STEPPING BEYOND THE TOURIST ZONE
The tiny Vietnamese village of My Hoi is not on any tourist map. Nor is it on the typical tourist itinerary. Fortunately, it's on mine. Located 130 kilometres south of Ho Chi Minh City in Tien Giang Province, My Hoi is a poverty stricken town of eight thousand people. During this visit to Vietnam, a fellow Canadian friend has invited me to join a group of thirty volunteers consisting primarily of Ho Chi Minh doctors and a few Canadians. Rural villages surrounding My Hoi have also been informed that we will be coming to help. Approximately four hundred people are patiently waiting when we arrive. They are in desperate need of medical treatment, pharmaceuticals and household basics. Upon arrival, the doctors immediately go to their pre-arranged stations where tables and chairs have been set up for medical exams. The remaining volunteers unload the toys, blankets, and food from the truck. They work like well-oiled machines. I can see it's not their first time doing this.
Villagers gather hoping for assistance
Sick villagers stream in, eagerly hoping to be treated. I feel the optimistic energy of the crowd. Fragile elderly ladies approach me, inquiring where to go for medical treatment. I gently take them by the arm and lead them a line-up for the doctors. After a brief exchange of smiles, I resume my spot with the volunteers who are bagging gifts.
Doctors providing treatment to the locals
A family of six Vietnamese doctors are donating their time and the much-needed medicine to help the villagers. They are truly making it a family affair by including their own children who assist by sorting the medicine into individual bags.
A young boy helps by counting medicine
Children from the local villages are also not forgotten as they run around playing with their new toys.
Children line up hoping to receive a toy
The doctors selflessly serve the waiting masses in the energy-draining heat. I watch as one examines a seventy-two year-old woman. His serious expression says everything. "I'm sorry," he says, "but you are very ill." The woman smiles and responds. "Doctor, I know I'm dying. But I am so happy today! This is the first time in my life I have had the opportunity to be examined by a doctor." As I leave the medical area to watch the distribution of gifts, tears well up in my eyes.
A resident awaits treatment
My Canadian friends are handing out the gift bags. One friend whispers to me, "This is very sad; we only have two hundred bags to distribute, so only the neediest are going to receive the food and blankets." It becomes obvious that she too is deeply moved by the experience.
I walk outside to see the villagers departing one by one with medicine, a bag of gifts, and their happy children in tow. By the end of the day, the doctors have examined 328 people and have provided each with the appropriate medication.
"While the doctors provide the treatment and the medicine," I ask, "who is paying for the toys and supplies?" "Didn't she tell you?" the volunteer replies. "It's your friend. She comes here twice a year on her vacation to help various rural villages all over the country."
I'm teary-eyed as I realize that the total cost of her mission is less than that of my entire Vietnamese vacation-my relaxing stay in Ho Chi Minh, the sightseeing tours of Notre Dame Cathedral, Unification Palace etcetera. Yet, ironically, this one day in My Hoi has been the most touching and memorable of all.
After a meal of fish, vegetables and rice, we all board the bus for the long ride back to Ho Chi Minh. With our 4.00 am departure everyone is exhausted and sleeping. I pull my friend aside and say, "You are amazing! I had no idea this is how you spend your vacation time." While flashing an angelic smile, she graciously replies, "Well, I just think that it's important sometimes to step beyond the tourist zone."
I nod in agreement knowing that I will forever be humbled by this experience.
IF YOU GO:
Canadians are assisting citizens around the world. To donate visit: http://www.redcross.ca/ For Vietnam visa information, visit: http://consulate-vancouver.com/vietnam.html
PHOTOS: by Donna Yuen
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