Monday, January 14, 2002

The Longest Day

Today we are on our way home. I never had a day flying quite like this one. My friend Viet was late picking up Ben and me at the hotel. Luckily, traffic to the airport wasn’t too bad and we arrived at about 11:30 a.m. for our 1:00 p.m. flight. We said our goodbyes to our Vietnamese friends and headed into the terminal. That is when all the trouble started.

We sent our bags through the security check and the Vietnamese flagged one of my bags. I had packed the tote tightly with gifts and personal items, including a couple of bottles of nuoc mam (Vietnamese fish sauce) and a dozen bottles of snake wine. The Vietnamese don’t like the idea of people traveling with nuoc mam. If the bottles should break in transit, the smell of the fish sauce would affect the entire plane. They made me open the tote to inspect the contents. The customs agent started whining "Oh, too many!” I tried to play dumb and not understand what he was talking about. They were about to take away my nuoc mam, when Ben offered the agent a bribe to let me keep my goods.

The tote was sealed with all intact, and we were allowed to proceed to baggage check in. The agent followed us shortly thereafter and waited in the bathroom for Ben to give him the $100,000VND note (about US$6.00) I had tucked into my passport.

The line at the baggage check in was long and moving rather slowly. We were almost to the counter when they started calling our flight to board. I was starting to get nervous. The last thing I needed now was to miss the flight. The lady at the baggage check in told me I had too many bags. We had cleared the extra freight with EVA, but she insisted I could only have one extra bag. Luckily, Ben had extra room and I gave him one of my bags to check through. Finally, we were on our way to Vietnamese customs.

The smug lady at the customs counter snapped, “Where’s you laptop?” The smug little grin went away when I told her that one of her countrymen had stolen my computer. We made it through and were on our way to immigration. We paid our exit tax ($12.00) and proceeded to our last stop before the boarding gate. The Vietnamese policeman on duty at my checkpoint had a hard time comparing the clean-shaven picture on my passport with the bearded individual standing before him. After some scrutiny, his rubber stamp found its mark on my passport and I was on my way to the gate.

Arrived at the gate and went through the final security check. They flagged my backpack this time. “Oh, too many jewelry” sounded familiar; I played dumb again. I wasn’t about to cough up another $100,000VND bribe. We went round and round about the quantity of goodies I had and finally the security guard let me pass. I entered the boarding area and figured all my problems were behind me now.

Wrong, again.

Our flight arrived on time at Taipei. We had a short layover and then boarded the plane for the last leg home. That is, all but me boarded. When I handed the gate attendant my boarding pass issued to me in Saigon, he said, “Where is your ticket?” Here we go again. I explained the boarding pass was all I was given at the airport in Saigon. Not good enough. I had to empty my backpack twice searching for the missing ticket. By this time the entire plane had boarded and they were holding the flight for me. Finally, they said I would have to pay a $50 fee for a replacement ticket. There was no time to take care of the transaction in Taipei; so, they kept my passport and said an agent would meet me in San Francisco to complete the transaction. Whatever! Just get me on the plane and out of here!

A ticket agent met me at the plane in San Francisco, and I paid my fine.

I breezed through customs and was greeted by Ann Spanko and Miss Thuy. Miss Thuy presented all of us with roses and thanked us for helping her people in Vietnam. It was a sweet ending to my nightmare of a trip home.

Regardless of all the hassles on the way home, I can’t wait until Mission Peace returns to Viet Nam.

Saturday, January 12, 2002

Day 9: Looking Ahead

We arrived at the hospital fairly early this morning.  Ben and I had a brief meeting with Dr Khoi.  The hospital will have a dinner party for us on Sunday. We will have a chance to say our goodbyes and exchange gifts with. Today Annamarie will finally visit the operating room; she just couldn’t watch the surgery. I found it fascinating. Almost no blood. We watched some surgery then left for a visit to the new hospital under construction here in Can Tho.

Dr. Khoi took Annamarie, Ben, and me to the site of the new hospital. It's a very large project located on more than an acre of land. The eight-story structure will contain 750 beds and have ten operating rooms on the second floor. The hospital won’t be ready for our 2003 trip, but should be ready for us in 2004. It will be a real pleasure to have a modern facility for the doctors.

