IHP Health and Community: Globalization, Culture, and Care (Spring 2)

Vietnam Spring 2012 Letter Home

Written by students Francesca Aborn, Rosie Bullock, Sara Elbohy, Sarah Graybill, Kathleen Tam, Laura Ucik, Stephanie Wagner, Sheena Wood and Trustees Fellow Janelle Little

On February 26, we left Brazil, bound for Vietnam. We saw the sun rise at the airport (due to a six-hour flight delay) and listened to Caio serenade us as we sat together on the floor, singing along or sleeping. After bidding tearful goodbyes to our beloved Brazil team, we prepped ourselves for 24 hours in the air and the prospect of a free day in Doha (although we ended up catching our original flight).

After an impressive amount of travel, we finally arrived in Ha Noi. From the airplane windows, we saw people wrapped up in puffy winter jackets and feared the weather ahead. We were greeted with cool winds and grey skies, an abrupt change from the sweltering heat of the Brazilian summer. Experiencing a mixture of exhaustion and excitement, we stared out the bus windows at the emerald green rice paddies and ancient buildings. We arrived at a beautiful hotel and met our Country Coordinator, Nguyen, and the rest of the faculty team, Ha, Oanh, and Linh. They benevolently gave us the first night off, so we had a solid night’s rest in a real bed and woke up refreshed and ready to explore this new place. The first full day in Ha Noi was an exciting beginning to our explorations. We had our first encounters with Ha Noi’s chaotic traffic and delicious street food, ordering in another language (achieved with a mixture of pointing and sign language) and marveled at how inexpensive the food (and everything else) was.

That evening, we met our new homestay families for the first time. The introductions were a mixture of warmth and awkwardness, as we struggled to wrap ourselves around a new culture and way of communicating. On the ride home, there were lots of discussion about pop culture with homestay siblings, Justin Bieber renditions, and mutual excitement and curiosity from everyone. We were welcomed into our new homes with giant meals and a wealth of unfamiliar food. Everything was new to us – the style of the homes, the food, the customs, and the language.

Classes began the next morning and so did our epic journeys to get to school, weaving through hundreds of zooming motorbikes as we wrestled our way onto the crowded public bus. Armed with our laminated address tags and bus passes, we ventured forth to the Hanoi School of Public Health, our academic home during our program in Ha Noi.

Many of us were curious to learn about the war (called the “American War” in Vietnam), but felt uncomfortable as people visiting from America and were hesitant to breach the topic with our host families and lecturers. Much to our surprise, we discovered people did not blame us for the tragedies of the past. It appeared that a large amount of reconciliation had already occurred, and we were consistently greeted with outstretched hands of friendship.

One of the most impactful site visits of the entire Health and Community program was a visit to the Peace Village home for children impacted by Agent Orange. This site visit exemplified the resiliency of the Vietnamese people and their desire to heal the past and to move forward. At the home, we were immersed into a classroom and greeted by enthusiastic children and young adults who drew us into their drawing and singing. We sang the Itsy Bitsy Spider; Row, Row, Row Your Boat; Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star; and Vietnam’s national anthem with them. We were moved to tears by the joy they exhibited despite their many challenges. The center also had an occupational skills training and a lot of us supported the tireless work of the center by purchasing beautiful hand-woven scarves and embroidery.

This theme of community involvement and mutual support remained present throughout our time in Vietnam, and we used it as a lens through which to view health-related topics in Vietnam. One particularly memorable day was devoted to HIV/AIDS policy. We immediately noticed there was significantly less public discourse about this topic than in Brazil. In Vietnam, similar to the United States, the conversation seemed to revolve around concepts of morality. From these conversations, many students realized how important PEPFAR (a US government aid agency for HIV/AIDS specific work) was to developing countries who are basically dependent on it, raising problematic issues, as well. During these discussions, we explored both government and NGO perspectives on the country’s HIV/AIDS policy. At the end of the day, we met with three self-support groups for women and men living with HIV. Similar to Brazil, there was a strong presence of women involved in the community health groups. Despite the fact that there is a high proportion of HIV positive men, women are taking the initiative to create and sustain these groups. An interesting comparison to the US stems from how both nations’ frame of morality regarding HIV/AIDS impacts their ability to effectively deal with a serious health epidemic.

