As I strode down the wide Hanoi Street called Pho Hue, I passed by a sign posted on the front of a restaurant. I scanned it and kept walking. And then as the one-sentence sign began to reverberate in my head louder and louder, I had to go back and read it again: “This restaurant does not accept customers from CHINA.” [Its caps.]

Welcome to the new reality: traveling in 2020, also known as “the age of the coronavirus.” I was in Southeast Asia for nearly the entire month of February and got to see firsthand how the region was coping with the spread of the virus and the hysteria associated with it—each place handled it differently from the next. And it was more than just singling out and banning the Chinese from entering restaurants.

In Hanoi, nearly everyone—locals and tourists—donned surgical masks. I didn’t. I’d heard and read several times that physicians advised that the masks only helped if you already had a virus; not if you were trying to protect yourself from contracting one. Masks might keep you from touching your mouth more, thus stopping the spread of certain viruses, but they don’t help with airborne viruses, of which coronavirus is one. After all, between October 2019 and the month I was in Southeast Asia, 12,000 people died of the flu, and there’s no hysteria over that. So I wasn’t going to lose any sleep over the coronavirus, despite the disproportionate amount of attention the media was giving to it.

Tourists in Hanoi during Coronavirus outbreak
A tourist wearing a protective face mask amid fears of the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus rides on a cyclo in Hanoi on February 28, 2020.

After all, the Vietnamese government recently claimed there were 16 cases of the virus within the country’s borders and that all of them were hospitalized and then miraculously cured. That didn’t stop traveler Martin Scheuch from cutting his trip to Vietnam short. Scheuch, who lives in Prague, was there with his wife and two sons. He had planned to bike through southern Vietnam but, after hearing so much about the coronavirus, decided to quit while he was head. Brooklyn resident Atousa Farahani was not so lucky. As she was changing planes in Taipei last week, she registered a fever on a fever-reading device. “I was put in a random room in the airport for quarantine,” she said. “At first, it was overnight then they tried to move me to a hospital, and that’s when I flipped out and they ended up letting me fly to the United States.” For the record, Farahani didn’t have coronavirus.

In the meantime, I went about my business—in this case, an assignment to write about Hanoi-style pho—eating at street stalls and restaurants, drinking in cocktail bars and chatting with people—both visitors and locals alike. Hanoi was decidedly different since my last visit five years earlier. It was not just the fact that the place was cleaner and its citizens seemed to be enjoying a higher standard of living. It was that the normally chaotic scooter-crammed streets were relatively sedate, as some locals stayed in. A Hanoi-based friend opted not to meet with me while I was in town because he preferred staying in seclusion because of the virus.

Vendor wearing facemask in Hanoi, Vietnam
A vendor wearing a protective facemask rides a bicycle through the Old Quarter in Hanoi on February 6, 2020.

I tried not to worry too much about the virus, just making sure to wash my hands several times a day and certainly before and after I ate at a restaurant. I had anti-bacterial gel with me and I applied it to my hands a few times per day. Other than that, my travels in Southeast Asia were no different.

In Siem Reap, it was a different scene all together. Gone were the masks and paranoia. Cambodia’s longtime Prime Minister, Hun Sen, is taking an alarmingly cavalier approach to the virus. He berated journalists for donning surgical masks, saying that the presence of which creates unnecessary hysteria. “The prime minister does not wear a mask, so why should you be wearing a mask here,” he said, referring to himself in the third person. As a result, tourist towns like Siem Reap appear as if the virus never existed. In my week there, I saw only a few masked people, and they were speaking Mandarin. As of February 29, there was only one official confirmed case of the virus in Cambodia.

Tourists in Pub Street, Siem Reap
Tourists walk along a popular bar area called Pub Street in Siem Reap province.

The tourist magnet Pub Street, a two-block pedestrian lane flanked by bars, clubs and restaurants in the center of Siem Reap, was as full as usual for this time of year, according to Belgian-born, five-year Siem Reap resident Kristian Wouters, who is the manager at the Angkor What? Bar and a senior travel adviser at About Asia Travel. “Pub Street is full like normal because the difference in tourism right now is that the Chinese aren’t here and they don’t normally come to Pub Street anyway,” he said.

All that said, the past few years have seen a drop in tourism in Siem Reap for various reasons. One might be that publications like Fodor’s added it to its annual “Don’t Go” list in November 2019 claiming the site is threatened by over-tourism. Many locals I talked to vehemently disagree with this, as the tourism numbers have been down long before that listing. And certainly with the coronavirus scare, fewer visitors were there when I was there the last time. I did a bicycle tour of the temples with Grasshopper Tours. When I requested a tour on Saturday, they asked me if I could go on Sunday instead, as fewer tourists because of the coronavirus scarehad resulted in a lack of demand. Likewise, hoteliers told me bookings were way down since mid January.

“Usually this time of year we’d be turning people away because we would be full,” said Dean Green, a New Zealand native, who owns and runs the centrally located Siem Reap cocktail bar Miss Wong. “It worries me more than a little because this is the heart of the high season for us”—December to March—”and we use these four months to make the lion’s share of money to get us through the low season.”

As of early March, the coronavirus outbreak has showed no sign of slowing down—quite the contrary. Should you cancel your trips? If the virus is nearly everywhere, you can’t really avoid many places on the planet. I moved on to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where the bars and restaurants flanking the streets of the Old City were largely devoid of other tourists.

I guess that’s the trade-off of traveling in the age of the coronavirus: You might contract it and/or you’ll also have some places to yourself with the locals.
A few days later, I boarded my flight back to New York City. The plane was about half full, and many passengers were wearing masks. I managed to spend a month in relatively empty Southeast Asia virus free. Was I lucky? Or did my constant hand washing help? Probably a bit of both.

As someone who travels for a living, I’m not going to let the coronavirus keep me away from planes, trains and busses. I’ll keep on traveling…and washing my hands 10 times a day.

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