It’s taken me a while to write this post and for more than one reason. Understandably, coronavirus has shattered millions of lives all around the world and I didn’t want to add to that narrative with a ‘poor me’ account when what happened to me wasn’t the end of the world. So many have lost loved ones and been through far worse ordeals than I have – especially now with the George Floyd Protests. It simply didn’t seem right to share my story earlier, if at all (thank you to my parents for encouraging me to keep writing!)
Moving overseas for love
For those who don’t follow me, I moved to Vietnam in November last year. I have always wanted to move away from my hometown, but could never have imagined myself moving to another country. While I have always wanted to live in Asia and teach English, I believed it was an insurmountably impossible task, a distant far-off dream.
One thing I’ve learned, if you truly DO want to move, you can always find a way to make it happen. Nothing’s impossible. The first thing I did was make an extensive, detailed plan for the future, then told my family about my decision to move overseas (initially on a tourist visa to suss the country out, this would be my big mistake). They were shocked but excited. They knew how much I wanted… no NEEDED, this adventure.
How I imagined my life in Hanoi…
My family was wonderful. While they were very supportive of my insane dream to move overseas, they also kept me grounded and reminded me that my move would not be a walk in the park, that I had to be prepared for every eventuality.
What we didn’t specifically talk about is what I would do if the world was suddenly hit by a major catastrophe. It simply didn’t seem to be in the realm of possibility. In the past, our family has mused about the end of the world via zombies, nuclear attacks, or both, and our ‘fire plan’ in case of communication disruption, was for anyone stuck far from home to make their way back, either by plane, foot or boat. Even if the said journey was to take weeks, we would make our way home no matter what. Funnily enough, when the pandemic started, escape was the last thing from my mind.
My journey to Vietnam
Once I bought my plane ticket, and with my flight date finally set, everything snowballed at an alarming pace. The day I made my decision to move, my fortunes changed. After years of bad luck, I could barely believe the flood of goodness that came my way, it was as if the universe was rewarding me for all the trials and tribulations I had experienced. I quit my job, sold my car, and found an amazing friend to rent my house out. It took me a few months to tidy up my affairs, but it was doable. It’s always doable if it’s something you truly desire…
My flight to my new life in Hanoi
Flying into Hanoi, Vietnam on that Autumn day in November 2019 felt like the first day of the rest of my life… brimming with hopeful expectation, I stepped through the airport doors and into the welcoming embrace of humid Hanoi. For two blissful months, I lived unaware of the supermassive black hole heading our way. I had no clue that just 5 months into my new life, it would be cut short and I’d be back to where it had all began.
And then, Coronavirus
It’s crazy to think that since I wrote my last blog post (that I shared with you on February 24th) my life has changed so drastically. In that post, I detailed to you about what it was like finding my dream apartment in Tay Ho, Vietnam. I don’t think I breathed a word about ‘coronavirus’ throughout the entire post, although it was certainly gaining traction in South East Asia and even around the world at that time.
What I also didn’t tell you was that I’d just found my dream job as a Writing Teacher for International School Students. The best thing about it, I would only have to work 10-15 hours a week, which left me with plenty of time to write. And even more exciting, I was fostering a nameless shop cat who had been injured on the streets of Hanoi. I’d named him Panda.
Despite a slightly rocky start that you may have read about in my first blog post about Vietnam, I was loving this life. I had made a bunch of stellar friends who hailed from all over the world. I was that book, Single White Female in Hanoi. I felt blessed, lucky. And of course, that’s when the whole world turned to shit.
When I found my dream job, I was still on a tourist visa. To work legally, I would be required to leave the country to switch to a work visa with my new company as soon as possible. But of course, coronavirus happened, the borders closed, and like millions of people around the world, my life was irrevocably shoved onto a different path, a path I could never have envisioned.
