Life in Da Nang Archives

March 25, 2007

Life As We Know It

There’s been a free-wheeling discussion going on in the pages of the beautiful environmental and literary magazine, ORION. It was inaugurated by the publication in their January/February 2007 issue of James Howard Kunstler’s article entitled, MAKING OTHER ARRANGEMENTS. Kunstler lays out the proposition that there is no magic technological bullet that will allow the continuation of the American suburban lifestyle in the face of declining oil production. He states:

American suburbia represents the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
And he pulls no punches in detailing the profound changes that the end of cheap and plentiful oil and natural gas will engender. He concludes by saying:
It’s a daunting agenda, all right. And some of you are probably wondering how you are supposed to remain hopeful in the face of these enormous tasks. Here’s the plain truth, folks: Hope is not a consumer product. You have to generate your own hope. You do that by demonstrating to yourself that you are brave enough to face reality and competent enough to deal with the circumstances that it presents. How we will manage to uphold a decent society in the face of extraordinary change will depend on our creativity, our generosity, and our kindness, and I am confident that we can find these resources within our own hearts, and collectively in our communities.
Kunstler’s article drew over 120 comments from readers, many of them quite thoughtful. One writer, though, I thought entirely missed the mark, and seemed to attribute the entire predicament on lack of population control. I felt led to post the following response to her comment in Orion:

No, no, no . . . it’s really not that simple at all. I am an American who has recently moved to Vietnam and I’d like to offer you the view from my perspective. I live in a relatively up-scale corner of Da Nang, Vietnam, a city of one million people. Here’s what I see out my window: one trash can per city block for everyone’s refuse. (The trash is collected daily after the “recycling ladies” pick through it for resalable items.) Fresh vegetables delivered to the market by farmers on heavily loaded old motorbikes or via city bus. A fisherman’s wife delivering the catch of the day in a Styrofoam box lashed to the back of a bicycle. Kids bicycling and walking to the local school. Adults travelling, two to a motorbike, to and from work and market. Hand-washed clothing hanging to dry on the balconies. Folks dining at open-air soup stalls with the proprietor hand-washing the bowls between customers. Buildings designed to maximize the cooling effects of shading and breezes. Delivery drivers pedaling their three-wheeled cyclos loaded with locally manufactured furniture. The population is not the issue. It’s that consumer-culture, petroleum-fueled American Dream that’s the issue. Waste and increased consumption of resources are becoming evident here in Vietnam--but only in direct proportion to the degree to which the population becomes more affluent and more enamored with American-style consumerism.
Da Nang Trash Can

April 20, 2007

One Week in Da Nang

This week, at the far western end of our street, where the newest bridge in Da Nang crosses the Han River, a mismatch between a motorcyclist and a truck resulted in the cyclist sailing over the rail and into the river. His body has yet to be found. Later that same day, my son Tim and a fellow surfer from France helped drag a drowned Vietnamese schoolboy from the surf at the opposite end of our street (a second missing boy has yet to be found). That evening Tim said, “He was just green, man, and water kept foaming out of his mouth. I wonder if we could have saved him if we saw him earlier.”

In my Vietnamese class this week, we’ve been learning words for colors and animals and body parts: “I have a crab. It is purple. It has small eyes. It is delicious.”

Casting in Plaster, Making a Mold for the AFOToday brace-makers came to the rehabilitation center where I volunteer to fit six people for new leg braces that will, hopefully, enable them to walk with the “Steady Footsteps” that are the goal of my little non-profit organization. Six hemiplegic people, five paralyzed on the left side and one on the right, ranging in age from 27 to 80, watched apprehensively as the two orthotists casted each affected leg in turn. Next week we’ll see if the plastic leg braces (or AFOs as they are commonly called) will combine effectively with the new functional exercises I’ve been teaching the Vietnamese therapists to get these folks walking safely and well.

I bit the bullet and wrote a check to the IRS to cover the balance on my 2006 taxes, even though I have grave misgivings about the purposes to which the US government puts our tax dollars. The phrase, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” had risen, unbidden, to mind as I pondered what to do. Ironically, the amount that I sent to the IRS was offset this week by the rise in value of the non-US currencies in which we had invested the proceeds of the sale of our American home. There’s some poetic justice there, I suppose.

We found a local source for dried oregano and basil and parmesan cheese so that our best friend Tam, who has a little restaurant that caters to foreigners, can make spaghetti sauce that smells “just right.” “Wow, “said Tam, examining the plastic bag of dried oregano leaves, “that looks just like marijuana!” It did. I’m so glad that I don’t have to try to finesse a bag of oregano through customs for her on my next return trip from the US!

We got an official notice from the People’s Committee of Da Nang that the request of the Da Nang City Health Department that I be allowed to continue to volunteer at the Da Nang Rehabilitation-Sanatorium Hospital had been approved. Now, it seems that matters have been forwarded to the Da Nang Department of Foreign Affairs, regarding approval of my organization, Steady Footsteps. We’ve gone about our whole move to Vietnam completely backwards and yet, for us, in these uncharted waters, that’s the only way it seems to work. I’ve encountered organizations that have spent years waiting for official approval, collecting funds and building infrastructure before they did anything to actually help Vietnamese people. We did not. We just incorporated our little NGO, sold our house and moved to Vietnam with tourist visas and got to work. I have been called, as I blundered from one Da Nang government office to another, “The Woman Who Did Not Plan Ahead.” But there was no way for us to accomplish what we did sitting safely back in America. And there was no way we could afford to travel back and forth, building this endeavor up incrementally over several years. We felt led to make this giant leap—quitting our jobs, selling our house and packing ourselves and a few personal items up and heading for Vietnam. And it has worked out well. We are living comfortably in a pleasant corner of Da Nang, two blocks from the South China Sea.

Tim Lockett, SurferOur son surfs daily and is enrolled in an accredited American high school via the internet. We use the internet also to maintain connections with friends and the news of the world. We have found wonderful friends here in Da Nang who guide us through the mysteries of life in Vietnam. Our cars are gone, we have no heating bills, and our expenses are low. We are doing good work here--at a slow enough pace that we can see what works and what doesn’t and adjust our methods accordingly. I’ve got time to read and to write. Who could ask for anything more?

June 11, 2007

What Season Is This Anyway?

