Hello friends. Who would have thought that I would be titling one of my posts around a global pandemic? This has turned into a very hard and strange year, in a very quick amount of time. I am writing this from the safety
of my parent's house in North Carolina. It was a tumultuous past couple of weeks, and it culminated in me returning to America months prior to when I thought I would be.
Since this past November, I had been based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. It was my third "season" of living there for part of the year. Since January 2018, I split my time between America and Vietnam. The first year, I was just getting my bearings, but the past two times I lived in Ho Chi Minh City, I had a solid circle of friends and clients. I booked photoshoots regularly and secured housing through pet/housesitting.
It was a wonderful chapter in my life, but I knew upon returning to Vietnam this past time, it would be my last. I've been wanting to move forward with my work and have more stability as well. So I went in November with a checklist of final things to do and a positive attitude to do as many photoshoots as possible.
From November to mid-January, I was busy and really happy. Then the virus started making its way across the news and around southeast Asia. Vietnam pretty quickly responded. I think countries who were affected by SARS had a system in place better than others. Schools have been taught online since the end of January. Public pools closed. Starting in February, temperature checks were done at apartment complexes.
I was still able to live my life normally, however. I even went on my nonprofit photography trip throughout India for almost all of February. A few regional airports wanted to know if I had been to China, Iran, or South Korea, but those were the only questions asked.
The first week of March, I traveled to Hanoi from Ho Chi Minh City. I was still in the same country, but even that wasn't too alarming yet. Right when I left Hanoi is when a new case popped up and streets were disinfected and things started to get more strenuous.
But you all know, this moved fast and things changed hour by hour.
So around mid-March is when I started to feel differently. Up until then, I had gotten used to hearing about this virus in the news and knowing it was happening, but not really affecting me personally. Restaurants were just starting to switch to take away or delivery only. People were starting to keep their distances from each other. I had dogsits booked in Ho Chi Minh City for almost all of March through May. Those were canceling rapidly as people decided not to travel. My photoshoots were next. The ones I had booked started reaching out to cancel or postpone, and I had no new ones on the horizon. With no income or housing, I realized my situation was getting dire.
Then the alerts started coming from the embassy. I was originally going to leave Vietnam at the end of May or beginning of June. I moved that up to the beginning of May and booked my flight. When alerts started coming from the embassy between March 15th - 19th, I decided to get even more proactive. The tone quickly became that if you were planning on going to America any time in the near future, to do so NOW. It became apparent that my flight booked for May might not be an option any longer. I had hours of phone calls with my airlines and conversations with friends and family for suggestions. Ultimately, I had a gut feeling to leave immediately. I moved my flight up to March 25th.
At this time, I was dogsitting for an expat couple. They were supposed to be on a long trip between New Zealand, Australia, and America. When they left for the New Zealand portion, things were scary but they felt ok traveling. Again, things rapidly changed. They decided to cut their trip short by weeks and get back to Vietnam. They made it back a couple of hours before Vietnam closed their borders to all international flights. They were put in a quarantine camp run by the government. They are actually still in it. I felt horrible leaving their dog while they were in quarantine, but they assured me friends would be able to help and to do what I needed.
So during my last week in the country, I worked with them to secure housing for their fur baby after I left. I bought a few more souvenirs for family members. I said goodbye's to a handful of friends, but most I didn't get to see, sadly. I was in a weird headspace those last few days. I tried to stay inside and limit my exposure to people and watched the news a lot. I didn't really let myself process that I was leaving the country and not coming back.
And things were getting more tense in Ho Chi Minh City. Positive cases of COVID-19 were popping up in the international expat community and lockdowns were being imposed on apartment buildings with no warning. I was very nervous I would not be allowed to leave in time for my flight. So on the 23rd, two days before my flight, the friend's of the owner's of the dog agreed to take the pup early. I brought her/her toys/her food/her bed to their apartment and said my goodbye's to her. I closed up the expat couple's apartment, and I went to my good friend's house. They are not in a complex. They are in a house and are diplomats. So they would not get locked down. It was one small proactive step that made me feel better before leaving. I was very anxious this whole time. I was terrified my flight would be canceled or Vietnam would close all borders or I would not be able to get out for months and months.
The following day, I had multiple tabs open on my computer at all times and constantly checked the status of my flights and updates from the embassy. One leg of my journey to America was canceled without notifications sent to me. I immediately worked with the airlines, and my entire flight itinerary was bumped up to that night at no additional cost. So I had a couple of hours at my friend's house and then left for the airport.
The airport was a ghost town. At the entire international departures hall of the Ho Chi Minh City airport, only the ticket counters for my flight were open. All of the other international flights for that day had either left already or were canceled. Only a handful of international airlines were still operating, and most were only offering one flight out a day. The airport turned the air conditioner off and only one restaurant was open. It was eery and quiet.
I flew from Vietnam to Qatar on a very full flight. It was obvious people were getting out and trying to get to their home countries. Then I had an eight-hour layover at the Doha airport. Everyone in Vietnam wears masks. Hardly anyone in Qatar was wearing one, including airport staff. Even if they are not the most effective means of limiting the transmission of the virus, I felt naked without one on and did not like being around so many people without them.
Then I had a fifteen-hour flight to Texas that was much less packed. I had rows to myself and was finally able to relax.
Whatever I thought would happen in the Dallas airport did not occur. Since there are only a handful of American airports allowing in international passengers and Dallas was one of them, I assumed people would be in masks and health checks would happen or questions would be asked about where I was traveling from or there would be long lines in the immigration and passport lines. None of this was the case. No one had on masks or gloves. No one kept their distance from each other. It was an empty airport, and I flew through all of the immigration/customs/passport/security checks. No one took my temperature. No one asked me health questions. I had a short and easy layover there and then flew to North Carolina.
Part of me was happy to have such an uneventful journey, but after being in a communist country that was so strict with their responses to the virus, I was a little disappointed with America. I later heard that no one had protective gear on because there isn't any available, and the airport had been hectic a few days prior when there was a mass exodus to get back to America from countries around the world, but I flew after that and arrived to a relatively quiet airport.
And now I am in a self-quarantine to make sure I didn't pick anything up from the journey back. I still haven't hugged my parents or gotten close to them. I eat my meals in my room and spend most of the day inside. It's a small thing to do, but it wasn't up for debate on my end!
And now I am like most other people who are scared to have no income coming in and aren't sure what the future will hold.
I feel very lucky to have parent's who were able to take me in and to have been able to travel from Vietnam to America. I am looking at all the silver linings I can find and hope all of you are doing the same.
This post wasn't very photo-related, but I wanted to give a full update as to what I went through, where I was, where I am now, and where I'll be moving forward.
So once my two week quarantine is up, if you're in southeastern North Carolina and interested in a safe photoshoot taken from your front steps, let me know! Those are the only shoots I'll be doing for the immediate future. Wishing you and yours all the best!
Danielle Desnoyers is a traveling freelance photographer with a focus on humanitarian, travel, and family photography. She currently splits her time between the United States and Vietnam with travels to other countries as well.