Thirty minutes after our Vietnam Airline flight departed from Tan Son Nhut airport in Ho Chi Minh City, we looked down upon the denuded red plains and my wife and I instantaneously felt an incredible sense of relief and freedom. We were finally free from the daily harassment, intimidation and greed of the Vietnamese officials and we could actually feel the weight of the last three months lift off our shoulders.
It all began last fall when I was accepted as the overseas manager for the East Meets West Foundation which operated primary care clinic for the "poorest of the poor" and an orphanage for 125 children on the outkirts of Da Nang, Vietnam. I had decided to take advantage of the early retirement package offered by Group Health and retired in January with the intention of volunteering in Vietnam for a year or two, beginning in mid-January. My mission was to help the clinic become more efficient and effective and to conduct pilot public health education programs in four remote villages. My wife was assigned to work with the orphanage as an art and recreation instructor, and to teach English to the staff.
A preview of what we were to experience in country actually began when we flew to San Francisco to pick up our visa on our way to Vietnam. Upon our arrival in San Francisco, we were advised that the Foreign Minister, who issues the visas, wanted us to rent his appartment in Da Nang for $700 a month, with a six month advance payment. We objected, he refused to issue the visas, so we return to Seattle while the Foundation continued the negotiations. Finally, in February, we agreed to the arrangement, paid him $4200, and with a 3 month instead of a 12-month visa, flew to Vietnam. When we arrived, the apartment, of course, still being renovated so we were compelled to stay in a hotel at $45 a day. Upon entering Vietnam, all of our computer discs were cofiscated and only after paying a $40 "handling fee" and copies had been made (for later resale) were they returned to us three weeks later.
On our first day in the office, I picked up the telephone to call my daughter in Seattle and noticed that martial music could be heard in the background during our conversation. I later mentioned that to the Vietnamese staff and they stated the police and military were listening in on all of our telephone calls. We were also warned that our letters were opened and read by the government, so we had to be careful what we wrote. Once, I was required to take a month-end financial report to the police and they decided whether it should be sent off or not.
A few days after we began working in the office, the Vietnamese accountant left for Florida to marry an American doctor she had met when he came to Da Nang to volunteer at the clinic. When we announced the position, the minister sent us candidates who had no accounting training nor English language skills and hired a certified accountant who spoke fluent English. The Minister and the Security Police delayed approval of the new employee, untill, we suspect, some money changed hands or she agreed to kick back a percentage of her salary. We were informed that all the Vietnamese employees were required to pay the police, government offcials, party member, ect, a portion of their salary. The Security Police came to our office to demand, several times, why we refused to hire their candidates.
Incidentally, a Vietnamese physician applied for the accounting job because he had been unemployed for over five years. Apparently, there were hundreds of doctors that were unemployed in spite of the fact that they are some of the lowest paid workers in Vietnam... $30 a month. I never learned why there were so many unemployed doctors. I was told that they had to pay upwards of $1500 to get practical training and experience in a hospital after they completed their training. Without the training, they were unemployable. I also became aware that there was tremendous discrimination against the South Vietnamese, especially these whose family members supported the defeated government. Most of the unemployed doctors we met were South Vietnamese.
During my orientation in the States, I was warned that the doctors at the Peace Village Clinic were lazy and unmotivated, and only knew how to prescribe vitamins. After spending a few days with the doctors, I found them to be very intelligent, very willing to learn to practice good medicine and were eager to receive any assistance that would enable them to become good practitioners. Unfortunately, their medical training was so poor and inadequate that they were only qualified to prescribe vitamins for every affliction. One day a week, the doctors visited one of the surrounding villages and provided care to the people. I accompanied them on several visits and noted that vitamins were precribed for every ailment, malaria, blindness, fevers, parasites, blood in the urine, diarrhea, ect. What else could they do? They didn't have any other drugs except a few bottles of Ampicillin. The doctors claim that they had to give the patients something to take home so they prescribed vitamins. Made sense to me. Antibiotics may be purchased over the counter so every Vietnamese already had several bottles at home. My translater took antibiotics for headaches, colds, diarrhea, backache, and when she just was not feeling well.
An OB/GYN doctor from San Diego spent a few days at the clinic and showed the doctors how to use a vaginal speculum. A year later, he returned and was very upset that the doctors were not using the speculum and complained to the East Meets West Foundation Board in San Francisco that the doctors were unmotivated and lazy. My report to the Board questioned his assessment. The doctors could not be trained in diagnose and treat gynecological diseases in a few days and the lab tech was only able to do very simple tests. Even if they did, find something, there were no drugs or equipment to treat the problem. Why look for something if you can't do anything about it? I felt that some of the American doctors who volunteered at the Peace Village Clinic were very insensitive and did more harm than good.