There wasn't enough nitrogen left for tomorrow’s surgeries, Ben and I went to get more this afternoon. All went pretty smooth getting the gas, save the flat tire we had on the return trip. Our driver changed the flat in minutes and we were on our way back to the hospital.

After lunch we visited the Red Cross one more time. We put together all of the school supplies we had left along with a large tote full of children’s shoes. The Red Cross will distribute the goodies to the poor here in Can Tho.

All in all, it was a fairly quiet day for us.

The doctors have been working very hard. They did five surgeries today. I am very proud of our doctors: They are working very hard to help as many people as they can in the short time we are here. They will really need the few days of rest we have planned in Saigon before we return to America.

Tomorrow we are invited to the wedding of one of the Vietnamese doctors.

Friday, January 11, 2002

Day 8: Boy Howdy, Another Great Day

Ben and I met with the local Red Cross today. We had a lengthy meeting and discussed the work that the Red Cross is doing in Can Tho and throughout the province. They are quite active, and of course, underfunded. We agreed to help them as much as we could. There are many people and organizations helping the poor in Viet Nam, but all are underfunded. Or, maybe there are just too many poor. I think the last is most accurate.

After our meeting we visited a Red Cross Clinic that dispenses herbal medications and some regular medicines. They were treating a number of people with electric shock for various ailments. I think the treatments have more of a psychological effect, rather than medicinal merit. Still, they give some comfort to the poor who cannot afford to go to the hospital or see a doctor. We have some school supplies and few other goodies that we will drop off tomorrow.

Tonight we are invited to a special dinner to meet with a high-ranking Communist official. The man we will meet is Mr. Hung. They call him Anh Sau, which means Mr. Six. The highest ranking Generals are number ten. At number six, Colonel Hung is a very high-ranking official in charge of Environmental Development for the province. He also owns a good-sized amusement park about 25 kilometers outside Can Tho. We have been invited to tour the park and join him for dinner.

We arrived at the park around 5:00 p.m. and were greeted by members of Anh Sau’s staff. The amusement park is a small zoo in a park-like setting with many small ponds and paths that lead past the various animals on display. The park also has a good-sized aviary containing local birds and a fair bat population. We were taken inside the aviary to see the birds close up. The park was completed four months ago and is very nice by Vietnamese standards.

The swarming mosquitoes brought a quick end to our tour. We took shelter in Anh Sau’s house on the grounds and began our meeting. We exchanged pleasantries and were served fruit, ice water, and ice cream. After the introductions were complete, I explained what Mission Peace is doing in Viet Nam, and our future plans for our work in the country. Bruce explained the doctors’ work at the hospital in Can Tho.

Anh Sau was impressed with our current work and pleased with our future intentions. He offered to give us land and build a hospital for us in the area. We would have to outfit the hospital and provide American doctors to help the poor people in the countryside. I don’t know if we will be able to pull this one off, but if we can, can you imagine a Mission Peace hospital here in Vietnam?

First things first, I have to prepare a written proposal outlining everything about Mission Peace. Then, Anh Sau will present it to the province officials and help us to get their agreement to go forward with the project. There will be many hurdles to jump over, but we may just be able to make this happen.

Following dinner, Anh Sau took the microphone and sang a couple of Vietnamese songs. He has a very good voice. A couple more of the Vietnamese followed with more beautiful Vietnamese songs. Then the Ungrateful Mekong Dead took the stage: Jeff Spanko on guitar, Bruce Lehnert and Barry Minerof were the vocalists. It took Jeff about 15 minutes to get the Vietnamese guitar sounding like something American. Bruce and Barry couldn’t come close to the beautiful voices of the Vietnamese singers, but for enthusiasm and guts, we all gave them a ten. Everyone in the restaurant was all ears -- even the kitchen staff poured into the main room to hear the crazy Americans sing. They really rocked the joint. After the second song they were descended upon by all of the ladies who presented them with roses for a performance well done. I told them not to quit their day jobs.

After much hand-shaking and promises to meet again in 2003, we were off to the hotel.  It was a long and fruitful day.

Thursday, January 10, 2002

Day 7: Back on the Bus

Back on the bus at 7:15 a.m. Today we are heading to Rach Gia. Annamarie and Christophe will stay behind.