Bundled Up Against the SunIt’s that time of year when the women of Vietnam bundle up with hats, scarves, face masks, opera-length gloves, heavy socks, slacks and denim jackets. Colorful Christmas lights festoon the thatched-roofed bars and medleys of traditional Christmas songs waft along behind the pedal-powered vending carts. Is Christmas approaching? Sorry, no. If it were, the fifty-foot tall Christmas tree constructed entirely of dark green Heineken beer bottles would still be standing in front of the supermarket on Le Duan Street in Da Nang and Santa would still be flying in a reindeer-drawn Heineken bottle over the streets of Hanoi. If it were New Year’s, we would still have an orange tree standing in the middle of our living room, next to the motorbike. It isn’t Halloween either, although the sight of gangs of Vietnamese women dressed up like gunslingers from the American Wild West might give you that impression.
Summer has arrived in Vietnam. And all prudent women who care about preserving their pale good looks will stop at nothing to protect their skin against the intensified rays of the tropical sun as they travel about on their motorbikes. Ironically, many of these same women balk at wearing a motorbike helmet to protect themselves against possible death and disability from head injury because they think helmets look too strange!
Translator Mieng on Motorbike

August 4, 2007


I 've just returned to Da Nang following a month in the American Midwest where I attended the 2007 FGC Quaker Gathering in River Falls, Wisconsin, as well as three weeks of workshops at the Twenty-First Annual Iowa Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City, Iowa. What follows are a few essays that I wrote during that wonderful month of July 2007.

I’ve come home to Iowa City. The little restaurants peppering the streets serve all my favorite foods, prepared just the way I like them. The quirky gift shops lining each block of the downtown commercial district offer items that suit my taste and my sense of humor to a tee. I can visualize my father walking home along the tree-shaded sidewalks in his grey fedora. On N. Gilbert Street stands a sturdy stone house with a brass plaque that proclaims it to be the Wentz House. My father’s name was Wentz, as was mine, before I married.

Iowa City Wentz HouseBut I’ve never been to Iowa City before. I grew up in a split-level home in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., surrounded by other split level homes and just-planted trees that cast very small shadows. My dad, who did wear a grey fedora, drove to work in an Oldsmobile. His name was Wentz only because he’d rejected the family name of Wasiewicz as being too ethnic and too cumbersome. Our family was still in Poland when the Iowa City Wentz House was built.

I felt that same sense of homecoming when my husband and I moved to a little farm in the Shenandoah Valley. It reminded me of the family farm described in my first grade reader. I'd always envied John, Jean and Judy their trips to their grandparents’ home to visit with the pony and the geese and the cows. That’s the way life should be, I thought. My grandparents lived in Jersey City.

I’m a sucker for historical recreations and spent my college years in Williamsburg, Virginia, at the College of William and Mary. When the academics got too intense I would nip over to Colonial Williamsburg and hang out in an herb garden and watch the sheep in a nearby pasture. But places like Colonial Williamsburg are scrubbed-up, Disneyland versions of history. In colonial times, the cobblestones were covered with a thick layer of horse manure. And if the historic smells of a whaling port like Mystic, Connecticut, were recreated, I’m sure it would dampen the tourist trade. We see only the elegant, bleached bones of history, like pure white Greek statues that bear no trace of their original garishly painted surfaces.

I live now in Da Nang, Vietnam, a vital city with a population of one million. Bus loads of tourists pass my home daily, heading for the near-by tourist town of Hoi An. Hoi An is full of shops that offer “traditional crafts” like wood and stone statuary, silk embroidery, and lacquer-ware wall installations. You won’t find any of these in a Vietnamese home. If my Vietnamese friends had that kind of disposable income, they’d buy a used computer, complete with pirated software. Their parents would have bought an electric fan or a television.

We long for a history that never existed.


I was sucked into the Vortex gift shop one Sunday evening while I was visiting Iowa City. I returned again on Monday to make sure I had not dreamed it.

The Vortex is exactly the sort of clever, crafty gift shop where I would once have stood and agonized over which clever novelty gift to get for whom. Who would best appreciate the Marie Antoinette action figure with “ejector-action” head? Could the Nelson Mandela combination finger puppet/refrigerator magnet be given alone, or would it go better, perhaps, with Joan of Arc or Karl Marx? Would a $2.95 tin of peach-flavored “ImpeachMints” with an enameled image of GW Bush make a nice stocking stuffer? Maybe the box of “IndictMints” with VP Cheney and Karl Rove in black and white prison garb would be a better choice?

These whimsical novelties still tickle me, but the context of my life has shifted dramatically since last I perused an American gift shop. My refrigerator now is in Da Nang, Vietnam. And the friends who visit me in my home, while they can speak and understand basic English, would be completely mystified by these artifacts of American culture. And, even if I could, with painstaking effort, explain the elements which combine to make these visual jokes work—there is absolutely no way that I could explain why I had seen fit to spend the equivalent of a month’s school tuition just to make a joke by purchasing an item that has no practical use.

The joke implied in the purchase of these items is that we feel that we are exposing the superficiality of American consumer culture. The larger joke, of course, is that we are making our statement by buying more stuff. Read the small print on each package. It says, “Made in China.” Who’s laughing now?


Identity Shift

Another essay written while I attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival last month.

A year ago, my American family and I crossed the international date-line and stepped into Vietnam with new identities.

Tim and TamMy Vietnamese-born son was raised in the US and speaks only English. In crossing that line and returning to the land of his birth, his identity shifted from “short, funny, confrontational Asian dude” to “tall, rich, good-looking mute American.”

My tongue-tied, under-employed house-husband became a strong, silent American philanthropist.

And I, a relatively tall, middle-class, politically progressive physical therapist, became a gigantic, wealthy, authority figure with an enviable nose.

It’s an odd experience to have lovely, leggy Vietnamese barmaids walk up to me and stroke my nose in admiration. Odder still to have become a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Da Nang, based solely on my ability to speak English fluently. I’ve become a valued resource for international humanitarian groups and traveling surfers—just because of where I live.

What determines value? Location, location, location!

August 5, 2007

Traumatic Head Injury As Literary Device

I wrote this essay in response to the shock and dismay I felt when I learned that helmet laws in America are being systematically challenged and rescinded through the work of (fill-in-expletive-here) who utilize the internet to spread disinformation claiming, among other things, that helmets are dangerous.

I learned about traumatic head injuries in the usual way—by watching Saturday morning cartoons. I learned from Tom and Jerry that, if an anvil drops on your head, a tall bump will immediately emerge and little chirping birds will circle about your head until the next scene, when you will be fully recovered and ready to chase that mouse again. I learned more from watching movies. I learned that a blow to the head could cause amnesia—which could only be reversed by another blow to the head. And, as any fan of action flicks knows, a sharp thump to the back of the head will knock the hero out, but he’ll awaken 30 to 60 minutes later (whatever the plot demands) ruefully rubbing his head and muttering, “What happened?”

