Locked down in Vietnam, Roving Reporters’ Bootlegging Baldy, aka Ian Carbutt, defers his dream . . .

First published by The Witness


I stare at my laptop, waiting for the classical guitar ringtone; waiting for a call from anywhere.

China, Korea, Brazil, Saudi Arabia.

Covid-19 ended my dream of becoming a digital nomad, aimlessly wandering the planet. I’ve become a teacher, an online therapist, a child minder and a business advisor to lonely people trapped in lockdown around the world.

Lockdown Vietnam
BOOTLEGGING BALDY: ‘Hello. I’m teacher Ian, are you out there?’ The writer on the rooftop of his flat during lockdown in Da Nang, Vietnam. Picture: Ian Carbutt

My desktop buzzes into life. My heart sinks. The incoming call is in Arabic. I get a brief glimpse of a face, then the roof, a wall, a barking dog, then blackout. Arab women cover their faces by blocking the camera.

Hello. I’m teacher Ian, are you out there?

Ping. A chat box message pops up in Chinese or Korean. I ignore it. Its early morning in Vietnam but midnight somewhere else in the world and my caffeine intake isn’t high enough to deal with a teenage suicide.

Another stream of messages. I hit google translate. Help Me. Help Me.

I frantically search for Covid helplines while typing a reply: Where are you? Don’t do anything. I’ll get help.

Ping. Another message. Help me. Help me. I want to learn English.


And so begins my day. My neighbor, or I like to think of him as my neighbour, sits on the bed day and night, in his y-fronts, flicking through channels in his tiny flat opposite mine, children swarming all over him like ants on a crumb of bread.

Schools have been closed for months.

The neon lights that used to drip like multicolored lava from hotels, restaurants and bars have gone out.

A small group of expats, mostly stranded teachers and travellers, sit at a safe distance from each other around a table outside one of the open food shops drinking vodka.

Lockdwon Vietnaam
WAITING FOR BETTER DAYS: A woman sits alone on a chair outside a restaurant in Da Nang, in central Vietnam. Picture: Ian Carbutt


Timebomb by Beck is blaring out of a cellphone: “We got a timebomb, We got a red alert, Tick,Tick,Tick.Tick.”

Occasionally government vehicles drive around playing rousing music and announcing important information over loudhailers.

The Vietnamese run a tight ship.

At the time of writing, 29 March, there were 179 cases – mostly in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh.

Anyone with any covid-19 symptoms and anyone that came into contact with them gets tested and whisked off to some quarantine camp.

Any property, restaurant or facility that they frequented gets shut down for two weeks and disinfected. Even though discrimination is against the law and occasionally Vietnamese children give me a wide berth while I’m out walking, probably at the advice of their parents, the general population is friendly but understandably nervous of foreigners.

And yes we can walk our dogs.

For now we are not confined to our flats, but we are advised to avoid  unnecessary contact with other people.

Wearing masks is compulsory in public places, groups of 20 or more are banned, but a few restaurants are open for takeaways.

Lockdown Vietnaam
TIGHT SHIP: Expats chat under a sign notifying tourists and the public that My Khe beach, Da Nang, is closed. Picture: Ian Carbutt

Going nowhere

The borders have closed, air travel grounded.

We are not in lockdown in our flats, we are in lockdown in a country.

A couple of embassies have told their citizens to head to Hanoi or Saigon to wait for a plane to evacuate them back home and we’ve been told to email the South African embassy to inform them of our whereabouts.

“At this stage there is no feasible solution for those who were booked to fly during this time. There will be no repatriation flights arranged and unfortunately no financial assistance will be offered. South African Embassy, Hanoi”

The cost of visa extensions has soared from 10$ to 350$.Im not hoping for a bailout and I’m not sure if I want to be evacuated. Vietnam is raw and wild with beautiful people. And besides, I’m just starting to learn Vietnamese and I can make a damn fine pot of rice porridge.

lockdown Vietnaam
BANNER IMAGE: Residents of Da Nang walk their dogs. Picture: Ian Carbutt

Now read… The diary of a bootlegging baldy – Part 1


To view more of photojournalist Ian Carbutt’s work or to buy pictures from him, visit his website: www.iancarbutt.com. Carbutt, a former Witness photographer, holds the copyright for all pictures used in this post.

Click on image below to read more stories in our series of Coronavirus Chronicles