Reflections on 6 Weeks in My Native Country

First, I just want to say I’m so thankful for Davidson College and the Freeman Foundation to give me the opportunity to work in the city where I was born and gain a different perspective on my native country. For the past 6 weeks, I was able to step out and step back into my comfort zone. Here, in a city of ten million peoples who have the same skin complexion as mine and speak my mother-tongue, I immediately blend in. It felt less like I’m from the States but more like I’m returning to Vietnam.

However, in a place where I think I already know like the back of my hand, I’ve learned something new every day. Toward the end of my time in Vietnam, I got the chance to visit two major OB/GYN hospitals in the city, Từ Dũ (where I was born) and Hùng Vương, watch surgeries there and observed their Family Planning Departments. I observed two C-sections; one of them is a very complicated case where the mother had many uterine fibroids which resulted in profuse bleeding. I was in awe to see the surgeons being so quick on their feet to stop the bleeding with clamps and sutures. Two winters ago when I shadowed a surgeon, I decided that I would probably never become one because of the long hours of standing. However, knowing that this beautiful baby would not be delivered safely without the C-section and the mother would bleed uncontrollably without skillful surgeons, I feel so compelled to consider surgery as a part of my physician career.

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Me “dressed up” before watching surgeries

One day was really special for me as I visited children with special needs at two facilities. Some of them were completely immobile but many were able to improve their mobility, learning abilities, and language skills over time. I was visiting with my godmother, who had worked at one facility before. One boy who has slow development and was blind in both eyes did not really like his new teacher. She was trying to get him to sit down, but all he did was scratching eyes. My godmother took care of him for a long time, and when she showed up, he hugged her so tightly and even smiled. My heart melted when she sang and he danced along with his hands. In this place, the littlest gesture can mean so much. These angels touched my heart and I’d love to have the opportunity to return to spend more time with them.

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Cute animals at one of the educational facilities for children with special needs

Among the memories created, what I cherish the most is my time at Mekong Hospital. My interest for women’s reproductive health rights stemmed from the multiple medical ethics courses I took at Davidson. The discourse on abortion is charged with controversy every where, and being bi-cultural has helped me have different perspectives on this topic. Davidson’s liberal arts education also helped me become more accepting of others’ differences and aware of the inequality in numerous aspects of life. Through the conversations with women who choose to undergo abortion on their experience and contraceptive use, I still see a marked sexism in Vietnamese society and determine to continue empowering women through my work on reproductive rights. Through my education, I am capable of critically examine one issue from different angles–for example, the attitudes on abortion can be shaped by political, social, economic, and cultural forces. In addition, the sense of community that I have possessed from my time at Davidson bring me to immediately agree to help others. About a week after I’d worked at the hospital, a doctor approached me and asked if I could teach conversational English to nurses in the Neonatal Department. I gladly said yes, and I taught English for one hour and half two times a week. I made great friends, got the chance to visit newborns, and was able to integrate more into the social lives of Vietnamese.

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My “students” and I on my last day at MeKong Hospital. 

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Me with the staff of the Neonatal Department

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My first meal at the hospital’s cafeteria. My iced tea was free because I was an employee. 

My time in Vietnam has now ended, but there is still a lot I want to do for my research. I cannot wait to strengthen my research skills and refine my research question to return next year to interview women in a public hospital, which better reflects the abortion situation in Ho Chi Minh specifically and Vietnam generally.

Working at a OB/GYN Hospital: The Many Faces of Pregnancy

My internship this summer involves shadowing doctors, learning about the public health system in Ho Chi Minh, and doing research on the side. My primary workplace is Mekong OB/GYN Hospital, a private hospital that was once the OB/GYN Department of Medical University Hospital—the most prestigious medical school in Ho Chi Minh. As a premedical student, a baby lover, and a reproductive rights researcher, I truly appreciate the opportunity to spend my summer at OB/GYN hospitals/facilities.

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Mekong OB/GYN Hospital, where I spend most of my 6 weeks in Vietnam, located at 243-243A-243B Hoàng Văn Thụ, Ward 1, Tân Bình District, Hồ Chí Minh