I didn’t learn much more about head injuries until I went to physical therapy school. I learned even more by working with head-injured patients over the next thirty years. Now I live in Vietnam, where traumatic head injury is one of the leading causes of death and disability. This is because, in Vietnam, motorbikes comprise 90 percent of road traffic and helmet use is rare. Thirty-eight people die everyday in Vietnam in traffic accidents—mostly head injuries from motorbike mishaps. But many, many more suffer head injuries and survive. Those survivors fill the hospitals and rehabilitation centers in Vietnam.

Phuong was a bright high school student--one of the few in Da Nang who was fluent in English and confident enough to speak to American and Australian visitors. One day she slipped off the back of her boyfriend’s bike and struck her head against the pavement. Now, a year and a half later, she can walk again and her hair has grown in enough to camouflage the deep depression in her head where her scalp lies directly over the right half of her brain. She even recalls a few words of English. If she concentrates really hard, she can stand at the sink and wash dishes under her mother’s supervision. But her bright academic and professional future is gone now and her mother has grown to accept the idea that her once brilliant daughter will always remain an impulsive child.

Dr. Lam has spent the three years since his motorbike accident searching for the Holy Grail—a therapy that would give him back the use of his left hand so that he could resume his work as a surgeon. Ours was the third rehab center he had tried. He arrived with his youngest son in attendance and was delighted to find a foreign-trained therapist. He offered me his wizened left hand to examine. “I’m so sorry,” I said, “but when we see no evidence of muscle return after all this time, I have to say that I see no hope that you can regain enough use of your hand to do surgery again.” I talked to him, instead, about teaching medical students those skills that he could no longer perform himself.

Mr. Cuong was an engineer and the father of three until a van made a right turn from a left lane and knocked him from his motorbike. His younger sister has been by his side for the three months he’s been hospitalized, while his wife cares for their children at home. His sister spoon-feeds him soup between his chokes and sputters. His progress in therapy has been slowed by recurrent bouts of pneumonia, caused by his inability to consistently direct food into his stomach instead of his lungs. Mr. Cuong can’t speak and can’t understand verbal commands either, which makes teaching him exercises and understanding his concerns difficult. One day last month, his sister, his therapist, a student therapist, my translator and I encircled him as he sat in a straight-backed chair and tried to puzzle out why he appeared to be so agitated. Failing that, we elected to go on to the most basic non-verbal exercise I know: Stand Up! With his therapist on one side and me on the other, we hollered, “MOT, HAI, BA!” and hoisted him up onto his feet. Mr. Cuong grimaced and grunted and stood up--and dropped a steaming load of shit from his shorts onto the floor. Nervous giggles all around. Oh. That’s what he wanted to say.

August 31, 2007


Two years ago, as we sat in a little restaurant in Da Nang, Vietnam, the proprietor walked up and offered us his sincere condolences on the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans. That’s how we learned about Hurricane Katrina. George Bush, apparently, didn’t get the message until some time later.

We were visitors to Vietnam in 2005, just finishing up a short stint as Health Volunteers Overseas (HVO) volunteers at a rehabilitation center in Da Nang. Now, here we are, two years later, living and working in Vietnam and participating in a great national effort to stem the rising tide of death and disability resulting from motorbike accidents.

There are, today, 3401 employees of the Da Nang Department of Health who wear helmets provided by Steady Footsteps to work every day. They do this in order to protect themselves and because their co-workers wear helmets, too. But—bottom line—they do it because the Da Nang Health Department now mandates helmet use and employees may not report to work without them. This is the essence of the agreement that we signed with the Department of Health: Steady Footsteps would supply the helmets if the DOH would mandate their use.
4:30 PM Da Nang Rehabilitation-Sanatorium Hospital
Beyond the immediate effect of ensuring the safety of those 3401 employees, however, this project serves as a model for other governmental groups and businesses. Our project has been featured repeatedly on Da Nang TV News, as well as VTV1, based in Hanoi. Footage of my address to the officials of the Department of Health (my mouth moves, but the TV anchor supplies the words), images of brain-injured patients at the Da Nang Rehabilitation-Sanatorium Hospital, and interviews with helmet-wearing workers arriving at Da Nang General Hospital are combined with media exhortations to be safe and wear a helmet.

On the horizon, now, is a new national law which will mandate helmet use by all motorbike riders by the end of this year--an enormous milestone in a nation where 38 people die and many more are permanently disabled every day in traffic accidents. Compliance, though, is not guaranteed. To that end, the next project for the Steady Footsteps crew is to translate and print booklets based on the text of my August 5 post and then to distribute them to the 30,000 students of the University of Da Nang. We thought we’d back up the letter of the law with some vivid descriptions of what happens if your brain is injured—but you survive. We’re planning to include a University of Da Nang helmet sticker with each booklet. These high-achieving universty students are role models for all the younger kids. Whatever they do—whether they flaunt the law or wear their helmets proudly--will have an enormous effect on what other young people decide to do.

The $25,564 USD cost of the Department of Health Helmet project took a big chunk of our personal savings. Printing up 30,000 booklets and stickers is going to take even more. Any contribution you might feel led to make to Steady Footsteps to help in this work would be hugely appreciated. It is a rare and wonderful thing to be able to make this big an impact on a society. Please consider helping us to continue in this work.

Why I Wear a Helmet--Vietnamese VersionWhy I Wear a Helmet--English Version

September 15, 2007

American Physical Therapist Runs Amok

Well, here’s something I didn’t see coming: I’m now doing speech therapy for Vietnamese patients. How strange is that?

I’m not an Occupational Therapist, but I play one in Vietnam. Now, it appears that, by default, I’m playing Speech Therapist as well. Weird, when you think about it, especially since I can barely pull together enough Vietnamese to order banana pancakes and tea in the morning! More prosperous countries have highly trained, experienced physical, occupational and speech therapists. Here, in Central Vietnam, minimally qualified PTs are the only therapists patients will ever see. There just aren’t any OTs or speech therapists here.

Virginia as Occupational Therapist

Lately, I’ve been luring therapists and patients away from the high, narrow treatment tables of the crowded “PT” area of the hospital and into the newly provided “OT” room in order to get them to try more functional upper extremity activities. There, we work on hand-eye coordination, trunk stability, combination hand-and-arm movements, and bilateral upper extremity function. Having a cabinet full of donated wooden puzzles has allowed us to see that some of the non-verbal patients have pretty sophisticated problem-solving abilities. We’ve also uncovered previously undetected visual and perceptual deficits in this setting. We check patients’ ability to follow verbal commands versus visual demonstrations. Today we experimented with one-step and two-step commands to look into memory issues. And we asked some patients to verbalize about their activities--what color is this?—and so forth. I couldn’t do any of this, of course, without Mieng, my trusty translator. This weekend, Mieng is stocking up on large-print and picture books, markers and notepaper. We’re going to see what we can do with a post-meningitis patient who, we now realize, has double vision and a stroke patient with right-sided paralysis who has word-finding issues and difficulty reading.

