HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, February 18, 2011

Scrubs: Vietnam

A few weeks ago I finally worked up the motivation to go to a hospital and get a health screening, which is required in order to obtain a Vietnamese work permit. I had no idea what to expect, since I've never been to a hospital in the developing world. In fact, I've hardly spent any time in hospitals in the U.S., for that matter. (Knocks on wood.) I ended up having an at times frustrating, at times humorous, experience.

I walked into the International Patient Clinic at Cho Ray Hospital in Distrct 5 around 10:30am, and was promptly informed that the clinic would be closing at 11, and wouldn't re-open until 1:30. For some reason I still forget that many places here are closed for the mid-day Vietnamese siesta, and got pretty annoyed at that point. I had driven 20 mintues through the anarchic holiday traffic to get there, only to find out that they were about to close. In the end, though, I was glad they closed. After filling out some initial paperwork I headed over to the local market, which must not get any Western visitors, considering how many stares I received. I made straight for the food section and sat down at a stall. A Vietnamese guy that spoke English saw me and sat down next to me. It turns out that he has lived in the U.S. for 15 years, mostly in Boston and Philadelphia. He was home for the Tet holiday, and his wife's family owned the stall I had just sat down at. He placed my order and we chatted for a while, before I moved on. He was really curious to hear about why I was in Vietnam and what I thought of the country. I love encounters like that. I then took part in the age-old tradition so loved by Vietnamese males of wasting away a significant amount of time sitting under an umbrella on the sidewalk, drinking an iced coffee. (OK, reading The Economist while doing that probably isn't normal.)

I returned to the clinic at 1:30 to continue the screening. The first thing they asked was if I needed to be tested for AIDS. Erm, I think I'm OK in that regard, but why not. After that I was led to a room where my blood was taken, and then I had to give a urine sample. On the way to the bathroom a nurse stopped me and motioned (most of the staff spoke very little English) for me to take a clock that had run out of batteries down from the wall. I obliged, and a minute later I put it back up, new batteries in place. (Vietnamese people are short.)

After handing my pee off to someone, a nurse clad in pink scrubs said "You, follow me," and led me on a sojourn through the hospital; in which I followed her like a meek puppy into rooms that only had Vietnamese signs on the door. For all I knew they could have said "Patient Waterboarding Room," or maybe "Office of Extreme Displeasure." I usually had no idea what was about to happen until someone stuck a metal object up my nose or into my ear. At one stop I got a chest x-ray from a technician that looked to be about 12 years old. On a side note, I do not want to know what my lungs look like after breathing in Saigon's lovely smog for the past six months.

The hospital itself was old, with fading walls, ancient elevators, and no air conditioning, but it was immaculately clean. Patients simply laid out on gurneys in the airy central courtyard, and no one seemd to care. In case you ever forgot that you were in Vietnam, banh mi and banh bao carts offered mid-day meals to patients and their families.

My pink guide led me back to the clinic - her only English seemed to be "You, sit here," or "Follow me now" - where, instead of being measured, I was simply asked my weight and height. What a novel idea! Unfortunately they wanted it in kilograms and meters, which I've never used before, so they took me over to the scale and thing that measures your height. Still not sure why they didn't just do that right away. Would they have believed me if I had just made up numbers?

I then had my eyes checked and my torso felt up for any strange masses, and that was it. Overall, a pretty painless process, although one that was totally different from what I've experienced in U.S. hospitals: there were no overstuffed chairs, no TVs playing crappy movies or "Wheel of Fortune," and no 14-month old magazines (at least not in English). That being said, I was never comfortable - the building seemed to be designed to create natural breezes in the hallways - the staff was very efficient, and the whole thing cost only $35. I think you get charged $100 just for walking into an American hospital. That being said, I wouldn't want to get open-heart surgery done in Vietnam, but maybe I'll get my yearly physical done here for the rest of my life.

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