Don Stefanovich's Blog

March 8, 2011

The red star hotel and Uncle Ho’s Happy Land

Communist flagA Vietnamese communist flag hangs in Ðồng Dân village. Photo by Don Stefanovich

I shut my eyes and keep my lips tightly pursed as I splash cold water on my face, careful not to get any in my mouth. I bury my face in my towel for a moment before opening my eyes to my reflection in the eerie glow of the tiny LED light balanced precariously on top of the toilet.

The power in Hotel BacKan is out. No one seems sure why. Rumors of a controlled outage circulate.

It happened just as the team of medical volunteers assembled in an unused banquet facility on the third floor at approximately 2:45 p.m. to count, separate and package one month supplies of children’s chewable vitamins and other medicine.

Our stay in the Hotel BacKan has been generously accommodated by the Vietnamese department of health.

Our room reeks of mold. The bathroom door lacks a knob and refuses to completely close. Cold water from the shower splashes everywhere in the absence of a curtain. Rusty crimson bloodstains dot the pillowcases.

Our hosts have been gracious enough to post two officials on every floor in order to ensure our safety.

We wake every morning at 5 a.m. to Vietnamese voices echoing from loudspeakers throughout the city. They broadcast propaganda and soothing music into the darkness. We can’t understand, but translate perfectly.

The power returns just before the team gathers for an evening meal and a briefing. The medical mission will be traveling out to the provinces in the morning and must work exceptionally hard. Officials will be on site. Orders have been passed down that this will be our first and last day at this location. The team hopes their minds may be changed after witnessing our industrious efforts.

My first day working with the team is at a community health center high in the mountains north of BacKan. The cracking yellow structure stands in stark contrast to the surrounding village homes.

Only the red flag with a yellow star in the center waving high above the building draws a parallel. It dangles from the thatched roofs of several village homes as well, bearing a striking resemblance to the Carl’s Jr. logo.

I wonder if Communist Jr. is trademarked. We could throw in a ball pit and call it Uncle Ho’s Happy Land. Remind me to look into franchise rights in The People’s Republic.

Communist flagWomen wait to be treated by the Project Vietnam medical team. Photo by Don Stefanovich

The first day hits me hard. A woman in a bright red plaid scarf and orange coat hunches on a child’s stool in the back of the crowd waiting for care. Her rail thin frame is permanently contorted from years of working bent over in rice paddies. The years are etched into the lines of her face. Her feet are swollen.

I record the heights and weights of a seemingly endless line of decrepit elderly and impoverished children. As lunch approaches, we’ve made a big dent in the crowd. In the back, past rows of empty, red, plastic seats, the woman in the plaid scarf hunches alone. She hasn’t moved. A fly crawls on the tip of her gnarled finger nail.

I ask Johnny Le to translate and we find her family. She’s sick. Very Sick. We get permission from the doctors to get her immediate care. She can barely walk. I sit her in a child-size plastic chair and Phil and I carry her through the crowd. Dr. Gene’s prognosis is bleak. He prescribes medicine he hopes he will help. With the assistance of a translator I interview her family. Her granddaughters carried her on their backs down from their home in the mountains before transporting her to the site on the back of a motorbike. It’s going to be an equally arduous journey home. I decide to follow them. (Full story to come…)

Our previous day’s efforts at a community health clinic in the northern-province failed to extend our stay. Today we journey to a school in another small mountain village. Yellow buildings with corrugated tin roofs form a rectangle. Yellow wrought iron sits in window frames between peeling green shutters. Not a single blade of grass grows in the courtyard between the buildings. A few trees manage to poke through the trampled clay. Yellow caution tape forms a perimeter around the school buildings. Military police in stark green uniforms, some in suits with red and gold arm bands, stand watch. We are here to help, but we are a threat.

These are our hosts in Happy Land.