Today we will meet with the hospital in Rach Gia to try to set up a mission for next year. Rach Gia is located on the Gulf of Thailand, about as far West as one can go in Viet Nam. Rach Gia was my province headquarters for seven months while I served in Viet Nam. I wonder how much of the city I will remember. I wonder what memories and emotions the visit will bring forth?

Once again, the wind fills the sails of our four-wheeled schooner and we sail off, deep into the Mekong Delta.

We arrived at the hospital about 10:30 AM and were greeted by one of the Vice-Directors and one of the department heads.  We had a short meeting and were taken on a tour. The 850-bed hospital looks a bit old on the outside, but is much nicer than our home base in Can Tho. Kien Giang province is much wealthier than Can Tho. My jaw almost hit the floor when I saw the operating rooms. They are brand new! They look like something one would see in America. We looked in on one surgery. The Vietnamese doctors were working on a man with two broken legs. There are eight operating rooms and a 22-bed recovery room.  The hospital has all of the modern equipment that a first-class operating room could want. What a difference between Rach Gia and Can Tho.

Following our tour, the Vice-Director and a couple of the doctors treated our group to lunch. We feasted on huge prawns and crab cooked in a spicy piquant sauce. We were in heaven! After lunch, we returned to the hospital for a meeting with the muckity mucks. The Vice-Director, Head of Child Welfare, Chief of Surgery, and a couple of the department heads sat in. They had lots of questions for us and I did my best to make sure they fully understood what Mission Peace is all about. In the end, they happily agreed to host a team from Mission Peace in 2003. Now all I have to do is come up with doctors and about US$15,000 to make it happen. Piece of cake, UGH. Mission Peace is growing.  Look out world!

We were invited to visit an orphanage on our way back to Can Tho. We picked up one of the City Council members on the way.  The Communist orphanage was nowhere as nice as the Hoa Mai operation. This orphanage has about 50 children of varying ages, and a number of aged homeless people. There were about eight infants under their care. I mentioned I could easily find homes for the babies in America, but they told us that the Government has put a moratorium on adoptions and there is no word on when adoptions will resume.

We did our tour thing, and then it was time to return to Can Tho. We arrived back at the hotel a little past 7:00 PM. It was a long day, but well worth the long trip.

Wednesday, January 9, 2002

Day 6: School Visits

We boarded our bus at 8:00 a.m., and were on our way to Vi Thanh. We had to stop by the hospital to drop off Dr Lien-Huong and give a list of the people who would travel to Rach Gia with us tomorrow. I also wanted to pick up my last box of Tootsie Pops. Alas, the hospital couldn’t find the key to our supply room. I hate to travel without my Tootsie Pops!

On our way back to the bus, a man approached Ben and I.  He had heard that our mission was in Can Tho and traveled from Rach Gia with his son seeking our help. The boy was lying on the ground just outside the hospital gate. The doctors have a full schedule and there are still 21 patients to examine. It almost broke my heart to have to tell this father that we just couldn’t help him this year.

The word is out about us all over the Mekong Delta. Everywhere we go people approach us seeking help for their children. I think I would rather be beaten to within an inch of my life and dragged behind wild horses before facing another loving parent desperately seeking help for their broken child. GOD, I wish we could help them all!

Finally, we are on the road to Vi Thanh. Our comfortable, air-conditioned bus plowed through the verdant countryside like a good ship on a calm sea. Thatch-walled, tin-roofed shanties line the road. If not for the occasional new cement and tile homes, one would think it was 30 years ago. Not much has changed in the countryside since I was here as a solider during the war. No one is shooting at us…LOL. Bright-colored clothes have replaced black pajamas and the olive drab that all used to wear. It's much better now than then. Annamarie and Christophe were interested in hearing what Viet Nam was like during the war. We spent some time talking about my experiences in Viet Nam during the war.

Our first stop was a Buddhist Temple, where the sisters are working on programs to serve the poor. They want to start a shelter program for aged men, and an after-school study program for poor students. They are women of great faith in Buddha. They are patiently waiting for donations from heaven to fund their projects. We politely suggested they might need to take some action to help Buddha provide for them. We suggested they start a restaurant to feed the poor and use the profits to fund their other projects. They seemed to agree with the idea…we will see what happens. We had a very nice visit and left a donation for the Temple. Christophe took some very nice pictures of the Sisters.

