How We Went from Nomads Abroad to Self-Quarantined in Florida in 48 Hours

After spending the holidays visiting our family and friends in the states, we departed for Da Nang, Vietnam in early January. We had a loose itinerary for the next year and a half, and a vague idea of how we could make it all happen.

Step one, commit. Okay, well after we had resigned from our jobs and life in Chicago that step was complete. Silvia had found an online TEFL course on Groupon and we completed the very boring certification in December. While waiting for one of our standby flights to board in Miami, we applied for an online english teaching job. The criteria to apply was, are you an American citizen? It appeared this company wanted American english accents only.

After our long and chaotic transit to Vietnam, we initially settled into a studio size hotel/apartment unit in the An Thuong neighborhood in Da Nang. We rented a 50cc scooter, skirting the driving laws, since we did not possess an international motorcycle license. After the first week we had completed the hiring process for our online teaching jobs, step 2 complete. We quickly realized that trying to teach online classes simultaneously in a studio apartment was not going to work.

We began hunting for a 1 bedroom apartment in the same neighborhood to allow us to teach at the same time and not talk over each other. An Thuong is a popular neighborhood in Da Nang for foreigners. It is walking distance to the beach, and has more than enough cafes, restaurants and bars than you could ask for. It only took us two outings and we found an ideal 1 bedroom apartment. It was on the top floor of the building, a five minute walk to the beach and to the gym, and our favorite of all, it had a huge balcony.

After befriending two other couples in the neighborhood, we quickly became familiar with the local outdoor produce market, best supermarkets, favorite neighborhood cafe, and best place to get vegan pineapple cookies. Despite my previous apprehension, I had quickly become enamored with our new way of life in Da Nang. It checked off most, if not all, of the boxes for us. It was affordable and allowed us to save money, had tropical weather, a beach, a big (enough) city feel, and being in SE Asia, it worked great with our teaching schedule. I imagined, and am still hopeful, it is someplace we can return to again and again. But judging by the construction, emerging resorts and still available beach front property, it is only a matter of time before this gem will be overrun and overpriced.

We had it all figured out, so we thought. We were going to work away the winter in Da Nang until our visa expired in early May. We would then fly to the Dominican Republic for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and spend two months there visiting family, enjoying the sunshine and beaches of the Caribbean. Then the covid-19 pandemic began to unfold.

Most mornings we would enjoy our respective coconut coffee and green tea matcha drinks in bed, read the news, browse emails and social media. Watching the pandemic unfold across the globe from outside the lens of the United States became more and more alarming. The United States continued to be steps behind preventive measures that other countries had already put in place. We were hopeful that Vietnam would continue to stay ahead of the outbreak and we felt comfortable where we were. Last Thursday everything changed for us, very quickly.

Thursdays marked the start of our weekend, since we did not schedule teaching for Fridays and Saturdays. This Thursday night was like any other, we had cooked dinner and cleaned up. I had taken out the trash and filled our drinking water jug from the communal water filter in the lobby of our building. We had showered and made our night time artichoke tea. We stayed up a little later than normal because we finished watching Season 1 of Back with the Ex, our most recent guilty pleasure on Netflix — thanks for the recommendation mom. It was about 1:00am when we finished the season finale and went to sleep.

I woke up for an unknown reason some time later. I was lying on my back. Out of the corner of my right eye, I thought I saw what looked like the silhouette of a head and shoulders receding behind the corner between our bedroom and hallway. The image startled me, but I immediately started telling myself it was my eyes playing tricks on me. “It was probably the pillow or my hair obstructing my vision. I was probably dreaming.” I laid there for less than a minute. Something told me to get up and look.

I walked around the bed to Silvia’s side of the bed, closest to the hallway. I stopped at the threshold between our bedroom and the hallway, or kitchenette. I could see into the living room and was staring straight toward the sliding glass door to our beloved balcony. I noted that the curtains were closed to the sliding glass door. We never closed those curtains. I thought it strange, but quickly rationalized, “Maybe, Silvia had closed them last night for some reason.” I turned around and walked back to bed.

As I laid down, the bed made a slight creak, as it often did. This caused Silvia to roll over in bed towards me. When she did, I almost asked her if she was awake to inquire about the curtains in the living room. I decided not to. My mind was still racing from the movement I had seen when I had woken up. I laid in bed, now on my right side. I was facing the hallway corner to our bed room. I laid there and listened. I was staring, wide eyed at the corner. I thought I heard two small, separate noises, but I could not decipher it from the usual street noise, refrigerator hum, and water pump noises I always can hear at night. I waited.

Not five minutes had passed, and in steps a silhouette, across the threshold from the hallway into our bedroom. This shadow is only an arm length from Silvia’s side of the bed. I leapt from bed, throwing the comforter off of me. As I rush around the foot of the bed I am yelling “HEY MOTHER FUCKER!” My brain was alarming, “Danger, danger!” I rushed straight through the kitchenette to the sliding glass door. I grabbed a handful of the curtains and yanked them aside. I stepped onto the balcony. Nothing. No one. They were gone.

