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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Our Gang in Da Nang

I know that Zach’s enjoyed being adventurous with his food, but I like to keep my meals simpler. On Sunday night, when we arrived in Da Nang, I ate the best meal I’ve had since we landed in Vietnam. We sat down at a resturant right on the beach. Rose immediately went to the back to go pick out our fish, as it swam around in tanks. Soon after, we were brought a pot of broth which was set over a flame. Rose plopped in various pieces of seafood, ranging from crab to tuna, and brought the pot to a boil. Vegetables were added and noodles were set on the table. After a few minutes, our fish was ready. We spooned the soupy mixture over the noodles and enjoyed every bite. The fish literally couldn’t have been more fresh. I got the simple and delicious meal that I had been craving. Not a single drop was wasted.

On Monday morning we woke up to go meet Dr. Thanh, the othopedic pediatrician at the hospital in Da Nang, who luckily spoke very good english. It was clubfoot clinic day, and there were many patients lined up outside of the office. Zach headed off in the direction of the casting room to get footage of patient’s casts being removed, while I observed Dr. Thanh go through the string of patients, checking to make sure that the range of motion in their feet had progressed. There must have been 10 children there to see him that day. It felt like a clubfoot treatment assembly line.

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After meeting so many patients and parents, it was time to recast four of the babies. Zach and I followed Dr. Thanh and his technician back to the casting room. It’s interesting to see the differences between doctors when it comes to casting the children. Dr. Morcuende in Iowa emphasized to us that it is extremely important for patients to be relaxed. If babies tense up, then it makes it more difficult to manipulate the feet, and therefore can make treatment much harder. It seems like often times, the challenge isn’t as much being able to put the foot in the right position, but getting the child relaxed enough. Dr. Thanh and Dr. Morcuende both clearly practice this. They will do anything to get the child to relax. They both put aside their inhibitions, making funny sounds and silly faces. At one point in the casting room on Monday, Dr. Thanh, his technician, and the patient’s father all start making repetitive meditative sounds. I think it put the entire room into a trance, including the tiny little baby. I also noticed that Dr. Thanh avoids bright lights and examination tables. Instead, a parent will sit in the chair and hold their child while he casts the child’s feet. One woman was even allowed to breast feed her child during the process. I’m not necessarily advocating for this method; its ultimately up to the comfort level of each doctor. However, there is something to be said about avoiding any unnecessary trauma for the child as they go through the experience.

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After casting three distressed children, we ended with a giggly little boy. I admit, I had to put my camera aside, and play peek-a-boo with him while Dr. Thanh put the gauze and plaster on. I kept telling myself “I’m helping to keep him distracted,” but I think that was more to justify hearing his contagious laugh. However, Zach got some good footage of the our little back and forth.

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After casting, we sat down to interview Dr. Thanh. He was as excited to conduct the interview in English as we were. He told us with enthusaism about how much pride he feels when he sees one of his patients walk, and how much sadness he feels thinking about children who won’t recieve treatment. It was evident that this is exactly what motivates him to continue doing his job. He also gave us some interesting stories about some of his older patients with neglected clubfoot. Overall, our interview with Dr. Thanh was a huge success, and really gave us some insight into some topics we hadn’t yet explored.

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After enjoying some delicious noodles with Dr. Thanh for lunch, we headed off to our first patient’s house. Since Da Nang is a relatively large city, we didn’t have to travel far at all. We arrived at a house in an alley way, and were greeted by the patient’s mother and grandmother. I recognized their little boy, who was fast asleep in a bouncy chair, from the clinic. He had come into Dr. Thanh’s office, equally as sleepy. Once his mother woke him up, it took him a few minutes to orient himself, but once he did, he started walking around, curiously checking out the strange people in his house.

We sat down with his mother for an interview. Zach is usually the one directing most interviews, and I usually jump in if I have a question. But this time, I was the main interviewer. Zach got up for a few minutes to film the grandmother and the boy in the alley as trains rolled by the house. During that time, the mother started to really open up to me. Although I didn’t know what she was saying at the very moment she responded, I could feel her emotion. Her voice cracked and her lips started to quiver. I felt silly because I didn’t understand what she was saying, but I also wanted to cry with her. Tung, who was translating for us, told me that the hardest part about her child’s clubfoot is living with four other families. Often times, the other children in the house grab the boy by his braces and drag him around. She doesn’t feel comfortable leaving the braces on for long, because she worries for her child’s safety. Additionally, she said that the other members of the house act supportive, but when everyone fights, they often use her child’s clubfoot against her. She told us that she feels like she has no one to go to, no one that will understand her, and just keeps all of the anger and sadness inside. Even though she is confident that her son’s feet will be fully funcitoning in the future, she worries her family will hold it against him. If he were to make any mistake or has any other issues, she hopes that her in-laws will not attribute it to her, or her son’s clubfoot.

Her story was heart wrenching. I was so glad she felt comfortable opening up to me, but I felt sad that she had to go through these hardships. At the end of an interview, I couldn’t help but give her a big hug. At the very least, this little boy is so lucky to have such a caring and compassionate mother (and grandmother).