I always urge my student therapists to take a functional approach when evaluating and treating their patients. But “activities of daily living” in Vietnam do not necessarily equate with ADLs in my former home country of America. Today, for example, I learned I’ve been operating under a mistaken assumption. I didn’t realize that most families in Vietnam sit and eat their meals on the floor. Many of our patients have difficulty feeding themselves in the hospital when they sit perched on the edge of their bed, without a table in front of them. I thought that issue would be resolved once they returned home, as long as the family ensured that they sat in a chair at the family table. Not necessarily true, if there’s no table or chair at home, eh?

Earlier, I was stunned when a right-handed woman with a paralyzed left arm told me that she could not eat rice.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Obviously,” she told me, “because I can’t hold my rice bowl in my left hand!”

I thought, at the time, that I’d resolved that issue by instructing her to set the bowl on a table with a little piece of rubber mesh under it to prevent it from sliding around while she scooped up rice using a spoon in her good right hand. Now I realize that she probably never eats at a table at all.

Live and learn.

December 20, 2007

An Early Christmas in Da Nang

Last Saturday, I woke early to the sound of motorbikes zipping past our Da Nang townhouse. What would I see when I looked out the window? The previous day, scarcely any riders had worn helmets in town, but this day--15 December 2007--was slated to be the first day of Vietnam’s mandatory universal helmet law. Both the Vietnamese government and international groups such as the World Health Organization have long been aware of the on-going tragedy of Vietnam's insanely high rate of traffic fatalities—among the highest in the world. The Vietnamese government and various NGOs (non-governmental organizations) have made repeated attempts to resolve this problem over the years. Back in 2000, Bill Clinton, during his final trip abroad as president, helped kick off the “Helmets for Kids” project, presenting Vietnamese school children with specially-designed motorbike helmets, produced by the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation-supported ProTec helmet factory of Hanoi. Over the years, various helmet laws, limited in both scope and enforcement, have come and gone. Public awareness projects have flared up briefly and then subsided. Seven years after Bill Clinton’s historic visit, motorbike helmets on city streets are still rare enough to attract notice and derision. And even though most Vietnamese are aware of the prevalence of deadly motorbike accidents, that awareness is not sufficient to convince them that they, personally, should be wearing a helmet as they travel the streets of the city. The excuses they offer are astonishingly varied—but it all boils down to the fact that they would never wear a helmet unless they were forced to do so.

So, finally, that’s what the Vietnamese government decided to do. For several months, short and poignant public awareness spots on TV have dramatized the often tragic aftermath of traffic accidents. Since the imposition two months ago of a new and stricter helmet law affecting the main roads outside of town, television news shows have highlighted the vigorous and effective work of the police in enforcing that law. Also featured on local and national news have been the helmeted workers of the Da Nang Health Department and interviews with yours truly at the Da Nang Rehabilitation Hospital along with video images of brain-injured patients at our hospital.

Local shops have offered heaps of brightly colored helmets for sale in recent weeks, yet they seemed to be worn primarily by travelers entering and exiting the city—rarely, if ever, by locals. It’s really hard to believe that everything could change overnight.

Helmets "R" Us

But it did.

I padded over to my window on Saturday morning, with all the anticipation I’d felt as a child on Christmas morning. (Would there be snow on the ground? Presents under the tree?) Gazing out my third floor window, through tears of joy, I saw that every single rider passing by was wearing a brand new, brightly colored protective helmet.

For me, it was Christmas.

Day One of the Mandatory Helmet Law

January 12, 2008

Living in the Material World

I came home from Vietnam in 1996 with two adopted children and a different point of view. My family and I lived on a little farm in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in those days and we were doing our best to move toward a sustainable lifestyle. Over the previous ten years, my husband and I had worked hard to transform a broken down farmhouse and 13 scruffy acres into our idea of a storybook farm. Our little farm had two big gardens, a small flock of chickens, sheep, goats, pigs, two dairy cows and a quarter horse that we were trying--with limited success--to train to harness work. We were certainly eating well but, due to our inability to circumvent the realities of the American food distribution system, our little farm required constant infusions of cash to enable us to purchase at retail those things we needed in order to be able to sell our farm products at wholesale prices. The situation struck us as difficult and unfair, but the sheer ridiculousness of our basic assumptions didn’t strike home until that first visit to Vietnam.

In the city of Nha Trang, where we stayed while awaiting the completion of the children’s paperwork, small herds of cattle meandered along the roadsides, munching on grass that grew at the edge of the pavement. The idea of building a fence so that cattle could have exclusive, unsupervised use of a field for foraging and toileting purposes began to seem a little eccentric in a country where old men scraped up cow pies from the pavement to sell for fertilizer and most of the city trees produced coconut crops for their respective owners. Back home, we had traded up to a larger pick-up truck to more readily haul livestock to the stock yard on sale days. But, in Vietnam, butcher-weight hogs rode in baskets affixed to human-pedaled carts and motorbikes.

Vietnamese homes, like ones built in America prior to 1900, rarely have closets. It took me awhile to realize that, if you only have two sets of clothing---one to wash and one to wear, you really don’t need a closet. I had labored long and hard to learn to spin and weave the wool from our sheep to make carpet runners to protect the polished wood floors in our refurbished American farmhouse. The Vietnamese damp-mop their locally produced ceramic tile floors and call it a day.

One day, a friend offered to take me to Nha Trang’s central market on the motorbike she shared with the eight members of her extended family. I was still a bit shaky following my initial encounter with Vietnamese traffic in Ho Chi Minh City, but I strapped on my bicycle helmet and climbed aboard. A few kilometers down the road-- just as I was starting to breathe a bit easier--the motor sputtered to a halt. Out of gas and not a gas station in sight! Without a word, my friend pushed the bike to the side of the road, where a lady sat behind a battered wooden table. Counting out a few thousand dong, my friend purchased the petrol contained in one Jim Beam bottle, upended it into the gas tank, and handed the bottle back to the lady. We were back on the road in less than two minutes.