After a few particularly anxious phone calls with my parents in February, and then again twice in March when Hanoi entered a lockdown, I realised I might not have any choice but to fly home. Hanoi was a scary place for foreigners during the coronavirus lockdown, add onto that a looming tourist visa end date, and some financial obligations in Australia for me, and I knew my time in Hanoi was running short. But of course, leaving was easier said than done at that stage! Even though I had only been in Vietnam a few short months, I’d dug my roots in deep. I’d been prepared to stay in Vietnam for the long haul.
The stress began eating me alive, and soon, my hair started falling out. At the end of March, I called my parents again and we agreed it was probably a good idea for me to come home – if I could find an airline still flying! After an expensive canceled flight (that I have yet to receive the refund), I realised my only option was a 34-hour journey on Qatar, at $7,000 a seat! On Friday the 3rd of April, Qatar Airlines miraculously reduced their flights to a much more manageable $2,700. Unfortunately, the flight I needed to take was for the very next day. Any later and I had fears even Qatar would cancel their routes out of Hanoi (which turned out to be true).
The last 24 hours in Hanoi flew by in a blur as I madly packed up the apartment I’d treasured as ‘home’ and dropped Panda off to his temporary foster home. I remember gazing at the empty shell of my apartment, a lump in my throat. All my hopes and dreams and expectations for the future were being dashed right before my eyes.
Last days in Hanoi (before the cafes and restaurants closed)
My final goodbye was rushed and brief, and I could hear an echo of John Denver’s ‘Leaving on a Jetplane’ swirling through my mind as the taxi pulled away and my much-loved home disappeared from sight. It wasn’t until I was sitting on my Qatar Airlines flight for the first leg of my almost 40-hour journey home, that I allowed the tears to fall, but hey were not tears of sorrow, but rather of joy. I was actually going to make it home. I wasn’t going to be stuck in an airport like that poor bloke from The Terminal.
My journey back to Australia
Flying internationally during the coronavirus pandemic was a unique experience. Rocking up at Noi Ba International Airport at 3pm in the afternoon, I was struck by the sheer lack of cars and traffic. Where were the passengers? Was it possible that the airport had closed and my flight had been canceled? My driver kindly helped me unpack my bags and pointed at the front doors with an enthusiastic wave. ‘Qatar, this door,’ she said. But all I could see was a large cleaning trolly sitting by the main entrance and a dark and empty foyer.
Wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into, I made my way through the front doors and entered the emptiest airport in the world. For a moment I really did think the airport was closed until I saw the welcoming glow of the Qatar Airlines check-in desks and a scattering of passengers taking photos of the ghostly halls. They wore the same bewildered expressions as me, and I joined them in taking my own photo of the departures screen, which listed only two flights running that day, my own Qatar Airlines flight to Doha, and another flight to Seoul.
Noi Bai International Airport
I have to take my mask off to Qatar. Not only did they help me get home, but they did a grand job of socially distancing the passengers during my two flights. Their friendly, helpful service made my traumatic ordeal just that tiny bit less painful. Never before have I heard a flight attendant tell me “you can have as many snacks as you like, better yet, take two of each, and if you want more, we have tons out the back!”
My 11-hour stopover at Hamad International Airport was also surreal. What must have been a bustling transit port pre-COVID-19, was anything but during the pandemic. The vast spaces were filled with rows and rows of empty chairs, waiting patiently for passengers that would never arrive. With all the shops closed and unable to sleep, I passed the time watching the Australian news on my phone and drinking copious amounts of over-priced coffee from the one or two cafes that had remained open for weary, home-bound travelers.
At 9am Qatar time, I boarded my second and ‘last flight to Sydney’. For the first time in weeks, the dread melted away and was replaced with a swell of euphoria. I was actually going to make it home! Until the last minute, I’d had my doubts. As I settled into my seat (I had an entire row to myself), I gazed out the window and smiled. It was a beautiful sight. Rows of Qatar Airlines planes were lined up, gleaming in the muted sunlight, ready and waiting to take their emotionally exhausted passengers home. As much as I had been pained to leave Vietnam, I was more than ready to go home with the 35 other passengers on my flight. And so, 15 hours later, I finally landed in Sydney in the early hours of Monday morning on the 6th of April.
