Visiting popular landmarks and staying in luxury digs when there are few people around would normally be a traveller’s delight. But watching the rapid shutdown of tourism in Vietnam was a sobering experience.
The coronavirus outbreak has trashed tourism the world over. I witnessed the catastrophic impact it is having first hand after travelling through Vietnam last week.
Normally busy sites like the historic Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City and Vung Tau’s Giant Jesus statue were eerily quiet as the threat of coronavirus kept tourists away.
At Ho Tram Beach, I watched my resort empty out and popular landmarks progressively shut down as countries started to close their borders and holidaymakers rushed home.
After just a few days in Vietnam, a country with one of the world’s lowest coronavirus infection rates, I got used to dealing with wary taxi drivers, anxious wait staff and cautious sales assistants.
The country, which stopped issuing visas for all foreign visitors on March 18, is expected to lose billions of dollars due to the coronavirus outbreak and the rapid and steep collapse of international travel.
Vietnam’s tourism department says it is bracing for $US3 billion to $US4 billion in direct damage in just three months.
Here’s what it was like when I visited Ho Chi Minh City and the coastal towns of Ho Tram and Vung Tau from March 12 to March 20.
Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport
The first indication that this was not going to be any ordinary holiday hit me when I arrived to a sea of chaos at Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport in Ho Chi Minh City on March 12.
This was a week before the world’s major airlines announced shutdowns and countries started to close their borders to foreign visitors.
Arriving passengers must undergo mandatory screening by quarantine officers before being granted access to the country. This was more about ensuring they knew our planned movements rather than performing actual health checks.
There were separate cameras that tested your body temperature as you passed through.
The arrivals hall was chaos with just two quarantine officers processing hundreds of arrivals. Each passenger took at least five minutes to process, so the wait for those at the end of the line was lengthy.
Luckily, I completed my declaration online before arriving and zipped through a lot faster than many others.
Saigon Opera House
The steps of the Municipal Theatre of Ho Chi Minh City, also known as Saigon Opera House, are usually heaving with selfie-taking tourists.
When I visited the elegant colonial building at Lam Son Square in District 1, I had the stairs to myself.
Central Post Office
The crowds were also missing at the historic Central Post Office, just metres from the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral.
With Chinese visitors banned from entering Vietnam, and restrictions on visitors from several European countries including the UK, it was noticeably quiet inside as well.
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral
Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the late 1880s by French colonists, is one of the few remaining strongholds of Catholicism in the largely Buddhist Vietnam.
Although the cathedral was closed for repairs and not accessible to the public, the usual busloads of visitors taking happy snaps were obvious with their absence.
Bến Thành Market
Vietnam’s most famous market, Bến Thành Market – the oldest remaining structure from old Saigon, has experienced a sharp drop in western visitors since mid February.
With around 3,000 stalls, and normally crowded with tourists from every part of the globe, the number of visitors has more than halved in recent weeks, according to some stallholders I spoke to.
Bến Thành Street Food Market
The trendy Bến Thành Street Food Market, popular for its wall murals and a rabbit warren of vendors dishing up South East Asian dishes, first opened in 2015 and was specifically designed to appeal to tourists.
This footage was taken early afternoon on Saturday March 14, a time when the market should be heaving with hungry travellers. There was not a tourist in sight.
Visiting the time capsule that is Reunification Palace (also known as Independence Palace) has never been easier. There were no queues at the main gate on Nam Ku Khoi Nghia, and no tour groups blocking your view as you roamed the stately rooms inside.
The palace was the base of Vietnamese General Ngo Dinh Diem until his death in 1963. It booked its place in history on April 30, 1975, when a tank belonging to the North Vietnamese Army crashed through its main gate, ending the Vietnam War.
Cu Chi Tunnels
The popular Cu Chi Tunnels, about 90-minutes north of Ho Chi Minh City, must surely be one of the hardest hit by the travel meltdown.
Our guide Hang (pictured) said the historic underground tunnels and bunkers – used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War – usually welcomed around 3,000 tourists a day. When I visited on March 13, fewer than 700 visitors passed through.
With no new tourist visas being issued to foreigners, and flights to Vietnam grinding to a halt, the site was expected to temporarily close.
