Where I’m At is my monthly site update, where I usually round up my travels and other news. Subscribe to my travel newsletter for weekly updates and the most interesting travel reads from around the web.
Where I’ve been
With the Delta variant raging across Southeast Asia, it’s been another month of no travel. This post is just observations in the plague month of July 2021. Some places are carrying on like things are getting better, but 2021 in South East Asia is tougher than 2020.
The month began in Saigon under a social distancing order, where cafes and restaurants were closed for eating in, and we were only meant to go out for supplies.
I was still getting takeaway coffee and food at this point, and going for walks to a supermarket. Some restaurants were still open for takeaway, such as this pho place.
The partial lockdown didn’t stop infection rates from rising, so on the 9th of July we went into hard lockdown for 15 days. This meant that cafes and restaurants were closed completely, even for takeaway, and only supermarkets and convenience stores are open for food.
I realised how serious it was when I went out for my usual coffee and banh mi breakfast to find everything closed. Even more serious when I found that my landlady is now making meals for me every night. I have offered to pay extra in my rent, but she will have none of it.
The alley I live in is still open, but others nearby have been closed. The highlight of my outside time is the trip to the nearby FamilyMart.
It’s hard, but my problems are slight when I think about how hard so many people are doing it here. I have work to do, I have my own space, and I have enough food. So many people have no income now, and there are those who are still working in factories who are living in tents on site so they can keep working.
There has been an exodus of workers as well, going back to their home towns.
Heart breaking photos of migrant workers fleeing Ho Chi Minh City and other Covid-affected cities. Some had to spend the night by the roadside, some even walked hundreds of km to their villages. This pandemic is brutal.💔 😭 🙏🏻 #Vietnam pic.twitter.com/f015TuZP8D
— Nga Pham (@ngaphambbc) July 31, 2021
The lockdown has been brutal, but we have other nations in Southeast Asia who are showing what happens if we don’t go hard early on. Indonesia is the new global covid hotspot, and Thailand is getting worse.
The biggest problem here is the low vaccination rate, with Vietnam still sitting at the bottom of the ASEAN vaccination table. At the end of July, there was just 0.5% of the population that has been fully vaccinated.
[Table via The Straits Times.]
Vaccination is now picking up here, with more vaccines being flown in every week. HCMC hit half a million vaccinations in one week, which is an encouraging milestone. For reference, Thailand at the same time is now reaching nearly half a million per day. Vietnam has a population of over 96 million people, so they also need to eventually be hitting at least half a million vaccinations a day.
I’m starting to see some people in my timeline who have been vaccinated, and I know some who have got it done without mentioning it. It reminds me of the early vaccination days in the US, where people who got vaxxed early on didn’t want to be seen as getting preferential treatment.
I live in a doctor’s household, so I have now been tested for covid in preparation for vaccination. I find it amazing that I made it to the end of July 2021 to get my first covid test. The test process was very orderly. I was given a time slot to go to the testing centre, and I was there for about 10 minutes.
My dread of going to a medical centre to get a stick stuck up my nose was offset by the fact that I was going somewhere else for a change. Driving through the streets of Saigon there were checkpoints between districts, with people being checked if they had a legitimate reason to be driving around.
Saigon has been recording about 4000 cases per day throughout this time. If you want to keep updated on Vietnam news, subscribe to Vietnam Weekly.
Working From Home (WFH)
With so much time on my hands, I thought I would do some time-consuming articles, which was how I found myself researching the history of digital nomadism. I wrote this because Working From Home (WFH) and Working From Anywhere (WFA) has become mainstream.
Another thing I have been doing is more podcast interviews. It’s not something I usually bother with while travelling around, but now it is a good way to talk to people in these lockdown times.
I have done interviews with my friend Vinh a few times now, who lives not far from me. I have previously gone to his house to record, so this time we did an online interview about traveling Vietnam and Southeast Asia infrastructure.
I also did an interview with Dan from Tropical MBA about the history of digital nomadism. Dan is a regular on Nomadic Notes, and in normal times we would cross paths at least once a year. Stupid covid.
I also did some other interviews that will be released later on.
At night I watch some TV shows and various YouTube channels. One of my favourites is Rick Beato, who has this great series called “What makes this song great?” I watched the Alice In Chains Man In The Box episode, and dammit that song became my inadvertent theme song for the month. Knowing Alice In Chains it’s probably about drugs, but singing about a man in a box seemed appropriate for lockdown times. I just can’t wait until Ramble On becomes my theme song again (it’s usually my number 1 travel theme song).
Visas and digital nomadding
The combination of working from home for so long and reading about the history of digital nomadism made me think that I am going to go digital nomadding with great vengeance and furious anger when this is all over. I keep thinking of that Bilbo Baggins quote:
“I feel I need a holiday, a very long holiday, as I have told you before. Probably a permanent holiday: I don’t expect I shall return.”
I won’t do a Baggins and disappear completely. I will return frequently as I would miss Vietnamese food too much. I was previously going on many short trips and returning to my accommodation. Next time I will leave my accommodation and go on longer trips. This will also tie in with doing more research for Future Southeast Asia, though 2022 is looking less likely to see a return to normal travel.
