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Medicine & Healthcare in Vietnam by Leanne Attenborough

People in Vietnam

My placement was at the National Hospital of Traditional Medicine (NHTM) in Hanoi, Vietnam. I have just finished my second year of studying medicine at the University of Manchester, England. I have always been interested in paediatrics and I love to travel and experience different cultures, so volunteering with Projects Abroad seemed like the perfect opportunity.

Volunteering abroad

I was picked up at 7.30am and once at the hospital, I would follow a nurse or doctor on the ward rounds. Most of the treatment I saw was acupuncture. I often got to help with putting the needles in, and after just a few days I was trusted enough to go round and take them out. This was sometimes difficult for me as I had to watch the children cry because of the needles, but they were often very fascinated by me because I am English, and it was always rewarding when I spoke English to the children and made them smile.

There was also other treatment that involved drips and injections, and towards the end I was allowed to assist in setting these up. However, because most of the staff spoke little English, it was hard to understand which medicines were being used and why. There was also a trolley set up in the afternoon with medications for the patients; a lot of it seemed to be herbal medicines, but again I was unsure of what they were. Although it was hard because of the language barrier, I learnt a lot about communication. Just because you can’t speak the language, it doesn’t mean you can’t communicate with people, for example you can use gestures or facial expressions. The staff were all so friendly and welcoming and willing to learn new English words, which also helped.

At about 11.30am I would sit down in the staff room with the others for lunch. We would have traditional Vietnamese food, which was always delicious! One day the head of the ward made spring rolls for me! Noon was nap time! I would often be tired from the busy mornings and I was given two hours to sleep. In the afternoon there was much less to do. I would sometimes talk to one of the doctors who spoke quite a lot of English, or I would sit down and read a textbook about traditional medicine and the theories behind it, like Yin and Yang and the five elements. It is all extremely interesting but also very complicated! I finished work around 4.30pm.

Experiencing Vietnam

Volunteering abroad

Every local that I met was always so happy and charming! I feel blessed to have been able to experience the culture here. Although some of the treatment is very different to Western medicine, the staff clearly cared about what they were doing. They always had a good relationship with the children and would try to make them smile. Every single local that I met was always so friendly and helpful.

The staff at the hospital seemed to love having an English person around and was always showing me new things, like asking me to try strange and wonderful fruit. I always felt so welcome there. The children at the hospital were incredible. They were so happy all the time, even when they were ill, and they reminded me that a child always has the ability to make you smile. They always wanted to try and speak English to me, and one day I met a little girl who tried to teach me Vietnamese; I am ashamed to say I was absolutely awful!

I stayed in a house with six other people. We all became so close so quickly, and in the evenings we would spend time getting to know each other and sharing our experiences, or going out into the old quarter and experiencing the night life there. We had a cook who was lovely and would come in every day to cook a meal for us. Sometimes she would cook traditional food, other times Western food, either way it was always delicious. It’s fascinating the foods you miss from home; I missed cheese more than anything! And one day we came home to find a home-made pizza for each of us. We were really touched by this.

Weekend exploring

Exploring Vietnam

At the weekends the other volunteers and I went on trips outside of Hanoi. On my first weekend I went to Halong Bay, which was one of the most amazing places I’ve ever seen. We stayed overnight on a boat, and learnt how to make spring rolls. We had the most incredible meal with more dishes than I could count, and we tried squid fishing (surprisingly we caught nothing). At 6am the next morning we did Tai Chi on the deck! We then went kayaking around the bay, which was surreal.

The next weekend we went to Sapa. Again, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. We trekked through villages with a tour guide who was from the Black Hmong People in Lao Chai Village. These people have an amazing sense of humour, and speak such good English. It is sad that they do not have the same education opportunities as other Vietnamese people, one of the reasons being that they have their own language and do not speak very good Vietnamese.

I met some amazing friends through Projects Abroad, and we are hoping to stay in touch.

Read more about Medicine in Vietnam.

Leanne Attenborough

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