Friday, February 29, 2008


So, I'm sitting at home on a Friday night. I should be out, but I'm not. I have to admit that I'm not very fond of the nightlife in Vietnam. For people like me, it's hanging out in Pham Ngu Lao with the other tourists and expats, drinking bad beer and exchanging travel stories. For me, that's not fun - I feel like I can do that anywhere, so why should I spend (lots of) money being reminded that I'm an American who doesn't fully appreciate that they're in Vietnam.

For the Vietnamese, it's a night of karaoke and driving around. Now, I like my karaoke, just like any other person, but you can only do so much of it. And driving's fine and all, but I have to admit that Saigon is limited in terms of its scenic routes (especially when you are avoiding being killed every minute because some guy is swerving to get around you).

Oh well, so another night at home.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Cry baby

Anyone who knows me very well knows that I cry very easily. I cry when I get nervous. I cry when I see a Hallmark commercial on TV. I cry at "Extreme Home Makeover." I cry.

So, today I wanted to cry all afternoon. I spent the afternoon at a pediatric HIV clinic in the public pediatric hospital and all I wanted to do was cry (don't worry, I didn't). The physician saw about a patient every 10 minutes and each one was the most adorable little child ever. If anyone has any doubts as to how important it is to prevent maternal to child transmission of HIV/AIDS, you need only to meet one of these children and just imagine the life they will lead - full of countless pills, unmentionable stigma and discrimination, and health consequences that medicine has yet to fully understand surrounding the long-term effects of HIV infection.

The patient encounter goes as follows. The doctor sits at the desk, calls out the name of the next child to be seen. The child and his/her caregiver comes in and sits in the two chairs next to the physician. The physician records his observations and findings while asking the caregiver (who is sometimes the child) whether they take their medicines accordingly, whether they have any side effects, whether the child is eating, and if there is any change in health. The doctor then writes up a prescription for the meds and the child and caregiver leave. And the cycle repeats itself.

The drugs are given to the children free of charge, courtesy of PEPFAR (quite possibly, the best thing President Bush has ever done during his time in office). However, what cannot be remedied with money is the stigma that these children and face.

The most heartwrenching patient I saw was a boy, around 11 years of age. His mother and father died of AIDS when he was less than 2 years old and he is being raised by his grandmother and great grandmother. Both of them hold onto old beliefs and misconceptions about HIV. They don't allow him to go to school or the nearby orphanage because they're afraid that he'll infect the other children. He is in charge of his medicines and responsible for knowing how and when to take them. He's 11, but looks around 7 and was obviously depressed and withdrawn. I can only imagine his day-to-day, where he receives little to no stimulation, no education, and no play time. To top it all off, his strain of HIV was resistant to first and second line treatments and the only thing available to him was a salvage treatment - which was being put at risk because he wasn't taking his medications as directed. I'm tearing up, just thinking of him.

Really, in a world (and country - Vietnam has a new upper class whose income and spending rival even the wealthiest Americans) where there is such wealth, this should not be happening. We should be able to protect the weakest members of our society and provide them with basic human necessities, including love.

I have to mention that I was the only cry baby around today. None of the patients, ranging from 3 months to 13 years old, cried. Not a single whimper, peep, or scowl.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Two sides of the same coin

I spent the morning in a public surgical hospital today and, to say the least, it was eye-opening.

My friend, who is in her last year of medical school in Saigon, was so kind as to let me join her and her classmates while at the hospital. The hospital is a rather large collection of buildings, all of it open-air (i.e. no air conditioning), and full to the brim with patients. Literally. In one room about 15 x 40 feet, there were about 12-14 beds lined up, much like what you see the barracks look like in military movies. In that room would be about 20 patients - so, yes, there is sometimes more than one patient per bed. The patients and their families are responsible for food, water, and miscellaneous other things that we take for granted in most developed countries - so, in addition to the 20 patients in this room, add another 20 for visitors, 3-4 nurses, and 3 medical students and you have a very packed room. There is no patient privacy to be had (HIPAA has yet to be uttered here) and prevention of hospital-borne infections is non-existent. I had to look hard to find a sink in the entire room, and that's because it was hidden in the corner, behind a patient bed, and never used the entire time I was there.