Now, off to the Hoa Mai Orphanage. We pulled up to the orphanage and the place looked deserted. There were a couple of kids in the front yard and one of the employees greeted us. A couple of minutes later the kids and the director showed up and before long the crowd gathered. The kids sang a couple of songs for us and I got a chance to speak to the gathering. Surprisingly, they understood my Vietnamese pretty well.

At one point, before the assembly, I looked out the window and saw quite a commotion in the courtyard. Annamarie was passing out goodies to the kids. They were swarming around her like a pack of hungry sharks in a feeding frenzy. I thought we were going to have to send a rescue party to save her. She made it out alive.
After the singing and official greetings were done, we assembled the children for a group picture. Then the free-for-all began.  The kids swarmed us. There were many hugs and kisses. We took lots of pictures of them and I let some of the kids use my digital camera. One of them took the picture of the two girls wearing their white ao dias. My beard fascinated the kids; I thought the were going to rub it off. They all called me "Papa." I guess they are all my kids now, COOL!

Annamarie left a large bag of school supplies for the kids and I left a cash donation. Like the Hoa Mai Orphanage in Can Tho, the children here are extremely well cared for. They are very happy children. Another big THANKS to Annamarie’s Boy and Girl Scouts for supplying all of the school supplies and gifts for the children. Your gifts are a big hit wherever we go.

Tuesday, January 8, 2002

Day 5: Off & Running

The doctors were off to the hospital at 8:00 a.m.

We arrived at Tan An High School to meet the Mission Peace Kids by 9:00 a.m., laden with gifts and personal messages for the students. Annamarie has a ton of stuff for the kids, including a very special book for each of the 33 students included in this year’s program. Each of the students back home prepared a book for their Vietnamese counterpart. The book includes their picture and hand-written information about them. This is a very nice way to start a relationship. Good job kids! There were t-shirts, school supplies, small toys, and more. I, of course, supplied the Tootsie Pops…LOL.

Christophe, our team photographer, was burning film like crazy! I think he had about ten cameras working all at once. He needs a couple of more arms. Mr. Loc, our professional Vietnamese videographer, was documenting the event. We will have some great video to show our American students. We even caught Annamarie leading the exercise portion of a physical education class. She had them jumping, bending, breathing, kicking, and punching. It is a wonder we didn’t have any injuries! The feet and hands were really flying. Ben Ly and I were the interpreters.

My friend, the school nurse and Catholic Sister was kind enough to tell all of the teachers that I am fluent in Vietnamese. They were speaking to me as though I was one of the natives. I was keeping up pretty well, but they get going pretty fast when they are excited. The only thing I could do was nod and pretend I knew what they were talking about. Christophe took over a French class for a period. Annamarie and I visited three other classes and answered questions and entertained the students. We ended our visit with more photographs and many smiling goodbyes and promises to meet again next year.

Following our visit to Tan An High School, we were off to the nearby Hoa Hao resturant. The Hoa Hau religious order opened two resturants in Can Tho this October to provide low-cost meals to feed the poor. Their meals cost $2,000 VND, which is about fifteen cents in US dollars. The customers receive a beautiful plate of vegetarian food and all the rice they can eat. The aromas were devine and the resturant was doing great business. All of the Hoa Hau people working at the resturant are volunteers. All of the profits go to help feed the poor. Wonderful, wonderful people!

We are off to the Hoa Mai Orphanage in Can Tho, which is sponsored by ASSORV, a group based in France that supports three orphanages in Viet Nam. One in Can Tho, one in Vi Thanh, and one in Da Nang. We will visit Vi Thanh tomorrow. The orphanage is about a 30-minute bus ride from downtown Can Tho. When our bus rolled in we were greeted by several of the children and the director of the orphanage.

Upon entering the gates of the orphanage, there was an immediate feeling of sanctuary and tranquility. Within the gates the orphans were safe, well cared for, and they treated one another as brother and sister. Most of the children were in school. The orphanage cares for fifty orphans of various ages. The accomodations are very modest. The boys quarters hold about 24 boys; the girls room has room for about 28. The double bunk beds reminded me of a military barracks. The children remain at the orphanage until the age of 18, when they go to a technical school to learn a trade.