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Our day wasn’t over quite yet, we still had another interview to go to. We arrived at a one room house, which was quite literally one room, containing a kitchen and a shower, and met our next clubfoot family. The room had only a small window for light, so right away, Zach new that we would have to find a new filming location for the interview. The parents of our clubfoot patient, a little boy about four years old, suggested that we move out to the courtyard area, because it was quiet and private. Well, I guess relative to our other interviews, the crowd we attracted was minimal, but pretty far from what any of us would consider private. But it didn’t really matter anyways. Within the first few moments of the interview, the mother started to open up, and we witnessed the first real outpour of emotions (by a parent) during our time in Vietnam. The mother immediately burst into tears as she relived the earlier months of her son’s treatment. The family had to move from Hue to Da Nang for financial reasons, which temporarily put their child’s treamtent on hold. It was apparent that this period of uncertainty still causes her anxiety and pain. However, both parents have seen major improvements since restarting treatment, and said that watching their child walk for the first time was the best day of their lives. After the interview concluded, I went in, and gave my second hug of the day to the mother.

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After another simple and satisfying dinner of chicken and rice, our gang made our way back to the hotel where Thanh, Louis, and Tung rented motorbikes. I hitched a ride on the back of Louis’ bike, while Zach sat behind Tung. We spent the night riding around Da Nang, trying to find some things we needed for our camera gear. We struck out, as most shops had closed already, but still had a great time seeing the city all lit up. One observation about Vietnam: the people love their LED lights. Every sign and street decoration is made of flashing little lights. I cannot decide if its cool or tacky, but it made for a more exciting ride Monday evening. We returned the bikes, and headed over to a billiards hall, where I watched everyone play pool and acted as lead photographer. Thanh proved to be the best, beating everyone multiple times.

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The next morning was Christmas Eve. We headed off to Hoi An, an ancient city known for its crafts. I spent the better half of the day walking around the shops with Rose and Jana, while Zach followed Louis and Thang, the driver, around. I helped Jana and Rose pick out fabric for coats they were getting tailored, and even got a custom pair of shoes for $30 for myself. Zach purchased some rope and the world’s dullest pocket knife – exciting, I know. How utilitarian.

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We got back to the hotel around 7:00 pm, just in time to rest up before our big Christmas dinner! The hotel had planned a Christmas eve party with food and music, so the group decided to go. Besides the food being sub-par and the music way too loud, it was fun. Well, I guess the party itself wasn’t amazing, but we all made the most out of it. It was our last night all together, so we went outside to take some group pictures. Somehow this turned into a “Strongest Man” competition, with all of the guys picking each other up and making funny faces. It was actually very fun, and a great way to spend our last moments together.

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Thang and Thanh left to make the two-day drive back to Hanoi Christmas morning, so we made sure to say our final goodbyes at breakfast. Louis stuck around for a few more hours before flying back home. We decided to spend the morning sightseeing, so Louis and Tung rented motorbikes again to ride around. We ended up driving to the other side of Da Nang to a giant statue on top of a mountain, overlooking the water, which actually turned out to be a pagoda. On the way up the mountain, my motorbike (driven by Louis) got a flat tire, so we had some time to explore the area. The smell of burning incense traveled troughout the mountain, contributing to the serene feel. Our tire was fixed shortly, and we headed back to the hotel and said farewell to Louis. Our group had now shrunk from eight to five. Zach and I were very sad to see our new friends go, but have really cherished the times we’d had with them. The rest of the day was devoted to rest and relaxation, before heading out Thursday morning to Ho Chi Minh City for our next adventure.

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-Hannah

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Binh There, Done That

While the people of Vietnam value privacy and are moderately socially conservative, there’s no stopping them from crowding around when something (anything, really) is going on. Everything is based on the community – so when two white people show up with cameras and backpacks we receive quite the greeting. And that’s how our Wednesday morning kicked off.

On our way to Vinh, our next destination, we stopped at a patient’s home to say hello and to interview his young mother. We were welcomed by at least fifteen people ranging from children the village elders. As we began our interview, we respectfully asked for privacy (for the sake of the family and the personal nature of our interview), as we have throughout our trip. Tung spoke with the crowd and translated their response, “They say that they would like to do that, but they are too curious and cannot leave.” Well, at least they were honest.

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We began anyway, speaking to the mother about her child’s clubfoot experience and even ranging into topics of malnourishment and nutritional deficiency – an ailment from which her child suffers. She spoke to us about the large cost in transportation to and from the clinics, and she spoke at length about the economic strain on the family. It’s tough to know if her answers about community support (mostly glowing praise) were genuine or simply influenced by the fact that the whole community was gathered in her front yard, watching intently.

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We took photos with practically everyone in the village (and Jana found herself being hoisted into the air by a local woman – no context necessary), including an eager old man who wouldn’t take no for an answer. His face was weathered and he wore a blazer with a colorful beanie (leading Hannah to privately nickname him ‘Dopey’ from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves). He reeked of booze and I think he shook my hand at least nine times, practically begging us to snap even more photos of him. He hounded us up until the moment we stepped back onto the bus.

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Before we could grab our lunch of buffalo and squid, we made a quick stop at a community clinic, where we turned off the cameras and enjoyed a private interview with a clinician who has delivered nearly three children a week for the last year. Behind where we sat was a chart with stickers covering a grid. Each sticker represented a delivery within the community – and the community has been busy! We were grateful to explore the small facility and see a clinic that acts as a bridge between rural patients and larger district hospitals.

