How I survived a 15-day hotel quarantine

Sarah in her airport issue hazmat suit, some of her meals were ordered from outside, on the balcony of her hotel room where she spent 15 days. ©Sarah Clayton-Lea

With more countries introducing mandatory hotel quarantine for travelers arriving from other countries, one writer, who has just completed a 15-day hotel quarantine in Vietnam, shares her tips on how to get through it.

Wringing out my gym gear in a bathtub before hanging it on a thin piece of rope (tied between a door and my hotel balcony) is not how I imagined I’d be spending a Saturday night. There was an interruption to get my temperature checked at 5pm on the dot. I was expecting it, as this is the norm in hotel quarantine. It turned out to be just one of the many things that I had to get used to when I recently spent 15 days quarantined in a hotel in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Quarantine was…  Weird. Necessary. And yes, lonely. It simultaneously went by oh-so slowly and yet quite quickly.

500px Photo ID: 114183909 - The buildings and whole area ahead is belong to District 2, and Thanh Da Island of Binh Thanh District of Ho Chi Minh City. A weekend day in the summer almost have been gone.
 Saigon River in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. ©Tony Nguyen/500px

One year ago, following the initial outbreak of COVID-19, Vietnam was one of the first countries to introduce mandatory quarantine for arrivals. Even before recording its first case on the 23rd January, Vietnam had already begun to issue public health warnings about this mysterious new virus. They tightened borders in March 2020, suspending inbound tourist travel; even now, only "business experts" on government approved chartered flights and Vietnamese nationals on repatriation flights are allowed to enter. All travelers need a PCR test between 3-5 days in advance of flying, and quarantine in an assigned facility is mandatory. The current national COVID-19 tally is at 2001, including 35 deaths.

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Vietnam has reacted fast to the pandemic, with low official case numbers © Nhac Nguyen/ AFP via Getty Images

For a country that shares a large part of its land border with China, their handling of the pandemic is impressive. After the initial outbreak, some second and third waves cropped up, but each time Vietnam reacted fast, locking down entire towns when required. I was living here until March last year, and was on a work trip to Thailand when Vietnamese borders shut. I wasn’t surprised to hear the news, but I didn’t expect to only be able to return to Ho Chi Minh 10 months later. Returning to Vietnam was time consuming (I never want to hear the word "notarize" again) and expensive.  I stayed put in Thailand while I made my plans to re-enter, which included booking a quarantine hotel for 15 days at my own expense.

The cost of hotel quarantine

There was a choice of 20 government-approved hotels to choose from and my requirement was simple: which room would be least likely to make me lose my mind? I chose a 3-star hotel that cost me about $1100 (€900) for 15 nights. For that price in Ho Chi Minh you could usually stay somewhere super swish. During a global pandemic? I had a room with twin single beds and a little desk that became my office and dining table for three meals a day.

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Sarah had the option to choose her hotel and went for a three star in Ho Chi Minh city © Sarah Clayton-Lea 

I arrived at the hotel late at night via pre-approved private transport in my shiny new blue hazmat suit, which I was handed on arrival at the airport. Vietnam doesn’t do things by halves when it comes to Covid protocol. I checked in via QR code, unpacked in my new home and wrote out a countdown of the 15 days to be crossed off each morning. I got through the first couple of days fine. It would be just like having a duvet day for two whole weeks, right? Very wrong.

Workouts during hotel quarantine 

In my head, I figured I would just keep busy with my editor work at bigseventravel.com, do a few workouts and time would fly. In reality, I was digging into my emergency stash of Tayto crisps by day three. The only human contact I had was a temperature check twice a day and my two COVID tests. I communicated with the hotel over Whatsapp and swapped cute emojis with the hotel receptionist on the group chat, who I grew unnaturally fond of for dropping off my outside deliveries. I felt like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, but not as well dressed. Comfort over glamour is quarantine 101.

The only exciting part of my day was receiving deliveries, so I made good use of local food and shopping apps and online workouts with my 3kg weights and yoga mat were balanced out with some Emmental mac and cheese. My first workout involved high knees and squat jumps; the receptionist Whatsapped me to ask if I was OK. “We just worry that there is something wrong with you.” Nothing was right, anyway.

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Exercising in her hotel room drew the attention of guests on the floor below © Sarah Clayton-Lea

Food deliveries and room service

During my stay, my room door had an alarm that went off whenever I opened it, mainly to collect food that had been left on the table outside. Room rate included daily breakfast, which was a tasty variation of noodle soup, breads, cakes and fruit. Strong coffee was served with condensed milk and ice, proper cà phê sữa đá style.  Lunch and dinner I ordered from outside restaurants – Ho Chi Minh has incredible Vietnamese food options so I switched meals up each day. You can receive items from outside, but apart from rubbish, nothing can leave the room during the quarantine period and no other person can come inside. There were several plastic-wrapped sets of fresh sheets and towels in the wardrobe – housekeeping isn’t allowed to enter the room, so I changed the bed covers myself. I ordered cleaning supplies online to keep my room tidy and did my laundry in the bathtub.

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Some of the daily breakfasts delivered to Sarah's room during her hotel quarantine © Sarah Clayton-Lea

Work, exercise, Netflix, repeat 

I had read some quarantine tips before I arrived so I tried to keep a normal-ish routine Monday-Friday, sticking to a solid 8-9 hours of work, exercise, dinner and Netflix. Both weekends in quarantine were a bore. I did yoga, drawing, reading and had a bath and it was still only 12pm on Saturday. I tried to stay offline but ended up mindlessly scrolling on Bumble. My friend drove to the hotel and waved to me from the street below, dropping off a very welcome gift bag of snacks and sheet masks. I did my nails. Twice. I felt the need to "hear" my own voice (any voice would have done the trick, actually) and had regular loud sing songs to an Easy 80s playlist on Spotify. To whoever was unlucky enough to be staying next door in room 601, I’m sorry.

I naively had high hopes of being really productive during the 15 days, smashing through work and brushing up on languages. I wanted to improve my Italian and learn the basics of Vietnamese again, but the only Vietnamese phrase I learned was "please update network" for the Smart TV, and my quarantine Italian education was solely in the form of pasta. I thought that with no distractions I would be able to focus better than ever, but after just a week inside the same room, I felt myself becoming a little foggy brained. Having no distractions became a distraction itself.

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Ho Chi Minh has incredible food options so Sarah ordered in for lunch and dinner © xuanhuongho/Shutterstock

Staying connected

Online tips for self-isolation all mentioned the importance of checking in with loved ones, so I tried my best to follow that advice. I’m not a major fan of personal Zoom calls but I made an effort to keep in touch with friends and family so that I didn’t feel too isolated. I managed to get through the 15 days with only one cry and a few stressed out cigarettes on the balcony, which was way better than the total emotional meltdown I had half expected.

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Being outside in the world was not as over whelming for Sarah as she expected  © Nhac Nguyen/ AFP via Getty Images

I was due to get out on a Sunday once my final COVID test results came back but I wasn’t told an exact time, so the final 24 hours stretched on forever as I waited for official release approval from the Health Department. Yoga mat in hand, I was free. Being able to now settle into a country that feels safe and has such a good handle on the virus is a privilege and one well worth half a month of pretty cushy quarantine. I had thought it would feel overwhelming being outside again in crowds but it was fine and I celebrated my release with friends on a rooftop bar, just like nothing had ever happened. I guess those two weeks of solitude had no lasting effect – apart from my love for that Easy 80s playlist.

Editor's note: during COVID-19 there are restrictions on travel. Check the latest guidance before departure, and always follow local health advice.

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