As my 2 inmates snores reverberate off the cold white tile walls I lay unable to encounter sleep. An IV of unknown liquid hangs above, mocking me with slow controlled drips that seem to mark a painstakingly slow passage of time. When will I be allowed to leave? Get any indication of what is wrong with me? Be able to explain myself without the aid of google translate or the health section of Lonely Planet’s Vietnamese pocket dictionary? The hospital by night has transformed into a prison, shackling me to the bed by the constraints of 4 feet of flimsy transparent tube and two pairs of guarding eyes. This is my life at the General Hospital in Lao Cai Province, Vietnam; but before I get too ahead of myself, explaining how ended up here requires a bit of backstory…a story that begins with the long awaited arrival of a dear friend.
Max happened upon Hanoi during an unfortunate bout of gloomy weather on the last day of February. I was waiting in the lobby, determined to create a scene sure to embarrass us both at his first appearance. When hours later I heard the fateful taxi doors slam I didn’t disappoint and the next few hours became a bit of a blur: running and screaming in the middle of the street, hugging, gift giving, more hugs, Max’s first Pho, dancing…ish, and finally collapsing asleep in a swanky 3 star hotel.
The journey to Ha Long Bay awaited us early the next morning and we dragged ourselves into the overflowing van of Singaporean families and hungover backpackers begrudgingly, wishing to be back in our comfy beds for just a few more hours. I should have known when I barely could stomach half of my omelette from the free hotel buffet that something was up; yet it wasn’t until 2 hours later when I found myself and a new found rasta styling Canadian friend begging the Vietnamese driver to pull over for an emergency bathroom break that things started to spiral down quick. That rice farmer off the side of the interstate enjoyed quite a show that morning as I popped a squat in plain view. It wasn’t my ideal location, considering that we had just passed at least 5 gas stations with bathrooms attached, but I was already receiving evil looks from our so called hospitable tour guide so I took what I could get.
We had heard many rumors about the craziness of tours in Ha Long Bay and our two-day two-night adventure did not disappoint. It was a huge confusing mess–copious hours of waiting, jumping between boats, overflowing buses, dirty shady hotels, tour guides that never showed up, and worst of all incredibly rude staff yelling at customers over ridiculous unwarranted service charges. By the end of the first day the insanity had bred a certain comrodery amongst a core group of 10 backpackers and it wouldn’t take long for them to essentially usurp the boat. I watched most of this from the outside, through the lens of uncommunicative sick girl who essentially slept her entire tour away. Much of Max’s drama centered around attempting to supply me with a place to sleep and a steady supply of water–a task made much more difficult by a huge language barrier and disgruntled employees–but once the fog cleared and I finally emerged from hibernation, we were able to enjoy a few hours of the breathtaking views and an interesting crowd. By the final meal where our international group of Americans, Canadians, Spanish, Swiss, and Australian friends rehashed the weekend, I rolodexed away these experiences as further examples of the craziness and disorganization I’ve encountered along my travels. Max’s first few days had been quite a crazy adventure and with an overnight train north and me still feeling under the weather, we had no idea the bigger mess we were about to get ourselves into. Well Max, here is the local experience you were asking for…
Good morning General Hospital, Vietnam! Wait, it’s only 5:45am, why in the world are you bustling with life and your patients projecting as if they are delivering a speech to 100 passerbys. I’m right here roommates, freed from the needle jutting into my arm yet with nowhere to go as I await test results so will you please quit yelling! Geez I wish I could understand anything they are saying especially since this man in striped hospital administered pajamas (Max was so kind to get me a matching pair) is standing at my bedside smiling and attempting to have a conversation. I have just spent my first night in a hospital bed. I’m on edge enough about catching airborne diseases or being slammed with an outrageous bill without the zoo animal treat hours starting so early. You’d think I was some rare panda at the San Diego zoo the way patients walk by my barred window and tap on the glass gawking at the white foreigner. They mean well, but it is very clear that I am the talk of the ward these days and it’s hard not to feel a bit uncomfortable.
Since I arrived at this place some 20 hours ago, I have been under the meticulous review of over 40 doctors and nurses. I’ve been poked and prodded with needles, fingers, and curious eyes, attached to strange machines that looked like they were made to administer shock to jump start a car battery, had my heart examined thrice, sonogrammed and x-rayed, and had my complete chest exposed to over 10 medical professionals without warning. I’ve been wheeled around on a gurney, balanced an IV bag above my head while attempting to use the restroom, eaten a 3 course meal while attached to a hospital bed, and been used as a human barricade to keep the pesky hospital thieves as well as disgruntled doctors from entering our room past 9pm.
I live with 2 Vietnamese grandmas and room 411 seems to be the watering hole for gossip and socializing. Let’s quickly introduce the “boss” and the “crazy aunt”–two of the leading characters in this hospital soap. The “boss” in bed 363 is 67 and has 9 kids. I believe I’ve seen at least three bring her home cooked meals so far and between that and her water boiler, hair dryer, 3 blankets and pillows, and reusable cups, bowls, and straws for drinking coffee, she’s made herself a pretty homey setup. “Boss” is the one that tells us all what to do as her title suggests and has taken it upon herself to monitor my IV progress and give me a smack if I am not being a good patient and laying down all of the time in a the certain position she thinks is best–essentially mama administering some tough love and even the doctors don’t try and mess with her. “Crazy aunt” a 70 year old mother of 6 is a fit of giggles. She passes her time lazing the day away, waving at me and smiling, chatting at all hours with the “boss” while at the same time attempting not to be on the wrong end of a smack to the leg. It seems they have developed a routine that works for them, and a friendship that only gives further indication that this is not their first day at the rodeo–they are downright celebrities here. These two have brought laughter, joy, comfort, fear, and scandal to my day stay here and needless to say it will be an experience impossible to forget. They even tried to pull an extra cot and convince Max to stay overnight with us…they really seem to love the extra attention.
Almost one full day has passed and I am still no closer to finding out what has had me essentially on bed rest for the past 5 days. Doctors enter and exit, sans introduction or explanation of what they are injecting into my body or what they are testing for. While asking for clarification has proved essentially futile, I will admit that the concoction of 10+ liquids coursing through my veins have made me feel stronger. It’s either that or I’m so ready to escape this drama that I’ve willed myself to heal faster; either way I intend to leave today while I’m only $100 dollars poorer and whatever is left of my sanity remains intact. I’m still in disbelief at everything that has taken place. This will be one of those stories and true local experiences that Max and I will talk about for sometime–our 24 hours of fame in General Hospital, Vietnam edition.
To be continued…unfortunately