At the market, we bought ten ceramic rice bowls for one US dollar—and yet the single dusty bottle of Scope mouthwash we found there was priced to reflect the length of its journey half-way around the world—and thus seemed unaffordable. There were no napkins at restaurant tables—yet there was bottled water. Why? Because, although there’s running water in most parts of Vietnam, it’s not purified to drinking standards. Thus the popularity of tea, bottled water and—yes—beer. This seems primitive to American sensibilities. And yet—how much sense does it make for Americans to wash their clothes, water their gardens and flush their toilets with purified drinking water? It rather depends upon your point of view, doesn’t it?

Urban Vietnamese now, twelve years later, enjoy greater access to consumer goods and have more income, on average, with which to acquire them. Thin and poor are virtually synonymous in Vietnam; some city dwellers are actually a bit chubby these days. Many families have more than one motorbike and a few of the ultra-rich even have a car. Factory-made blue jeans, knit tops and spike-heeled sandals have replaced the traditional hand-tailored ao dai for fashionable ladies. There’s an internet café on nearly every block. Yet you would still be hard-pressed to find a Vietnamese who would leave a light on in an empty room. You would never find a fan running without someone—often a guest—sitting before it. Half-empty glasses of water are poured onto potted plants, rather than down the sink. Coconuts may grow on trees here, but money does not—and people act accordingly.

Tim and Dave at the Lockett Farm, 1996

January 17, 2008

No Place to Run, No Place to Hide

Looking back now, I think it was around 3 AM on September 26, 1985, while lying on the floor of the Virginia Beach Convention Center, staring at the underside of a folding table, when my husband and I decided to move to higher ground. We had spent the previous day fastening plywood over windows, emptying shelves, closets and cabinets and then stacking our upholstered furniture, rugs, clothing, books and tools atop counters, tables and wooden chairs, trying to protect them from anticipated flood waters. Hurricane Gloria, described at one point as the “Storm of the Century,” was swirling off the coast, predicted to make a direct hit on Virginia Beach on the morning of the 26th. Our suburban lot, set two blocks back from the Atlantic Ocean, was low-lying. A long-time resident told us that, during the famous Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962, flood waters had reached our front door knob. We had flood insurance but, studying the fine print while hurricane warnings sounded over the radio, we realized that the policy only covered the “depreciated value” of the contents of the house. Depreciated value on a ten year old television, twenty year old books and a thirty year old sofa does not equal replacement value. Thus, the eight hour stacking, stashing and boarding up marathon.

And so, we decided to “be safe” and move to higher—much higher—ground in the Shenandoah Valley, two hundred miles inland. Ironically, six weeks after Hurricane Gloria decided to give Virginia Beach a pass and strike Long Island instead, a storm spawned in the aftermath of Hurricane Juan devastated West Virginia and parts of western Virginia, including the Shenandoah Valley. When we arrived there the following spring, we were greeted by the sight of a two story house, still wedged high in an oak tree overhanging the Middle River, where flood waters had left it months earlier.

We found the home of our dreams--a hundred year old “fixer-upper”-- perched atop a hill surrounded by rolling countryside, framed to the east by the Blue Ridge Mountains and by the Appalachians to the west. No large bodies of water in sight. Safe at last, we thought.

We were taken aback, therefore, when a tornado struck the nearby town of Augusta Springs. It knocked a century-old wood frame church off its foundation, then skipped over a hill and reduced a trailer to a few scraps of aluminum and shreds of insulation. I commented to an elderly neighbor at what a freakish occurrence a tornado in these parts must be and he nodded, noting, however, that the last one he recalled had torn a path across his pasture before knocking the top off one of the massive oak trees that shaded our own house.

“Oh,” I said, swallowing, “I noticed that the tops of three of the oak trees were broken off. They all must have been damaged in that same storm.”

“Oh, no,” he replied. “The tornado only got one of them. Lightning strikes got the other two.”

One day we got word that my friend Lucy’s house had burned to the ground. My husband and I grabbed some crowbars and headed over to her place, thinking to help her shift the wreckage enough to recover some of her belongings.

“No”, she said, as we arrived to see the flat black ruins. “You don’t get it--there’s nothing left to move.”

Her big, solid house-- like our own--had been built of chestnut—a hard wood that had been seasoning for a hundred years. You just can’t get better firewood than that.

Twenty-one years after our run-in with Hurricane Gloria, we passed through the eye of Typhoon Xangsane in our present home in Da Nang, Vietnam, two blocks from the South China Sea. We survived unscathed, but the City of Da Nang appeared devastated. The typhoon ripped off part, if not all, of everyone’s roof. Great trees that formerly lined the avenues downtown were uprooted; tree limbs and downed electric lines blocked most roads.

Yet, even as the winds were dying down that Sunday evening, Da Nang residents were out salvaging corrugated metal panels and fixing their roofs. Enterprising people quickly began chopping up and hauling away downed trees, leaving only leaves and the smallest twigs for the city trash trucks. Electrical service was restored in a matter of days.

Less than two weeks later, another typhoon lurked off-shore. Da Nang residents bought empty feed sacks and headed resolutely down to the beach. They filled their sacks with sand and then hauled them up atop their houses to ensure that their newly repaired metal roofs stayed in place. The second storm by-passed Da Nang but the sandbags remained in place until the bags degraded and the sand sifted back down to earth many months later.

Remembering Xangsane

This year, in lieu of typhoons, central Vietnam was pummeled with a series of extremely heavy rain storms. I’m talking about days of continuous, horizontal, masonry-wall-penetrating rain! The storm drainage system of downtown Da Nang, for the most part, handled the run-off well—certainly much better than my old neighborhood in Virginia Beach. The Han River rose out of its banks, covering Bach Dang Street for one day. The nearby tourist town of Hoi An flooded, as it does every year. But, as soon as the flood waters receded, shops were mopped out, merchandize restocked and business resumed. Two days after river waters swept through a neighborhood on the outskirts of Da Nang, reaching a height of six feet within some houses, I traveled through to see freshly scrubbed houses, sleeping mats hung out to dry and people sipping coffee in the neighborhood shops.

My young friend Mieng confided that her grandmother’s house had washed away in the recent floods. Her grandmother lives in a bamboo hut by a river in Quang Ngai province.

“Oh, my God!” I said. “What will she do now?”

“The same thing she does every year,” said Mieng. “Stay at the community shelter until the flood waters recede and then rebuild her bamboo house with the help of her neighbors. My Dad wants her to move here, to Da Nang, and live with us, but she wants to stay in Quang Ngai with her friends and neighbors.”