The children and the facilities were very clean and well kept. The friendly and curious children were with us every step of the way while we were there. If we have a little extra room next trip, I would like to bring along some new clothing for the children. We made a small cash donation. I will miss the children until I can see them again next year. After we left, we realized that we had forgotten to bring the school supplies we had for them. We will stop and drop off the supplies on the way home from the Vi Thanh Orphanage tomorrow.

Monday, January 7, 2002

Day 4: Mission Peace Kids

I have to stop using superlatives to describe how well things are going this trip. There just aren’t enough good words to do the job.

This morning we had a party for 39 students who are or will be part of the Mission Peace Kids program. We will match each student with a student in America and they will communicate by letter, email, and video to share their cultures and personal information with each other. It is my hope, by bringing together youth from different backgrounds and cultures we can make the world a smaller place where people can find it easier to live in peace because they have formed personal relationships.

The students were all at the hotel by 8:30 a.m. Their teacher lined them up in twos and marched them into the meeting room.  The room was filled with smiling, cuious faces (both children and parents). The meeting began with introductions and Ammamarie and I were presented with welcoming gifts. We explained the Mission Peace Kids program and opened the meeting for questions.

The students spoke suprisingly good English and their questions were very interesting and demonstrated their voracious appetite to learn about America. Several of the students had prepared songs to entertain the group. The songs were in both English and Vietnamese and all were very well performed. More questions followed the seranade and the Mission Peace doctors were introduced. More questions – then the party ended about 10:00 a.m. Following the formal meeting, refreshments were served and we had the chance take pictures and mingle the students and their parents. Annamarie and Barry gave small presents to all of the children, and I supplied the Tootsie Pops.

Dr. Lien-Huong arranged for a tour bus to take everyone on a visit to Soc Trang. Everyone had a great time visiting a snake farm and several temples. It was a good chance for the doctors to relax before surgery starts tomorrow. I stayed behind to catch up on my journals and process pictures. I didn’t mind missing the trip to Soc Trang. I had been there before and didn’t relish anther bus ride.

Tomorrow the surgery begins and we visit Tan An High School, Hoa Hau resturants, and Vi Thanh Orphanage in Can Tho.

Sunday, January 6, 2002

Day 3: January 6 -- Examination Day

The doctors had the chance to meet with the patients they helped last year. Not all of the patients came in for the follow-up visit, but those who did really made our day.

This time last year the scene was one of deformity and despair for both the children and their parents. This year the children were laughing and playing in the waiting area. Their parents were holding their heads high and smiling, proud of their new children. The difference in both the children and the parents was night and day.  Their lives have been truly changed in a very positive way!  I cannot possibly explain to all of you just how proud I am to have been able to bring our marvelous doctors to Viet Nam to help these gentle people who, only a year ago, had no hope.

A number of patients from last year that couldn't be worked into the surgery schedule will get first chance this year. The doctors still have 21 more patients to examine and will try to get to all of them during the week. The doctors need to do some fine-tuning on a couple of last year's patients, but nothing major. Boy, what a day!

Annamarie made the waiting as comfortable and entertaining as possible for our patients. She handed out stress balls, small stuffed animals, children's necklaces, candy, bubble stuff, and more to waiting patients. Several times, the waiting area looked like the stage on The Lawrence Welk Showbubbles everywhere. The mood was far different from last year's somber stage.

Ben Ly and I worked late today. We had to return to the gas supply company to pick up the nitrogen gas tank to run the power equipment. Even the gas company chipped in to help our mission. They had to have a special connector manufactured to connect our regulator to the tank. Not only did they have the part made overnight, but they only charged us their cost for the part, gas, and tank (about US$15).

We went out for a very nice dinner to end our incredible day.  We all sang a boisterous HAPPY BIRTHDAY to Jenni and Oanh.

We are now staying in the brand-spanking-new Golf Hotel, which just opened this January. The extra cost is well worth the extra comfort for our hard working team members. 
Peace, Steve

Saturday, January 5, 2002

Day 2: January 5 -- Well Underway

This morning we met with the hospital and set up the week. The introductions were pleasant and the hospital is very happy to have us working with them again. Following the short meeting, the doctors began sorting the supplies and preparing for the surgeries, which will start Monday. The Vietnamese doctors were like kids turned loose in a candy shop. They keep holding pieces of equipment and assorted supplies and singing the praises of Mission Peace. We are a big hit this year.
Barry, Ben, Annamarie, Christophe, and I left the other doctors to their work and were off on a different errand. First stop was the internet café to get our reports off and catch up on e-mail. The servers here are really slow, so it takes forever to get the mail placed and check incoming email. The doctors will have reports following examinations tomorrow and following the upcoming surgeries.