The next string of events are a blur, but more or less happened in this order. Amidst my running and cursing through our apartment in the middle of the night, Silvia had a rude awakening. She told me after the fact, two things had crossed her mind, I was either sleep walking, or had lost my mind. I find it both comical and alarming these were her most logical explanations for my behavior. She was behind me in a matter of seconds at the sliding glass door. She was rubbing my back telling me, “Wake up, Danny, wake up.” I turned around and walked back inside. I turned on the light over the kitchen counter. I turned to her and said, “I’m awake.” This surprised Silvia again because I was lucid, not the confused sleep walker she expected. I told her, “Someone was in our apartment!” This really freaked her out. We walked back to the balcony and started to notice all the personal items that had been moved around our apartment. Then the stomach-sinking feeling when Silvia noticed the first items that were missing.

Silvia told me that her laptop was missing. She had left it on the coffee table in our living room the night before. We walked back to the balcony again and took stock of the items sitting outside on our balcony table; her laptop cord, strewn foreign currency we had collected and would use as teaching props, a light blue, mini Bic lighter (we don’t smoke, this was not ours), and Silvia’s jewelry pouch, the size of a man’s wallet. Silvia checked the pouch. Only one item was missing. Her engagement ring. We went back inside, very shaken up at this point. My camera was sitting on the kitchen counter. It had been on the desk in the bedroom when we went to sleep. I turned on the camera. A single photo had been taken with the camera, time stamped at 12:09am. Due to the time difference this would have been at 2:09am. The image was of our own balcony. Silvia also realized that her daypack was taken from the balcony. She had washed it and hung it out to dry the day before.

Some items the thief left on the patio table.

At this point I called our building manager, who is the best building manager we’ve ever had, even before she answered this phone call in the middle of the night. The phone call made on WhatsApp was time stamped at 2:36am. I told her we had just been robbed. She said she would call the landlord and have them come over immediately. Silvia and I checked the rest of the apartment for any other unwelcome visitors, which didn’t take long. We looked in the bathroom, behind the couch, in the small bedroom closet, and even inside the kitchen cupboards.

It seemed like a long time, but then we heard our second floor neighbor’s dog, Piggy, barking. The landlord and his sleepy-faced friend came upstairs to our apartment. I started explaining someone was in our apartment, I had chased them out and some of our items were stolen. They began checking the balcony, and the neighboring building roofs. Then the landlord called the building manager, probably to have her translate what I had been blabbering about.

We lived on the fifth floor. The neighboring building to one side was only four stories. You could step up from the roof of that building up to the railing of our balcony. The neighbor on the other side was also a five floor building, and our roof lined up with theirs. The buildings in our neighborhood are like in many dense cities, where the exterior wall of one building is completely butted up against the exterior wall of the next building. There are no alleys, so you are just out of arm’s length of the buildings behind you too. You could walk from building to building for the entire block. There were at least two unfinished buildings being constructed on our street. They were merely walls, floors and a staircase, with nothing to secure them. Anyone could walk into one of these buildings, up the stairs to the roof, and begin walking from roof to roof.

The landlord began asking us if we had locked the sliding glass door. We always locked the door, and Silvia always double checked the door every night. I could picture myself locking the door that night after I had hung my towel on the balcony to dry. Then I remembered I had gone back out on the balcony again to retrieve Silvia’s towel for her, and I don’t know if I had locked the door that time.You start second guessing yourself. There were also no signs of forced entry or prying on the door. Unlike most locking mechanisms on sliding glass doors in the US, if you tried lifting up on our slider, it actually pushes the pins on the door up, into the catch on the doorframe. So the thief could not have simply lifted the door to unlock it.

After some back and forth translating with the building manager, they told us they would return tomorrow morning and we would go to file a report at the police station. By now it was 3:30am. Between the adrenaline and anxiety, we were not going to be able to sleep. We sat in the living room and tried to watch episodes of Hot Ones on YouTube. I kept wondering if the thief was hiding on a rooftop still waiting to make their escape, and I was going to see them run across our balcony. They did not.

As the sun came up by 6:00am, we tried to lay down in bed. Every small noise I heard I would get up to see if it was the thief on the balcony again. We got up and began checking our emails as we waited to go to the police station. We began reading updates from the US State Department warning all American citizens and permanent residents to return to the US immediately or plan to be stuck outside of the US for an indefinite period of time. There would be a reduction in available international flights, and unknown border closures by the US and many other countries. We began discussing the idea of abruptly returning to the US.

Just as Silvia poured the hot water into our Vietnamese coffee makers, the building manager arrived to take us to the police station. The building manager and landlord drove us to the police station on the backs of their respective motor scooters.

Along with the help of our building manager and landlord, we completed a written description of events and stolen items. Two of the policemen got on one of their personal motor bikes and led the way back to our apartment for them to inspect the scene of the crime. All six of us, the building manager, landlord, two police officers, Silvia and I, walked up to our fifth floor apartment. We showed them where we had found the disturbed items and where the stolen items had been taken from. I also showed them the set of bare foot prints I discovered trailing towards our balcony from the otherside of the ridgeline of the neighboring roof, and then trailing away from our balcony.