My friend Tam tells me that, when she was a child in Da Nang, before the American War, all the houses in her neighborhood were made of bamboo. One day a fire swept through and burned them all down. I haven’t seen a fire engine in the year and a half that I’ve lived in Da Nang—but I haven’t seen a house on fire either. Da Nang houses now are made of brick and cement—impervious to both fire and flood. The walls are solid masonry; the floor is ceramic tile over concrete. There’s no carpet, no sheet rock, no insulation. If the roof blows off, they stick it back on. If the floor floods, they mop it. If the walls get wet . . . they get mildew.

Will we be able to avert the disastrous effects of global climate change? Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. But, even without that added complication, bad stuff happens. It always has and it always will. There is no safe place. Insurance policies and new technology are not the only possible responses to life in an unpredictable world. There’s a lot to be learned from cultures that have a history of weathering big storms and hard times.

A flexible reed may survive a storm that fells a mighty oak.

January 27, 2008

Mandate for Change

I want to tell you a story, but first I have to paint you a picture.

Imagine, if you will, an upwardly country with a population of 86 million. 90% of the road traffic in this country consists of motorbikes. Every day in this country, 38 people die as a result of traffic accidents – mostly due to head trauma following motorbike accidents. Many more become permanently disabled — everyday -- because of motorbike accidents. Everyone is aware of the problem -- it’s hard to spend any time on the roads here without coming across the scene of an accident. If you ask folks, almost everyone knows someone who has died or has been disabled following a motorbike accident. Yet almost no one wears a helmet.

Over the years, the government, the World Health Organization, and various NGOs have weighed in on this on-going catastrophe. Studies were done. Inexpensive, light-weight helmets -- suitable for use in this country’s tropical climate -- were designed. One NGO even built a factory in order to produce helmets. An American president (Bill Clinton) was enlisted to kick off a program to provide free helmets for school children. Certain roads were designated as “helmet roads” and nominal fines were imposed on bare-headed riders.

Still, up until 15 December 2007, less than 5 percent of motorbike riders wore helmets.

OK, here comes the story:

My husband and I arrived in Vietnam in 2005 to serve as short-term volunteers at a rehabilitation center in Da Nang. Many of the patients that we saw in this rehab center were brain-injured -- mostly due to motorbike accidents. Every day, after work, we would go out to dinner and, often, we saw motorbike accidents. These were low-speed accidents, not the grisly sort of carnage that you might imagine. Often, in fact, the only injury was to the head, as the rider flipped over his handlebars or fell backwards off the bike. Unfortunately, that head injury was often sufficient to cause death or permanent disability due to intra-cranial bleeding. Had the rider been wearing a helmet, he would have walked away from the accident. Yet nobody, not even the Vietnamese physical therapists and physicians who worked with these head-injured patients every day, wore helmets.

It occurred to us that helmets, though inexpensive from an American point of view, were pricey by Vietnamese standards. Also, it was clear that nobody wanted to stand out by being the only one to wear a helmet. Towards the end of our volunteer stint, my husband and I decided to address both of those issues by providing free helmets for all the employees of the rehabilitation center. The employees appeared delighted and the director of the facility spontaneously announced that, hereafter, he would require all employees to wear helmets when travelling to and from the center. We handed out booklets that we’d assembled from internet articles and had had translated into Vietnamese in order to help these rehabilitation specialists better articulate to the general population “Why We Wear Helmets.” For the remainder of our stay, those employees wore their helmets. We thought that we had found the key to tipping the balance on helmet use in Vietnam: just give helmets, talking points and a little peer support to people who have first hand knowledge of the tragedy of head trauma.

We returned to that same facility in Da Nang one year later. Do you know how many of those sixty employees were wearing helmets? Zero. Absolutely zero – not even the director was wearing one. What happened, I asked? Where were the helmets? Back at home, they said – we only use them when we travel on Route 1, where helmet use is mandated.

Well, that was certainly disappointing.

By the beginning of 2007, we had established a working relationship with a different rehabilitation hospital -- this one under the auspices of the Da Nang Department of Health. Coincidentally, 2007 was also designated as the Year of Traffic Safety in Vietnam. Going about my work of mentoring Vietnamese physical therapists and physical therapy students in this second rehabilitation hospital, it was hard to overlook the fact that over half of the patients were there as a result of motorbike accidents, many of them having suffered severe traumatic brain injuries. I love the challenge of treating neurological patients, but it was overwhelmingly obvious that I and the fledgling corps of Vietnamese physical therapists were never going to catch up with the on-going deluge of new head trauma patients flooding Vietnamese hospitals every day. We decided to take another stab at the helmet situation.

This time we approached the Da Nang Health Department with the proposition that our organization, Steady Footsteps, would provide every employee of the Da Nang Health Department with a free helmet if the Department of Health mandated their use. They agreed. With a great deal of fanfare, and three television crews filming, my translator and I addressed an assembly of 80 DOH administrators. We talked about the ongoing tragedy of head trauma in Vietnam. We told them that their leadership was essential to ensure the safety of their employees. And we talked about the potential for their helmet-wearing employees to serve as positive examples for the general population.

Well, it worked – up to a point. All 3401 employees received their pale green tropical motorbike helmets with the DOH logo emblazoned on the sides. Guards at the gates of each of the 26 DOH facilities in Da Nang prevented any employee from entering or leaving the facility without wearing their helmet. The employees wore their helmets—even to the market. And because of television coverage, including interviews with the workers themselves, and the identifiable logos on the helmets, they were a recognizable and respectable group of helmet wearers. However, helmet wearing still did not spread into the general population.

Later that same year, however, the prime minister issued an edict mandating helmet use throughout the country. (Groups like the Asia Injury Prevention Foundation had been promoting this idea for years, so I certainly claim no credit for this breakthrough.) Helmet wearing would be mandated on the main provincial roads as of the first day of November and implementation of a law requiring universal helmet usage -- city streets included -- was scheduled for 15 December 2007. Television stations aired public service announcements consisting of poignant stories and graphic footage, urging people to protect themselves by wearing helmets. As soon as the law took effect on the provincial roads, nightly news prominently featured footage of police road blocks and interviews with people who had just been caught and fined and – if they didn’t have their vehicle registration papers on them—had their motorbikes impounded. It caught people’s attention. Overnight, people started wearing helmets whenever they set off to travel out of town. Still, however, only the DOH workers and out-of-towners wore their helmets in the city. You had to respect the efficacy of the police in enforcing the helmet law on the few main out-lying roads, but it was still hard to imagine how they could convince city folks to comply with the law.

But they did. On 14 December 2007, less than 5% of motorbike riders in the city were wearing helmets. On the morning of 15 December 2007, over 95% were. Those who “forgot” to wear their helmets were readily caught up in the multiple traffic stops set up about town.