Another important aspect of Vietnam’s healthcare system is its promotion of traditional medicine. In Vietnam, the prevalence of traditional medicine intertwined with our understanding of allopathic medicine. From our wanderings around the Old Quarter and a visit to the traditional medicine street, to lectures at the Hanoi School of Public Health, the old and new constantly interfaced. Vietnam’s health policies revolve around practices of medical pluralism, blending two distinct understandings of health. As a part of every prospective doctor’s medical training, courses on traditional medicine are required. For one of our site visits, we visited the National Hospital for Traditional Medicine. We learned that traditional medicine is used as preventative medicine, supplemental care, and as a curative therapy. For example, traditional medicine is used after surgery to accelerate the healing process, but also used for dual diagnosis and treatment of various conditions.

To deepen our understanding of the provision and disparities of health services in Vietnam, we embarked on a four-day rural visit to Mai Chau. Mai Chau is located in a verdant valley surrounded by towering mountains and rice paddies. Our time there was dedicated to exploring issues in rural healthcare. We visited the District Hospital to learn more about local health and spoke with doctors and representatives from the commune, Vietnam’s most basic level of healthcare. One of the highlights of our time in Mai Chau were two intense volleyball matches between students and locals (Nguyen served as the referee), which we lost by an embarrassingly large amount. Another memorable experience was our visit to Pa Co, a Hmong village. We broke into small groups to travel throughout the village to interview people living in the community and gain insight into the health of the ethnic minority population in Vietnam. All in all, Mai Chau was an amazing rural visit and a much appreciated reprieve from the city. Tucked into this fertile valley, we bonded as a community with nightly slumber parties in a large Thai ethnic minority house where we shared communal sleeping quarters. We celebrated our last night in this community with a wonderful dinner around the bonfire, traditional dancing and songs, and roasted Choco Pies.

With barely a night to rest after the rural visit, we departed the next morning for our excursion to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Due to extreme fog, we were land-locked for the first night, but made up for it with a raucous karaoke session that our fantastic tour guide Tiger organized. The next day, we woke up early to see the fog had cleared enough for us to go out on the bay. Our day included a walk through one of the bay’s enormous caves, kayaking amongst the striking limestone formations and eating freshly caught seafood. Throughout our visit, we found ourselves simultaneously admiring the great beauty of the bay while questioning the impact of tourism on the environment and fishing communities who depend on the bay for their livelihood.

Back in Ha Noi, we were re-immersed in the hectic and exciting life of the city. Many of us were excited to reengage with our favorite activities, such as shopping in the Old Quarter and buying way too many gifts for family and friends, visiting museums, eating ice cream at Fannies, and stuffing ourselves with as many bowls of pho as possible.

The following week was spent doing research for our case study topics and exploring questions of health in Vietnam more deeply. At the conclusion of the case studies, we celebrated our impending vacation with a lovely visit from one of the student’s parents, who brought us a feast of delicious treats from Trader Joes. That evening, we scattered to various beautiful locations throughout the country, such as Hoi An, Hue and the beaches of Nha Trang and Phu Quoc. We employed every mode of transportation – from trains, planes, taxis, ferries, sleeper buses, and motorbikes. After a week-long vacation of rest, relaxation, sunshine and fun, we returned to Ha Noi refreshed and prepared to begin our next and final country, South Africa.

The last day of the program, we celebrated one final meal together with all of our host families and faculty team. Spending time with our beloved families was an opportunity to show our appreciation for all of their hospitality, care, and friendship.

Reflecting back on Vietnam, we saw it as an amazing time to live and study in a place undergoing incredible economic and political transition following Doi Moi reforms in the late 1980s. We confronted our identity as Americans living in Vietnam and instead of encountering anger and resentment, we found amazing families who gave us a feeling of home, a beautiful culture, and lots of questions to carry with us for the next phase of our journey and beyond.

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Credits: 16

Duration: Spring, 16 weeks

Program Sites:
USA, Argentina, South Africa, Vietnam

Prerequisites: None. Coursework in public health, anthropology, biology, or related field recommended. Learn More...

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