So Long, Saigon

I can’t say that I was all too pleasant on Thursday morning (Dec. 26), but I sleepily dragged myself out of bed well before our usual (but still quite early) wake-up time. Today was a big day: we were flying from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City, formerly (and still largely known as) Saigon.

Our flight was short and we just barely made it on time, but it wasn’t much of a big deal. Everyone’s bags arrived in tact and that alone was a victory for us. The first thing we noticed when we touched down in Saigon was the temperature: for the first time since we’d arrived in Vietnam, Hannah wasn’t cold! It was a comfortable feel, somewhere in the mid to high 60‘s and the sun was a welcome sight to both of us.

Our day had only just begun, though, and we were soon whisked away to visit with Dr. Nhi, a talented and well-spoken surgeon who many consider to be one of the top clubfoot specialists in the country, if not the number one authority. He was so kind and patient with our team, especially as we struggled to set up for our interview in especially cramped quarters and amidst a swarm of patients and onlookers. We were forced to cut our interview a bit short (due to understandable hospital logistics), though we still came away with a solid reel of footage and, luckily, were able to speak more personally with Dr. Nhi over lunch the next day.

 Dr. Nhi

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At the hospital, though, we took part in Dr. Nhi’s clubfoot clinic, and met with a few families as he examined their children. He spoke at length with us about the need for increased global awareness and, shockingly, he knew of a case of neglected clubfoot. On the edge of our seats, we tried to contain ourselves as we calmly asked him if he might connect us with this person. Over the course of our time in Vietnam, we have yet to see a case of neglected, or untreated, clubfoot. That bit of footage, to us, is incredibly important in showing the devastating effects of the condition if the patient does not or cannot intervene. We have asked every specialist we’ve met, but everyone has a fairly similar answer: if they knew of untreated clubfoot, they’d just go ahead and treat it. At the thought of finding someone with who we might sit down and discuss their neglected clubfoot, our hearts were in our stomachs.

We were disappointed, though, to hear that a meeting like this was not possible – but we were crushed to hear why: at six years old, a little girl was brought to the hospital by her family. Her feet, completely inverted, had been nearly flattened on the sides from years of walking with her untreated, bilateral (both feet being affected) condition. After a meeting with Dr. Nhi, who explained that he still believed he could correct the child’s feet, the couple – and their afflicted child – were not heard from again. Dr. Nhi called every week, never receiving an answer. He expressed to us a deep pain in losing this patient, whom he said was very treatable and still had a chance for full locomotive function in her life. As she gets older, he said, the chances of treatment and function drop steadily.

This story took place two years ago and Dr. Nhi has yet to receive a response to his barrage of messages.

We were able to see footage, the only footage that the hospital has of this girl, of the child walking back and forth across an examination table. Her face is not in the shot, nor is any identifying factor. There’s just a tuft of black hair, a pink tutu, and two feet that look as if they’ve been wrenched sideways at the ankle. Nearly a week later, I am still at a loss for words.

As we left Dr. Nhi, I couldn’t help but think incessantly about that little girl, about how her life will be. I hope that the combination of time and pressure is gentle on her feet – and I hope that someday soon her parents, child in hand, will walk through the doors of Dr. Nhi’s clinic. But I have little faith that either of these wishes will come true.

It’s fitting, and almost poignant, that such a powerful and moving moment for both Hannah and myself would mark the end of our time filming in Vietnam. Our government-issued permits for recording documentary-related footage ended in Ho Chi Minh City and Dr. Nhi was our last subject, save our short exit interview with Rose a few days later. We were to spend the next few days in Ho Chi Minh, exploring the city, organizing our data, and saying goodbye to Tung, with whom we had all grown close.

Our first night in Ho Chi Minh, we were ushered through the night-market by Rose, the apparent Queen of Saigon. Having grown up in the city, before moving to Hanoi, Rose knew every street corner and quickly led us to a small table and chairs just off the main road. The street food of the evening was durian sticky rice and chicken pho, the latter of which we have enjoyed immensely since our first days in Vietnam. The durian sticky rice was alright, but the skunky smell of the fruit that oozes from anything it’s touched can be quite overwhelming. We visited the night-market, a collected of handbag and clothing stalls that’s erected in record time each night. In just a short few minutes, the streets become bustling strip malls, complete with lights and electrical wiring.

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The night, however, is much more of a story: it was our final evening with Tung (who had dinner with friends in the area) and met me back at the hotel just after Hannah and Jana decided to call it a night. Tired from the day, they headed to bed. Tung and I took on the town. Throughout our trip, Tung would deceptively use his ability to speak Vietnamese (a skill I do not possess) to cover tabs and pay bills. With each gift, I’d mumble something about owing him yet another drink in Saigon. Time to pay my debts.

He took me to a neat bar across town where we saw what was perhaps the most talented cover band I’ve seen in my life. As a group of energetic Vietnamese guys in their 20‘s performed ‘Final Countdown’ perfectly, Tung and I enjoyed our final night together with jokes and cold drinks, before heading home to avoid enjoying ourselves just a little too much.