Now, over a month later, police are no longer working overtime and the news has turned to other things. But people are still wearing their helmets. Whereas helmet-wearing was previously seen as an aberration worthy of derision, it’s now “normal.” Someone without a helmet is now perceived as a “risk-taker”. New incidents of head trauma are less common, but out-patient clinics are gaining a new kind of customer—guys who fall off their bikes with their helmets in place. Instead of lying in the morgue or a head trauma unit, they are now being treated for “whiplash”—a diagnosis with an altogether more favorable prognosis.

What’s the point of this story? Simply this: large-scale behavioral changes require large-scale coordinated efforts, even if there is no organized opposition. There were no big corporations in Vietnam who stood to benefit either way from universal helmet use. There were no economic forces pushing the government either way. Medical care in Vietnam is pay as you go and the government provides no significant financial support for families affected by death or disability due to traffic accidents. The reality of head trauma was available for all to see, and yet people could not bring themselves to do something as simple as wearing a helmet. It took the combined forces of political leadership, police enforcement, the media, and earlier groundwork laid by an NGO willing to invest in designing and producing helmets when there was no market for them. It took all that to produce this “over-night” success. But the important thing to realize here is that there was NO organized resistance to helmet-wearing or to helmet laws – and it was still incredibly difficult to bring this change about.

What chance would we have had if there had been a powerful and well-connected opposition to our efforts?

In America, the large-scale option is not open to those who would have our society move in a more progressive direction. American media and government conspire to marginalize or even render invisible potential agents for change. So be it. Let’s be “sub-versive” in the truest sense: let’s turn society from underneath. Let’s begin the hard work of building caring friendships, supportive communities, local food networks and mutual aid societies that will protect and enfold us as our oil-powered, credit-dependent, imperialistic, corporate-run government becomes increasingly irrelevant to our lives.

Helmet Promotional Vehicle

February 1, 2008

Going Home for Tet

As the Lunar New Year countdown reaches its final week, everybody in Vietnam is heading home for the holidays. Northbound buses, trains and flights out of Ho Chi Minh City are completely booked as students, factory workers and businessmen alike stream homeward. Tet in Vietnam is like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s and Easter in America -- all wrapped up into one joyous celebration. And being home, with family, is the key element in this week-long event. There is no point in trying to embark on any business arrangement or to discuss any matter of importance these days because everything will be dealt with “after Tet”.

In America, hospital workers are accustomed to seeing empty beds around the Christmas holidays as doctors and patients alike do not “elect” to do elective surgery then. Likewise, patients and hospital staff often push towards getting the patient “home for the holidays”. That’s true in Vietnam, only more so. The rehabilitation hospital where I volunteer in Da Nang will be virtually closed over the week of Tet. Everyone who can physically get out the door has gone. The only two patients who remain on the “serious” ward are a young woman whose pelvis was crushed in a motor vehicle accident and a brain-injured girl whose family lives on a remote island in the South China Sea. Everybody else went home, including a quadriplegic riding sandwiched between two family members on a motorbike.

But the joy of the holidays and imminent family reunions was muted last week on the “serious” ward. This ward houses those with the most recent and severe brain-injuries.

Over the course of several months, the population of that ten-bed ward had evolved: as patients improved, either through therapy or the natural healing process, they moved to beds in smaller rooms where they stayed as they continued to work on re-establishing control over their bodies, or else they went home as family members either ran out of money or decided that they could continue therapy as an out-patient. Two patients, however, remained continuously on that “serious” ward—never waking up sufficiently to actively participate in therapy or even to sit unsupported in a chair. Their eyes opened, they swallowed food, and occasionally moved their limbs for no discernable purpose. As the other patients were learning to stand up and walk with assistance and saying their first few words, the mother of the tall, thin high-school student and the wife of the 29 year-old father of three worked diligently on feeding and bathing and passive exercises. As new patients transferred in, the young wife and the middle-aged mother taught the new families how to survive in this hospital setting. (Hospitals here in Vietnam are a family affair because it is the responsibility of the family to feed and care for their loved one while he or she is hospitalized.)

Other patients moved on, but those two young men remained in those beds. Yet, as long as they remained in the hospital, in the company of other head-injured patients and their families, the young wife and the middle-aged mother could cling to some nebulous hope of recovery, despite the increasingly obvious fact that things were not looking good.

DVTV Visits Da Nang Rehabilitation-Sanatorium Hospital

Then came Tet. One morning I arrived at the ward to find the mother weeping silently as she bent over her son – stretching, stretching his ankle as I had taught her to do some months earlier in order to avoid muscle contractures that could prevent him from standing, flat on his feet. Her husband, the boy’s father, who had always been ready to lend a hand to anyone else on the ward, was hurriedly packing up the last of their belongings in preparation for the long trip home. The young wife of the other severely disabled man stood watching, with a tremulous smile on her face. She, too, was going home with her husband that day. Home at last, to be with their three young children and her “good neighbors” – and the husband who would never walk or work or talk to her again. Home at last, after months of “intensive caring” to the new normal—a life without hope.

Maybe that’s too harsh. How can we live without hope? Certainly these women, like many Americans nowadays, realize that the futures that they once dreamed of and worked towards have been dashed. The mother will not see her son enter university. He will not have children of his own and he will not be an aid and comfort to her in her old age. The young wife will care for her three young children and, now, one very large, eternal infant with no help from a loving spouse. How she will earn a living, I can’t begin to imagine.

But their epic struggle to reverse this catastrophic change in their lives has ended. What has happened cannot be undone. Yet they endure. And when they return home this Tet, they will be enfolded and supported by their families and their communities.

That is their only hope.

As it is ours.

February 14, 2008

Being Here Now

Last year, decades after dumping 20 million gallons of the toxic chemical Agent Orange all across the Vietnamese landscape, the US pledged to contribute $400,000 USD to partially fund a new study on the topic. What a relief! I’m sure that uncertainty regarding the outcome of this study is the only thing preventing the US from offering substantial assistance to people like May and Song, the articulate but impoverished parents of four disabled children, each conceived in the years following their father’s sojourn in an area which earlier had been heavily doused with Agent Orange.

Agent Orange: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Finally, almost forty years after another young man emerged from a defoliated jungle with a bizarre skin condition to father a son with strange, canoe-shaped feet before he, himself, succumbed to cancer, the US will know what should be done to make amends. Sixteen years after that man’s son produced a daughter of his own, afflicted with the same canoe-shaped feet, the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world is finally getting down to the business of deciding whether or not it might have an obligation to help families like these. I have to wonder how the results of that million dollar study will ultimately benefit the generations of individuals and families afflicted with birth defects and early cancer deaths, who live in the poverty that still lingers following decades of US-imposed embargo, superimposed upon years and years of war. Will the proposed $14 million project to isolate a patch of dioxin-soaked ground at the Da Nang airport bring them any solace?

