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Travel Newsletter: 3 September 2021
Bangkok's Chinatown, Ascension Island, €1 homes in Italy, hitchhiking, hobos, and more travel reads.
Greetings from Rijeka, where up until 2 weeks ago I didn’t even know was a place. I’m amazed that it isn’t more well-known, but then again there are many places on the Croatian coast that are competing for international attention. I will do a write up about it soon.
When I was in Zagreb I crossed paths with a fellow travel fiend, Matt Kepnes aka Nomadic Matt. I’ve known Matt for over a decade so it was good to catch up. It occurred to me afterwards that I hadn’t seen a friend in person for over 8 weeks. 6 of those weeks were in hard lockdown in Saigon, where the only people I spoke to were from the supermarket, my landlord, and hospital vaccination staff. I will be in a few different places in Croatia, so I will seek to meet people in order to remember how to talk in person again.
[Matt and James, Zagreb.]
This week’s article chronicles the month that was, and how it came to pass that I ended up in Croatia.
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• Where I’m At: September 2021 – Zagreb
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Where I’ve been
What a month. After being locked down in my room for weeks on end, and being in the same country for over 17 months, I’m now in Croatia. It’s been a stressful month watching the virus get out of control in Vietnam. I also watched on in dismay while my government did little to help Afghans that worked for Australia get out. Meanwhile the news was filled with reports comparing Kabul with Saigon, while being in Saigon. There were many articles with that photo of the most famous rooftop in Saigon.
And now I am travelling again just as it’s being asked if it’s wise to do so.
With all that going on in the background over the last month, I post this update as a personal record, rather than being a complaint or brag.
At the end of the previous month I got pretested for vaccination, and August got off to a strong start when I got vaccinated on the first.
I was able to get vaccinated because my landlord is a doctor, so that classified me as a close contact. I only knew of a few people that had been vaccinated in Saigon at that point, as Vietnam had the slowest vaccination rollout in Southeast Asia. Over the next few weeks, I started seeing almost daily updates of people getting vaccinated. More vaccines arrived in the country, and a record 1.4m doses of COVID-19 vaccines were administered in a single day. Vietnam will need more days like this to stem the unfolding outbreak.
We went into hard lockdown on 9 July for 2 weeks, which was then extended. Hard lockdown meant only going out for essential shopping. In this lockdown period there are no cafes or restaurants open either, and no delivery options. It’s a hard, hard lockdown. In some areas, households were given shopping vouchers which allowed them out twice a week. I was going out to the supermarket/Familymart 2-3 times a week, and then my landlady eventually requested that I only go out once a week. I was being looked after at least, with dinner being made for me every night.
I work from home, so my life is the least disrupted. There are countless thousands who have lost their job and are struggling to buy food. There is a great website called sosmap.net where people can ask for help. The map shows the general location of the person, and they list grocery items that they need. I saw there was a mother in my alley that needed help so I was able to drop by for assistance. I like this site as it cuts out the middle man of charitable organisations, and one wonders if they could expand this site to other countries.
After a month of hard lockdown it was announced that lockdown would be extended for another month to 15 September. By now I was thinking about what I should do. I had dropped off my passport for visa renewal the month before, but it was taking longer than usual to process. I had been subsisting on tourist visa renewals, and the government had started to not renew these visas. They had been generous with their renewals so I couldn’t complain, but I had to prepare myself for the possibility of it eventually not being renewed.
Another thing to weigh up was if I should wait until my second vaccination shot before I leave. That was scheduled for the 24th of September, 8 weeks after my first AZ shot. I would prefer to travel being fully vaccinated, but the longer I leave it, the more chance that Vietnam becomes more difficult to travel from (as Indonesia has become).
After over a month of hard lockdown, the case numbers were not going down, and death rates were increasing. I saw a video of an overcrowded hospital that showed why the government was throwing everything it could at bringing the numbers down.
After seeing this video I figured my best option was to leave. Once I get my passport back I would book a flight.
The next problem was to work out where. Ultimately I would like to get back to Australia, but it is hard to go back, and harder to leave. Australia is also in lockdown, so there is no point in going from one lockdown to another. And if I did go back I wouldn’t be able to get to any of my family’s houses anyway, so that was ruled out for now.
