On March 13, there were 42 COVID-19 cases in Vietnam. In Minnesota, there were 14.
That was the day I stepped out of a classroom at the university where I was teaching in Ho Chi Minh City and saw an email from the U.S. Department of State with the word "urgent" in the subject line.
A new worldwide travel alert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meant that my partner, Heather-Marie Bloom, and I should join Americans worldwide in coming home. I had been living in Vietnam as a Fulbright Scholar since September of 2019, joining the thousands of Americans stationed worldwide as part of the U.S. government’s outreach and educational programs.
"Given the fluid situation, if you do not leave now, there is no guarantee that the Fulbright Program will be able to assist with your departure later," the email stated.
We booked our flight and had three days to pack our bags and say some tearful goodbyes, four months sooner than expected.
We found ourselves struggling to explain to our friends and neighbors why we were leaving Vietnam. Isn't it less safe back in America? Why does your government want you to go home? When are you coming back?
On our final evening in Vietnam, we went for a walk and watched the sun set and tried to prepare ourselves for whatever we'd encounter on our journey back to Duluth.
In Vietnam, we had been dealing with the threat of this virus since it first was reported in neighboring China in early January. The country’s reaction had seemed an overreaction to us at first. Schools were closed. The government put out daily updates about the construction of emergency hospitals and quarantine camps near the two largest cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. And the country got to work immediately on developing testing kits.
By March, every new arrival at the airport (eventually, the country would shut down all international flights and ban entry to international visitors) was inspected by a medical team, tested for the virus, and then sent to a quarantine site for 14 days regardless of the test results. Even restaurants and bars would check people’s temperature before allowing them to enter.
For almost two months, the country held steady with just a handful of cases and not one new case since early February.
Then, on March 6, the daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese steel magnate flew back into the country from Europe carrying the virus with her. She became known as “Patient No. 17.”
Unlike in the United States, where privacy laws prevent hospitals from releasing anything but the most minimal pieces of information about people infected with the virus, Vietnamese media report daily on each individual who tests positive with the virus. The public is given information about where they live, what restaurants they ate at, what places they visited, what airline flights they were on, and even what seat they sat in.
When a person in Vietnam is found to test positive with the virus, entire neighborhoods are locked down and quarantined.
While all of this may have helped keep the virus at bay, it has also generated fear, especially for Westerners when it became apparent that many of the positive cases were from people coming into the country from hotspots in Europe. The English-language discussion groups on Facebook included stories of people being evicted from their apartments, turned away from restaurants, and generally being made to feel unwelcome.
We encountered none of this. In our neighborhood in Vietnam’s largest city, our neighbors and friends were sad to see us go and have followed our travels since then on social media.
I understand why the United States brought all of us home. There is no way the U.S. government could have placed citizens in positions all around the world and then left us there during a global pandemic. But that doesn’t mean the decision was the right one.
Rather than sheltering in place, thousands of Americans in countries across the globe packed up their belongings and flew home, putting both themselves and others at risk of exposure, both in the countries we traveled through and in the hometowns we returned to.
In Japan, we waited to board our flight to Seattle. We were joined by Americans from across Asia, many of whom were members of the Fulbright Program, the Peace Corps, and other government-sponsored outreach programs. Most of them were young people for whom the opportunities were the culminations of lifetimes of work.
“What are you going to do next?” I overheard a college-aged man asking a young woman sitting across from him at the gate.
She pulled her legs up to her chest and turned away from him and from the question. She almost whispered her answer as she looked upward: “I have no idea,” she said.
The overnight flight to Seattle was eerily quiet. The plane was half full. The woman in front of us kept coughing self-consciously. Across the aisle from her, a woman tried to keep her newborn baby subdued.
We were prepared for a long stay in Seattle. We carried our yoga matts and sleeping bags with us in case we were quarantined for an extended period of time.
Would we be taken to a medical facility?
Would we be tested?
Would we be evaluated by someone from the CDC to make sure we were safe before entering the country?
I handed the Border Patrol agent my passport.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Vietnam,” I replied.
“You feeling sick at all?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
Heather-Marie and I stared at each other in disbelief as we walked toward baggage claim. Was that it? We were certain there must be more screening to come.
We arrived in Minneapolis on March 17 and decided to self-isolate in an apartment in the Twin Cities just to make sure we had no symptoms. We both contacted our doctors to tell them we had been traveling overseas, to ask if we could be tested, and to see what precautions we should take.
“Testing won't be possible for asymptomatic persons,” was the message I got back along with a recommendation to continue following CDC guidelines.
The local pharmacy laughed when we called to ask if they had thermometers in stock. We tried to order one online. It is to be shipped in May.
We finally drove over the hill to see Lake Superior and the Twin Ports on Tuesday, March 31. By then, Vietnam, a country of 97 million people, had 218 cases of the virus and no confirmed deaths. Minnesota, a state of 5.6 million people, had 629 cases and 12 deaths.
John Hatcher is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota Duluth. He was teaching journalism for a year in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as a 2019-'20 Fulbright Scholar before being ordered to return to the U.S. and Duluth because of the global coronavirus pandemic.