Next up was an interview that we won’t forget. We spoke to a defiant father and his adorably energetic son. The father, a gruff man with a crackly voice and a deadly raw stare, talked to me about the most painful moment he experienced as the father of a son with clubfoot. “The most difficult moment for me,” he said, “was sitting up late at night and watching my son try and stand up. But he couldn’t stand up. He tried so hard, but his legs were too weak. He just fell over and cried. And I cried too. It was the saddest moment of my life.”

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As the interview had gone from interesting to extremely valuable and personal, I continued my conversation with the father long into the afternoon. Meanwhile, Hannah found (yet again) that children are drawn to video cameras like ants to a picnic. After a few minutes into the interview (which had originally included the four-year-old son), Hannah realized the boy just wasn’t into it. Thinking quickly, she used our expensive camera gear as literal bait and lured the boy and his neighborhood buddy into filming a series of short videos around the house while I spoke with dad. The videos, which share a similar series of events (giggling, silliness, and two boys racing back to the camera for instant review and more giggling), are adorable and will definitely have to make their way online at some point. If you need proof that two little boys, given the introduction of a video camera, will begin slapping each other for fun – Hannah has plenty of evidence.

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Dinner, as always, was unique and flavorful. Eel soup in Vinh was enjoyed as Hannah probed Tung and Louis about which animals the Vietnamese people won’t eat. Spoiler alert: there aren’t many. At this point, we’ve confirmed that elephant and cockroach are not part of the Vietnamese culinary spectrum. But spider, cat, horse, and even bee – well, everyone has different tastes. And the Vietnamese people can’t be accused of discriminating between speceise of potential meat.

Bright and early Thursday morning was fairly hectic. We met up with Dr. Binh, a Ponseti physician operating in Vinh Children’s Hospital. We visited on clinic day, when a large number of clubfoot patients come in for their weekly or bi-weekly checkups. We found ourselves surrounded: we stood in a small room with parents, grandparents, and seven babies – all with clubfoot and in various stages of Ponseti treatment. Some were in casts, others were in boots and bars, and some had yet to begin any stage of correction. It was truly a full house! We spoke with mothers, watched Dr. Binh perform a casting on a little boy only 40 days old, and we sat down and interviewed the doctor.

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new baby feet

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After a great interview with Dr. Binh (for which we pushed the limits of scene-setting, taking a good while to frame the shot just so), in which we talked about global awareness and the importance of connecting parents to larger clubfoot communities, we lunched and headed out to our next patient. Dr. Binh accompanied us out to a nice little home on the outskirts of the city. Again battling with random loudspeakers (this time broadcasting a community meeting), we waited until the coast was clear to sit down with a set of parents who gave us great answers but, admittedly, became frustrated with me as I explored hypothetical questions in an attempt to bring out deeper answers. We took a moment to cool the tension and we had a productive conversation. While this was happening, Hannah noticed a small crowd forming behind us. Ordinarily, this is not unusual. But after Dr. Binh left my side and made his way to the gathering, I had to know what was going on!

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Word had gotten around that Dr. Binh was visiting a clubfoot patient in the village. Now, at the front steps of our main interview of the afternoon, was another one of Dr. Binh’s patients. As I continued to wade carefully through my conversation with the somewhat testy father, Hannah and Dr. Binh filmed and examined a pair of siblings, also his patients and both born clubfoot, just a few yards away. It was incredibly surreal and we headed back to our hotel for an early night in. We passed out the minute we hit the room and slept in the next morning.

Brother and Sister Clubfoot

Brother and Sister Clubfoot 2

Friday was a much-needed free day. After working to organize our mountain of new data, Hannah headed to play with Thanh, Louis, and Tung through a few rounds of tennis. I took the time to read and hang out with our faithful driver, Thang, as we put back a few sandwiches and shot the breeze. Dinner was by the beach, where we entertained ourselves by making light whisps with long camera exposures. We ate whole squid (guts and all) and oysters cooked over an open fire. It was superb.

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Saturday was consumed by a whopping eight hours of driving. Most of the smog and fog being absent, we all breathed easier on the drive and it was definitely much more enjoyable than some some of our longer, bumpier drives. Having reached Hue, we dined on pigs’ foot soup (complete with gelatinous cubes – much like tofu – of coagulated pigs’ blood). I wasn’t particularly fond of the blood cubes (mostly for lack of discernable taste) and the feet didn’t have quite enough meat for me. But the soup was great and we ate heartily after our day of travel.

I should preface the next section by saying that I don’t always wear makeup… but when I do, I look pretty damn good.

Why did Hannah, Jana, Thanh and I end up in full royal costume, complete with makeup and silk robes? Well, after spending Sunday morning touring an ancient fortress in Hue, we took the plunge and ended up dressed as Emperors and Queens. We took a bunch of silly photos and Thanh made sure we got more than enough shots of the scene.  We cooled down on the bus and headed off to Da Nang.

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We cooled down on the bus and headed off to Da Nang.

-Zach

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Tikes in Thanh Hóa

When we got back to Hanoi, everyone in our little envoy needed to catch up on some work we had all put off during our exciting adventures in Sơn La. So, on Saturday, we went in our own directions, accomplishing some of the more mundane tasks on our list. Zach and I spent a good portion of the day backing up our data, sorting through videos and pictures, and doing some much-needed laundry. We were able to get out of the hotel for dinner, where Zach, Jana, and I randomly chose our meals from the Vietnamese menu by simply picking interesting-sounding names. I ended up with a chicken dish, Jana ended up with noodles, and Zach’s dish turned out to be stir fried ox penis. He said it was tasty, if not a bit chewy, and I was horrified. That’s all I can really say about that. After dinner, Zach, Jana, and I all opted for a quick foot massage. Zach’s feet were recovering from all of the hiking we had been doing, so Jana and I decided to join in on the experience. The massage itself was not very relaxing – crossing over into painful at times. I don’t think Zach felt like the massage did his feet any good.

