An article I wrote for the PVNF newsletter:
The plane has lifted off, gears retracted; I write this with Vietnam's geography hours behind me but its impact fresh in my mind. It's difficult to get a true sense of Vietnam when your perspective is forced by hotel walls, the glare off a bus window, or the endless waves of desperate patients. Despite the number of clinics we endured, I never really understood until Saigon.nv
Our accommodations in Bến Tre were wonderful by any standard: electronic keys opened the doors to nicely furnished rooms where we'd sleep comfortably on our beds or be entertained by shows on an LCD TV. We'd occasionally share our day over drinks in a bar on the fourth floor, which provided relief from the confines of our rooms. Vietnam seems to be experiencing some of the luxuries we've come to expect as the standard in America. This is not the Vietnam I'd heard stories about.
Most days started with a bus ride that made us more tired than we already were. Some chose to continue their sleep in spite of the frequent honks and NASCAR-style driving. Others settled into a trance with eyes that seemed to look out at nothing and everything at the same time; I fell into this group. I'm sure we all noticed the long stretches of dense jungle that occasionally gave way to a hut or shack, the people swinging in cots seemingly with little worry of the day’s events, for good or for bad, or the piles of bricks that lined the roads of a country that was trying to decide whether it was in a state of growth or decay. Was the entire country like this? This Vietnam seemed familiar to me.
Our shared mission of providing healthcare to those in need realized the physical and emotional challenges we were warned of. As the heat reached its peak hundreds poured into the clinics seeking some level of comfort, often waiting hours just to receive vitamins. Our collective stories painted what seemed like an endless picture of extreme poverty and desperation: tears run down a child's cheek as he clutches onto his stuffed animal, a consolation prize for having four teeth pulled; doctors stuff a handful of gauze into a deep and incurable bed sore of a paralyzed man; an elderly woman holds little hope for more medication once her prescription runs out. Whatever we thought we were missing in our lives at home pales in comparison. Where was the support of their government? Was our camp making a difference at all? I'd been told stories of this Vietnam all my life.
But a painting can never be appreciated when your nose is that close to the canvas. You have to step back to be able to make any sense of it. Saigon was the contrast I needed to understand where I was.
Saigon can easily be mistaken for Los Angeles if it were not for the frenzy of motorcycles and mopeds. I expected the poverty and desperation here too but was welcomed instead with a beautiful airport, clean streets, and impressive architecture. In this modern-age Vietnam I oddly felt cheated. Not that I disapprove of a flourishing Saigon but I was struck by the grossly unequal distribution of wealth. My one day in Saigon was in stark contrast to my previous two weeks in the rural provinces of Bến Tre and Kiên Giang and seeing these two sides was a bit like learning a dirty little secret. I found myself feeling anger, sadness, and confusion, all at the same time, about a country that existed to me only in stories. The contrast helped me understand that Vietnam’s government should not be its defining quality but instead should be the people we came to serve who don’t remain downtrodden but find ways to endure in spite of the oppression and neglect.
I was born and raised in the U.S. and have virtually no family in Vietnam. There was no reason for me to look anywhere else. However, I felt a strange sense of “coming home” when I first spotted Vietnam from the plane. Is home where you are or where you should be? That's a question I thought I knew the answer to before the trip but now feel an incredible sadness having left Vietnam. In the days ahead, unpausing my life will take a little effort. I’ll miss waking up at 4am. I’ll miss sitting on the bus for hours on end. I’ll miss feeling a bit lost in the early hours of clinics before finding my way. But I’ll miss doing these things with the incredible people I met on this trip most. They contributed to an unforgettable trip and I hope to sustain long friendships with them. I look forward to going back with Project Vietnam and being with them again.