Sleepless in Sơn La

Our second day in Vietnam was yet another adventure: we woke up early in the morning, boarded a packed tour bus, and headed out to Halong Bay. Known for its still waters and mountains that seem to spring up from the depths like towering giants, the Bay is surreal. We cruised around the Bay on a little schooner until we reached a floating village, complete with homes and even a primary school. At this point, we were paddled through caves and under mountains in rickety local rowboats. There was something calming about the rowboat ride – gliding around the Bay we felt connected with the people of the village. It was magical.

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After a walking tour of the Hang Đầu Gỗ, or ‘wooden stakes cave’, one of the most amazing caves in Halong Bay, we headed back to Hanoi and tried to get some sleep.

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But nothing could prepare us for our adventure in Sơn La.

We started Wednesday with a seven hour drive from Hanoi to Sơn La. We met up with Rose, Thanh, and Jana, an employee of POF and our travel companion during our time in Vietnam. We were joined by Tung, a young guy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs who will accompany us throughout our filming. Apparently, every film crew in Vietnam is assigned an officer like Tung, who has accompanied film crews for survivalist Bear Grylls and chef Gordon Ramsey. He will act as an envoy of the government and make sure we have access to the areas in which we need to film.

We stopped for a quick bite to eat in the fog-filled mountainside, where we huddled around fires in makeshift tents eating cơm lam, sticky rice cooked in bamboo shoots. To eat these warm tubes of rice, an elderly local woman thinned the bamboo and began to peel the cylinder like a banana. We dipped each bite into a blend of herbs and sesame and enjoyed the dish with a side of fire-cooked ears of corn. Husks were tossed from the mountainside into the foggy abyss below.


Our only interview of the day was a doozy. Our first time filming with Rose, Thanh, Jana, Tung, and a family of at least ten was as hectic and disorganized (on our end) as you might expect. It was definitely a bit chaotic, but we were still able to meet a lovely family that has been through so much in their efforts to correct their son’s clubfoot. I felt a deep connection with the grandfather, who expressed a profound worry about his grandson’s ability to work on the farm with him – and a huge amount of pride in knowing that his son’s treatment would allow them to work in the field together one day. He looks forward to that day with a huge smile across his face.

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Dinner was an experience all on its own, with one dish sticking out as particularly new for both Hannah and myself: duck embryo. Much like a hard-boiled egg, you crack a hot shell with a knife and are presented with the egg whites and the yolk. It’s only once you delicately peel away the whites that the true prize presents itself: a complete duck (beak, eyes, wings, webbed feet and all) that lies featherless and measures about three to four inches end-to-end. Hannah cautiously focused on the whites and I picked up the slack and helped her out with the duck. It was surprisingly flavorful and, with the exception of the crispiness of the developing beak, had a pleasant consistency.

Which brings us to Thursday – perhaps our most unforgettable experience to-date.

We started our morning bright and early at the Sơn La Hospital, where we met with Dr. Huu and his team of technicians. His enthusiasm for treating those living in the poor mountain ranges of the surrounding community is admirable. His laugh was inspiring to us – he takes such pleasure in maintaining a close relationship with his patients (to the point that some call him ‘Father’ out of respect). Our conversation with him was marked by some of his medical statistics: he says he’s successfully treated almost all of his patients and hasn’t yet lost a patient to a lack of compliance. Of all of his patients’ parents, most of whom must travel – often by foot – many miles through rural trails and muddy terrain, he says that none have thrown in the towel on their child’s treatment. His comments showed us the commitment of families within Vietnam to care for their children. The problem that many parents face, however, is a lack of ability to do so. For most families in regions as remote as those treated by Dr. Huu, their access to the right resources (financial, logistical, and informational) is limited.

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Moving on to Dr. Huu’s clubfoot clinic, we met with two families and Hannah made two small new friends. A four year old girl, who likes wearing her orthopedic braces at night “because they are red, and red is my favorite color,” was a bit shy and hid behind her father whenever she got the chance. She did open up a bit as we moved forward, but her father stole the show as he explained that the biggest motivation during the course treating his daughter was the support of the community members, many of whom sacrificed time and money to help the family make the frequent trips to the clinic.

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Another little boy just under two years old wasn’t able to be interviewed, but he let grandma do the talking. She described just how proud she is of her daughter for treating her child and, while they did consider quitting the treatment early on (due to the issues of transportation), they resumed treatment around the child’s first birthday after encouragement from Dr. Huu. He may not be much of a talker at his young age, but he’s already becoming quite the runner. He played with Hannah and myself and ran all around the clinic.

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After a quick lunch, we headed out to what would become a defining moment of our trip so far. In a two-car convoy, we drove through an area of Vietnam that’s so remote that it’s generally off-limits to tourists. Luckily for us, Rose was able to convince the local authorities to escort us into the village, which contains a community of Cống farmers. The  people, most commonly referred to as Phunoi (in both Thai and Lao), are an ethnic minority community that contains a total of approximately 40,000 people worldwide. Of the 90 million people in Vietnam, the Cống community makes up only approximately 1,300 people.

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The Cống family we were about to meet wasn’t accessible from the main road. In fact, when treating their son for clubfoot, they made frequent trips to the clinic by walking almost 19 miles to the road (only to make their way to the clinic from the main road via automobile). As we pulled up to the end of the drivable portion of the road, I pulled out our bag of camera gear, strapped it to my back, and we began our trek.

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After over a mile of huffing and puffing up a small mountain, passing by rice paddies and bringing shock to the faces of villagers who likely haven’t seen people like us before, our patient’s home came into view. A small hut on stilts that overlooked a sleepy vista of swampland and cattle, the bamboo home required that we climb up a rickety ladder to a room in which a fire was cooking the family dinner in a large iron pot.

