I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit to Vietnam in 2006 but may have been even less prepared for what I found on my second visit in 2012. On my first visit, I was only able to see a snapshot of the country from the far south in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city to the northern city of Hanoi. I was there to do volunteer work in a dental clinic but we were certainly not denied the opportunity to explore the people, the cities, and the culture. On my second visit, I was there for business in Ho Chi Minh city and I was amazed at the transformation only six years later – more buildings reaching to the sky, more tourists to crowd the streets and markets, and more “westernization” with smart phones and Wifi.
Back to the first visit, when I volunteered with Global Dental Relief. They conduct dental clinics in Asia, Africa, and Central America and I’ve been on four trips with them. In Vietnam, the dental clinic was located between Danang and Hoi An. We based ourselves in Hoi An, one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited – very close to beaches but with an artistic focus and just brimming with collectibles, crafts, and original art. And there were the tailors for quick custom-made clothing. Our entire group indulged, boosting the local economy as we commissioned shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, and even robes.
The conditions were rustic in American terms. It was November but there is no winter in Vietnam. It was extremely hot and humid, reminiscent of August in Miami or New Orleans. I couldn’t imagine soldiers fighting in the same conditions during the war in the 60’s and 70’s. Generators provided our power but there were drops from time to time as I assisted a pediatric dentist. Suddenly the drill would stop. We’d yell, “No power!”, tinkering would ensue outside and then the magic of the drill would start again. Masks covered our faces, goggles protected our eyes, and the sweat ran down our backs like nervous insects but we were focused on treating as many children as possible. We were only in the clinic for one week. At the end of the Thanksgiving week, our clinic had treated several hundred children. I discovered what a “cankle” was as I watched my lower legs transform with the combination of heat, humidity, the cramped position chairside and the salty diet. It didn’t matter. The outhouse Asian toilets and the extreme heat chased around the hot room by a few fans didn’t matter either. Nothing really mattered except seeing as many children as possible.
When the clinic concluded, we had the chance to put our feet up and let our fluids redistribute as our cankles disappeared. While we relaxed in chairs by the beach, too tired to even run into the waves, we watched some young Vietnamese girls enjoying the water. Cultural norms dictated a different approach to a swim in the ocean.
But soon it was time to move on to Hue, even hotter than Hoi An. And like most places in Vietnam, the streets were full of scooters and masked natives shielding themselves from the sun and pollution.
Our small group of volunteers now had time to enjoy the sights. Boarding a dragon boat, we sailed down the Perfume river to explore the Thien Mu pagoda.
A few days in Hue and then on a plane to visit Hanoi. We landed in the gray skies of the Vietnam version of winter, where temperatures in the 60’s prompted most Vietnamese to wrap themselves in winter coats. We toured the Hanoi Hilton, the famous prison where they subjected their victims to various forms of torture. Gracious mannequins depicted some of the treatments to offer the full effect.
We also took in a local cultural attraction, the Museum of Ethnology, which included some rather interesting sculptures.
My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to enjoy the country and the people. I’m sure I’ll make it back – so many countries, so much to see!
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