Home Travel How I know that Vietnam’s international healthcare is great

How I know that Vietnam’s international healthcare is great

by Ellie Hopgood

I recently chronicled the story of me and Sophie travelling the entire length of Vietnam, and then some, in one day in order to get from Ho Chi Minh City in the south to Cat Ba Island, which is off the north coast. Some of you might have noticed a few references to a burn I was nursing while on this adventure. We had a great time charging through Vietnam, but waking up the morning after arriving in our lodge, it became clear that we’d traded sadistic bus drivers for potential sepsis.

But first, a little backstory: the night before heading to Cat Ba, we’d attended a ‘dine in the dark’ restaurant, where, as the particularly astute among you might have guessed, you eat your whole meal in the pitch black. Because this was Ho Chi Minh City instead of London, a four course tasting menu with three cocktails each cost us £16 instead of a vital organ.

We were buzzing for this meal. We hopped on a motorbike taxi toward the restaurant, with both of us on one bike along with the driver. This is fairly inadvisable as it means that I was sitting with my bare legs extremely close to the exhaust. After we’d arrived at our destination, I tried to get off the bike and accidentally pressed my right leg against the exhaust.

Well. Let me just say that until this moment I did not realise that the metal of an exhaust is approximately the same temperature as THE SUN. Alas, we were late for our reservation so we ran down the street toward the place with me saying, “I think it’s fine. I mean, it really, really hurts, but it’s probably fine.”

We then spent the evening enjoying amazing Vietnamese food in the dark while simultaneously asking the kind staff for a bag of ice. They, totally reasonably, misunderstood and brought me a single ice cube. First aid 0, spring rolls 1. Though my burning ankle would probably have appreciated the first aid.

Now, when we returned to our room, did I:

  1. Undertake proper first aid care and seek the advice of a medical professional?
  2. At least do the bare minimum of washing out the grit from the burn and applying some anti-septic cream?
  3. Fall asleep in a drunken stupor because four cocktails is a lot and I’m apparently more attached to a good night’s sleep than my ankle?

My good health is wasted on me.

We woke up the next morning and began our epic journey. Falling asleep on the island that night, the blister had ballooned into a truly monstrous bubble of pus and my leg was starting to swell. Yep. It was as gross as it sounds. Though the skin of the blister was also incredibly smooth and I kept absentmindedly stroking it because I am a weirdo.

My limited first aid knowledge aside, both Soph and I were pretty confident that popping the enormous blister would be an error. I considered trying to aspirate the blister, but given my only options for something to prick the bubble with were one of my grotty earrings and a stick we found on the ground, we figured that would be akin to injecting sepsis bacteria directly in my bloodstream and might as well try to give my leg a fighting chance.

I decided to just be careful and try to not let the blister pop. Well, I say ‘be careful,’ but what I really mean is do whatever I want and occasionally look at my leg to make sure the blister was still intact.

This genius plan lasted approximately three hours, before I hopped into one of the kayaks we’d rented for the day and ripped the blister clean off on the edge. I then proceeded to spent the day swimming in the sea, which I rationalised would be good for the now-uncovered patch of raw skin as seawater is, you know, salty and antiseptic, right? I chose to ignore the visible debris and multiple small organisms floating with us, along with mentally blocking out the knowledge that water must be full of oil given the constant stream of boats.

Don’t mind me, just letting potentially lethal bacteria enter my body. But look at the view!

Did I then:

  1. Seek some kind of medical care, as by only a few hours after the kayaking excursion a delightful crust had formed that was yellow and clearly harbouring an infection?
  2. Go for a long uphill hike and then get on a banana boat ride with a bunch of people I didn’t know as a tropical cyclone was rolling in?

I’ll admit, the banana boat ride probably didn’t worsen the burn. It was, however, a pretty questionable decision generally as the impending cyclone made the waves that looked super manageable from the viewpoint absolutely fucking massive. I apologise to the three Koreans I shared this ride with that there is a terrified, pasty, British girl holding on for dear life and grimacing in the back of all their selfies.

After more walking and motorbiking, we headed back to our accommodation. Only now did I reach for the Savlon. It was too late. I cleaned the now exposed and infected part of my leg as best I could, noting the small band of red skin now ringing the edge of the burn, and hopped into bed. “I’ll check on it in the morning,” I told Sophie, nonplussed.

I woke up early, as I always do, because I have the internal clock of small child. I looked at the burn in the semi-darkness and was pleased to see that my leg looked identical. In the dark. I’m a moron.

I went outside to walk around. It was only after walking for about twenty minutes around the property that I actually looked at my leg.

The small band of red surrounding the burn, suggesting a spreading infection, had literally gotten ten times worse. A large proportion of my lower leg was red and hot and swollen. The original burn was only the size of a fifty pence piece. How could it do so much damage?!

I went back to our room and waited for Soph to wake up. “You know how much I hate making adult decisions, right?” I looked back to the swollen, infected thing that I used to fondly refer to as my calf. “I think I need to see a doctor. Probably shouldn’t mess with potential sepsis.”

A quick conversation with the owner of our hotel put paid to the idea of seeking medical assistance on the island, as no doctors on the island spoke English.

We decided to head back to Hanoi, the capital, on the mainland. Of course, the tropical cyclone had now reached fever pitch and all boats had been banned from leaving the island. There were police boats lining the bays to stop boats heading out to sea. We were stuck.

Fortunately, motorbiking all over the island and mango smoothies managed to keep us busy for the next 24 hours as we waited for ferry updates. We managed to get tickets on the first ferry off the island the following morning, which we nearly missed in our state of super chill so ended up roaring down the flooded roads on our bikes with our full backpacks, me trying to keep my leg dry (HA) and both of us driving with our heads down because of the pouring rain. It was safer than it sounds. I think.

As soon as we were back to Hanoi, everything became much more straightforward. The international hospital gave me an appointment that evening, and seeing two doctors, one full wound cleaning and enough antibiotics and cleaning supplies to stock a small pharmacy only cost me £100, which seemed pretty reasonable for last-minute international medical care. Is it even an adventure if you don’t visit an A&E?

I was flying home only three days later, most of which I spent holed up in our room trying to keep my leg elevated and dry. It was the monsoon season in Vietnam, meaning that my leg was either swelling in the 30+ heat or getting soaked by the torrential rain. I did manage to join Sophie on my final day for a visit to the Vietnam Women’s Museum and the ice cream feast that followed, meaning that my experiences from Hanoi were not limited solely to the hospital and my Netflix homepage.

My pharmacy

After two weeks of antibiotics, I was fine, though I do have lovely little heart shaped scar to always remind me that motorbike exhausts should be treated with respect. Vietnam, you were a blast. Thanks for the permanent mark on my body and all the pho. Scars are the best souvenirs.

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