Having just returned from six weeks in Tanzania and settling back into my Philadelphia lifestyle, the last thing on my mind was to once again leave town and to head half way around the world. But yet, here I am once again traveling. Now, mind you, there is little more than I love in this world than traveling, so it took very little to convince me when I was contacted by Penn’s Center for Global Health with an offer to fly to Vietnam for ten days to help out with a project they were working on. Given that I have never been anywhere in Southeast Asia, it took me all but about ten seconds to look at my calendar and realize that with a few schedule changes, I could make it happen. Though it would mean traveling over Thanksgiving, which was of course one of the reasons that others had very likely passed on the opportunity, I felt that was a small price to pay and, in doing so, I could also provide some service to the University and repay a small part of what they’ve done for me over the last ten years.
Vin Corporation, the largest private company in Vietnam, had several years ago decided to build a private, non-profit University (Vin University) that would include a number of professional schools including medicine and nursing. To do this, they chose to reach out to other institutions around the world to submit proposals to help develop curricula for these schools in addition to assisting in faculty development. Penn won the contracts for the health sciences and is now in the midst of helping to create top notch training programs. What I have been requested to do is to go over and help teach part of the undergraduate (medical school) neurology program by delivering a series of course lectures that have already been developed by other faculty at Penn while also mentoring the existing neurology faculty at the school. As you might imagine, this curriculum and these lectures had been developed some time ago and it was only several weeks ago that I found out I was going, so I have had little opportunity to rewrite any of the lectures which, to be honest, was fine with me as others had already put lots of time into them. The students, who are third year medical students, will be hearing about clinical neurology for the very first time, so I am hopeful that I can excite some of them into pursuing neurology as a career as I have had the privilege to do at home, though typically I do this not in the classroom, but on neurology ward service and in the clinic.
Given my long history with Qatar Airways, which is what we have flown to Tanzania over the last 6+ years for our work at FAME, I decided to fly them again so I’d benefit from not only their excellent service, but would also accumulate miles towards my frequent flyer club membership. Besides, I know the Doha airport inside and out and I would be the most comfortable flying on an airline I knew well. For those of you who aren’t aware, the World Cup is about to begin in several days and it is in Doha, Qatar, for the first time which is why Qatar has been putting tons of money into the airport over the last several years and developing it into its own destination which more shopping and restaurants than you could possibly imagine. Flying through Doha, I was impressed with the number of travelers, everyone coming and going, as well as the amount of new shops and dining options given the lack of travelers there had been over the last several years with the pandemic. Just to remind everyone, I had traveled every six months to Doha and Kilimanjaro over the last nearly three years of the pandemic and did not miss a beat as I had felt a strong commitment to FAME and my neurology patients there. At the height of the pandemic, there had been so few travelers in Doha that it almost seemed like a ghost town, but that has all passed now and the crowds were back, whether for the World Cup or just catching up on trips that had been postponed, it was great to see.
So, in planning my very first trip to SE Asia and Vietnam, even though it is really for business, I wanted to make sure that I would at least have the opportunity to see something outside of Hanoi, their capitol and the location of Vin University. Thankfully, it seemed as though everyone who has been there before told me the same thing and that was that I must visit Ha Long Bay and take an overnight cruise. I decided to leave a few days early so I would have the time to do that while still taking in the sights and sounds of Hanoi and, perhaps most importantly, enjoying some of their unique cuisine. With my trusty Lonely Planet guide in hand, I am planning to spend time on the streets after I arrive, then travel to Ha Long Bay for my overnight cruise, and, finally, back to Hanoi where I will be staying in one of the University’s apartment complexes that are just off campus, but outside of central Hanoi.
