I Traveled to Asia for My Honeymoon Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak — Here’s What I Learned
If travel teaches us anything, it’s resilience.
Editor's Note: I traveled to Thailand and Vietnam well before the situation unfolded around the world, before travel restrictions had been put into place and citizens were recommended to stay home to prevent the spread of the virus.
Thirty-four sick, and zero deaths. Thirty-four sick, and zero deaths. These numbers played on a loop in my head for days – on my subway commute, during lunch breaks, at yoga, even in those brief quiet moments between conversation with friends. While most newlyweds spend the days leading up to their honeymoon putting final touches on their itinerary, jotting down a packing list, and fantasizing about all the fun that lies ahead, I spent mine combing through death rates, feverishly refreshing the CDC travel advisory page, and memorizing medical advice from faceless health professionals online — a rabbit hole I don’t recommend going down if you value your composure.
My husband and I had spent months painstakingly planning our two-week honeymoon to Southeast Asia: A spreadsheet filled with foods to try, suggestions from friends and friends of friends, hotels we hand-selected after hours of deliberation, and flight details (we’d be crisscrossing six cities in Thailand and Vietnam) remained bookmarked on my computer — a mere click away should I need to note down a new recommendation.
Although we said our I dos in July, we had decided to delay our honeymoon until mid-February, after the region’s rainy season had passed. But in the months preceding our trip, reports of a new virus in China began making in headlines. What seemed contained to the country at first started spreading at a rapid clip. And as luck would have it, Thailand was the first country outside of China with a confirmed case. In a matter of weeks, the list of impacted countries steadily increased – to Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Italy, and even right here in the U.S.
From then on, my phone buzzed nonstop with a stream of links to articles, statistics, and concerns about our upcoming trip. When we told people we were heading to Southeast Asia, we were met with one of two reactions: an endless barrage of all the reasons to cancel and jokes about worse places to be stranded should we be barred from entering the U.S. without quarantine. (The latter worried us more than getting sick, as we were both young and healthy.)
Although I’m a fairly risk-averse individual, I’ve never been someone who cancels a trip out of fear of what could happen. In fact, in a world that’s faced with a devastating deluge of events — natural disasters, terrorist attacks, geopolitical unrest — travel is a beacon of light. It’s the very thing that brings people closer together, that broadens our world views and breaks down barriers — which only seemed to be growing amid myths and misinformation surrounding the coronavirus, its origins, and how it was spreading.
However, as our honeymoon neared, I found myself seesawing between doubt and confidence: Is traveling now a gamble? Then again, isn’t all travel? Isn’t it precisely the unknown that makes going somewhere new — and really living life — exciting? Coronavirus had turned me into a philosophical being.
I even played the numbers game: “If the number of cases double, I’ll reconsider,” I told myself. They doubled. At the time, confirmed cases hovered around 34 in Thailand, a country with a population of nearly 70 million, and 14 in Vietnam, which has a population of over 95 million. My odds of winning the lottery were higher, I reassured myself. And so we packed our bags.
On the eve of our departure, we crammed our suitcases with the works — N95 masks, hand sanitizer, wipes — until they resembled medical kits. We watched YouTube videos on how to properly wear said masks, which we later learned are rather ineffective, and hoped for the best.
But nothing could have prepared us for the journey. In the lounge at JFK, travelers snapped selfies in masks and doused their hands in Purell. (I even saw one man disinfect his bottle of disinfectant.) A harmless cough or clearing of the throat was enough to stop a room, with all eyes swiftly moving to the culprit at once as if part of a synchronized choreography.
On the plane itself, flight attendants appeared more like healthcare workers, donning gloves and surgical masks, and announcements on the loud speaker reminded passengers to alert the crew if they were feeling unwell. My pre-flight routine looked a bit different this time, too: I wiped down every inch of my seat — the armrests, seatback pocket, tray table, seatbelt, and TV.
Later, during a domestic flight in Thailand, we were even asked to fill out a medical form detailing any symptoms we might be experiencing, as well as our contact information, should they need to track us down — an unsettling feeling that still lingers since I’ve arrived back home.