We removed our shoes, stepped into the hut, and immediately realized that the floor was made up of a collection of bamboo slats (no larger than those used in window blinds) laid across larger tubes of bamboo in a roughshod grid system. Hannah seemed worried about the elevated floor breaking beneath her weight. I was doubly worried about myself, especially since I carried the bulk of our camera gear on my back. I stepped lightly (as lightly as one can with all of the weight I carried) and tried to ensure that my footing relied more on the bamboo framework than the small strips on top.

We were greeted by the whole family and a series of local authorities. The child, excited to see Dr. Huu, became much more energetic and after meeting the family we were forced to begin the interview process – the sunlight would only be present for a few more minutes and we still needed to film, spend time with the family, and make our hike back to the vans while we still had light. While Hannah played with the kids inside the house and downstairs, I nervously set up my tripod across the uneven bamboo and began speaking to the parents.

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As Hannah taught the children how to play slaps, Jana taught them the hokey pokey, and both got themselves tangled up in human knots (to the delight of the kids), I struggled to ask my questions to our patient’s mother. Being Cống from Thailand, and not ethnically Vietnamese, she doesn’t know the language. Each question had to be translated from English to Vietnamese to the father, understood completely, translated to the mother, and then back down the chain again to me. It was a bit hectic at times, and the footage will (at the very least) be quite interesting to review. This isn’t to say that it wasn’t incredibly powerful: both parents expressed an extreme rigidness in their views on treatment. Despite the day-long walks to the clinic, despite their fears and concerns, and despite their struggle to understand the condition with which their son lives, they were always committed to making sure he received the best care. When asked what they would tell parents in similar situations, the father explained to me that – quite simply – there is was no other option. When it is your child, he told me, you do what you must for their future.

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As we prepared to leave, I was startled to see a smiling uncle proudly pick up a fat chicken by neck, nod at me excitedly, and stuff said chicken into a burlap sack. The bag bucked as the chicken jumped around inside the bag. He was preparing a gift to us, his guests, and before we left we were given the same bag (now still) and were sent on our way, dinner in hand.

Dinner, which was yet another exhilarating culinary venture, was served at a nearby tavern. Quacking sounds emanating from the kitchen told us we would be enjoying duck this evening and we were not disappointed. In fact, ducks were brought (alive) up and down the restaurant as they were ordered. Supply and demand in action. But of course we couldn’t eat just the duck meat itself. Aside from eating the fatty duck meat in stews, I tried a new dish: coagulated duck blood. With the consistency of a thick jelly or jam, it’s a bit peppery and is very rich. And we can’t forget about our gift: the chicken, black and chewy (the local chickens all have black meat), was set before us in an odd circle of life. Remembering the chicken’s last moments alive (flailing in a bag), it was – for a moment – tough to reconcile eating him. But that moment was brief and he was delicious.

Before dinner began, however, the time to drink was upon us. Hannah, who isn’t a big drinker herself, managed to avoid the chaos. I was, however, dragged into the fray. Customarily, guests take a shot of “wine” (which is, deceptively, hard liquor) with their hosts. Immediately after, everyone who has taken a shot shakes hands with each other. I shook many, many hands and enjoyed the evening immensely.

Luckily, we didn’t have to worry about oversleeping the next morning: construction on our hotel began promptly at 6 a.m. And there was plenty of time to catch up on sleep, as we had another seven-hour bus ride back to Hanoi ahead of us.

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7 comments on “Sleepless in Sơn La
  1. Scott Gorelick says:

    How wonderful it was to read yet another beautifully descriptive and inspiring Footnote blog post!

    Even more mind-boggling than you being in a time zone 12 hours ahead, literally half way around the world, is how well you two 23-year olds are adapting to the remarkably unusual conditions and challenging logistics. We continue to be amazed and proud beyond words.

    Personally, this blog post contained my favorite Footnote “turn of phrase” so far:

    “Remembering the chicken’s last moments alive (flailing in a bag), it was – for a moment – tough to reconcile eating him. But that moment was brief and he was delicious.” LOL

    Keep up the wonderful work and, for heaven’s sake, please keep posting!

  2. OTI says:

    SO loving how far you gone… its lovely to hear results of something that I heard and knew of its beginning.
    and hey I think you should launch ZACHANNAH INC. Cos you are good in partnership…Cant wait to get my leave approved in joining the Ghana project

  3. Ann Denny says:

    So descriptive! You two are so friendly no wonder everyone is nice to you. The pictures remind me of some of the ones Hannah’s grandfather sent home when he was in Korea.

  4. Jenn S. says:

    We are so proud of you both! Thank you for sharing the images and stories that give us a glimpse into your incredible journey. (Except for the chicken in the bag, that one was better left unimagined…) Stay safe, have fun, do great work and please continue to share!!! A, J, B, T, H

  5. Betsy says:

    I am so thrilled and happy for you both! What a magnificent experience. You’ve described it beautifully. The most meaningful I think is the parents commitment to their children’s welfare. You are so fortunate to see such lovely people in these amazing surroundings. WOW! The water, the caves, the mountains and the farmland! You’re a couple of lucky ducks doing important work, a lot luckier than some ducks……and chickens. Keep the blogs coming! They’re great!

  6. lana rose says:

    What an incredible experience and how blessed are you both to meet up with these people and especially the Phunoi – amazing and truly up lifting to read of their journey’s and experience with clubfoot treatment.

    Reading this post was much enjoyed
    Thanks Lana 🙂

    • Ann Denny says:

      You two are doing such a great job of presenting your project. I know it will be very helpful. I am enjoying your blogs so much and the pictures and the descriptions. You are remarkable young people!


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