We arrived on Phú Quốc Island only expecting to spend two nights, but it took Zach and I the duration of lunch to decide to extend our stay. Since we no longer had Tung, we no longer had filming permits, it seems we had about a week to spend wherever we wanted in Vietnam. Of course, we weren’t finished working on some of the more mundane organizing of our physical and digital data. I highly doubt there are many more places in the world I would rather spend this time than Phú Quốc Island. Honestly, I felt like I was in a postcard. The water was clear, the sand soft, and the food so fresh. To top everything off, one evening we even found a woman with her small monkey out on the beach.
Rose took us to yet another night-market for dinner. However, this one was very different than the one in Ho Chi Minh City. Instead of sitting down for a bowl of noodle soup, we picked from a variety of fresh seafood from a table, which was promptly grilled, and brought out on enormous platters. First, we had shrimp, each piece large enough to be a meal on its own (longer than my hand!). Zach was excited about a full (yet still small) sand shark, and when he found out that it was well within our budget, ordered the whole thing.
The next morning, Zach and I went out on the beach, staking out some of the few lounge chairs not occupied by other (largely Russian) tourists. Yes, Russian tourists. I think Jana, Zach, and I were some of the few Americans on the island. There were clearly more visitors from Western Europe, but by far Eastern Europe was best represented. I have to admit it was a bit odd. For those of you familiar with my past travel, I felt like I was back in Moldova – if Moldova had been transplanted in Asia. It wasn’t rare for us to see signs and menus on the island available inVietnamese, English, and Russian. We even ate at a Russian Restaurant one night for fun later during our stay. I didn’t know Vietnam was such a destination for Russian snow birds!
New Years Eve was our last full day with Rose. We started off the morning by interviewing her on her experience with clubfoot here in Vietnam and POF. We asked her about her role, and how she feels knowing that her work is making it possible for hundreds, if not thousands, of children to get treatment that literally restores their ability to walk. She told us, humbly, that it fills her with emotion. She feels so much joy seeing and knowing that this work is affecting these patients’ lives, and feels sadness for those who do not receive the treatment they need. It is evident that Rose and the Vietnam Clubfoot Program are synonymous. I am honored that such an incredibly passionate and caring woman took us under her wing and gave us incredible access to the work that is being done here.
Zach, Jana, and I wanted to do something nice for Rose, to thank her for putting so much effort into making our time in Vietnam smooth, easy, incredibly informative, and ultimately successful. We hired a boat (outside of our project budget, of course), and spent the rest of New Years Eve (day) with Rose exploring smaller islands around Phú Quốc. After a few minutes of riding around, the captain stopped the boat, and our guide, Dong, showed us how to fish with a large spool of line, a hook, and nothing else. Zach was able to catch quite a few small grouper, while I was quite unsuccessful, catching nothing but my own line. The boat engine reared up, and we headed to a secluded rocky beach. Zach, Jana, and I put on snorkel gear and explored the clear waters, looking at all of the beautiful tropical fish and plants. Zach continued to try to lure them in with some bait in hopes of catching even more. They were too smart for him, gobbling up the tiny piece of squid before he could pull in his line (though he did catch one after diving into the ocean, line in hand). After our short swim, it was lunch time. Rose surprised us by ordering some delicious sea urchin from a nearby vendor boat. Dong served the fish we caught along with a variety of other grilled seafood. We enjoyed the food with myrtle wine (after Zach tasted sea-horse wine and was unimpressed). After resting for the remainder of the afternoon, we headed back to shore. On our way back to the hotel, Dong took us to another beach with white sand and turquoise water. It was beautiful, so Zach and I took some pictures, but the large amount of tourists was a deterrent, and we didn’t stay too long.
We arrived back at the hotel in the early evening, showered, and headed down to the beach for dinner. The hotel was putting on a New Years Eve party for all of the guests, staff, and their families. A massive amount of fresh seafood was grilled, and we watched as a bonfire of coconut trees and bamboo was set around 11 p.m. Finally, we knew we had officially made it to 2014 when a couple of giant sparklers were lit, and everyone yelled Happy New Year in their respective languages.
However, our New Year was suddenly filled with sadness when we had to say “Tạm Biệt” (“goodbye” in Vietnamese) to Rose. She hadn’t seen her own family in quite some time, and didn’t extend the trip with the rest of us. She was leaving on an early flight the next morning. She told us that we must let her know when we come back to Vietnam, to which we responded “How could we not?! You were the best tour guide we could ever have. You spoiled us completely!” We gave her hugs, and then more hugs, and watched each other head to our respective rooms. Zach and I had grown quite close to her over the course of the past month, often times calling her “Mama Rose,” which made her grin. Although it was very sad to see her go, we feel so lucky to have gotten to know her and experience her altruism – an unforgettable quality which I hope to emulate in my own life.
We spent the rest of our time in Phú Quốc organizing, catching up on some much needed sleep, stocking up on Vitamin D (sun) and Vitamin C (fruit), and most importantly, processing our time in Vietnam. We talked about common observations and debated conflicting ones. Although we’ve mostly focused on clubfoot (and food) in these blogs, we’ve experienced and learned so much about Vietnamese history, culture, politics, and the national economy – all of which ultimately impact a patient’s ability to receive effective clubfoot treatment. In my courses at Georgetown, we called these factors “Social Determinants of Health,” but for the rest of the world, these factors are called “life.” Our documentary would be incomplete if we failed to understand the more complex parts of life in Vietnam – and our time here has given us a chance to really dive into these issues, come away with great footage, and consider the larger picture.
After saying a final goodbye to our travel partner from POF, Jana, we parted our separate ways. She was heading back to Hanoi to finish up some work, while we headed back to Saigon for a short stint before leaving the country. We’d grown very close to Jana over the course of the last month. We were also sad to see her go, but I think she was just as confident as us that our paths would cross again in the future. We are so appreciative to her and POF for organizing such an enlightening adventure across the country.
During our last day in Vietnam, we decided to meet up with Dr. Nhi for lunch. We thought we’d give him a Footnote Film t-shirt, and thank him for the work he has been doing. However, we didn’t expect the surprise he had for us, which would ultimately tie up our month in Vietnam. In our last post, we described a girl, about 6 years old, who had neglected clubfoot. Zach accurately portrayed the extent to which Dr. Nhi went to reach out to the girl’s family, in hopes she would come back to the office to get treated. At lunch, Dr. Nhi brought up the blog, which had just been posted the night before. He said that, after reading the post, he was inspired to call the family just one more time. It had been quite a while since Dr. Nhi had tried to call the patient, and each time, the family never answered. However, on that day, they answered. Dr. Nhi was finally able to talk to the parents and convince them to come back to the hospital so that he could evaluate their daughter for treatment. Although they were planning on starting treatment in the summer, since the girl is now school-age, they agreed to meet with Dr. Nhi.
Zach and I were instantly relieved. It seemed too coincidental to be true, but in fact it was. The one untreated patient in Vietnam we remotely encountered was now on her way to be treated. She will, hopefully, live a life of normalcy, not bound by the constraints by the very part of the body meant to take you places. We felt a sense of completion and peace as we boarded the plane last Monday night. We could leave Vietnam free of unfinished business.