HA LONG, Vietnam – Vietnam may have become the world's new public health bright spot by managing to stop the spread of the SARS (search) virus, but there's no time for champagne and high-fives.
In fact, moments after the World Health Organization (search) congratulated it Monday for no new cases in the past 20 days, Vietnam's top health official rattled off a list of new measures to prevent a second wave of infections.
Health Minister Tran Thi Trung Chien stressed vigilance at Vietnam's 834-mile border with southern China (search), the place where health investigators believe the virus began.
Health checks are now recommended -- though not mandatory -- for anyone entering Vietnam from SARS-infected areas. All visitors are required to fill out health forms saying they are free of symptoms, such as fever. Health officials and quarantine facilities also are in place at major borders and ports.
Chien said the country plans to invest another $2.6 million to stop new cases at the border, including taking passengers' temperatures at the country's airports. Vietnam has already spent $1.9 million on SARS prevention.
But those measures come days after even harsher steps were announced in Quang Ninh province, home of tourism jewel, Ha Long Bay. Quang Ninh is barring all Chinese tourists outright, even though they account for up to 60 percent of foreign visitors here.
"Of course it hurts our business, but it's a necessary move to keep the virus from returning to Vietnam," said Nguyen Thi Tu, a ticket agent at the wharf in Ha Long where tourists board boats to view the picturesque bay dotted with thousands of limestone islands. "I hope without Chinese tourists to spread it, we will have no cases in the province."
This stepped-up surveillance, however, comes at a time when tourism is already virtually dead in eastern Asia. In most places, more than 90 percent of SARS patients recover, but the high level of contagion has frightened most travelers away.
And although tougher travel restrictions are guaranteed to hit Vietnamese pocketbooks even harder, many say they would rather lose money than worry about becoming the next victims. So far, SARS has killed more than 330 people worldwide and sickened more than 5,000.
Tu, the ticket agent, said only 500 guests boarded boats one recent weekend day, compared to 7,000 to 8,000 this time last year.
"Everyone is affected, including the motorbike taxi drivers, vendors and I, myself, had my salary cut by $6.70 last month," added Vu Thi Phuong, who usually makes about $47 a month processing boat tickets. "This month, it may be worse."
The streets and restaurants of Ha Long are dead, and workers at four-star hotels are so desperate for guests they're willing to slash $145 rooms to $50. One popular hotel with more than 200 rooms even reported one recent night with only two filled rooms.
Nguyen Duy Han, whose family operates 13 tour boats, said business has dropped off 90 percent since SARS hit. And without the Chinese to help offset the losses during the popular May Day holiday, he's losing $671 a day.
"This time last year, we ran out of boats," he said. "Before the SARS outbreak, we could make 20 trips a day, now we are down to only five trips a day."