This is dramatically different than the clinic I have been working in. The clinic I work in is an international clinic, with Western standards and both Vietnamese and Western trained physicians. You walk in and it's much like any doctor's office in the United States - except that you pay for every service up front. And pay, you do. A doctor's visit is $100 and you pay for all lab tests and medicines prescribed. Needless to say, the patient populations in the private and public hospitals rarely overlap, if at all.

No system is perfect. The private clinic has its drawbacks - it cannot be entirely Westernized because you depend on Vietnamese workers, supplies, and medicines; some lab tests are impossible to get in Vietnam; and all emergency cases are evacuated to Singapore, where the medical standards are higher. Of course, I would prefer the private clinic style because that is the one that I am accustomed to. However, you cannot leave the public hospital without thinking, "How can this become better?" Sometimes, when I leave work in the United States, I ask myself the same question.

Now, everyone's favorite past-time of late is bashing the American healthcare system (and thinking up new proposals to fix it). However, after spending a few hours in a public hospital in Vietnam, I can say that the American healthcare system really isn't that bad. It's not perfect, but it's definitely not that bad.

Sunday, February 24, 2008


Just got back from my 4-day trip to Cambodia and came back exhausted, sore, and tanned - all signs of a good trip. I spent 10 hours at Angkor Wat, determined to see all that I could see in one day, and it was totally worth it! One thing I have to say is that everyone I met along the way was so tremendously kind. An illustration of this was my free tuk tuk ride. Because I was low on cash, I decided to walk most of Angkor Wat, which wouldn't have been too bad if it hadn't been noontime. I was walking from one temple to another and a tuktuk driver came by and asked if I needed a ride. Now, that's not too rare, as lots of drivers slowed down on the road to offer rides, but I had no money, so I didn't take it. However, this driver was very persistent and kept on lowering his price from $3 to $2 to $1. I told him I didn't need a ride, since I had already walked 2 km and only had one more kilometer to go. However, I apparently looked like the sorriest tourist on the planet and he offered me a ride for free. So, all said and done, I got a free tuk tuk ride and experienced, first-hand, the kindness of strangers.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Crawling my way through the world

Sorry for not posting lately... I've been busy. :)
Over the weekend, I went to the Cu Chi Tunnels and a Cao Dai Temple with my uncle and had lots of fun. The most fun, and the dirtiest part, was crawling through the tunnel. The guide liked to point out that the tunnel we were crawling through was actually widened for the wider tourists. Nonetheless, it was a good workout in that my quads were sore for several days afterwards.
Pictures to come soon.
Going to Cambodia this weekend. More pictures from that, I'm sure.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Saigon at night

Just a picture of the Ho Chi Minh City Hall - I guess this is where the work gets done?

I scream for ice cream!

I went out for ice cream last night at a place called "San Francisco Ice Cream" in District 3. It supposedly served Bud's San Francisco Ice Cream, whose Mint Chocolate Chip I am very fond of. However, being in Vietnam, I felt as though I should try some of the "tropical" flavors, so I got taro and durian. Taro is a purple starchy potato like thing that I absolutely love in milkshakes, so thought ice cream would be good as well. Durian is notorious for its intense smell (some say it smells like rotten eggs). It's creamy and yellow, kind of like an avocado with an intense smell, and more fibrous. I'd have to say that that was the best ice cream of the night. Seriously.

Oh, these are the pictures of the night. They were on the bathroom doors at the ice cream place. It took me a few minutes to figure out why the figures are posed as they are (yes, I can be slow at times).

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Working girl

So, this is my third day at work... and it's work. That's all there is to say.

Oh, last night, I picked up a shirt that I had made for me. It fits great and I really like it (and it was super-cheap = a grand total of $23 for a custom made shirt). I'm going back tonight to see if they can make pants for me... I need pants of all things!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

First day on the job

Today was the first day of the rest of my life. Er, not really, just the first day of my rotation in Vietnam. It's actually quite exciting and nerve-racking, for no apparent reason. I ended up just shadowing the doctor in charge, but I was able to do a lot of medical Vietnamese translation. I'm still learning obviously, but it's getting better. I'll have to ask the nurses and receptionists to work with me on my Vietnamese when they have time.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Photos, finally!

So, I've finally made the leap to adding photos! I have backposted photos to the relevant postings, so feel free to browse. There aren't many, because direct uploading them from my camera is a pain in the arse.