On Sunday morning the group met us at our hotel. We had one addition to our group: Louis, Rose’s 26-year-old son. We could tell that he takes after his mom with his big personality, although he is noticeably taller than his mother.

Rose had decided that we should spend the day sightseeing on our way to Thanh Hóa, the next province we were going to investigate. It was nice to spend the day bonding with the other members of our group without the stress of filming and interviewing.

Our first stop was Ninh Bình, an ancient capital of Vietnam. People still live in this town, but it is filled with tons of archaic gardens and pagodas. We walked around the town for an hour or so, walking into the pagodas, which were intricately designed with gold statues of Buddha and other deities. Offerings of choco-pies and cans of Coca Cola indicated that the pagodas were still actively used by many Vietnamese. Tung told us that the offerings are used to feed the monks and the local poor. I hope they all like junk food!

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After touring through Ninh Bình, we stopped for lunch where Zach got to further explore his adventurous palate. We sat down for a meal of goat, a meat Zach has long enjoyed. But what he wasn’t expecting was the dish that our Vietnamese counterparts had ordered for him: coagulated goats blood. Rose handed him a small bowl of the red Jello-like substance and said, “This is for you!” I watched his face as he took a bite. It seemed that, finally, Zach’s culinary limits had been pushed. I think that the combination of the blood jelly with diced pieces of goat liver and intestine was just too much. However, what he hadn’t realized is that Rose had ordered the whole bowl for him. He struggled to finish the bowl, bite-by-bite, and called it quits once he’d eaten a little over half. I was pretty impressed by his attempt.

After lunch we stopped at Trang An, where all of us (minus Rose and our van driver) piled onto row boats and were paddled by local women around tall mountains and through a series of caves. The landscape here in Vietnam is unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. There’s no gradual transition from flat farmland to rolling hills or mountains like we have in the States. Steep, rocky, mountains simply jut out of flat land and water.

The boat ride lasted for about three hours. We drifted through clear water sprinkled with pink lotus flowers, passing even more pagodas. Before entering a few caves, we went inside the pagodas to pay respect to important Vietnamese notables and some Buddhist figures. The whole experience was very tranquil and calming. When the row-boat returned to the dock, we said goodbye to our dedicated guide, who only does two tours per month (due to the high number of guides vying for tourism jobs) and makes about $5 per tour. We made sure to tip her well.

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Thanh, Jana, and Louis on their row boat.

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We got back into the car and drove to Thanh Hóa. The next morning, after enjoying an all you can eat breakfast, where Zach was thrilled to find pork ribs, steamed buns, and a variety of rice based dishes (I chose a simpler breakfast of tangerines and sticky rice), all eight of us piled back into the van to meet our first clubfoot patient of the day.

We drove to a kindergarten where we met the grandmother of a three-year-old boy with clubfoot. It was nap time at the school so, unfortunately, we didn’t get to play with all of the children. The upside, though, was that we were able to get a quiet interview with the grandmother. She really opened up to us, explaining that she was raising her grandson because his parents had to find jobs in larger cities – quite far away – to pay for the cost of transportation for his clubfoot treatment. Because of their work away, the little boy only gets to see his mother once a month – and his father even less. Zach and I were awed by the sacrifices these parents were making just so their child could live a more full and active life.

In the afternoon we drove to our second clubfoot patient, an eighteen-month-old boy who was also being raised by his two grandmothers. We sat down with the family and listened to them tell the story of their grandchild’s birth. All of his relatives crowded around him, coddling him, not withholding any expression of their love for him.

During the interview with the grandmothers, we learned that this boy’s parents also had to leave to find work in order to have enough money to pay for transportation. The little boy had suffered from a variety of different health problems since birth, causing him to spend a lot of time in the hospital. Fortunately, the healthcare itself was free, but the cost of transportation was further exacerbated by the number of health issues he faces. The grandmothers said that if not for the clubfoot, the financial burden on the family for the child’s other health problems would be much more manageable.

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There was an unrelentless drizzle all day long. We had accumulated a couple of more people in our van over the course of the day. I think a couple were from the local clinic. We started driving on the unpaved road out of the village, and then we came to a sudden stop. Our wheels kept spinning, but we didn’t move an inch. We were stuck in the mud. Zach and the rest of the males jumped out to push our fifteen-seater van. I stayed off to the side, catching it all on camera, including the exact moment when Zach’s feet lost traction and he flew face-first into a muddy puddle. After about ten minutes of pushing and being a source of entertainment for our local onlookers, we were finally able to make it to more solid ground.

The next morning we drove to the Thanh Hóa Children’s hospital where we met the local orthopedic pediatrician. He’s the Ponseti practitioner, and (as he reported to us) has had some of the greatest success in treating clubfoot out of any other province in Vietnam. He led us into the casting room where we met a one-month-old baby girl who was getting her second cast. Her mother unwrapped her from the bundle of blankets and the original casts were immediately removed. We could already see the progress she had made. Just after her first casting, her tiny feet, barely as long as the technician’s fingers, were already very straight. We filmed as her feet were quickly covered again with layers of gauze and plaster.

