Jess Gallagher and I arrived home on Sunday, 21 October after an eventful week in Vietnam!
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City on Saturday (13/10) was an assault on our senses — smells, sounds and sights. After being picked up by Phoung (from the Brien Holden Vision Institute) we checked into our hotel and headed out for dinner. Jess tried everything — I didn’t! After a quick look around the city, we headed to Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, a three hour drive south-west towards the sea.
School visit on Vietnam TV
Around 6.00am we left for our first school screening at Tran Dai Nghia via the Vision Centre (established by BHVI as part of ABI). Arriving at the school was amazing – rows and rows of children aged from around 10-15 (500 of them) all sitting on tiny little plastic stools waiting patiently in the boiling sun. As Jess emerged from the van a cheer went up – we felt a little like celebrities! We were escorted to a table with a few chairs at the front (thankfully with an umbrella blocking out most of the sun) and sat through a few long speeches.
Dr Giap, the local ophthalmologist working with BHVI gave an eye health education session with the kids who enthusiastically asked questions. We were surprised by the number of questions until we discovered at the end that those children who asked questions received a gift, not a bad way to encourage participation!
Once the vision screening started it ran like a well-oiled machine — pretty amazing to watch. There were lots of pictures of Jess taken with various students at different stages across the screening; we interviewed Jess and then Vietnamese television interviewed me. Questions were translated to me and I answered in English — apparently they were going to do the translation back at the studio — I wonder what I actually said on TV!
My most inspiring moment
Without a doubt the most inspiring moment was when we discovered a young girl, Trang (only nine years old) who had been brought to the screening by her father as he had noticed she was doing poorly at school in recent months. His older daughter attended the school where the screening was being held— they were very poor, the father was disabled and also a single parent. It turned out that his young daughter had very poor eyesight and needed spectacles (he also needed some for reading). Unfortunately, they could not afford them (even though they only cost around $2) and would not be covered by the school program as Trang didn’t attend that school.
We arranged for the father and daughter to visit the Vision Centre later in the day to get the much needed spectacles — we would cover the cost. You can imagine how grateful the father was, but really we were the ones who felt privileged that we were able to change the life of a small child so effortlessly — witnessing something like that is truly inspiring.
Trang getting her eye tested with Jess looking on.
Photo courtesy of Brien Holden Vision Institute, photographer Dean Saffron.
World Sight Day, surgery and food poisoning
Another early start the next day — this time we arrived at the new convention centre to celebrate World Sight Day. Around 500 people attended including many high level government officials. I gave my second speech alongside the Vice Chairman of the Provincial Government. Rather than talk about the Global Consortium, as originally planned, I decided to speak about my experiences the previous day — about meeting Trang and how amazing it was to see first-hand the valuable work that is being done through partnership in Vietnam. After handing out what seemed like a million pairs of spectacles to an endless line of children we headed off for the long drive back to Ho Chi Minh City airport where we parted ways with our BHVI colleagues and flew to Hue.
Our flight was bumpy, but little did we know that we were heading for an even bumpier end to our Vietnam trip! We were greeted by the very enthusiastic Dr Phuc (The Fred Hollows Foundation) at Hue airport and then headed to our hotel for some much needed sleep before starting our long day of visits and travel in Hue. After visiting the new Provincial hospital and sitting through a few more presentations, Jess and I entered theatre to see some surgery up close.
After lunch we drove further north to visit a district hospital and an eye clinic in another province. Phuc gave us a personal history lesson with many stories about the War as we were driving through the area in Vietnam where much of the fighting occurred. After arriving back in Hue Jess and I went to a Western hotel for some food On our late night flight to Hanoi, Jess started to feel very unwell. We were both exhausted, but didn’t realise we had food poisoning — we think it was the mango!
A day concert to remember
Another highlight of our trip was the visit to a school of around 1,200 children which included 160 blind and vision impaired children. The teachers were remarkable and the children were inspirational.
After spending some time visiting the children in their classrooms, we were treated to a concert but this was no amateur school concert. The ‘band’ of blind students have performed in Japan and Europe and when a group of young girls sang ‘It’s a small world’ perfectly in English and Vietnamese, I completely melted. While it wasn’t easy feeling unwell, it was a very special part of our trip and one neither of us would have wanted to miss. The whole experience was very moving. That night I rapidly deteriorated and Jess and I found ourselves with a fever for the next 36 hours!
Overall, an amazing trip — being able to witness first-hand the great work of our Consortium members and the inspiring people they work with in Vietnam was truly motivating.
I’m confident that what Jess saw and whom she met had a very powerful impact on her and provided her with positive experiences of what is being done and what still needs to be done but I don’t think she’ll be rushing out to eat Vietnamese food in a hurry!