36 hours ago, after a day long workshop, and as part of a consultancy assignment for CARE in Laos, I had planned to visit my colleague and friend, Tanya, and her young family, for dinner. I’d a bottle of wine at the ready and Tanya was making chicken kiev. But it didn’t quite go to plan…
I always knew that taking a flight out of Vietnam, in these times of Covid-related travel restrictions, would be taking a calculated risk. However, this week I was to be headed to Laos – a neighbouring country with zero Covid cases reported, and I was in possession of the requisite existing Vietnam visa to get me back in.
So, my risk was indeed a well calculated one but, in truth, I was also too motivated to deliver the 3 day workshop for which I’d been hired to now cancel. My last occasion outside of Saigon on assignment was back in November.
I touched down in Laos on Sunday night and arrived at the office the following morning. The day came and went, a safety and security briefing, meeting the team, and preparing for the our time together. I took myself out that evening in Vientiane and enjoyed the fresh new surrounds.
By Tuesday lunchtime I was beaming. The sessions that morning had gone really well. The team were a group of seasoned practitioners, eager to problem solve and work together. The incoming Director was present and enthused by the way her colleagues were sparring off each other. We made some quick progress and, over lunch, I busily set about prepping for the afternoon group work. I’d even messaged home to say how energising it had been to get something positive done with this group, cocooned away from news and stories of Covid-19, as we all were for those few precious hours.
Our afternoon discussions kept up the steady pace of a group wanting to learn and support each other in that pursuit.
I was thrilled.
This, I felt, is where I belong. Steering conversations about poverty programmes, hosting debates about social injustice and gender norms, dropping in ideas here and there and helping to shape the decisions of a group of passionate people, driven to improve their own impact on the world outside.
It had been an all round good decision to make this trip.
And then, around 4:15pm, as we were breaking for the day, the whatsapp message pinged through to my phone.
It was a forwarded ‘alert message’ from my Saigon buddy, Craig, that he’d picked up off the internet. There was to be a mandatory government quarantining for all people arriving into Vietnam from ASEAN countries. There are 10 ASEAN countries, and Laos is one of them. The measure was to be in place by midnight that night.
I had 7 hours to get back into Vietnam.
The prospect of not doing so, and being marched onto a bus upon arrival, and shipped off to a rural camp (there are plenty of stories online about these) for 14 day’s quarantine, was not something I felt would be optimal. On any level.
As much as the Government should be praised for the measures it has been taking here against Covid-19, and the concept of these quarantine camps might be included in that, I was not sure I wanted to be writing this story from one of them.
I packed up my things and went to find a driver to take me back to my hotel. It seemed sensible to verify the source of this latest news, so as to be in a position to respond in the extreme scenario that evacuating myself from Laos that night would be required.
Na, my driver, talked jovially about his day, as we weaved through the city’s main arteries and back to my quaint lodgings, perched alongside the Mekong.
Whilst he asked me questions about my family, my mind was upgrading its own level of functionality to “Def-Con” 2. I knew there were no flights now to Saigon as there was only one a day, in the morning. However, I was pretty certain there might be an evening one up to Hanoi, which would at least get me over the border.
It was 5pm. Na was asking what time I wanted picking up in the morning. “8:30am” I replied. Maybe this talk of ASEAN restrictions was all false news? Perhaps I’ll get back to my room and learn that the alert wasn’t real and, that way, I’ll still have time for a run up the river, before heading out to meet Tanya for dinner. Yes, that could happen still, right? I’d been craving chicken kiev all day.
We reached the Chanthapanya Hotel and I wished Na a nice evening and headed to my room and onto the wi-fi. The messages from my Saigon friends were brimming in my whatsapp in-box. Some further backing up of the initial alert seemed solid.
The butterflies in my stomach started. I went online to check if I could, in fact, get to Hanoi that night instead. Yes, affirmative. There was a flight scheduled for 7:45pm, landing at 9pm. That would get me in. It didn’t matter after that what happened, I’d be in and that (it was becoming ragingly obvious to me) might be all that counted for now.
Without consciously deciding it, I begun to throw clothes into my bag. It felt like I was in a movie scene, on the run. I switched up my shoes and put on a t-shirt, double checked my money and passport. Once this new tempo was underway, I knew I’d need to just keep going and try and make this happen.