When we finally got out of the internet café, it was back to the hospital to have a van take us to the gas company to arrange for a nitrogen tank for the operating room. This turned into quite a process. After several phone calls and considerable conversation by committee, the hospital agreed to take us. (We need nitrogen for operating the power equipment; the hospital's oxygen could damage the equipment.) We finally got our regulator to the gas company, where we found they did not have the proper connection for their tanks. They agreed to alter our regulator to accommodate their tanks and we will pick up the tank tomorrow afternoon.
Again, this took considerable conversation. All of the gas company employees gathered around to watch the goofy Americans negotiate for the nitrogen. We finally made it back to the hospital, where they were overjoyed to learn I would pay for the gas tank and nitrogen. The cost is about US$70.0. You would think we were talking about millions for all the commotion.

It seems like everywhere we go we raise a commotion. Everyone wants to know what the strange Americans are up to. It doesn’t bother me too much, but the doctors tend to lose their patience once in a while.  I get a kick out of it all.

We will be changing hotels tomorrow. The Ninh Kieu has gone downhill quite a bit since last year. The new Golf Hotel next door just opened and is beautiful! The rooms are very western, something like a Hyatt. The cost is a bit more, but the doctors agreed to pay the difference out of pocket. We negotiated to $45 per night; at home they'd be over $200. There is a beautiful pool and spa, so the doctors will have a nice place to relax after their hard days of work. (I don’t mind a little extra comfort myself.) Our rooms are on the upper floors and we will have beautiful views of the Mekong River and surrounding delta area.

Wednesday, January 2, 2002

Day 1: January 4 -- Well, We Made It

As usual, nothing went according to plan once we hit Viet Nam. More about all of that later.

Let’s start with the beginning. My friends Shel, Nancy, Larry, and Helen were right on time to pick up all of the supplies at my house. We filled a truck and van with 35 large packages of supplies destined for Can Tho. When we arrived at the SFO Airport, we were descended upon by a couple of porters with large flat carts. In a couple of trips everything was at the EVA Aircheck-in counter ready to go. The check in staff had been briefed about our mission and were ready for us. Very nice and very efficient.

Then off to the VIP lounge for a relaxing wait for our plane. It was nice to have a quiet place to renew our friendships and meet our new team members. EVA really took great care of us and got us off to a great start. Their generous gift of free passage for our mountain of supplies will make this a very special trip for our team and the hospital. Everything went smoothly in Taipe, then we were off for Viet Nam. Everyone was all smiles and compliments for me for being so organized, and for moving things so smoothly.

Then, we arrived in Saigon…

We retrieved all of our luggage and supplies and proceeded en masse to the security check-out point. After several long discussions between our Resident, Dr. Ngo, and the airport security people, we were allowed to pass through. I think the hospital neglected to let security know what we were doing. Once outside, we were greeted by quite a few of our Vietnamese friends. The Cao Dia came down from Tay Ninh to welcome us and to bring Miss Phung to take the ride to Can Tho with us. The surgery performed on Miss Phung last year didn't take so doctors will investigate and correct any problems.

Hong and Thuy, my Vietnamese travelling companions, were there and ready to go. The hospital supplied the two vans I requested. Pretty good so far. We loaded the hospital vans and proceeded to a Mercedes "bus" that would take us to Can Tho. The bus turned out to be more of pregnant van. There was no way our team and our personal gear would fit. We caught one of the hospital vans and had them take some of our personal things to Can Tho. It took us a little while, but we were able to hire another van. Still, we were stuffed into the vans like sardines in a can. I had pictured a tour sized bus with air conditioning and comfortable seats to make our trip to Can Tho enjoyable. Silly me.

When we arrived at the hotel, we found out we were booked into the old Ninh Kieu Hotel, and not the shiny, new hotel. Disappointment #2. We are looking into switching hotels, but we are all safely in Can Tho and send our love to family and friends.