The following morning, after sleeping in (finally!) we had lunch with Dr. Nhi and decided to head out to the Chinese market nearby. With the aid of Tung, who was committed to helping us out until the moment he left, we scoured the area for some much-needed gear and replacement items (specifically oddly shaped screws among other hard-to-find things).

And then came the hard part: we had to say goodbye to Tung. After a final note and a firm handshake were exchanged (though Hannah couldn’t resist a hug), he was on a plane back to Hanoi, where he would be back on assignment with another team in just a few days. Our time with Tung was wonderful, and he managed to let one foot glide into the realm of friendship while keeping the other strictly planted in a place of professionalism. We wish him all the best – and safe travels around the country as he puddle-jumps from adventure to adventure.

Hannah and I, dejected, took a motorbike ride to a rooftop bar and met up with Jana, who helped us ease our pain over (just a few) happy hour specials.

Dinner that night was interesting, as we followed Jana’s lead and dined at an incredibly unique venue: a restaurant that sought to offer the finest street food available and quite literally invited talented vendors to work in its kitchen. We enjoyed everything from papaya salad (quite spicy), Vietnamese pancakes (a mix of seafood and fried egg), delicious mussels and fried soft-shell crab. While a wad of cash barely got us breakfast in New Zealand, a small amount of change in Vietnam let us eat like royalty.

Saturday morning (Dec. 28), Hannah and I walked around various districts of the city and witnessed a fire truck spraying, full blast, what appeared to be a building that – oddly enough – was not seemingly on fire at all. We spent the day wandering and just enjoying our time, managing some data and organizing much of our recent footage.

Which brings me to perhaps my most memorable and unique meal to-date. Walking around what appeared to be a fairground in the park, perhaps an exhibition of some sort, we (Hannah, Jana, Rose, and myself) found ourselves surrounded by fresh food vendors grilling whole fish and skewers of assorted meats, shucking oysters, and frying up anything and everything you might imagine. Our possibilities were endless. And this is where the fun began.

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We sat down at a small picnic table and our courses, which we’d ordered before we arrived, came out in procession. Hannah enjoyed a flavorful noodle dish and a beef skewer. Jana and Rose ate a combination of seafood and fried rice. I, however, decided to go with the most fascinating items on the menu.

The ostrich kebab I hastily consumed was succulent and gamey, but it paled in comparison to the two dishes I ate next: fried whole crickets and scorpions. After a few photos of me holding said scorpions up on a stick (three, laid end-to-end), I popped the first one in my mouth and bit down hard. It turns out I didn’t need to: the scorpion was surprisingly soft and the tough shell, once fried, had been reduced to a crispy wrapper that broke up instantly in my mouth. The insides, with the exception of the chewy stinger, were mashed guts that exploded out in a thick, rich paste of liver-like consistency. In truth, I really enjoyed it.

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After Jana took the plunge, I finished them off and headed towards the row of four deep-fried crickets (perhaps the largest crickets I’ve ever seen) and the tangy, red mystery sauce with which they came. The shell was similarly crunchy, perhaps a little more so than that of the scorpion, and the insides weren’t as rich, lending them a grassier, more refreshing flavor. The sauce was a nice addition to the crickets, which were a little drier than the scorpions, giving them a bit of wetness and juice. I ended up liking the crickets more as a potential snack (as they were pretty easy to pop in my mouth and just munch) and the scorpions as part of a larger meal (as their richness would be nice as an appetizer or small-plate dish). Being a mature gentleman, I immediately called my mother to hear her startled reaction.

With a belly full of insects and a travel team now reduced to four, I walked with our group back to the hotel, where we packed and prepared for our flight the next morning. It was time to leave Ho Chi Minh City and head to our final Vietnamese destination: Phu Quoc Island.

-Zach

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4 comments on “So Long, Saigon
  1. Carey Lord says:

    Zachana, you’re really great writers and your stories are so enjoyable to read. I’m loving *following* you on your adventures and have even learnt a bit the way 😉 I too look forward to your experiences of clubfoot investigations in Ghana. The two of you are perfect for this job. I second “keep up the great work!” X

  2. Shain says:

    We are enjoying reading your blogs. Very proud of you both Ready for you to get home

  3. Ann Denny says:

    I enjoyed your blog so much. It was worth the wait! Keep up the good work. I appreciate you, two, and the work you are doing.
    Grandmama

  4. Scott Gorelick says:

    Another great blog post! I was especially struck and saddened by your description of Dr. Nhi’s untreated “patient.” I can only wonder how many others there are around the world. I am deeply impressed, however, with Vietnam’s success overall at raising awareness of, and accomplishing treatment of, so many cases of clubfoot among its citizens. Very much looking forward to what you find in Ghana! Keep up the great work, and please keep blogging. Love to you both!!

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