Arriving to Vietnam, after having traveled to Tanzania for some many years where I know everyone, was very much different for me. I was to meet my driver, who would take me to the Hilton, in the arrival area, but after passing through customs and discovering that there were to arrival areas, each mobbed with disembarking passengers and their families who were greeting them, it was clear to me that this was not going to be such a simple task. Amazingly, for this situation is not one that I would have easily navigated in the past without a tremendous amount of anxiety, I calmly walked back and forth between the two areas, both inside the terminal and out, and eventually ran across my driver who was holding a piece of paper with my name on it. Whether it’s age, or having worked on this issue over the last 10 years, who knows, but regardless of the reason, I was relaxed and ready to encounter the new experiences a visit to this country would bring.
It was very hazy outside and the drive to downtown Hanoi was quite interesting, mostly for the throng of motorbikes we encountered once entering the city proper. I didn’t have a chance to snap photos of the many four-person families riding together on a single small scooter, but did get one of woman driving with several chicken coups strapped to the back of her motorbike with all the chickens sticking their heads out in the breeze, all with little knowledge of their short future and what was in store for them later that evening. Arriving to the Hilton Opera, so named as it sits immediately next door to the huge Hanoi Opera House, I finally realized just how exhausted I really was after my thirty so hours of flying, even with the sleep I got on the first leg of my journey. I went upstairs to my room and promptly dozed for a few hours before heading outside to explore.
The Hanoi Old Quarter is probably the most famous and well-visited area of the city as it is comprised of small streets and alleyways, each with its own theme of what is sold or traded, reminding me very much of the Souq Waqif, or marketplace, in downtown Doha, a place I had visited a number of times prior to the pandemic. It was structured much the same with each alleyway or section of the market selling specific wares for the locals. Without much direction and armed only with my iPhone, a map, and the knowledge that I wanted to visit this particular section of the city, I strode out of the Hilton and onto the streets of perhaps one of the most remarkable cities I have ever been to. The very first thing you have to learn here, which is a matter of shear survival, is just simply how to cross the street with the thousands of motorbikes zipping in just about every direction and horns constantly honking at who knows what. It’s probably one of the only times that my lack of hearing in one ear has been a positive thing, that is other than when the last group of residents were listening to Shawn Mendes (thanks for Taha for the correction in the name!) while driving in Turtle. I got the knack of it pretty quickly and the simplest way to explain the technique is to ignore the motorbikes as the last thing they would like to do is hit you. They’re very agile and, as best I can tell, are very good at dodging pedestrians. As intimidating as it may sound, it didn’t seem to bother me and far less risky than crossing the street in Dar es Salaam where you almost always forget to look in the other direction since they’re driving on the other side of the road. Either way, I found that walking the narrow streets and crossing the larger ones was not as big of a deal as I had heard it might be. Or perhaps it’s just that I’m a bit fatalistic in my old age.
It was still hot well into the evening and despite the fact that I was still incredibly stuffed from my flights coming in (I did fly business class for full disclosure), I decided that it was only appropriate for me to find a nice table at one of the little bars where all the seats are outside on the tiny streets and you could watch all the passersby, to have a beer or two. Vietnamese beer, of course. I suddenly realized that I hadn’t exchanged any money nor had I even stopped by an ATM, and even though they were willing to take dollars instead of dong, I do think it cost me an extra dollar for the two beers I drank. In the big scheme of things, that was a small price to pay and besides, I was still simply intoxicated by the incredible atmosphere of this city. The beers were quite refreshing given the heat of the night and more than enough to fill me up as I’m sure those that know can attest to the fact that I was not about to starve. On my next foray into the Old Quarter, though, I vowed I would bring an appetite as well as a local who could help me with navigating all the food choices. There was plenty of seafood and snails and I was determined to try them before I leave this country.
I walked back to the Hilton at an early hour knowing full well that I would be returning soon and better armed with the right currency and more knowledge of the local cuisine. Tomorrow, I would be leaving early for a two-day, one-night cruise on Ha Long Bay, a place that was not to be missed according to every single person I spoke with and told I was coming here. But I already knew that I would be returning here someday to experience this place with a partner for, as much as I do enjoy traveling alone, Vietnam is a place that should honestly be shared with someone special, but that would have to wait until my next trip.