Upon landing at the airport in Bangkok, we were required to walk through thermal scanners that took our temperature. But once we cleared customs, and the hot air kissed our skin, we were overcome with relief. We had arrived, and there was no turning back.
We spent the next 16 days traipsing around Thailand and Vietnam, just as we had planned, with little concern about the virus. We got lost in the labyrinth of Bangkok’s markets, sampling foods we had never heard of before, mastering the art of haggling, and soaking in the hodgepodge of sights and sounds, from the blaring traffic to the clamor of metal spoons banging against pots of street-side vendors slinging all kinds of delicious fare. We marveled at the intricately designed temples in Chiang Mai, and spent an afternoon giving elephants mud baths. We visited a local farm, stocking up on ingredients for a nighttime cooking class, and hiked through national parks. We sailed and snorkeled around the stunning Phi Phi Islands, watched the sunrise and sunset at Railay Beach, and ate more mango sticky rice plates than we can count.
And in Vietnam, we rode motorcycles through the countryside and kayaked among the karsts in Halong Bay, audibly gasping at the beauty that surrounded us. We dodged scooters like a game of Frogger in Hanoi — a city that’s constantly on the move — and tried bún chả and cao lầu and mì quảng and bánh mì in Hoi An. Oh, the food: I could write a love poem for all the tasty eats that fueled us along the way.
Of course, the virus did make its way into our minds. Tourist attractions, which are otherwise buzzing with visitors we were told, were empty; restaurants and hotels were sparsely occupied, too. Locals — Grab drivers, waiters, tour guides — all commented on having little to no work due to concerned travelers canceling their trips. In Vietnam, all the schools had closed in an effort to contain the spread of the virus in the country. Every hotel, attraction, bar, and shop had implemented bottles of hand sanitizer, and some establishments took extra precautions: One restaurant took our temperature upon walking in. We, of course, washed our hands religiously — after handling money, riding public transport, visiting popular sites, eating, you name it.
While we enjoyed having the place to ourselves, especially since we were visiting during peak season, we couldn’t help but think about the impact it was having on the local economy — on Eik, our tour guide in Chiang Mai; on Viet, a staff member on board our boat to Halong Bay; on Vinh and Hoang, who rode with us on scooters through rice paddies in Vietnam and shared stories about their families over coffee; on Moon and Rin, who led our street-food tour in Hoi An; on Tan, our guide at Ayutthaya, just outside of Bangkok. We thought of all of those who rely on tourism to survive, and whose livelihoods are at stake now.
On our last night, we sat on a rooftop in Hanoi, overlooking the maze of traffic below and reminiscing about the past two weeks. We were glad we didn’t cancel, and were thankful for all the experiences we had, people we encountered, and memories we made. What seemed so daunting and unpredictable at first filled us with so much joy now. After all, isn’t that what travel is all about? Stepping out of your comfort zone, embracing the unfamiliar and uncertain, and letting the journey leave its mark.
The next morning, we boarded the plane back to New York – implementing the same routine we had on our flight to Asia: wipe, disinfect, repeat. Nearly 20 hours later, the wheels touched down. We had made it, unscathed, surviving multiple flights, airports, and cities. We powered on our phones, and in an instant, received an alert: New York City confirms its first coronavirus case.
There was something poignant about getting the news when we did: We had been hesitant to leave New York – to venture out into the world — and upon our return, the very thing had us apprehensive to go had caught up to us at home. This is not to say you should travel right now — it’s important to know the facts, as various destinations have restrictions being put into place to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Not to mention, everyone has varying levels of comfort when it comes to travel.
However, it can often feel like a day doesn’t pass without another tragedy, whether it be a wildfire or virus outbreak. That said, if travel teaches us anything, it’s resilience. At its best, it reminds us to live in the moment, to listen, to empathize, to adapt when things don’t go as planned. And so, once things hopefully improve, it’s important to get out there again, to book those trips, and support the local economies. In the meantime, you’ll find me scrolling through my camera roll, looking at a different, more uplifting statistic this time — 3,826, the number of photos I snapped in my two weeks in Thailand and Vietnam.