Scaring the Family While Sleeping It Off

Ill in Saigon

“My friends will ask me how I’m doin’,

But I can’t lie to ’em, 

Not feeling fine today….”

–From “Miles Away” by Marc Cohn.

Somewhere in the middle of Ho Chi Minh City’s central district there is supposed to be an emergency medical clinic where everyone speaks English and the doctors are on duty 24 hours a day. At least, that’s what my guidebook said. When I went to the address listed, however, I discovered it wasn’t open, there were no doctors, and few of the workers understood English. Still, the health workers were nice enough to see me after hours and I was grateful. Because I left the guesthouse under the mistaken impression everyone spoke English, I didn’t bring my phrase book. The language barrier wasn’t a problem during the exam, but it did make it hard to get a diagnosis I could understand. In fact, the two men who were examining me left the room to confer on my condition and were gone about 15 minutes.

When they came back they said normal body temperature is 37 (98.6) and I was at 39.5 degrees (103.1 F). They also opened a medical book, said, “You have this” and pointed to the word “influenza.” I was glad to learn my condition wasn’t life-threatening but I was dubious. I was pretty sure the reason it took so long was that they were flipping through old medical textbooks until they found an illness name I would understand. I guess I should be thankful shistosomiasis isn’t more common. 

They also said I should get plenty of bed rest and not travel for five days. 

After I left the clinic I made the biggest mistake of the day. Since it was Mother’s Day, I dutifully called my mom, wished her a happy day, then made the mistake of telling her I was sick. 

Never do this. 

This is how I learned that no matter how old I am I should never say I am sick when I’m on the road because she all but made an international incident out of it. She suggested going to Hanoi as quickly as possible or flying to Hong Kong so I could see a Western doctor, which I wasn’t about to do. Failing that, she suggested I call her every day. Considering that it cost about $7 a minute, there were no ATM’s in Vietnam, none of the banks gave cash advances on American Express cards (suddenly, it wasn’t so convenient to have something with the name “American” in it) and I didn’t have much cash to begin with, I couldn’t comply with that request, either. I was able to give her a number where I could be reached. The place where I was staying didn’t have a phone but the home of the owner’s sister did.

The joy of being sick with the flu during a long trip is that not much happens. It also substantially eases the burden of trying to keep a journal. If you’re in bed all day, there’s not much to write. And, if you’ve fallen behind in your journal, there’s plenty of time to catch up. Of course, it is lonely, but it’s good to make the best of a bad situation.

Things weren’t dull long. Shortly after noon I was jolted out of bed by a knock on my door. It was the sister of the guesthouse owner telling me “my friend” was calling. I couldn’t figure out why Celine would call when she was staying in the room next door, but I put on my pants, followed the woman to her house and discovered a whole new world along the way.

Although she lived within the same square block, her home didn’t front on the street. The only way to reach her house was a series of alleys running behind the main storefronts. I knew that I had to go up an alley off the main street to get to the guesthouse where I was staying, but I just assumed that if I followed the alleyway, it would take me through to the road on the other end of that block. Instead, it lead to a winding network of alley side-streets. Some were only long enough to be small hallways while others were full-fledged thoroughfares where there were places to buy food, eat, watch women do laundry and even see children playing. If a glass-bottomed airplane had flown over the block passengers might have thought they were looking down on a maze, but it was more. It was closer to a segment of interstate highway passing through a major city because it had traffic jams and bottle necks at odd times. In fact, the first time she came to get me there were so many people wandering the alley and so many obstructions to dodge it took us three minutes to cover a distance that should have taken 30 seconds. By the time we finally reached her home, my “friend” had hung up but said she’d call back in five minutes.

The first thing I noticed when the call finally came was my “friend’s” surprisingly American accent. I also noticed how much the caller sounded like mom. Then I realized it was my mother. She had called to talk about my condition; she fretted and tried to convince me to leave Vietnam. In short, she was a parent. I reassured her I was taking care of myself, getting plenty of bed rest and was starting to feel better.

Then I had a coughing fit that lasted so long it sounded like I was going to hock up a Buick. 

The process repeated itself often over the next few days until I finally told my mother I would see an English-speaking doctor for a second opinion on whether I had the ‘flu and how long I had to stay in Ho Chi Minh City. Since I planned to see a doctor around the time she made her daily phone call, I told her to wait a few hours. Unfortunately, she had already called but the woman told me she was going to call back around noon. Not wanting to miss her call, I ran to my guesthouse to get a book, sat in the woman’s guest room around 11:30 and then I waited. 

And waited. 

And waited. 

And waited. 

It got so bad the woman’s son pulled out a video he had rented so we could watch it. The movie was “Casino” and I watched all of it. Did I mention its running time was three hours? 

It’s not the best movie in the world, but it’s something to do while waiting for a call that never comes.

Figuring three hours was long enough, I went back to my guesthouse to pack. Since the doctor told me it was okay to leave, I planned to hit the road the next day and go to Dalat, an old French resort in the hills.

The expense of two doctors’ visits (one cheap, one not), two sets of prescriptions and extra time in one of the country’s biggest cities added an exciting new wrinkle to the trip. After months of having plenty of money, I found myself in danger of running short. Vietnam is not terribly expensive, but I was down to $300 and I had to stretch it across two-and-a-half weeks. In most countries I would have fallen back on my credit card or the hope of finding an American Express Travel Service office, but neither was a viable option here because no one took American Express, there was no AMEX office and no one would accept the card for cash advances. 

I could already tell the rest of my visit in Vietnam was going to be an interesting ride.