They all seemed as confused as Silvia and I were about the items that were moved, but left behind. The thief had taken my camera out to the balcony, and put it back in the kitchenette. They had sorted through the foreign currency, taken $5 USD, £20 GBP, but left various currencies from Singapore, Malaysia and Brazil. The thief had removed the entire jewelry pouch but only taken SIlvia’s engagement ring. They had moved Silvia’s phone from the makeshift nightstand next to the bed, and placed it on the floor, around the corner, still plugged into the charger. In order for the thief to get to my camera and currency on the desk, they had walked past Silvia’s camera and purse, but maybe they had not noticed it in the dark.

Photo taken on my camera by the thief.

The theory proposed by the police was that a foreigner had stolen the items. They said if a Vietnamese person had broken in they would have taken all the items they had moved around or had access to. We thanked them for their time and they all left. Still having not eaten and been awake since 2:30am, we decided to finally have our coffee and eat something before trying to make any major decisions.

Our options we figured were as follows: 1) Stay in our apartment, and hope that one break-in was enough and the thief would not come back again, though knowing we had more valuables in the apartment. 2) Start looking for another apartment without an easily accessible balcony. 3) Return to the US, knowing if we didn’t, we may be stuck outside the US for an indefinite period of time.

We considered the fact our families were back in the US. If someone were to become ill, we would not want to be stuck on the outside looking in from Vietnam. Also, despite Vietnam handling the covid-19 situation very well to this point, it was not somewhere we would want to feel trapped if things unfortunately worsened.

After discussing our options we both agreed on option 3. Silvia began working her flight search magic and booked us a flight back to Miami, departing on Sunday morning. We hoped that within the remaining 48 hours the flight was not cancelled.

We didn’t leave our apartment for the rest of the day on Friday. It finally came time to go to bed and we tried to tell ourselves it was only two more nights we would be in that apartment. We switched sides of the bed we were sleeping on, and I was closer to the hallway. I barricaded the sliding glass door with a wood stick and plastic pipe I found, wedging the door closed. I propped a chair under the front door handle. We placed a travel lock on the back balcony gate. We checked the front door lock three times. We both laid in bed for two hours, wide awake until midnight. Silvia said she could not sleep there that night. We packed up our remaining valuables and drove our scooter two blocks to a hotel and checked-in for the next two nights.

In the morning we went back to our apartment and began packing up. We made one more trip to the supermarket to stock up on new face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and snacks for our upcoming 48 hours of travel to Miami. We returned our apartment keys to our building manager and returned our scooter to the rental location.

That evening, we walked to a gold jewelry shop that does currency exchange as we had some Vietnamese Dong we wanted to exchange. We joked on the way over that maybe Silvia’s engagement ring was there for sale. The store was closed and we never found out. We ordered some take-out Indian food and walked back to the hotel.

Sunday morning we checked out of the hotel and took a Grab car to Da Nang airport. The airport was all but deserted. We checked in for our first flight to Ho Chi Minh CIty. Once there we began our first of two, 8 hour layovers. Out of the entire board showing departing flights from Ho Chi Minh CIty, only four flights were not cancelled yet; Phnom Penh, Singapore, Taipei and our connecting flight to Doha, Qatar. After our second layover in Doha, we boarded our 16 hour flight to Miami.

We completed a simple questionnaire upon arrival that apparently was enough proof that we, and everyone else on our flight, did not have covid-19. After picking up a rental car, borrowing Silvia’s mom’s computer so we both could continue working, we drove three hours to her aunt and uncle’s house where we could self-quarantine for the next fourteen days. 48 hours after leaving Da Nang, we unloaded the car and got some sleep.

We are both aware that break-ins happen in every country, and in every neighborhood in the world. Silvia, growing up in the Dominican Republic, is more aware of this than I. When I was growing up, we only locked the front door at my house in Irvine during the day because the latch didn’t catch properly, and would otherwise open by itself. On the other hand, whenever we were leaving my grandparent’s house in Garden Grove, no matter if anyone was home or not, we would always roll down the windows of the car and all wave goodbye to the house, pretending they were home. Their house had been broken into numerous times over the years. This was our way of telling any thiefs watching as we drove away that people were still supposedly home.

We are grateful only material things were taken, and we were not harmed. We were most sad for the sentimental loss of Silvia’s engagement ring. We are most concerned about any identity information on her laptop. We will eventually jump less frequently when we hear a noise at night, and think it’s someone trying to break-in. We will probably still triple check the doors and windows at night before going to bed.

Did we leave the door unlocked that night? Was it just really terrible luck, the thief was out checking for open doors in our neighborhood that night? Had someone targeted us, and figured as foreigners we had valuables in our apartment? Was it someone we knew that tipped them off, or just a lucky night for a random thief?

We were very sad to leave Da Nang so abruptly and ahead of our schedule. We don’t want a single incident to define our feelings about the people and culture there. It was very surreal to be driving up the Florida Turnpike on Monday night. We are happy to be close to our family during these bizarre global events. We already miss you Vietnam, and hope to see you soon.

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