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Rose told us that the family lived on a boat and asked us where we wanted to interview them. Of course we told her “on the boat.” After interviewing the doctor about clubfoot in Thanh Hóa, we got back into the van and brought the family to the river on which they lived. We were met by a small makeshift ferry which took us to the family’s modest house boat. On the inside of the family’s boat there was a sleeping space and a sitting area. I say ‘sitting’ because the ceilings were about 4 feet from the floor, so not even the tiny parents could fully stand up. As we started to set up our equipment, our source of light coming from the window started to disappear. Considering that it was barely noon, it wasn’t because the sun was setting. We looked over to the window only to find that we’d accumulated an audience of a variety of community members ranging from little kids the elderly women, all peering through the open window. One of the older women started playing with Zach’s hair through the window. I guess she had never seen hair like his before.

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Thanh, Rose, and one of our hosts crowded into the little houseboat.

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It’s always hard having so many onlookers. We know we are disrupting many peoples’ daily routine and we don’t want to prevent anyone from exploring their own curiosity. However, we do ask some sensitive questions about community stigma, and we want the parents to feel comfortable answering those questions. Additionally, it’s quite distracting for everyone involved when they feel like they’ve been put on display. Usually, we end up telling people we need our privacy, but some people cannot resist the urge to stay and watch.

When our interview was over, another boat took us back to shore. There was a little girl on deck with whom Jana and I had fallen in love. She was so trusting, sitting in our laps, playing with us, and attacking us with hugs. When kids want to play with us, it gives us a quick break from our otherwise crazy day.

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Little did we know that, after lunch, Zach was going to get his chance for a little baby therapy. He’s usually setting up equipment or interviewing parents while I get a chance to get to play with the children. But since I know Zach pretty well, I knew that he needed his baby time. When we pulled over to pick up a clubfoot mother and her nine-month-old baby girl, who was being passed around the bus, I made sure Zach got his chance.  Immediately, the little girl laid her head on his chest and fell asleep for the rest of the bus ride. I saw Zach melt. Literally melt. His whole body sunk into the seat trying to make sure his new little buddy didn’t wake up with all of pot holes and bumps in the road. She slept with her tiny hand holding his large finger, squeezing it in her sleep every time the van bounced up and down along the road.

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Zach and Sleeping Baby

My heart similarly melted when we arrived at our destination about 45 minutes later. We came to a house with two twin girls, about the same age as Zach’s napping buddy, both with clubfoot. When we came into the house, both babies were sleeping in hammocks in their shoe braces. The family woke them up, and all three babies put on new, larger braces that we had delivered to them. It was officially a clubfoot party. So many community members came to be involved in what was going on. You could really tell that they lived among love and support. Young girls and old women came and kissed all of the babies. It truly felt like a joyous occasion.

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Just in case it hasn’t been clear so far, at this point we have two different clubfoot families. One family was the mother and daughter we picked up on the way, and the other was the set of twins with both parents. We sat all three parents in a row with their children (wearing their new braces) and attempted to interview them. Not only was there a lot of baby cooing and crying, but we had to compete with a government loudspeaker that announces the news every evening. Furthermore, we were running out of light, this time because the sun was actually setting. But Zach and I pushed on. Zach was ingenuitive and had the idea of shining a motorbike light onto the family as a source of more light, and we kindly asked the whoever was on the other end of the loudspeaker to please postpone his loud speaking.

It was a great interview. The two families had met because their children started treatment at the same time, so they had all of the same appointments, and carpooled to the hospital to save money. We could tell that having each other to share the treatment journey really allowed each family to sustain the emotional support that continuous treatment requires – even when it’s difficult. They seemed a little more hopeful about their childrens’ futures and also seemed more articulate: they were used to sharing their concerns with each other. We finished up our interview as fast, but as thoroughly as we could. And just like that, all the lights went out and it was completely dark. The power had been cut just in the nick of time.

-Hannah

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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.

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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.

-Zach
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Welcome to Vietnam

We headed out from Auckland on Sunday morning for a long flight to Hong Kong. Most people probably think that overnight flights are bad enough, but whats even worse is sitting for 11 hours on a flight in the middle of the day, unable to escape into sleep for any long period of time. This basically sums up our Hong Kong flight. I was awake for all but 15 minutes. I don’t know what I would have done if not for the personal movie screen in front of my seat.

When we arrived in the Hong Kong airport, I was very hungry. Zach and I sat down for the most delicious Chinese food I think I have ever had. I couldn’t believe that what we were eating was still airport food. We then rushed off to find our gate, and ended up getting lost. Fortunately, our flight to Hanoi was delayed. Otherwise we would have definitely missed our flight.

On the flight to Hanoi I realized how much I was going to love Vietnam. I sat next to this tiny little guy, who was actually probably about my age or slightly older. He didn’t speak any English, and clearly my Vietnamese is sub-par, but somehow we ended up having a conversation for almost the entire plane ride. By the end of the flight we were showing each other pictures of our families, shared headphones when he wanted to show me Vietnamese music videos on his phone, and even took a few selfies. I had made my first friend before even landing in Vietnam. Things were starting out well.

