Gratitude: The family spent their time visiting pagodas in Japan, giving their grandparents an unexpected family reunion. Photos courtesy of Hạnh Trần
Account of a Vietnamese - Japanese family, who bought tickets to travel on the Diamond Princess*, a luxury cruise liner that has been quarantined in Yokohama since February 4 but missed the trip as they did not have a visa to disembark in Hong Kong.
by Hạnh Trần
As I watched the news of passengers testing positive for coronavirus on the Diamond Princess, I wanted to share what started as a dream trip for our family. Looking back, I thank God for stopping us boarding the ship. I hope things will get better and more people will be cured and get to go home.
We were not allowed to board the Diamond Princess at Yokohama Harbour on January 20, 2020.
We booked the tour and planned this dream trip about three months ago. We were excited in preparing every detail of the trip – from the visa paperwork, to smaller necessities we needed on board. We had red áo dài made for the family – me, my husband and our boy.
On the Diamond Princess, there is everything you need. It is like a moving luxury resort, with shopping centres, nightly show, casinos, gyms, pools and free childcare for the parents to have some free time on their own. At designated stops, people disembark at 6-7am, then return to the boat between 4-6pm, and spend the night onboard.
We flew to Yokohama on January 19 and stayed at a hotel with a harbour view. We remember seeing the Diamond Princess slowly entering the harbour the night before our trip. My husband and I watched it with excitement and carefully reviewed our plans, decided which day we would send our boy to day care to explore the cities on the route.
We woke up at 7am to get ourselves ready for the big trip. At 12.30pm, we were the first passengers to arrive at the check-in point. The smiling receptionist looked as enthusiastic as we were. On her table, we could see our boarding passes, our room keys and the printed itinerary for the day.
Confident of our careful preparations, I took my child out to see the harbour, leaving my husband to take care of check-in. After a while, he called me, as the receptionist inquired about our visa to enter Hong Kong.
Confidently, I said: "We don’t plan to disembark in Hong Kong, so we did not apply for a visa." My logic was that when as a Vietnamese citizen, when I transit in Hong Kong, I won't need a visa.
My husband asked to speak to the manager and the answer was: "Even if you are in the waters off Hong Kong, you still need a visa, no matter if you disembark or not. We're afraid you have to apply for a visa."
My jaw dropped. I must have looked devastated. My husband tried to calm me down by saying things like ‘these things happen’, and ‘wait for the manager to take care of it’. As we waited, we saw other passengers from Taiwan, who did not have a visa like us. But they were advised to apply online, so after a few clicks on their iPad, they got their visa and boarded the boat. Another group of four young people also did not apply for a Hong Kong visa, because they did not plan to leave the ship.
Three hours later, a lady came back and said: "I'm sorry, we cannot let you board the cruise because Hong Kong authorities declined to give you a visa!"
I burst out crying. Why? The woman said they declined to give you a visa without stating the reason. What about the other four young people? They were accepted and got their visa.
"I'm really sorry," I remember her saying, "I cannot help you. If you can board the cruise at the stop after Hong Kong, which is Chân Mây Harbour in Việt Nam, I would be happy to welcome you onboard and serve you a glass of wine." It didn't help and I just kept crying.
I silently thanked my husband for not being too angry, because for three months, I was supposed to get our family ready, but failed miserably. All he did was calmly thank them, help me sign the paper to confirm it was our fault, then held my hand really tight and pulled me out of the room. We got our luggage and left the harbour in a taxi.
In that moment of despair, he decided to take us all to his hometown in Japan. It was a smart decision, because it would cost us a fortune to just wander around for 15 more days until our flight home.
There's no joy like coming home. My mother-in-law was so happy with our unexpected visit. She said it's as if she had two New Years in a row.
"Don't be upset," she told me, "maybe this is God protecting you from the coronavirus some other passengers got from Hong Kong." Just think of that as relief for the sadness of losing all the money you paid for the trip.
It seemed that God had his way. On January 25, my parents-in-law took us out to celebrate the Lunar New Year. On the way back, we tried to book tickets to get to Chân Mây Harbour, because if we boarded that day, we still could enjoy 10 days of the cruise. But our credit card limit was too low for the tickets.
We drove quickly to get home so we could use our debit cards. But as soon as I sat down, my heart sank. I told myself, "Maybe just stay where we are and don’t try to resist fate anymore. Everything happens for a reason." Good thing he agreed.
On January 31, the first case of coronavirus on the Diamond Princess was confirmed. My friends texted and called to ask about us. Someone said, this is sheer luck in one year for all three of us. But I think it's our luck over 10 years accumulated in one.
After what we have been through, I deeply wish that everyone on Diamond Princess gets treated and is well again soon.
My New Year wish is simple – to be in peace! VNS
Diamond Princess, a luxury cruise liner, has been quarantined in Yokohama since February 4. On February 11, Princess Cruises confirmed the announcement from Japan's Ministry of Health of 39 new positive cases of coronavirus on the Diamond Princess. To date, 105 cases on Diamond Princess had been confirmed.
The cruise left Yokohama, had stops in Chân Mây Port and Hạ Long in Việt Nam. The vessel also anchored in Taiwan, then at Okinawa before returning to Yokohama.