I started tinkering around on Skyscanner for flights, and they show what the restrictions are for each country. Croatia turned out to be one of the best places to go in Europe.
I got my passport back on a Tuesday, and I booked a flight for Saturday. I had three full days to pack up my room, get a pre-flight Covid test, and prepare for where to stay.
The first order of business was to get an RT-PCR test which would be at the latest 72 hours from my arrival. After paying about $10 for my pre-test for vaccination, I was annoyed with myself for going to an expat hospital that charged $110 USD for the test.
The day before my flight it was announced that the city would go into an even harder lockdown the following Monday. This lockdown escalation would mean no going outside at all, and the military was called in to help deliver food. This extreme lockdown underscores how much stress the hospital system is in.
I went back to the medical centre to pick up my Covid test, which was a valid reason to go outside. There was noticeably more traffic on the street as people were shopping before the new lockdown began. There were also more roadblocks between wards and districts.
I went by one supermarket and there was a queue around the block of people waiting their turn to go shopping.
It was surreal to be leaving after so many weeks in lockdown. I’ve caught a taxi to the airport so many times in Saigon, and it is usually a happy occasion knowing that I am off on an adventure. I booked a Vinasun Taxi (Grab is not operating) and the taxi drivers have rigged up a sealed booth. There were roadblocks between wards, and we went through a checkpoint that was checking cars.
I arrived at the international terminal, which I had not been to since March 2020. There was hardly anyone here and it felt like I was in some zombie apocalypse movie.
Most of the flights on the departure board were cargo or cancelled flights. There was an earlier Jetstar flight to Singapore, and Singapore Airlines were operating two flights within a few hours of each other. My flight was at 15.50, then after that, there was one Tokyo flight and one flight to Dubai for the rest of the day.
My flight was with Singapore Airlines, and I was first in line in case there were any problems with the ticketing. There was because I didn’t have an onward booking. They told me to go to another counter where my ticket would be checked. This has happened before and they usually require an onward flight booking. I said I was getting a bus to a neighbouring country, and this time they let me continue. I was also worrying that I got the covid test too early and that it would expire by the time I got to Croatia. A family in the UK were denied boarding a flight to Croatia for having a soon-to-be lapsed covid test.
There were no food and beverage outlets at the airport. I didn’t bring any supplies either, so I hoped that my flight still had a meal service.
All the shops were shut, though there was a stripped-down duty-free shop selling the bare minimum that reopened when we arrived in the departure area.
Singapore Airlines and Emirates were the only flight options available to me, and here they are at the same gate.
After over 17 months in Vietnam, this was not how I envisaged leaving the country.
Hello Singapore. I was going to say this was my first glimpse at another country in over 17 months, but I saw China from my hotel room last year, so not quite true.
Changi Airport was still functioning as a travel hub, though as I was to find out it was not business as usual here either. When I was looking for a flight there were two options available for this day; flights via Singapore, or a flight via Dubai with Emirates. I picked Singapore Airlines for the time of day and flight connections, even though it was about $150 USD more.
I also picked this flight was because I was dreaming of having a laksa at Singapore Airport. There were no shops open to the public at Changi. Instead, we had to view a menu via a scanned QR code and pick from the options available. I knew where to order a laksa, but if you weren’t familiar with the shops you might have had a hard reading the menu. The laksa was as good as I could have hoped for under the circumstances.
I had some Singapore coins from my last trip here in 2019, and this was the first time I have used coins in over 17 months (Vietnam has no coins).
Changi was functioning as a transit hub, but most of Terminal 3 was closed off. I will do a separate review of flying with Singapore Airlines during the pandemic.
My flight was to Munich, where I would get a connecting flight to Zagreb. The onboard route map showed that we would normally be flying over Kabul, which was not obviously happening this month. This was a subtle reminder that as an Australian I am born with passport privilege.
Croatia was one of the few places I could fly to with 1 vaccine shot and with no quarantine on arrival. The requirement was to have at least 1 shot a minimum of 22 days ago. I arrived 22 days after my first shot. Croatia has also managed to keep Covid cases down over the summer, making it one of the success stories of Europe for 2021 (so far). Tourism marketing calls it “your safe destination”, and there is an additional site where you fill in your travel details at entercroatia.mup.hr. Welcome to travel in this era of the plague.