Many obstetricians told me that their specialty is unique because it makes hospital a place that brings joy to others. I can attest to this, even only after a few weeks of shadowing. I think pregnant women are beautiful and precious in their maternity dresses and I feel so happy looking at them rubbing their round bellies while talking to doctors. I got the chance to see doctors delivering babies and it was indeed magical to see the baby’s little head emerged and hear his/her first cry. Unfortunately, joy and happiness are not the only emotions that all mothers-to-be experience. Some women have to face fear, hopelessness, sorrow, grief, and/or disbelief when they lose their babies or find out their little ones suffer from genetic or development deformities. About a week after I arrived in Vietnam, while I was shadowing Dr. Phuong in the Emergency Department, I saw something that struck me deeply. A 28 year-old woman came in, complaining about horrible cramps. Dr. Phuong gave her a pelvic exam and told her to get an ultrasound. Then we moved on to the next patient. The ER is always busy in the morning; it is not rare that higher incomes pay go straight here and skip the line in the normal exam room, even for having common symptoms of pregnancy. About twenty minutes passed by, the woman walked in the ER again. She was in tears and looked like her heart was shattered into pieces, as she gave the ultrasound report to Dr. Phuong. I glanced over the report which said “no fetal heartbeat, underdeveloped fetus at 7.5 weeks.” She dropped down on a stool when her husband rushed over, asking what was wrong. Not looking at her husband, she sobbed and grasped for breath: “There is no heartbeat…” The husband shook his head and covered his eyes. Dr. Phuong, who was still looking at the report, explained the problems, said “I’m sorry for your loss” and advised them to take the pills to stop the pregnancy.

The woman later appeared in the family planning room to finish the termination of her pregnancy. The family planning room is where the hospital handles abortions and prepares patients for small procedures such as biopsies and vaginoplasty. It was a stark contrast between women sobbing for the tragedy of losing their babies versus women acting strong for choosing abortion, and many people, including healthcare providers, are more empathetic toward the former. However, as I have more conversations with women who choose abortion, I become more empathized with what they have to go through to make the difficult choice that will permanently bring heartache. So far, I have slowly overcome the fear and awkwardness of talking to women about their abortion experience. In addition, I am getting more comfortable to talk to women who are older, married, and have two children. Sometimes I also got to advise patients on how to take the Mifepristone and Misoprostol pills. These past three weeks have been really interesting; I’m learning a lot about myself and I’m excited to show up to the hospital every day, shadowing doctors, learning more about OB/GYN in general, and talking to women about their abortion stories.

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Me wearing my “uniform” and name tag as a research student and standing in front of the family planning room. 

Hello Vietnam

First impression and feelings as I arrived on July 1st, 2016.

After a day flying across the Pacific Ocean and having about five airplane meals, I finally stepped my foot on Tan Son Nhat Airport. It was 11PM when I arrived, and it took me about half an hour to get through the custom and get my luggage. Perhaps the fact that I got a Vietnam passport and an acquaintance working at the airport made the custom process go through smoothly. It was about 11:30PM when I eagerly walked out of the front gate. To my greatest surprise, I saw hundreds of people packed tightly outside, all waiting for their friends and families. A little separate from the crowd were four of my aunts and uncles waiting for me. I was so happy seeing them after five years long. Beside my parents and my sister’s family, they are my closest relatives. I started giving them hugs and soon remembered people in Vietnam don’t do that, even though I know they all appreciated my affection as much as I their presence. After asking me if I was tired and if the traveling was alright, everyone quickly hopped on an empty Mai Linh(1) taxi because it was rather late and also to avoid the heated and crowded atmosphere. I regretted to not capturing this memory with photos, though.

If the sky was not dark, you would not realize that it was almost 12AM in Saigon. The streets were busy and lit up with thousands of motorbikes’ lights. I was excited to see motorbikes everywhere for the first time in years. Of course I have watched scenes and impression of Saigon’s traffic on YouTube in moments where I miss this place, but nothing could describe my feelings when I see motorbikes and mopeds millimeters apart. A mixture of anxiety, thrill, annoyance, confusion, and familiarity twirled together inside me. It did not bring me to tears, though, because I was also busy looking at my aunts’ and uncles’ faces and listening to their voices and feeling that I was truly home somehow, despite my parents, my sister, and my adorable niece and nephew were now half a world apart from me.

Waiting at my youngest aunt’s house was the first item that began the series of delicious food and drinks: bánh mì, one of the celebrities in Vietnamese cuisine that is world-famous. For those who have not got the chance to try it, bánh mì is a sandwich comprised of a variety of ingredients, including slices of Vietnamese pork sausage, strips of pickled carrot and white radish, cilantro, cucumber, all placed on paté spread and mayonnaise sauce, between two halves of a 6-inch baguette, an influence from the French during colonial time. Mine was delicious. There is a Vietnamese saying that goes, “Căng da bụng, chùng da mắt,” which is roughly translated as, “When your belly skin is stretched, your eyelids relax,” or more frankly, “When you’re full, you’re sleepy.” It was right, but at that moment, I would like to add one more clause to the saying: “When your belly skin is stretched, your eyelids go down, and your mouth corners go up,” because I was definitely smiling while thinking about the next one month and a half.