We landed in Hanoi and proceeded through customs, which turned out to be much easier than we expected. I guess the work that our coordinating organization, The Prosthetics Outreach Foundation (POF), had put in getting us our visas in advance had paid off. We retrieved our baggage and headed out to the airport lobby where we were met by Thanh (pronounced Tine), an employee at POF and Viet, the POF driver. After loading our bags into the car, Thanh and Viet drove us to get SIM cards for our phones and to our hotel. Zach and I were so thankful that they met us at the airport and had arranged our accommodations. We headed to bed early to catch up on some much needed rest.

In the morning we decided to head out and explore Hanoi. Zach and I walked for at least two hours, weaving through markets, trying to just get a feel for the city and for the culture. Unintentionally, we ended up on the street with all of the vendors selling dog, which, lets just say, wasn’t a pet store and was more geared toward culinary ventures.

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We ended up getting lost after I was insistent that I could find our way back to our hotel. However, I was wrong. Fortunately, we had the business card for our hotel which had a tiny map on the back. We went from shop to shop pointing at the spot on the map where our hotel was, and having people guide us in the general right direction. It was actually pretty fun, and was also reassuring to see how eager people were to help us get back on track. It definitely made us feel welcome and safe.

When we finally got back to our hotel, we were greeted by a few women who wanted to sell us pineapples. Zach and I attempted to decline, but then one woman jumped forward, put her straw hat on me, and gave me her yoke-like device for carrying fruit. When she said, “take picture!” Zach proceeded to take snap some shots of me dressed as a Vietnamese street vendor with other vendors joining in for the fun. In the end, we bought the pineapple.

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Thanh and Viet picked us up soon after to go see the POF office and meet the legendary Rose. Rose coordinates the clubfoot program in Vietnam and is the one person who has been absolutely invaluable in getting us here. Immediately it was apparent that Rose is a force to be reckoned with. She is a stick of dynamite. There is almost no way that Rose is above 5 feet tall, but by the end of the meeting, lets just say that Zach and I were just glad that she was in our corner. Our meeting with her went incredibly well, and it was very clear that she not only wants to make sure we get to film everything we need, but that we also have a good time in Vietnam. We really are so glad to have a person like her on our team and so grateful for all that she has done.

In the late afternoon and evening, Zach and I decided to try out some real Vietnamese dishes. For lunch we ate noodle dishes and for dinner we ate pho at a place Rose recommended. For those of you less versed in Vietnamese cuisine, pho is a brothy soup with fresh spices and usually a meat. You also add other ingredients to your taste, like hot peppers and lime. While slurping up some noodles from his soup, Zach accidentally inhaled a pot pepper. He was in a good amount of pain until he could grab a soda from the fridge.

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On our way back from dinner Zach and I ended up stopping to take some photos of the traffic. Traffic in Hanoi is pretty miraculous. We watched thousands of motor bikes go by. The traffic is certainly intense, but there is also something peaceful about it. The motor bikes have a natural ebb and flow, and despite it all looking disorganized at first glance, the traffic is pretty coordinated.

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Overall, we had such a fantastic first day in Vietnam. It really couldn’t have been any better. Both of us can already tell that we are going to love it here, and I think we both already do.

-Hannah

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Goodbye New Zealand

Although it was quite rainy, our last two days in Tauranga couldn’t have been better. But this part of our journey really started a couple of months ago when Zach and I received a message from Carey, a clubfoot mom living in Mt. Maunganui, in the Tauranga area. Between then and now, we’ve exchanged countless messages. She helped us get most of our interviews with mothers in New Zealand and even set up a time to interview her son’s doctor. But her help didn’t stop there. She graciously invited us into her home for our final days. Carey and her entire family epitomize Kiwi hospitality.

We drove up to Carey’s house in the rain, but even so, the flower garden in the front yard caught my attention. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had a somewhat unusual fascination with hydrangeas, but especially, periwinkle hydrangeas. Carey’s house was completely surrounded by periwinkle hydrangeas. I felt like I had hit the jackpot, and truly, we already had.

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Carey’s 20 month old son is named Harley. Harley is a feisty little guy with a sense of humor. We quickly learned that his vice is Peppa Pig, a cartoon show for little kids that we don’t have in the US. All of Harley’s mischievousness subsided when Peppa Pig came on the computer screen. Zach and Harley snuggled up on the couch our first evening, enjoying a variety of YouTube clips of Peppa Pig. Harley would turn to Zach every few minutes and babble, “blabla blabla Peppa Pig?” and Zach would respond, “yes! Peppa Pig.” This conversation probably happened 20 times within the course of a half hour.

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After enjoying a wonderful burger dinner with Carey and her family, and getting a great night’s sleep, we woke up and drove to the hospital to meet Dr. Dawson Muir, Harley’s doctor. We both really enjoyed our interview with Dr. Muir. He made some very poignant comments on the importance of treatment in the developing world and gave us more insight into Maori culture. He wrapped up our session by telling us an unbelievable story about an adult patient of his who requested his clubfoot be amputated because it was so painful. Dr. Muir agreed to the amputation, and when the man requested his amputated foot, Dr. Muir gave it to him. I should just stop there, because for most people, that’s horrifying enough. (Dr. Muir did explain that it’s not uncommon for people in New Zealand, especially Maori, to request their own human by-products from a medical procedure because they will bury it to connect them to the land.) After adding some spices and a touch of culinary finesse, he cooked it up and his pigs ate well that night.

