What's it like backpacking through Asia during the coronavirus outbreak

As the coronavirus pandemic spreads, travel restrictions have postponed or cancelled many a booked holiday as travellers scramble to return home.

But what do you do when the outbreak peaks in the middle of a three-month-long backpacking trip?

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Young married South African couple Jana Vosloo and Martin Zietsman have been travelling through South-East Asia since the start of January this year, taking a break after Zietsman finished his final year of community service as a doctor. 

At the start of the trip, concerns about the coronavirus were limited to China and surrounding areas, and to the world the threat was still minimal. 

Starting out in Thailand, their trip was pretty uneventful, afterwards travelling through to Cambodia and Malaysia - here taxi drivers just requested that they please put on their masks.

But it was in Vietnam where overnight they first experienced the panic that the coronavirus caused.

"In Vietnam there weren't that many cases - less than 40 - but then everything shut down,' says Vosloo.

"People were really scared, it felt a bit like an overreaction. Some of the shops wouldn't let you in if you didn't have a mask on. One woman in Hanoi started screaming at me because my mask wasn't on - that was intense."

"It was interesting how everything switched from 'fear of the East' to Asians being scared of Europeans because they are the ones bringing the coronavirus into the country.

"Yeah, that was in Vietnam where there were 20 cases, then nothing more for a month and then suddenly there were more cases in people from England - so they don't want Europeans here at all," added Zietsman.

Because of the closures of tourist attractions, they opted to fly to Bali in Indonesia on Sunday.

"What's funny in contrast to that, in Bali, so far everyone has been incredibly friendly, everyone's shaking hands, not many people are wearing masks, even in the Grab [their version of Uber] the driver didn't wear a mask," explains Vosloo.

"So far it feels like Bali is a lot more chilled, but we haven't been here that long yet."

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But Zietsman adds that they don't know yet if it's a good or bad thing.

"It's good to be careful but in Vietnam it was a bit too intense. There's like no evidence that the masks work, except if you are already sick to prevent it from spreading, but there they were so adamant about those pointless masks."

"It was also weird that in Vietnam, probably because they are a socialist country, they were constantly getting SMSs from the government, also using loudspeakers to share messages - it showed the fear, which isn't like that in the other countries we visited."

In Bali, however, the economy is heavily dependent on the tourist industry, and any disruption can be catastrophic. 

"The people we talked to in the homestays are worried about what would happen to their businesses - they are very scared because they don't know how long this will continue," says Vosloo.

They are also keeping a keen eye on the coronavirus numbers back home in South Africa.

"The other weird thing is, we started travelling in January and people were saying 'ooh you have to be so careful there in the East, it's so bad there' and now South Africa has more cases than Vietnam for example," adds Zietsman.

"Also when we bought our tickets to go to Indonesia, SA had more cases than Indonesia, but now Indonesia has almost double more than SA - it literally changes every day."

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