Downstairs in the lobby a bemused receptionist took in my request for a car to the airport, and half laughed as he started to call someone for me, taking my room key as I stood with my bags and pretended not to look on edge. Heart rate was well up. Butterflies were amassing.
Another very courteous and helpful young guy appeared from nowhere, and I was in the hotel van, on my way. The airport was not far, but local city traffic meant we crawled at what I was judging to be slower than walking pace. I blinked purposefully out of the window, willing myself to appreciate the humble and charming backdrop of Vientiane, and the streets I’d been looking forward to exploring more that week.
What if there are no seats left on this flight? My fingers drummed away on my lap.
We reached the airport and it was blissfully quiet. The check-in staff sent me to the ticketing counter at first, 100 metres away. Then ticketing sent me back to check-in, and then finally, again, I was palmed back to ticketing.
During this little game of ping-pong we had managed to determine that I couldn’t change my existing return flight, because the destination had changed (Hanoi, not Saigon). So I needed a fresh one-way ticket. No problem. At this stage, the ticketing lady could have asked for $1,000 and I wouldn’t have flinched.
I could feel the rise and fall of my breathing, and my mind working like a network of pin-balls, zipping about and banging into each other, the threat of quarantine never far from thought. The inevitable grilling I would get at immigration, even if I did catch this flight, given the heavy restrictions on UK passport holders, was also lurking as a chilling reality.
Even though I knew my visa was sound, and arriving before midnight would be within the current rules, I was role-playing the scenarios in my head. If I had to go to a quarantine camp would it be down in the south, nearer Saigon? Would I have a connection to call Issy and the girls, as my phone was out of credit? I only had one book to read, and I was already halfway through it. With whom would I be sharing a dorm?
Around me, ticketing and check-in staff were fulfilling the mundane task of getting me a boarding pass. My internal questions churned over, and the adrenaline showed no signs of abating. Still, I kept a smile on my face and nodded at their questions, as 9 years living in South East Asia has trained me to do.
My luggage was tagged, I was handed a ticket and, in those seconds, was on my way up the escalators to departures. This really was happening.
It was after 6pm, but there was still time to calm my nerves, so I paid $20 to use the business lounge’s wifi and re-balance my blood/sugar levels with two cold bottles of Beer Lao.
Some messages were sent to confirm my situation. Issy was on the case finding me credits to use at a hotel in Hanoi’s Old Quarter (my father-in-law was due to stay there this week himself, ironically, but had cancelled his trip). I was beginning to feel normal again.
The official announcement then came out on the internet about this new ASEAN rule. With land borders apparently locked down, this flight, it now became clear, was the sole way I might be able to avoid being caught up in quarantine. It was almost 7pm and, in theory, a few hour’s from now I could be safely in Hanoi, with this episode over.
The airport tannoy sparked into life. “Would Mr Timothy Bishop, flying to Hanoi, please come to check-in”. At first, I pretended not to hear my name so distinctly enunciated over the speaker. The message repeated. It was my name. Gathering up my things and leaving half a beer on the table, I begun to sleep walk towards the door. The lounge steward took my bag and reassured me that “they’ve probably found a battery charger in your luggage, it happens all the time – leave your things here, no problem”.
I strided through the terminal. I didn’t have a battery charger in my bag. What could they need or want?
The alcohol helped mask my rising tension. Back through immigration, who held onto my passport, and through security down to the same chirpy check-in staff. They saw me coming and one of them pointed in my direction.
A new guy took over the job of speaking his best English to me to explain that “we need you to sign a waiver” – “OK, sure, what for?” – “well, there is a chance when you land in Hanoi that you will be quarantined” – “OK. But the new ASEAN rule is from midnight, correct?” – “yes, Sir, but there is still a chance, you need to sign this paper to say we’ve warned you.”
Just paperwork, I told myself. I’ve got the right visa, I’m landing before midnight. I’ll be fine. I reiterated these facts out loud, in the hope of some vague recognition from the, by now, six check-in staff crowded round us listening in. “You are very brave, Sir, but you are also very clever, you have everything OK, I am sure, but these days we don’t know.”