The last flight to Sydney
My two weeks of mandatory hotel quarantine
As many of you know, countries all around the world began banning citizens from overseas travel and introducing strict quarantine measures in light of the pandemic. Australia was one of those countries. On March 28, our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, enacted a mandatory hotel quarantine procedure for all incoming travelers (with some exceptions). Unable to get a flight before the lockdown of Australia’s borders, I knew that I would be spending two weeks in a hotel in Sydney before I could go home. I wasn’t too fussed about this, all I wanted was to be back on Australian soil.
I’d heard from a friend (already one week into hotel quarantine), that the airport to the hotel process would be a lengthy and time-consuming process that could take hours. Thankfully for me, it only took two. After landing, we waited 30 minutes on the plane so the British Airways flight ahead of us could clear the airport. When we disembarked, we were met by two airport officials who instructed us to follow them and keep a 1.5-meter distance. At some point, we were each given a fresh face mask and bottle of water before we passed through the extensive health check, immigration procedure, baggage claim area, and lastly, customs.
During the entire time we were traversing through the airport, we were watched by lines of police officers, health officials, airport security, and military officers (all keeping a safe distance behind yellow tape!) You kinda felt like a VIP and prisoner at the same time. It’s an indescribable feeling. Once outside, I remember taking a deep breath of the clean, fresh Australian air before I was directed toward a bus. The lines of watchful eyes continued beyond the airport doors and followed us as we boarded. 45 mins later, I arrived at my new home for the next two weeks, Rydges Sydney Central.
Rydges Sydney Central – had a fairly nice view going on!
There’s been a lot of noise in the media about the inhumane conditions in hotel quarantine. I know for a fact that some people got it far worse than me (apparently someone in our hotel got a room without a window!?) Most of the complaints concern the terrible meal offerings, lack of fresh air and rooms with no views. I suppose I got lucky.
I personally enjoyed the food (except for the beef stew we once got for 6 nights in a row, just why!?) and treasured the wonderful and expansive views I had of Surry Hills. It was only in the last few days that my parents noticed my lack of enthusiasm and glum expression. I looked sick, and fearing the worst, I called the nurse to take my temperature. But everything was fine.
Overall, Rydges did a great job under the circumstances, and although we weren’t permitted to go outside for fresh air, two police officers visited us every day to make sure we were okay. Seeing their faces really made me feel less alone, especially after what I’d been through. My heart ached for everything I’d left behind in Vietnam, and to go from what had felt like a loving relationship, to living in total isolation, was painful.
My last week at the Hotel for quarantine
Home sweet home
But not all hope was lost! Despite the Lockdown in NSW, my wonderful parents were given permission to drive all the way from my home town six hours away to pick me up in Sydney on my freedom day. I’m so thankful to them for that (and everything else they’ve done for me since). My dad even filmed me through the hotel lobby windows, stepping out of the elevator and into the foyer, where I was greeted by a command station filled with at least a dozen police and military officers. Someone called out ‘freedom!’ to me as I walked by, which made me laugh.
Two long weeks after entering the hotel, I slipped out into the sunshine and was hugged by my parents. It was an amazing feeling. It’s something I’ll never forget. Finally, I was free.
But most important before the 6-hour drive home – freedom food!!
While I don’t know what the future holds, I’m excited and hopeful for all the new and beautiful things to come – like having an espresso martini with my friends at a real bar to discuss Carole Baskin. Oh, and good news, my hair has started growing back and my skin looks healthy again – maybe it’s the clean Aussie air and home-cooked meals?
Hope you are all keeping safe and sane during these tough times, and thanks so much for reading all the way to the end… 🙂