For several months, Ho Chi Minh City has seen a series of government-mandated lockdowns which have been communicated through seemingly-endless directives, official communications, regulations, and determinations. One result was an incredibly strict, yet effective COVID-19 response. Another result was a virtually empty city. Streets previously swarmed with motorbikes were empty. A normally smoggy sky was bright blue. The constant buzz of construction and karaoke fell silent.
However, a few days ago, the Government of Vietnam issued new guidance that released the city from its 6PM curfew. Residents can once again go to work and to the grocery store, as long as they have the correct QR code showing their vaccination status.
Ho Chi Minh City’s government and citizens have sacrificed a great deal to keep their neighbors safe. For example, just this week, a reported 100,000 rural workers who were stuck in Ho Chi Minh City during the latest lockdown were finally able to return home to their families. And the pandemic is far from over: risks of rural outbreaks remain high, vaccination drives continue throughout the country, and strict quarantine and mask rules are still enforced.
However, the general sigh of relief is almost as loud as the backyard karaoke that has once again resumed across the street from our apartment. Welcome back, Ho Chi Minh City!
To celebrate the New Year, Paul and I took a weekend trip to Da Lat, the largest city in the Central Highlands of Vietnam. Da Lat is just a 40 minute flight from Ho Chi Minh City, but because it’s 5,000 feet above sea level, the air is cool and unpolluted. Da Lat is famous for its mountains, waterfalls, and strawberries; it was the perfect place to celebrate the start of 2021.
After a year spent in various stretches of isolation and quarantine, Paul and I were also excited to simply go outside and walk. The streets of Ho Chi Minh City don’t lend themselves to casual strolling due to the heat, traffic, and pollution. So when we heard that Da Lat was host to tree-lined mountains, we were determined to make good use of them. We had heard good reviews of the hike to Lang Biang Peak and were assured that the hike couldn’t possibly take us longer than three hours. Somebody lied.
Because the trailhead is simply a board lying across a dusty ditch, it took us a few tries to find the actual path. So first, we took the scenic detour through the industrial greenhouse-filled countryside.
We eventually found the trailhead and started off on what promised to be a rustic adventure.
The hike was quite steep so we were feeling rather sporty, albeit a bit winded. But there were trees! And breeze! And pine needles!
The first part of the hike was quite popular. There were fit Europeans jogging up the trails with water-filled backpacks, groups of Vietnamese girl scouts carrying sleeping bags and lip gloss, athleisure-laden trendsetters with Bluetooth speakers, and these two, who were enjoying the people watching:
After about two hours, we reached a map that said the peak was just around the corner. So we continued on, leaving most of our fellow hikers behind. As we got higher, we met the clouds and the hike became quiet and misty.
The mist, while pretty, also turned the dirt path to mud. We slipped and slid from tree to tree, sure that the peak must be just a few hundred meters away. We laughed at the signs that seemed to indicate danger.
We once again started gaining elevation, and huffed and puffed our way up slippery, muddy slopes. We started to realize that we hadn’t seen another hiker in well over an hour.
The muddy slopes turned into muddy stairs. As we got higher, the stairs became steeper. We eventually reached a stair that was shoulder-high. Giving up all hope of keeping my white sweatshirt white, I flung myself against the muddy wall, fueled only by the hope that there was an alternate route down the mountain. IF ONLY WE COULD REACH THE TOP.
Several stairs had washed out; a muddy rope tied to a tree was the only means by which we could drag ourselves up the mountain. I began to fear that without an alternate route down from the peak, we would have to somehow slide down this same mudslide. Luckily, my new hiking shoes were indeed waterproof, as advertised.
Another sign gave a clear warning, but offered no helpful suggestions or advice.
The trees eventually give way to tall grass and a windy peak. We collapsed into the grass and huddled together to keep warm while we enjoyed our panoramic cloud views. Someone had said something about sweeping views of the mountain countryside? We broke into our lunch with frosted fingers and shared our remaining half a water bottle. There was not an alternate route down the mountain. A young boy behind us sulked sullenly away from his parents, clearly voicing his refusal to climb back down the mountain. I feel ya, kid. They can’t leave us up here forever, right?
Eventually, Paul convinced me to stand and hand-in-hand, we slid back down the mountain thinking only of full water bottles and warm showers. After an hour and a half spent slipping down muddy slopes, precariously clinging to the edge of cliffs, we intersected a road that led us back to safety.
We fell into massage chairs set up at the bottom of the mountain (which now seemed much less random), more than happy to spend the $0.50 for six minutes. Despite having encountered a few tough hikes in my day, this one was by far the hardest. Paul and I were immensely proud of ourselves for surviving and rewarded ourselves by ordering German food for dinner and cancelling all our plans for the next morning.
By the next afternoon we were able to stand again and decided to take a much more leisurely means of transportation to our next stop: Datanla Falls. Here, you can take a self-controlled roller coaster down to the falls and more importantly, back up to the parking lot.