Melia Ho Tram Beach Resort
Spending a week at the luxury beachfront Melia Ho Tram Beach Resort, about 125 km south east of Ho Chi Minh City, was a surreal experience.
Occupancy levels were at rock bottom for most of our stay, with roughly two rooms on each of the 17 floors filled in the main tower (there are 152 rooms in total). Just a handful of the 61 stand-alone villas were occupied.
There were no Chinese or British holiday makers, just a handful of Australian, Vietnamese and German guests.
It’s a similar story at major hotel chains across Vietnam, which are already reporting their bookings have plummeted by up to 80 per cent compared to last year.
On March 17, mid-way through my week-long stay at Melia, the German visitors left en masse and many Aussies followed soon after, following warnings by the Australian Government for citizens to return home.
Within hours, the ‘closed’ signs went up at the pool bar, the gym and the YHI day spa. My partner and I had managed a full body therapeutic massage just a day before, which in retrospect was probably not the best idea given current circumstances.
The true measure of how empty or full a resort is comes when it’s time to eat. Most days we were the only guests lunching at the Breeza Beach Club, or dining nightly at the Asian street food restaurant SaSa.
The Vietnamese restaurant Muoi was closed for most of our visit, opening only for dinner on Friday and Saturday nights.
The Grand Ho Tram Resort & Casino
At the mammoth Grand Ho Tram Resort & Casino nearby – Vietnam’s answer to Macau and Las Vegas – you truly could hear a pin drop. It was so empty it was like a scene from an apocalypse movie.
Because gambling is prohibited for Vietnamese citizens, The Grand Ho Tram relies heavily on the hordes of big-spending Chinese tourists and gamblers who cross the border to try their luck.
Chinese tourists made up about 30 per cent of all visitors to Vietnam last year, and account for a whopping 70-80 per cent of The Grand’s annual bookings.
Needless to say, without them, the cavernous hotel and casino was lifeless – aside from the loud music being pumped through the place.
When I visited on March 16, the casino was empty but operating, while many restaurants and bars were closed.
The deserted Wedding & Events Centre, which is usually booked out months in advance by Chinese brides, was a forlorn sight.
Christ the King Statue
Climbing the 847 stairs to the giant Christ the King Statue at Vung Tau is usually a highlight for any visitor to Vietnam. But there were only a dozen or so people when I visited on March 17.
The tourist shops at the entrance were deserted, the stairs were free of the usual hordes and those who did visit were required to wear a face mask or risk being turned away.
It’s rare to have a major tourist attraction all to yourself, but that’s what happens when fear takes hold.
Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport
In Vietnam, maintaining a safe social distance from other people was relatively easy as there were few people around most of the time. For many, the biggest challenge was getting home.
We cut short our trip by a day when Qantas announced it was suspending international flights and the Australian Government warned Australian citizens to return home or risk being stranded overseas.
Early on Friday morning, the departure board at Ho Chi Minh City Airport was a sea of red (above) as dozens of flights were cancelled and people scrambled to get flights home.
Thankfully, we made it back to Sydney without any delays or mishaps.
Now in mandatory self-isolation for 14-days, we’ve got plenty of time to reflect on what a memorable trip it was. Sadly, it’s for all the wrong reasons.
Rarely has a government’s public health message been so popular.
A music video released by Vietnam’s Health Ministry to prevent the spread of coronavirus proved so catchy it went viral with more than five million views.
The government is also connecting through social media apps like Instagram to educate citizens and travellers about preventing the spread of coronavirus.
Users get a daily message (right) from the government when they log on.
Every time you entered a restaurant, hotel or major tourist attraction in Vietnam you had to have your temperature checked with a handheld device. Decline and you'll be refused entry. So rigorous was the screening that on one occasion we were tested four times in one hour. The use of face masks was already widespread, particularly with motorcycle riders trying to avoid pollution. But those working in department stores and the service industry - including stores, bars and restaurants - all started wearing face mask as fear about coronavirus (and a growing suspicion of western tourists) took hold.
© 2020 Bernard O’Riordan (Travel Instinct). All Rights Reserved.
You Might Have Seen Our Work In These Publications