When we got back to the Carey’s house, Harley was in the mood to play in the garden. Zach and I grabbed our cameras and started snapping. Harley created a new game, wherein he would crawl between my legs every time I ran after him. He also went around smelling the flowers. I think that Zach and I really got some great pictures of Harley playing around.

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In the afternoon Carey took us to walk around Mt. Maunganui. The sun was finally coming out, and we were able to get great views of the Bay of Plenty. It was also nice to have a day that was active after we’d spent so many driving in the car. After our walk, we went to get some gelato. I think Harley enjoyed his gelato the most out of all of us. It ended up everywhere.

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In the evening, Zach interviewed Carey and her husband Greg on their experience with clubfoot. I stayed with Harley and tried to keep him preoccupied, but every time he heard Carey or Greg’s voice in the other room, he would run, cry, and scream to go towards them. I quickly realized that I needed Peppa Pig to come to the rescue. Harley and I spent the rest of the interview watching the show, to the point that the battery died on the laptop. I was so thankful for Peppa Pig.

Carey, Harley, Greg, and Carey’s parents made our trip in New Zealand. Not only were they incredibly welcoming and hospitable, but without Carey’s enthusiasm and encouragement, we probably wouldn’t have made nearly as many connections as we did. It is really the people like Carey, and all of the mothers and fathers we’ve met with so far that have inspired this project. We will be forever grateful for all of the support and motivation we receive on a daily basis from the people we connect with from all over the world. So to everyone out there who is reading this last post on New Zealand, thank you for everything.

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Trekking Across Tauranga

I can’t say the drive from Palmerston North to Tauranga was all that easy – it was a solid five hour haul – but our stop at Lake Taupo made the whole trip much more manageable. Truthfully, the time flew by. This brings us to Tauranga, a port city nestled along the Bay of Plenty on the northwest of the island.

We arrived in Tauranga on Tuesday (December 3rd) and before we even had a chance to get settled, something momentous happened: Hannah found a gluten-free store. An entire store. Gluten. Free. I knew better than to disobey her roar of “PULL OVER!” and we ended up walking out with gluten-free bread (which, I’ll admit, was pretty good) and a gluten-free ice cream sandwich, along with bags of cookies. The day was starting off well.

We checked into our guesthouse, which was a mix between a hostel and a B&B. Our first adventure commenced as soon as our bags were unpacked and we set out to find dinner… on foot. We wound up walking in the wrong direction for such a long time that we  retraced our steps, making it back to the guesthouse and driving to The Strand, a neat commercial strip lining the Bay. We enjoyed a meal of dim sum in a restaurant that, when we asked for a receipt, simply gave us a sheet of blank paper with the cost of our meal and the word ‘food’ written on it.

The next day was a whirlwind and left us tired and incredibly touched by the folks with whom we met. We started in Whakamarama, just a few minutes out of the city. We met with Lana and her son, Dustin, who decided that I was a human trampoline. Using the coffee table as a launch pad, he spent the morning hurtling into my arms and testing to see if I could keep up when he would turn and leap in another direction. Before noon, though, he was tuckered out and fell asleep on my shoulder as Hannah and I interviewed his mother.

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Lana is incredibly attentive and she’s definitely got her hands full with Dustin, who never hesitates to climb on anything taller than himself. She’s incredibly globally conscious: Hannah and I were struck by her motivation to look beyond her son’s treatment and inspect the condition and treatment of clubfoot internationally. Lana spends a lot of her efforts working online in the clubfoot community to help mothers connect via social media. There’s no question that she’s added a great deal to the clubfoot conversation and soothed parents as they take to the Internet to learn more about the condition their infant child might or does have. Talking to Lana was a nice moment as we explored clubfoot treatment on a deeper level and connected to someone who has taken her son’s experience and used it as a jumping off point for her own meaningful contribution to the world.

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After a quick lunch break, we were off to Papamoa, another area along the Bay just a few minutes from central Tauranga. We met up with Rachel, mother of Xavier and Anastasia, aged 6 and 9, respectively. Because of their fascination with our camera gear and their general sense of giddiness and energy, we decided to interview the kids together. They were superbly funny and genuine, a combination that made for excellent footage. We were really pleased with how it played out, even the funny moments when the kids would whisper in each other’s ears, apparently unaware that they were still clipped in to our microphones.

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As Hannah recorded some hilarious footage of the pair dancing, singing, and tumbling around on a bean bag, I spoke with Rachel about her clubfoot journey. Xavier was born with unilateral clubfoot and has a bone issue in his other foot. He was treated surgically, much like myself, and exhibits some of the same sensitivity to impact that I experience. It was tough seeing him so active, knowing that he may experience some pain later in his life due to the surgical nature of his treatment, but I am confident that Rachel will make sure he continues to receive quality care and that his rambunctious spirit will push him forward.

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We ended our time in Papamoa only after a game of tag and a contest between the kids on who could knock me to the ground first. Since they teamed up against me, I guess it was a tie.

– Zach

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Palmerston, Ponseti, and Pizza

Originally, we were planning on travelling around New Zealand as much as possible and collecting stories from families and doctors about their experiences with clubfoot. However, until just a few days before we left, our contacts were concentrated in in the northernmost part of the North Island. When we received a message from Tisha, who lives about six hours south of Auckland, we were elated. We now had a reason to see more of the country, as well as collect a wider variety of experiences.