There will be more if someone can offer up an easy way to direct upload to blogger, picasa, or flickr from my Canon SD750.

First day at work

Last night, as always happens the night before a new rotation, I slept fitfully. Around 6AM, I got up nearly every half hour, afraid that I would sleep through my wake up time and by the time my alarm went off, I was exhausted. So, I arrived at the clinic, a full 20 minutes early, to find out 45 minutes later that the doctor, indeed, was not in. I was bummed, not because I didn't get to work (I enjoy an unexpected day off just like the next person), but more so because I had a whole day of free time and nothing planned.

No problem, I ended up venturing out and having a good time. I walked from the clinic to the post office...
... to Notre Dame Cathedral ...
(only in Vietnam would you find neon lights in a church)

... to Reunification Plaza ...
(this room wasn't labeled, but you can only imagine the things that went on in it)

(a creepy staircase near the end of the tour)

... to Cho Ben Thanh to Pham Ngu Lao.

Along the way, I had "banh kot" and "che" to satisfy my tummy.

"Banh Khot"
"Che Thap Cam"

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Motorbike riding

Sunrise over the Mekong:

Yesterday was a day of riding motorbikes. Woke up at 5:00AM (which, I would like to point out, is earlier than the sun rises) and left the house at 6:30AM with my two cousins and my uncle. We went on an all day motorbike journey through the delta. I took us all day, we we maybe rode 80 km the entire day. We made stops at my uncle's friends' houses, eating delicious food and fruit all day. My cousin, Hoang, and I picked longans, papaya, pomelos, and "mang" while my other cousin and my uncle took their afternoon naps. Took some great pictures, especially of the sunrise over some of the small rivers.

Oh, I also learned how to ride a motorbike! After coming home and promptly taking a nap and eating, went out with my uncle to learn how to ride a motorbike. After a few spins around an empty parking lot, took it out on the road and it was so much fun! However, it's scary as hell because other drivers and pedestrians do as they wish, not yielding to other drivers at all. I would like to be able to drive in Saigon, but that requires some nerves of steel and I don't know if I've grown those in yet.

Here's a picture of two of my cousins on motorbike. I am riding alongside them on my uncle's motorbike (he's driving, don't worry!).

Friday, February 8, 2008

Sunrise, sunset

For the last few days, I have been in the delta region, celebrating the lunar new year with my relatives (Chuc Mung Nam Moi, as we say in Vietnam!). Being in the delta, away from the city, means a different pace of life. I get up at sunrise, not by choice, but because everyone and their dog gets up at this time. Then, go to bed at an ungodly early hour (9:30 last night). You start off the day with breakfast, a walk around the market or neighborhood, and then sit and shoot the breeze with whomever is around. Then, lunch! After lunch, you take your obligatory nap and then shoot the breeze with whomever is around. Then, dinner! Again, shoot the breeze with whomever is around, and it's bedtime! Throw in a few showers here and there and you have my day for the last few days.

Oh, but a change of pace was staying up until midnight to watch the fireworks (a rather disappointing ten-minute show):

Other things that got thrown into the heap:

  • Take pictures - lots of them. Apparently it's a new year tradition to take family pictures so I did that with my dad's side one day, and my mom's side another day.
  • Go into an orchard of "mang" - which are these red fruits, crunchy and juicy like an apple, but almost tasteless. Actually quite addicting.
  • Go to the museum, where I learned (as much as I could by "reading" the Vietnamese placards) about the history of Vinh Long province (where I am right now and where my family is from), what animals reside here (apparently lots of fish - makes sense, it's a delta, after all), and what people live here (turns out there are a good number of ethnic minorities here).

Oh, I did get to ride an ostrich. Yeah, an ostrich. Apparently, not as hard as you'd think it would be.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Tet flower festival

Tonight, I went to the flower festival, across from the New World Hotel and it was beautiful. So many flowers, some in the thousands of dollars! Totally outrageous, but totally fun to "window shop." I love Tet here - it's so much fun and so beautiful. It's also not outrageously hot outside, so it's bearable during the day (though the night is so much more comfortable).

So, these fish are actually from another flower festival, but they sure are ugly. And yes, the gold one is swimming vertically. Apparently, they're stupid as well.