‘These days we don’t know’ isn’t such a bad mantra for the world right now, I thought. Maybe it should be printed on a T-shirt.
I signed the form, smiling from ear to ear, perhaps subconsciously in the hope that by appearing so cordial this guy would later message the Hanoi immigration team for me, and vouch for my splendid credentials.
I turned on my heel, bee-lined back to the lounge and drained my beer. The flight was now on its ‘last boarding’ call. Enough already, get me out of here, was all I kept turning over in my head, and I marched onto my evacuation flight.
Mercifully, Vientiane to Hanoi is a mere 45 minute hop. No sooner had we peaked at altitude than we were in our descent.
I’d attempted a few pages of my intense Ian McKewan novel, whose protagonist is such a fallen character that I felt it might cheer me up, and distract from my own plight.
Butterflies took over again, however, and I spent parts of the flight with my eyes closed deep in thought.
What if I failed the temperature checks they’ve been imposing ? I took some paracetamol and tapped my feet on the floor.
A few more deep breaths and the reassuring skid of tyres on tarmac, and I was up on my feet, shuffling to the front and pitching forward down the skydeck.
It was pissing down in Hanoi. Apocalyptic style rain. I needed the bathroom, but made the decision to get into the queues early.
First up, the health check queue.
Clutching my form and coaching myself to remain calm, I handed over my passport and immediately the guard called for assistance and I was sent over to someone else. UK passports are red alert documents right now. I waited.
The new guy was leafing through studying my stamps. “Sri Lanka” he said out loud. That was in January, I told myself. Nothing to worry about. “Thailand” he then blurted, and looked at me. “Over 14 days ago” I replied (it had been 15 days, I later realised).
Keep it steady, smile and be nice.
This back and forth continued. Another guard was called over to the huddle. They looked me up and down as the line behind me grew.
My bladder was protesting at this point, but I was focused on my expression being relaxed. Although, because of my face mask, you could only see my eyes and eye-brows. I kept smiling beneath the mask, hoping my happy demeanour could still be interpreted through the look in my eyes. Although I wonder if, instead, to the outside world I just looked increasingly deranged as a result.
Ten more seconds passed and then I got the passport back and my medical form stamped. I could move on to stage 2. Surely those had been the people who could have held me back but I was through and it was over. I was starting to feel good now.
Scanning for a bathroom, I decided instead to plough on to immigration. Perfecting my “happy eyes” pose, and feeling slightly lighter on foot, I was hungry for the finish-line.
A few more minutes of queuing and it was my turn. The escalators behind my customs official were in sight, and beyond them, baggage claim and freedom. I went for maximum happy eyes and handed over my passport.
Again, instantly, my guy called in for reinforcements. The passport was hot potato-ed around once more, and they guided me over to a separate visa counter for questionning. On the way there I took in what can only be described as a team dressed head to toe in bright yellow and black nuclear armour, examining boxes and bags.
You’ve got this, keep it together, nice and easy.
No less than three new officials then inspected the pages of my passport and randomly asked questions. I’d decided beforehand on some stock pieces of information I’d use when questioned and so, when each asked me anything I robotically stuck to my script, “I’ve been in Laos, for three days…..just Laos, I live here…live here for 9 years…yes, just Laos…9 years living here.”
I tried this with each new person who flicked through my documents, but nothing I was saying seemed to register. I held firm. “Just Laos….here’s my boarding pass from Sunday when I arrived.” More page turning. More silence.
And then, in between another sustained pause, and with my happy eyes refrain almost exhausted, I threw in, “my daughter, born here.”
This elicited a response, “your daughter?” “Yes” – I nodded, and held my breath.
The guard nonchalantly turned around and went to the photo-copier. I blinked away any residual stresses that might have been lingering in my tear-ducts, and joyously watched as he stamped the papers and handed them back to me.
Before anyone could change their mind, I darted back to immigration and, this time, I knew I was in.
The reassuring clunk of the date entry stamp and the slow head tip of the official happened in slow motion.
Elated, I made my most treasured steps forward of 2020, past the customs counter and then ten paces to the left, where I plonked my weary frame on the world’s most magical escalator, and was dreamily eased down into a world without panic.
All that was now left for me to do, today, of any life changing significance really, was to find a bathroom.