We also spent a morning at Pongour Falls, which was well-worth the hour’s drive from Da Lat. According to legend, Pongour Falls is the resting spot of the woman, Kanai, who tamed dangerous animals. When she died, her four rhinoceroses laid down with her. After her death, her hair became the waterfall and the rhinoceroses became the ridges upon which the waterfall flowed, symbolizing the connection between humans and nature.
Even during the dry season, the waterfalls are stunning. And while we did have to tackle some stairs to get to the base of the waterfall, we were entertained by the extravagant photoshoots of the Vietnamese Instagrammers, who found that the base of a busy waterfall was the perfect spot for a well-documented yoga session.
Da Lat was a lovely break from the busy streets of Ho Chi Minh City. The air was crisp and green and the city was surrounded by mountains, rivers, and pine trees. Rather wistful, we were reminded of home and of friends and family half a world away. In the reminiscent spirit that accompanies a new year, Paul and I found ourselves sitting together in a hidden garden on New Year’s Eve, watching the sun set over a twinkling city that was celebrating both the memories of 2020 and the potential of 2021. Cheers to a new year!
Vietnam takes this pandemic incredibly seriously and has had remarkable success dealing with COVID-19. One reason for this success is that quarantine in Vietnam is no joke. I stepped into this room in the dead of night 12 days ago and will not step out of it again until my two-week quarantine is complete. It’s rumored that there is a COVID-controlled oasis on the other side of these walls, so I am more than happy to sit contentedly in my room and aid the effort.
I cannot go outside, nor can I step into the hallway. I have a menu in my room and leave a daily order form on a table outside my door. A hotel employee rings my doorbell when my meals arrive and although I run to the door to catch a glimpse of another human, they’ve always disappeared into thin air. I have a balcony from which I can watch the quick construction of a house next door and somewhere, there lives a rooster intent on waking me at 6am.
My figurative window to the rest of the world.
Quite honestly, quarantine is great. I’ve made excellent progress on my stack of books and Netflix queue. My mother, a talented quilter (Pleasant Street Quilts), always encourages me and my sister to have some hand-piecing projects to keep our hands busy, and I’ll have quite a few quilt blocks to show for my two weeks in quarantine. I workout. I nap. I Skype. And while I will be happy to start my tour in Ho Chi Minh City, I will be sad to once again set an alarm in the morning and wear real shoes.
A few batiks from my current Moroccan-inspired hand-piecing project.
Living that strenuous quarantine lifestyle.
I’ve been in the Foreign Service for a few years now, and one defining characteristic of all diplomats is that we’re always on the move. Our belongings are often in transit or storage and we live out of suitcases for months at a time. I think it’s important to make every house – or quarantine room – a home, even if we’re only here for a few weeks. So despite having just two suitcases, both teetering dangerously on the brink of being overweight, I packed a few small things that remind me of home. They make all the difference!
Some of my favorite things! Pictures of friends and family, letters from Paul, my favorite tea, as well as lovely gifts from some of my favorite people.
Today is Day 12 of my 15-day quarantine. Later this week, I’ll fly to Ho Chi Minh City and see me and Paul’s new apartment for the first time. I will go to work and put my pens in a proper desk drawer. There will be people at restaurants and kids in school. I’m thrilled.
Although I can’t be sure I’m in Vietnam from my quarantine view, there’s a hat in my room as proof!
Hello, everyone! So much has happened since I last wrote: I finished my tour in Cabo Verde and received my second assignment – Ho Chi Minh City! I returned to the States, where I spent ten months learning Vietnamese. I had movie nights with my little sister and took drizzly walks along the Mall. Then during a fall weekend in Shenandoah National Park, my boyfriend, Paul, asked me to marry him. I now have a brilliant fiancé, who is in the process of taking a sabbatical from the U.S. Navy to follow me to Vietnam. Both our departure plans and wedding plans were delayed by several months because of COVID. At times, it seemed as though the entire world was descending into chaos. However, the delay in my departure allowed me and my sister to return to our hometown and spend time with our parents, a rare and much-appreciated silver lining. Now after more than a year of transitions and suitcases, I’m on the brink of my next adventure.
I’ve returned to this site because of you. Even while I wasn’t writing, I received dozens of emails and questions from fellow diplomats, prospective applicants, and friends I’ve known in past lives. A few days ago, I logged onto this site for the first time in months and was shocked to see hundreds of visits to the site that I had all but abandoned. Very happily, it seems that I’m the only one who disappeared. Why did I stop writing? It’s partly because these posts take quite a bit of time to pull together. But I think it’s also partly because my tour in Cabo Verde was hard. The country itself was wonderful, but the work was hard, as was the isolation. That said, I’ve always intended to come back and continue sharing my adventures. So here I am.
Welcome bag, complete with chocolates.
And where exactly am I, do you ask? I’m currently sitting in a small hotel room in Hanoi on Day 8 of my 15-day quarantine. Next week, I’ll fly to Ho Chi Minh City, where I’ll start my two-year tour in the Consular Section of the U.S. Consulate General.