(1) Although there are a lot of taxi brands in Vietnam, Mai Linh and Vinasun are the most trustworthy ones. Other companies’ drivers can take a much longer route, go to road with heavy traffic, or do other scams to take your money. So please be aware when you have a chance to visit Vietnam

On my grandparents’ house:

The next day was a Saturday, so we all went to my grandparents’ house. Although my grandparents passed away years ago, three of my dad’s siblings and their families still live there together. The house is located at the dead-end of an alley. Built in 1969, it has seen many people from multiple generations living here, leaving, coming back or visiting. It is where we always gathered on the first day of Tết (Vietnamese New Year), whether my grandparents were present in person or now in spirit. As I walked along the narrow alley, flashbacks of me being squished at the tip of the motorbike’s seat and my mom sitting behind my dad, who was weaving through people and dogs, rushed through my mind. Everything looked and felt amazingly familiar, even though I had been distanced from it by a complete different life in the United States.

On me not being ideal for Vietnamese standard beauty:

People’s impressions of me, as they say a lot about Vietnamese standards and expectations for beauty, especially for women, remind me why I have always paid particular attention to certain features of my body. As I had expected, my relatives questioned why I still look the same even after years living in the US. Then came the rhetorical question that I’d anticipated in half farcicality and half gloominess: “Have you not been drinking milk or playing sports in the United States?” Like an instinct, I blurted out the response matter-of-factly: “Yes, I do drink a lot of milk and I do exercise sometimes but I have my mom’s gene.” I was prepared because I knew this question or something similar would come up again and again during my time here. Second to comments on my modest height—one OB/GYN I would be shadowing called me “đẹt,” meaning “a body that is squeezed/tiny”—were those on my skin complexion and style. “Oh, you’re from the US but you look so simple,” or “I thought you’re just a normal Vietnamese,” or “Don’t you use whitening cream in the US? You look so dark!” After that comment, another nurse was trying to save me some pride by saying: “But Americans love to get tanned, don’t they?” These judgments are very common here, and as I’m getting used to them, I hope I won’t get too snappy.

Unlike other stereotypical Western features (e.g. tall nose, big eyes, double eyelids) desired by many East and Southeast Asians, the obsession with white, pale skin had already existed hundreds of years ago: fairer skin was an indication for higher status because people from rich and powerful families did not have to work in the field under the burning sun. Now, the obsession intensifies, only for women, though, as people believe they can whiten their skins through efforts: Korean cosmetic products, plastic surgery clinics, and recently, TV shows featuring makeovers sponsored by Korean surgeons, have gained popularity. A complete set of traveling gears that would protect one woman from the dreaded sun and pollution include: the legally required helmet, a cap or a sun hat, sunglasses, a (surgical) mask, a jacket, gloves and leggings or socks, and/or a leg-length piece of rectangular fabric that wraps around the waist when a woman wears a skirt or a dress. Key: skin = not seen

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On food, drinks, and entertainment:

I’m lucky to have my wonderful mother, who is one of the best Vietnamese home cooks in this world, as I wholeheartedly believe. So unlike many students abroad, I did not die waiting to come back for the food. However, I have to say, nothing can compare to eating Vietnamese food on the streets of Saigon. For my friends who have never visited Vietnam, no matter who you are, you would fall in love with at least one food item here. From take-away stalls, tables and stools on the pavement to high-end restaurants, from authentic Vietnamese dishes to other nations’ food, from rice dishes to noodle soups, I promise you will find something good. Prices have gone up significantly (two or three-time increase) from five years ago, but they are still cheap. For example, a decent bowl of phở typically costs 60,000 VND (2.70 USD), bánh mì 20,000 (90 cents), and a glass of coffee 15-25,000.

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A bowl of phở, special size (55,000 VND) at Phở 99 – 214 Nguyễn Trãi, Bến Thành, Dist. 1, Hồ Chí Minh

Five years ago, sushi and udon seem to be luxuries (xa xỉ) that were only to be served in high-end restaurants at the center of district 1. Now, I can spot a Korean or Japanese restaurant every 5 minutes, and the prices are quite affordable. Boba tea and Starbuck-style coffee shops spring up everywhere and have become the favorite hang-out spots for young people and students. It is not hard to notice the multi-story shopping malls, supermarkets, and bookstores, where lots of people enjoy the cool air for free and look at thousands of stuff. Since its completion in April, 2015, Nguyễn Huệ Pedestrian Street, which is located at the center of Saigon, has been a popular attraction for tourists and locals alike. Groups of performers come here to show their talents to others, while tourists want to get a full picture of the French-built Ho Chi Minh City Hall, which is at one end of the Street. Its main sell-point, though, is hoverboard rentals. In the evening, hundreds of people come here to try hoverboarding for the first time or to strengthen their skills.

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All in all, the food is cheap and delicious, but you have to make sure to avoid unclean, ill-prepared food. There are a lot of things to discover in a city that never sleeps, and despite a few cultural disappointment, I’m excited for the next few weeks to work, eat, and play in Saigon.

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