As soon as I had settled in, I met with the Minister of Health with a proposal to conduct a pilot public health project in four villages and he seemed to be very enthusiastic about the idea. He accepted the proposal and informed me that he would discuss it with the People's Commitee and get back to me. Two weeks later, he sent me a letter stating that the project was approved and that the Ministry would implement it, but they wanted me to provide them with $20,000. I stated that I did not have the money, only the knowledge, time and willingness to do the training and work with the health workers, but they were not interested in my participation - only my money. I was not invited back to the Ministry.
When I visited my first village to do a health assessment. I was met by the Director of the People's Committee who took me around to the homes of the poorest families. At each farm house, he requested that I pay for something that the family needed, for example: a new roof, a new well, a new house, money for rice, clothes, wheel chair, etc. When I stated over and over that I was not there to give them money, he finally told my translator to get me out of the village. At another village, the officials demanded that I provide them with funds to build a new school and when they realized that I would not provide the funds, I was immediately put under house arrest and ordered not to leave the grounds of the People's Committe office. That night, I was ordered to sleep on the dirty wood floor of the office with only a tattered blanket, and one of the security police officer slept next to me to assure that I did not leave the building. To add to my misery, the officer, whose hand had been blown off by a land mine, place his stump on my stomatch all night while he slept. I, of couse, did not sleep a wink and keep thinking who would ever believe that I would be sleeping on the floor of a Communist party office, next to a Viet Cong policeman whose handless arm rested on my belly! It was one of strangest and scarrest night I have experienced. I kept wondering if I was having a nightmare.
Because we were living in a hotel, we had to eat our meals in restaurants. The only place we and most visitors could eat in Da Nang without getting sick was a restaurant called Christies. Every night, we met American marrines and soldiers who were in Vietnam searching for MIA's. They stated that every village had a scam in operation. The village leaders would claim to have burried in the rice fields two or three Americans who had died during the war. It would cost the American $10,000 to dig in the fields and to hire local workers. The officers we talked to claimed that since 1991 they had found nothing and they didn't expect to find anything. They were required to stay in Vietnam Army Hotel for $75 a night and hire the Vietnam helicopter to take them to the village. We were informed that it cost $750 an hour for the helicopter ride. There were about 30 US military personel looking for MIA's in Da Nang and every major city had a silmilar team. It is coating the US milion of dollars and the Vietnamese are laughing all the way to the bank!
After a couple of months, it became very evident to us that we were not needed in VietNam. The orphanage was being very adequately funded by the US Government and the Vietnamese staff was excellent. The kids were attended in the government school, being provided with training in carpentry, sewing, computer, etc ... and a full time physician took care of the medical needs of the children. They had a basketball court, ping-pong tables, television, videos, bicycles, computers, a vegetable farm, and they raised chickens and pigs for income. The Vietnamese claimed that these chidren, in fact, lived better than all other children in Vietnam.
I was able to raise the salaries of all the doctors, and the rest of clinic staff from $30 to $50 a month. The government required every employee to be paid the same amount whether he/she were a doctor or janitor. I also assisted in development of a long term continuing education program for the doctors. A cadiologist from Japan is sponsoring each year, one doctor from the Peace Village Clinic, who will spend six months in her hospital in Osaka for next few years. The first doctor left Osaka in June. I also opened communication with the Hue hospital to accept our doctors into their resisdency program with us paying for the training. I presented this proposal to East Meets West Foundation Board on my last day in the country. Hopefully, the Boad will vote favourably on this program. I feel that it is very inexpensive to train the doctor for $1600.
Several weeks after we arrived in Da Nang, the Forein Minister demanded more money to finish renovating the apartment to purchase furniture. We were aware of this fact that a Vietnamese doctor makes $30 a month and he would pay, perhaps $10-$15 a month to rent that apartment so we politely ignore his demand for more money. He tightened the screws by requiring us to to provide him with a detailed itinerary as to where we would be every hour, two weeks in advance, by holding up our request for a visa extention and by intimidating our Vietnamese office staff. Three months after we arrived, the Foreign Minister said we could move into the house and we did - for one night. It was only partially completed with electric wires dangling from the ceiling, walls partially painted, plumbing unconnected, no furniture and cockroaches crawling everywhere. In a few minutes, I used up a can of insecticide and the floor was covered with two-inch long cockroaches lying on their backs, leg flailing away. We moved back to the hotel after one night. The minister became very upset and advised us to leave the country if we were unhappy. For the first time ever, we experience real fear. We realized that he could jail us or arrange an accident and no one could do anything about it.
Realizing that we were not really wanted or needed in the country, that our contributions would be negligible, and that there was a real threat to our safety, we made the decision to leave Vietnam. We agonized over the decision because we had come to love the children in the orphanage and the people working there as well as at the Peace Village Clinic. We have very warm feelings for the Vietnamese people and the incredibly beautiful country, and we would, someday, like to return there complete the work we have begun.
One day, this generation of leaders will pass on and then Vietnamese will emerge to become to the butterfly of Southeast Asia.