many of his 650,000 subscribers on YouTube consider him a hero.
Peak Prosperity is a YouTube Channel run by Adam Taggart and Dr. Chris Martenson. My understanding is that Peak Prosperity is primarily dedicated to economic analysis and advice on global investments. However, Dr. Martenson has a PhD in Pathology and in January he began to host a series of almost daily Peak Prosperity YouTube videos analysing the spread of the novel coronavirus, looking at data from the WHO and government reports. His videos provide detailed technical analysis of infection and lethality rates of Covid-19 as it spread around the globe.
One of the concepts that I found very helpful as a traveller in Asia was Dr. Martenson’s plain language predictor of risk. As he put it, watch for:
Case, case, case…
That is the pattern the novel coronavirus displayed as it spread. It was the pattern I watched for in Vietnam as I assessed the risk of continuing my travels during the months of February and March.
Dr. Campbell and Dr. Martenson helped me a great deal in managing my fear and assessing my risk while travelling in Vietnam as a dangerous pandemic circled the globe. Through their efforts I came to understand concepts like R0 (r-naught) values, which quantify the transmissibility of contagious diseases. I came to understand what is “known” about the novel coronavirus but perhaps more importantly what is “unknown”. The information they provided helped me confidently assess and manage risk while travelling.
Dr. Campbell and Dr. Martenson also helped me recognize misinformation and strategically managed information circulated in main stream media.
The good news is, my motorcycle adventure in Vietnam, that had been almost a year in the planning, ended up being as magical and fulfilling as it possibly could have been. The coronavirus pandemic became just one of several potential dangers that I needed to be conscious of as I clocked over 5,000 km on my Royal Enfield Himalayan, travelling from south to north and then back to the south.
Vietnam is a strikingly beautiful, visually stunning country. My route of travel took me from Saigon up into the Central Highlands and the Truong Son Mountains along the Cambodian and Laotian borders.
The first half of the trip was the most challenging, making my way north on often difficult, winding mountain roads, with misty mornings, and afternoons of bright sunshine and occasional rain, visiting places like Buon Ma Thuot, Pleiku, Dak To, Kham Duc, A Luoi, Khe Sanh and the karst mountains of Phong Nha.
Khe Sanh near the border with Laos is the location of the former U.S. Marine Combat base which was the site of a large battle with North Vietnamese army units during the Tet offensive in 1968. Bruce Springsteen mentions it in his hit song Born In The USA.
I had a brother who was at Khe Sanh
Fighting the North and the Viet Cong
They’re still there
He’s all gone, gone, gone
If, like me, you have a sense of history, a visit to Vietnam does involve seeing the country through the lens of that conflict. But that history is mostly invisible in the country today.
Phong Nha is a strikingly beautiful area with its knobby karst mountains surrounded by rich green rice fields. It is often referred to as Ha Long Bay on land. Phong Nha is also home to several large natural cave systems, including one of the largest in the world.
Heading north again from Phong Nha, I visited Mai Chau and then headed west to the border with Laos and the town of Dien Bien Phu, where French forces were defeated in a pitched battle with the Viet Minh in 1954, leading to the eventual loss of their colonial possessions in Southeast Asia.
Having eliminated a large far-north section of my planned itinerary in Vietnam, I then began the second half of my trip, heading east to Ninh Binh, and then southward down the coast, through Ta Ninh, Dong Ha, Hue, Danang, and Hoi An. At Qui Nhon I headed west again up into the Central Highlands because I wanted experience the An Khe pass, a short but beautiful winding mountain road.
During my trip, I was mostly spending only one or two nights in one location before heading out on the bike again. But a few times during the trip I settled in for a few days to give myself a break. One of those spots was at a beach bungalow near Song Cau. Ocean Beach Bungalow is owned and operated by a Swedish ex-pat on a 10-km stretch of secluded beach near a couple of fishing villages. Swimming and sun bathing on a beautiful beach on the South China Sea, hanging out with a handful of other travellers from around the world, great food, plentiful beer and a pool table all contributed to make my four night stay there the most relaxing part of my trip.
Leaving Song Cau, I began the last leg of my journey south down the coast on the way back to Saigon, stopping for a couple of nights in the beach resort city of Nha Trang.
It was south of Nha Trang, in mid-March that I began to experience mild difficulty in finding accommodation in small family-run guesthouses in Vietnam.
A few days later I had a conversation with a British ex-pat restaurant owner in the coastal city of Vung Tau that helped me understand why I was having some difficulty finding accommodation. Apparently, a couple of British backpack tourists had been making their way from north to south in Vietnam, stopping for a few days in all the traveller hot-spots, unknowingly leaving coronavirus infections in their wake. The government of Vietnam was aggressively tracking the infections and working hard to catch and quarantine all contacts. The story had not been picked up by any English language or international news organizations but it received extensive coverage on Vietnamese news channels.
So understandably, all of a sudden, foreign tourists and travellers in Vietnam were seen as a threat.
It was during this period towards the end of my trip that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went on television and told Canadians who were travelling abroad that it was time to come home. So that’s what I did.
It took about a week for me to make my way back to Saigon, arrange to return the motorcycle to the rental company, change my flight, cutting two weeks off my planned time in Vietnam.
I have to say that the trip home felt like the most dangerous part of my trip. Airports and particularly airplanes are scary places during a pandemic. All of the normal infection prevention precautions, hand washing, mask wearing, and physical distancing become critically important, and in the end may not protect you on a 14-hour flight in a crowded airplane.
But I did get back and spent two weeks alone, isolating in a small cabin across the river in Quebec about an hour from our home in Pembroke.
The population of Vietnam is 97 million. For the month of February the number of confirmed coronavirus infections stood at 16, all of which were eventually listed as recovered. By the end of February the number of cases began to slowly inch upward. As of April 24, one month after I left the country, there are fewer than 300 confirmed coronavirus cases in Vietnam. So far there have been zero deaths.
It is good to be home and back with my family. But the reality is, my risk while travelling in Vietnam, as coronavirus spread around the world, was very low. And today, I am at much greater risk living here in Canada.
One of many unexpected treats on my Vietnam trip was riding through the Phan Rang area. This part of the country is a development area for renewable energy where hundreds of wind turbines take advantage of the relentless winds along the coast.
Travelling by motorcycle in a foreign country comes with risks. In planning and launching this trip it didn’t occur to me that I might have to also manage the risk of becoming a statistic in a worldwide pandemic.
The ride north through the Central Highlands and the Truong Son Mountains was spectacular. The winding, jungle-fringed, mountain roads are a constant reminder of just how far from home you actually are.
The knobby karst mountains at Phong Nha are incredible. The landscape seems almost otherworldly. Phong Nha is also home to several extensive natural cave systems including Thiên Đường Cave (Paradise Cave) part of Kẻ Bàng National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.