The long drive from Matamata was well worth it. New Zealand’s winding roads through the world’s greenest hills quickly changed into views of a giant snow-capped mountain, transforming into cliffs and canyons, and finally into flat farm fields. It was hard to believe that so many different environments exist across one tiny country, let alone just the North Island. It was hard passing up the opportunity to stop at every turn to pull out our cameras and take pictures of the breath-taking views.

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When we arrived in Palmerston North, Tisha’s home town, we settled into our Motel and called her almost immediately. She was so kind and hospitable; she came almost immediately to show us around the town and join us for dinner.

Over dinner we learned about Riley, Tisha’s son, who was born with clubfoot. It was very evident from the stories she told that she was incredibly passionate about getting him the best care. She was very concerned that the treatment he was receiving wasn’t progressing as it should. We reassured her, based on what we’d seen so far in New Zealand, that her son would be fine.

The next morning we drove to Tisha’s house, excited to meet Riley and hear more about Tisha’s clubfoot journey as a mother. Riley and Tisha welcomed us with big smiles in the front yard. I noticed the posititioning of Riley’s feet, turned somewhat inwards, causing him to walk on the outer edges. It was clear that his feet had responded partially to treatment, but compared to other children his age that we had seen, it was apparent that Tisha wasn’t just being a worried parent. Her concerns seemed valid.

What our expierence with Tisha and Riley taught us about New Zealand is that, although healthcare is free, the implementation of the Ponseti Method has the some of the same challenges here as it does in the US. After talking with Tisha about Riley’s treatment, it was apparent that Riley’s specialist may have created his own blend of the Ponseti Method. His method of casting and prescribed timing in the boots and bars was different than most cases we’ve seen. Furthermore, the doctor has Riley wearing custom-made orthotic shoes that look like “combat boots,” as Tisha says, until he is about 12 years old. Tisha knows that this isn’t the norm, but in a way, her hands are tied. Even though she lives in a well-populated town, she lives very far from Auckland and some of the more populated areas in the North, so getting other opinions or connecting with other mothers can be a challenge.

But there is a silver lining to all of this. At just under 3 years old, Riley is still young and hasn’t had to undergo any overly invasive surgeries that go beyond the scope of the Ponseti Method. He still has a lot of growing to do. Relapse, although unfortunate, isn’t uncommon among clubfoot patients. Every foot is different and responds differently to treatment. Riley’s case exemplifies this challenge. Additionally, Riley is a tough little boy, whose perserverence and determination is extremely obvious to any observer. His own strength will guide his success.

This was a particularly hard blog post to write. Tisha is a wonderful mom, incredibly in-touch with Riley’s well being, and is taking only the best steps to ensure that he has the most successful future. Zach and I don’t doubt for a second that Tisha will make sure Riley’s feet will be more than fine as his future unfolds. His feet, as is, aren’t overly severe and are showing signs of progress. Riley is so lucky – he couldn’t have a better mother. We departed Palmerston North feeling optimistic.

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The next stop was Lake Taupo, where we spent the night. Lake Taupo was created by a massive volcanic eruption, which was so large, that ashes were found in ice cores all the way in Greenland. Standing on the edge of the lake, you feel like you on the edge of the Earth. The way the light reflects on the water makes the entire landscape feel surreal. Zach and I didn’t hesitate to pull the car over and take some photos.

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The second most exciting thing about Lake Taupo had nothing to do with the view. It was the pizza. Zach and I were looking at a list of restaurants at the hotel we were staying at to figure out where to eat dinner, when we stumbled upon a menu for Hell’s Pizza. I was surprised to find that they offered gluten free crusts! For all of my family and friends reading this post, you can imagine how excited I was. The pizza from Hell was delicious. I went to sleep a happy person.

-Hannah

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Hobbits and Hillsides

Despite our time spent reflecting on home and tragic events that have tested us in so many ways, we’ve still been quite busy here in New Zealand.

First, there was Hobbiton (or Matamata), a small town that happily hosts one of the most memorable movie sets from the Lord of the Rings cinematic trilogy and now, more recently, the three movies that make up The Hobbit. The movie set is gorgeous: lush foliage, bright sun, and sparkling water. Every detail is exact – there’s nothing out of place. With over forty ‘hobbit holes,’ large circular doorways in which Tolkein’s legendary ‘halflings’ famously lived, the estate is sprawling and the hills are distinctly dotted with chimneys and windows built into the meadow. We were able to tour the set, take more photos than I might usually endure, and let my nerd-spirit soar a bit. Hannah is a very patient partner.

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After a drink of cider at the Green Dragon pub, replicated to scale, we headed off for our stay on a small sheep farm. Small, of course, being relative: the land runs across sixteen acres and has thirteen different animal enclosures.

Diane, our host, served up a delicious dinner of lamb shoulder and the sun set beautifully over the rolling pasture behind the house. The garden glowed in shades of pink and gold.

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Around this time, I received a very painful phone call. Our night was a mixture of shock and distress. We both went to bed emotionally exhausted.

We woke up on Sunday morning (December 1st) and cleared our heads a bit by letting off some steam on the farm. We were bullied into a corner by a few courageous cows and Hannah made some wooly friends in the sheep pen, particularly one named Rosie – she followed Hannah everywhere. We packed our bags and headed out to Palmerston North. It would be a long drive, but we needed some time to think and be alone with each other.

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-Zach

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