In addition to the mayhem of this latest wave of the virus, I’ve had the prospect of an expiring visa humming in the background. There has been a mass exodus of foreigners here as extended tourist visas have stopped being renewed. I’ve been fortunate to have had my tourist visa renewed beyond what is normal. I’m grateful that I got to spend most of 2020 travelling around the provinces of Vietnam. I’ve been getting 3-month renewals, and my visa is now being renewed as monthly. Apparently, I arrived at the right date last year which still allows me to stay, for now.
Knowing that I could have to leave, I have been keeping a list of my options. Australia is obviously an option, but at the moment it is like the Hotel California where you can never leave. Maybe that is not a good example, because at least with the Hotel California, you can check in anytime you like. At the moment there are still thousands of Australians who still can’t get back home.
My options are also limited by not being vaccinated, and places that have experimented with opening up have seen new surges of the Delta variant. Anyway, we shall what the next month brings.
Uncle James the middle-aged Gen-Xer
I have Google Alerts set for when “Nomadic Notes” is uttered in the webosphere, and one day I got an alert for being mentioned on Reddit. I was referred to as a middle-aged guy in a post about middle-aged digital nomads. As a 49-year-old I’m cool with that, but I would never identify myself as such. I do identify strongly with being a Gen-Xer (the Alice In Chains reference would have given that away). Generation X is defined as people born between 1965 to 1980, so at this point in 2021 that refers to people aged between 41 to 56. To say you are a Gen-Xer will soon be a byword for being middle-aged. Then after that, it will be “OK Xer”.
I got to thinking about my age recently when I came home one day. My landlady’s son was there and he greeted me with “hello uncle”. My first thought was “oh he is speaking to me in English now”. A few seconds later I stopped, turned to the imaginary narrator, and said “I’ve been called an uncle!”
There are three people in Australia that can call me uncle, and my parents and sisters can also call me uncle, like “go ask Uncle James about that time he went to a tribal wedding in Borneo“. In Australia/The West, uncle isn’t referred to for your age. You are just, in the eyes of a kid, the brother of one of your parents.
Years ago in Melbourne, I used to go to a meeting where, well let’s just say that it was a group of people that no longer drink and we don’t know each other’s last name. I was in my early 20s, and there was another James in his 60s. To differentiate us, I was Young James, and he was Wise James. It was a great name, and no one would ever be disrespectful to say Old James, but an Uncle James would have worked in this context.
In Vietnam, indeed across Asia (and I’ve heard it in South Africa, too), an uncle is used as a way to classify people by age. An uncle is a respectful way to refer to a man who is not your father. For the 7-year-old boy who called me uncle, an uncle is a man who is a little older than their parents.
Perhaps the most famous uncle of all is Uncle Ho. Before I came to Vietnam I thought it was a nickname made by the Americans (they have Uncle Sam, so Vietnam has Uncle Ho). Uncle Ho is the respectful name used in Vietnam for Ho Chi Minh, and even today you will see propaganda posters with his image and “Bác Hồ” (Uncle Ho) in the text.
When I was first in Vietnam and didn’t know any of this, a Vietnamese friend who is younger than me went through the complex naming hierarchy. When on the subject of aunties and uncles I casually asked what would happen if I called her auntie, and she said without any humour, “I will kill you”.
With that warning seared onto my brain, I came to understand that I would be signing my own death warrant by calling a young woman an auntie. Having now spent enough time in Asian countries, I understand why.
I’m subscribed to numerous English-speaking news and entertainment sites across Asia, and aunties are often portrayed as a terrible stereotype, as the mean relative at new years gatherings, where their very existence as a middle-aged woman is questioned. There are also good auntie stories, and some women own it, such as 2 Travelling Aunties from Singapore.
[The Bangkok Super Auntie via Coconuts.]
Men get a better deal (of course), where uncles tend to be shown in a kinder light. If you’ve travelled around Southeast Asia you might be familiar with the ice cream uncles of Singapore. I get an ice cream sandwich every time I go to Singapore, so I have good a mental association with uncles.
Previous to being labelled an uncle, I had only ever been called “anh” (brother), so being called uncle was jarring. Obviously, the boy has call me an uncle as I am a lumbering dinosaur in his eyes and not his figurative brother. It would have been nice if I had made it to 50 before hearing that, but in the end, getting to 49-and-a-half was not a bad run.
It’s now been three months since I’ve had a haircut. I used to have long hair, but when it is long those months don’t make a noticeable difference. My hair is also different from my longhaired days, and it is more wiry now.
[The haircuts of Trudeau and Eraserhead.]
Hoping I don’t go full Eraserhead before my next haircut.
Steve Terrey says
When I’m in Thailand (oh god I miss Thailand – I need sun, sea and som tam) I get called Uncle quite a bit. I think it is quite nice and sort of respectful.
James Clark says
The kids of Thailand are great. I always brace myself for being called “something something farang” but they are always nice with their hello misters!
Great article so happy you were called uncle .
I am Australian born in Geraldton, Western Australia on the beach so blonde hair normal for Australian with hairy arms and legs unlike most asians.
When i was trekking through Sapa with my guide the young kids were calling out a name and smiling and the guide was smiling back . After a while i asked the name they were saying and she said with a smile “white monkey” as the young kids in the highlands had not seen a man with some much hair on arms and legs.
it is amazing when you travel small things like this is different in different places .