What should we do when the US State Departments issues a Level 4 Global Health Advisory? Ignore it? Heed it?

It’s been hard to ignore the decreasing number of tourists in Hanoi. The streets are becoming more and more empty.

Last week the United States State Department issued a level 4 Global Health Advisory.  The notification said “The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to avoid all international travel due to the global impact of COVID-19.  In countries where commercial departure options remain available, U.S. citizens who live in the United States should arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.”

Level 4 Global Health Advisory

Mind you, we didn’t personally receive the Level 4 Global Health Advisory notification from the State Department.  Lord forbid that the State Department use technology to communicate with travelers.  Oh wait, we did sign up for that nifty Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  What’s that?  “The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.”  Even though we’ve signed up, given them all our personal details, and provided a detailed travel itinerary, we never heard a peep from either the State Department directly or via the STEP application we installed on our phones.  

US State Department: We’re not alone in our frustration

We’ve seen news stories about other travelers that are looking to the State Department for help and hearing crickets.  We mentioned last week that we were seeking assistance from the US Embassy in Hanoi and only receiving auto generated form letters in response.

Even though we’ve paid attention to the State Department Website, we missed the initial Level 4 Global Health Advisory release notification.  What we did notice was that on Thursday morning there were weekend flights with many available seats.  Thursday evening there were only a few flights and not so many seats left.  Something seemed amiss up so we started checking the news and found out about the notification.

The exact phrase “arrange for immediate return to the United States, unless they are prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period” caught our immediate attention. 

We’d been waffling about returning to the US.  As the days had ticked by with more and more business closing in Hanoi we argued more and more about staying or going. Was it better to hunker down and ride out the storm or better to return to the United States?

One item was hard to ignore though, Hanoi was closing up shop, and closing it up fast.

We wanted to stay, but we also wanted to leave.  Leaving somehow epitomizes the end of our dream for this two year gap.  There were more negatives to returning that staying.  If we returned what were we going to do?  We sold our house and cars.  We have no home to go to.  As I mentioned previously, we’re in the middle of our two year planned “gap year”.  What does it mean to “go home”?  Go home to what?

A deteriorating situation

As we debated returning to the United Status versus staying in Vietnam it was hard to miss the new law that mandated face masks must be worn in public. There are so many positive aspects to how Vietnam is handling the virus out break that just makes the United Status look like a developing country. Strange to write that.

We saw hand sanitizer “stations” at all grocery stores and most restaurants. Free. Like, use it on your hands before you enter the establishment. We had our body temperatures taken at several restaurants and at our hotel. It’s just a completely different level of seriousness than what we were witnessing on the news from the United States.

As we wandered through our section of town, day by day, sometimes hour by hour, there were less and less shops open. We saw more and more shuttered businesses. We saw signs in stores, in English, telling us that no foreigners were allowed.

The Prime minister issued a letter that was distributed reminding the businesses that they needed to follow the the provisions of the tourism law on non-discrimination of treatment against tourists. We certainly experienced discrimination, but, we kind of understood its roots.

Reading the news in Vietnam was interesting. There was a great deal of attention to the cases of the virus being brought into the country via tourists, but not much discussion of the virus being brought back into Vietnam by Vietnamese.

Walking through the streets was interesting. There were certainly other tourists still present, but, no where near the amount of people that were there when we arrived a few weeks ago. I would hazard a guess of a tourist reduction of 90-95% since we arrived nine days ago.

Making a decision; staying or going

Ultimately we decided that we’d return to the United States and ride out the Corona storm in Colorado near my parents and sister. The Level 4 Global Health Advisory was the one item that really tipped the scales in favor of our returning to the United States.

Vietnam has (so far) seemed to be on top of the virus situation. As I mentioned in a previous post it certainly seems like Vietnam is on top of their game in preparing for the virus situation becoming worse. The lack of food hoarding, wide spread use of preventative measures and “calm” attitude were greatly appealing.

The thought of being stranded in Vietnam, far from home, was less appealing. Our Blue Cross Health Insurance isn’t worth beans in South East Asia. Our new nifty Nomadic Health Plan doesn’t cover pandemics.

The Vietnam department of health had specified last week that testing for the Coronavirus is free, for everyone, including tourists. Treatment for those infected with the Coronavirus will not be free for foreigners.

Out of an abundance of caution mixed together with a great deal of trepidation concerning health care, we’ll return to the United States.

Pacific Crest Trail-

Even as we’ve been watching the deteriorating situation around the world as the virus spreads, we’ve been monitoring the situation with the Pacific Crest Trail. We’re planning to return to the trail in late July to complete our Thru-hike. We kind of figured that if we came back prior to July due to the virus we could head to Colorado or Arizona and do some backpacking and then begin the PCT in late July.

There’s been a lot of online chatter concerning thru-hikers hitting the trail. Go hike? Stay at home? The chatter seemed extremely contentious at times. I do understand the hikers frustration. It can take years of planning to prepare for a thru-hike. (Not that we did!)

We saw the Appalachian Trail Conservancy request that thru-hikers cancel their hikes this year and stay off the trail.  The Continental Divide Trail didn’t exactly close itself down, but they came close in their press release.

What do the PCT trail towns have to say?

PCT trail towns have started closing down and asking for thru-hikers to not come into town.  Small trail towns are concerned that a hiker will bring the virus into a small town that has scant resources.

Towns at the beginning of the trail are asking hikers to skip the trail this year. Towns in the Sierra mountains are asking the same. The towns near the beginning of the hike closing up shop doesn’t surprise me, hikers are starting on the trail right now and possibly unknowingly carrying the virus. The mountain town in the Sierra caught my attention; hikers won’t reach it for several months. June’ish. Wow.

What does the PCTA have to say?

PCT closure notification

It was a surprise, that wasn’t really a surprise. It seemed as if all the writing was on the wall for the PCTA to engage and make a formal request.

It’s a interesting situation when hikers begin debating the legality of the situation. The PCTA does issue permits to hike the trail, but the forest services actually control the trails. Some of the hikers were grousing that the PCTA had no authority, etc. infinitum.

While the trails themselves can be very isolated, the trails lead into small mountain or desert towns.

The trail towns can be very isolated. Hikers coming into town will bring whatever “gunk” we happen to be carrying at the time. We may even unknowingly be carrying our illness into towns.

So our plans to return to the United States and bang out the last six hundred miles of the trail appear to be up in smoke. We’re not alone. It’s happening to lots of other hikers too.

Conclusion?

We left Vietnam and returned to the United States. We’re sad to be back in the US. We’re glad to be back in the US. We have no idea what our future looks like. All plans have been scrubbed and we’re unsure of everything.


Should we find jobs and end the two year “gap year”? Forge ahead and return to Vietnam later in the year when the CoronaVirus isn’t a huge deal? Return to the Pacific North West and try to rebuild our lives there?

We have no answers, but we have so many questions. Maybe that’s exactly like everyone else at this precise moment in time.

Thanks for following our journey. A year ago today, right about the time this post publishes, we were jammed in the back of someones car headed for the beginning of our PCT hike.

Steve and Noelle on their first day of PCT thru-hiking
PCT Day 1