Sunday marks my third day in Saigon. I am staying at the Ha Hien Hotel in District 1 of the city with nine other classmates, our professor and our college dean. We are waiting to document Project Vietnam’s medical mission in the Vietnamese province of Quang Ngai.
A meeting is held in the hotel’s lobby that the evening. The board members introduce themselves to the volunteers that have arrived.
Dr. Quynh Kieu announces that the medical mission has been relocated to Nha Trang, for political reasons. It’s disappointing, but at least there will still be a medical mission.
My classmates Andie Ayala, Maggie Guillen and I volunteer to help assist Kieu and Andrew Nguyen, 23, a logistics volunteer, with inputting all of the medicine information into a spreadsheet.
We finish by 8 p.m.
The next morning we set out on a 10-hour drive to Nha Trang on a sleeper bus.
The sleeper bus is a double decker, with reclining seats and compartments for every passenger’s legs and feet — well, for everyone under 5 foot 3 inches.
The small space forces the taller volunteers to sit in awkward positions for the trip. I fit comfortably in my seat and fall asleep.
That evening, we arrive at the Hai Yen hotel, across from one of Vietnam’s most beautiful tourist attractions — the beach.
An hour after arriving, we meet in the hotel restaurant to prepare the medicine for the week. For almost two hours, the volunteers perform the tedious task of counting a month’s supply of medicine and vitamins. They place them in a small plastic bag and write the dosage information in Vietnamese.
After finishing, Andie, Maggie and I run off to our room excited for the mission to begin the next morning.
Early Tuesday morning, the volunteers, in their sky-blue polo shirts, gather at the hotel’s restaurant again. Kieu and Tom Tran, a board member and dentist team leader, announce Tuesday morning that they and a couple others will meet with the local authorities and finish any last-minute paperwork.
Two hours later, there is still no sign of Tran, Quynh or the others. People begin to ask questions and grow impatient. I can see the doubt in their eyes.
***At lunch, Kieu and Tran speak before the volunteers again. As I look around the large restaurant room, I notice that not everyone is still wearing their Project Vietnam shirts.
The news is confirmed: Tuesday will not be a work day.
With a stern disposition, Tran tells the volunteers that the local authorities declined their request to perform the medical mission in Nha Trang. There is complete silence. All eyes rest on the pair speaking to us.
Quynh and Tran offer a “Plan B.” This alternative involves performing an under-cover medical mission at Buddhist temples, with only a few volunteers leaving the hotel at a time.
Once they finish speaking, the volunteers begin to murmur to one another. The soft voices begin to gain momentum in volume and soon fill the large room. Some volunteers express their disappointment and anger toward the government. Some, especially the older Vietnamese volunteers, are hurt and I can see their eyes water. Others, like me, are silent and pensive.
I try to soak in what I just witnessed. As an outsider who has never experienced a situation like this, I can’t do anything but sit there, shocked.
For the remainder of the day, I sit in the lobby with my classmates and the other volunteers. Everyone is affected by the news. No one laughs, jokes or smiles. They sit in silence.
Tran says that the political involvement in this trip has made it one of the most memorable in the eight years he and his wife have volunteered.
“Everything’s prepared, everything’s ready and we got turned down at the last minute,” he said.
Despite the pessimism from the others, Quynh continues to smile. She’s not given up. This is not the first time Project Vietnam’s mission experiences a delay by authority figures, she says.
On one trip to Dak Lak, Quynh received a phone call just before boarding her international flight to Vietnam. The people’s committee of the province only accepted 15 volunteers, not all 65 volunteers on that trip. She wasn’t going to split up her team, she says.
After many phone calls, and a couple-days delay, she secured a workplace in the province of Nha Trang. Tuesday’s mission in Nha Trang is quite similar and Quynh says she won’t give up.
“We have to stand up and just because we are arbitrarily, or there’s a bureaucrat somewhere who says no, is no good reason for them,” she said as she pounds her small fist onto the table at the restaurant Tuesday evening. “They do need to make an exception, even if it takes them a little bit more time because of the fact that we’re here for [a] humanitarian purpose. And we meet the qualifications in all the standards of care. [...] I’m not going to be about to meekly go and accept that refusal.”
While sharing that story with my classmate Shannon McPherson and I, she listens to her voicemail. She says someone from the consulate of the United States and a former official at the ministry of health have called her.
After returning their call, she tells us there is pressure placed on the Nha Trang authorities from within Vietnam and outside of the country. She says there is still hope and she believes everything will work out.
It’s breakfast time again and the hotel restaurant room is filled with volunteers in their Project Vietnam shirts. There is hope in their expressions, but I can tell that it’s overpowered by uncertainty.
Quynh and Tran return from visiting the local authorities again.
Smiling, they stand before us and share the good news: The pressure they placed on the authorities has been successful and the medical mission will begin Wednesday morning.
“When we knew that we’d been turned down by the local government, we had a meeting with them and asked for the reason to be rejected on paper,” Tran says. “So things developed there very, very serious. And the answer from the local authorities [was] no. However, we appealed it all the way up to their [...] top level of the authorities here in Khan Hoa. And finally, after many different explanations from us, [...] they revert their decision and allowed us to work.”
We rush to board the busses and by 10 a.m. arrive at our workplace: Cam Lam General Hospital.
The teams set up their workplace. Although they are ready and eager to begin, they must wait for their first patient.
Project Vietnam sees more than 500 patients Wednesday. Although the workday ends at 5 p.m., we stay past 6 p.m., until all patients are examined and their prescriptions are dispensed.
Thursday morning is incomparable to what we witnessed Wednesday. When we arrive at the hospital, a large line of almost 500 people welcomes us. The patients greet us with smiles, waves and Vietnamese I don’t understand.
I later learn that most of the people in line arrived as early as 7 a.m. The word certainly spread since Wednesday.
Mai-Linh Notaro, a 24-year-old Vietnamese-American from Buffalo, N.Y., is volunteering in the primary care team Thursday. She writes down the patient’s weight and height.
“I’m a little frazzled just because there’s so many people, but to be honest, I would totally do this again,” says Notaro, referring to hundreds of patients that have yet to be treated. “I think I’m having a lot of fun.”
Many of the volunteers are scheduled to fly home Friday, so Thursday is the last day.
Quynh and the other volunteers put aside their lives in the United States for two weeks to provide Vietnamese families with the best healthcare they can. In the last two days, Project Vietnam has seen about 1,100 patients.
“I see all these doctors, and all these nurses, all these professionals — they definitely took the time off to come and help people, you know, this is their vacation time,” Rebecca Chung, 24, says. “They could be in Hawaii or something, but they really took their time and it just shows you how passionate healthcare providers are and [how] dedicated they are to their profession.”
At the end of Wednesday, the bus ride back to Hai Yen is much more enjoyable. Long gone is the disappointment from Tuesday afternoon.
“I feel like I’ve accomplished something,” says Notaro.