I had been to Zagreb in 2012, and that brief visit left a good impression, so I was happy to come back.
I didn’t have Europe on my travel radar at all for 2021, so it was quite discombobulating to be here at such short notice. I didn’t go to Europe in 2020, which was the first year I didn’t travel to the continent since my first trip in 2000. Before I started Nomadic Notes in 2009 I used to spend more time in Europe than anywhere else. I am happy to be back in Europe, wandering old streets and sitting in parks. I even got a haircut.
Where to next?
I haven’t moved from Zagreb since arriving in Croatia. I’m still getting my bearings for what to do next. Getting vaccinated as a foreigner in Croatia is simple enough, so I will stay in the country until I can get my second shot. I don’t want to be a burden to another countries health system as a half-vaccinated traveller.
This is the first time in years where I am travelling without a set plan. Normally that would be a good thing, but travel is a complicated process now. Ultimately I will go back to Australia once it is open for travel again.
I’m keeping track of Covid numbers here and in neighbouring countries. So far the numbers are low compared to other places in Europe, but that could change quickly. I initially had Greece on my shortlist, but there has been a spike in cases over the summer.
Croatia has done well to keep the numbers down. I arrived in Croatia on 22 August, and there were 373 Covid cases and 3 deaths recorded the previous day. 41.6% of the population had one vaccine dose, while 38.7% was fully vaccinated.
[Stats via Google search for “Covid Croatia”.]
In Vietnam on 22 August, there were 11,352 cases and 737 deaths recorded the previous day. 16.1% of the population had one vaccine dose, while 1.9% was fully vaccinated.
[Stats via Google search for “Covid Vietnam”.]
Those numbers are still shocking and depressing for me. There were a total of 35 Covid deaths in Vietnam in 2020, and in 2021 there hadn’t been a death up to the 14 of May. Each of those 35 deaths was individually reported in news outlets, and they felt personal. Now it’s impossible to report individually on the hundreds of deaths per day (apart from well-known people).
I put these stats here as a milestone of where we are in this pandemic.
Hopefully by the end of the month, I will have a solid plan of where to go next.
Blog posts and other site news
I didn’t post any new articles last month, but now I am on the road again I will have some new things to write about.
My main focus has been at Future Southeast Asia, where I’m committed to writing a new article every week, in addition to a weekly newsletter. Last month my traffic finally recovered to pre name-change levels (I changed from livinginasia.co in March). As you can see here, I went through the valley of doom in April as my site lost all its Google rankings, so that was a relief to see all the pages returning to the search engine results.
After the stress of that name change, I swore I would never change another domain name again. Months later I found myself changing another domain name. I had an old domain called eurailtravels.com, but it is a problematic name because, a) it has a brand in the name (Eurail), and b) I want a Europe rail site that covers more than Eurail passes. So I now have the domain europerail.net, and the Europe rail newsletter that I launched recently can be found at news.europerail.net. Funny that I was getting this site prepared, not knowing that I would be back in Europe shortly thereafter.
COVID-19 and travel
I think so kind of travel pass like this will be used throughout Southeast Asia next year.
Assorted travel reads
“Pilgrims have long sought in India’s holiest city an antidote to the modern West, but Varanasi is more dream than reality.”
“The pandemic accelerated change in Bangkok’s Chinatown. Now, it is on a quest to redefine its identity.”
“Southern Chile’s snow-capped mountains, vast plains and windswept lakes are often depicted in summertime. See the landscape dressed in autumnal hues.”
“In the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, thousands of miles from practically anywhere, lies an isolated volcanic island called Ascension.”
“The United Statess has forgotten the hobo. We recognize the problem of homelessness, but the rootless rambler who steals rides on freight trains seems a relic of a long gone past.” (Via The Browser.)
• Tehran in One Minute. A creative production by 4rah.videos. #Iran#Tehran
I have featured news stories of cheap houses for sale in Japan (like $500 cheap). Akiya & Inaka is a consultancy that guides you through the akiya (vacant homes in Japan) purchasing process.
“Dozens of villages across Spain are in terminal decline. A new visa scheme aimed at digital nomads could revive them.”
@nomadicnotes at Instagram
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The Nomadic Notes Travel Newsletter is a weekly newsletter of the best travel reads and interesting travel news from around the web, and random ramblings by the editor.
- James Clark