I’ve been tagging along recently with a group of American college students affiliated with the SUNY Brockport Vietnam Program as they make their Thursday morning home-visits to families of disabled children here in Da Nang. The students are studying to be social workers, so they do what they’ve been trained to do: they sit down with families and ask them questions. Then they listen.

Two weeks ago, we sat and listened to the diminutive mother of the canoe-footed girl tell us how sad she was that her daughter, a serious and dedicated student, could not attend high-school. The school, she said, was too far to walk to, and the mother was not able to balance her daughter safely on the back of her bicycle in order to take her there. (Her daughter’s canoe-shaped feet not only prevented her from walking without wooden crutches, but also made it impossible for her to pedal a bicycle herself.) A kind friend who lived next to the school, she said, had offered to let the daughter stay with her so that she could more easily attend school but, alas, that was impossible.

“Why is that?” asked a student.

“Because,” confided the mother, “my daughter cannot stand without her crutches and so cannot shower and attend to her ‘personal hygiene’ without my help.”

Being the only physical therapist in the room, it fell to me to suggest that, perhaps, the girl might sit down on a plastic chair when she showered and that, if a hole were cut in the seat of the chair, it might allow her to attend to her own hygiene when she used a typical “hole-in-the-floor” Vietnamese toilet.

The mother’s jaw dropped and the father beamed. As we departed, they each pumped my hand vigorously, smiling broadly. What had happened? Somebody sat down and listened to their story and made a simple suggestion. And, because of that, a sixteen-year old, third-generation victim of Agent Orange might go to high school.

We didn’t need a million dollar study. All it took was a few American college students and one middle-aged American PT, listening to one family’s story. Why is that so damned difficult? We didn’t even have to buy the plastic chair.

February 25, 2008

Opting Out

I am not a saint, although from some folks’ reaction to my personal story, it seems that they see me as such. While it’s true that I do try to be a “clear channel for blessing” as befits my adopted Quaker tradition, that’s not the same thing as being a martyr in the Catholic tradition into which I was born.

Every decision that my husband and I have made in the course of our Vietnam adventure, unconventional though it may have been, can be argued for in pragmatic, or even economic, terms. Selling our home in 2006, for example, and putting the proceeds of the sale into foreign-denominated CDs turns out to have been a pretty shrewd move, in retrospect. Certainly, selling our gas-guzzling vehicles and our oil-heated house does not look too foolish now that oil has reached $100 per barrel!

The monthly rental for our four-story Da Nang townhouse is less than the amount we previously spent for taxes and insurance on our American home. While electricity rates are about the same here as in the States, it doesn’t take much to power our small fridge, lights and electric fans. Likewise, although gasoline prices parallel those in the States, it doesn’t take much fuel to propel our motorbike.

Gone is the perceived need to purchase a myriad of insurance products to protect our assets and our stream of income. Car insurance, life insurance, long- and short-term disability insurance, liability insurance, homeowners and flood insurance—all gone. We opted to relinquish our health insurance also—you can read my thoughts on that issue here.

My husband Dave and I had wrestled for years with the ethical issue of paying taxes to support a government engaged in an illegal war. That dilemma is resolved for us now, as we don’t have an income that reaches a taxable level. And our teen-aged son is beyond the reach of military recruiters and a possible future draft.

Our jobs are history, along with the stress that accompanied them. The cost of living is low enough here in Vietnam that we can and do live off the proceeds of the sale of our home. (We had neither a savings account nor pensions.) Other expatriates that we know live comfortably here on modest pensions. Still others get by on what they earn by teaching English for a few hours a week. Without that constant immersion in the American consumer culture, we find that there isn’t much that we really need to purchase. We got rid of most of our belongings when we moved to Vietnam and we still have an embarrassment of riches.

Gait Training Brain-Injured BoyMy volunteer work here consists of doing the kind of real-deal physical therapy that I dreamed of doing when I first entered physical therapy school back in the 1970s. I’m making a real difference in people’s lives here—without breaking my back and without spending any time at all doing meaningless paperwork! Does that sound like martyrdom to you?

Stepping out of the American rat-race and living a meaning-filled life in a third-world country is NOT impossibly quixotic. I’m here to tell you that it can be a personally gratifying and pretty darned comfortable way to go.

August 23, 2008

Two New Artists

One of the unexpected joys of living and working in Vietnam has been in having the opportunity to meet and encourage two young artists: Nguyen Tan Hien and Ho Viet Phuong. Hien and Phuong were both university students-- Hien, studying mathematics in his home town of Buon Ma Thuot, and Phuong, studying architecture in Ho Chi Minh City--until they became quadriparetic (weak in all four limbs) due to spinal cord damage--Hien, having been struck by a bus while riding his bicycle, and Phuong, due to a spinal cord tumor. When our paths crossed on the spinal cord unit of the Da Nang Rehabilitation-Sanatorium Hospital, I noticed that they were spending much of their free time, between their daily physical therapy sessions, drawing. While my husband Dave (who is an artist himself) and I saw real talent in these early drawings, the young men dismissed our compliments, saying that they knew they could only become “real” artists if they were able to get admitted into a university art program and learn to create art “correctly.”

Man of the MountainsDave and I decided we needed to convince these guys that they had real talent—even though they lacked art school diplomas. So we commissioned Hien to create some pencil sketches for Steady Footsteps greeting cards and we purchased two of Phuong’s wonderful paper mosaics. As Hien began painting in watercolors and--later--acrylics, we bought some of his paintings as well. And every time we had a foreign visitor at the hospital, we took them by Hien and Phuong’s room, which was gradually evolving into a cross between a hospital ward and an art studio. All of the visitors exclaimed over the art work and some took the opportunity to purchase pieces to hang in their homes in Germany, America and Australia. At our suggestion, the proprietors of three local shops: Reaching Out Handicraft Shop of Hoi An; Tam’s Pub and Surf Shop near China Beach; and the Bach Mai Art Gallery at 12 Trung Nu Vuong Street (just across the street from Da Nang's famous Cham Museum) all agreed to carry and sell Hien and Phuong’s work without charging any mark-up.

Two CranesA few weeks ago, I saw Hien and Phuong wheeling themselves up the street toward the city bus stop. They said they were “on a business trip”—off to meet with a shopkeeper in the neighboring town of Hoi An. This week, Hien told me, he is working with yet another patient, trying set up his own website.

Our friends Hien and Phuong now consider themselves professional artists—quite a concept in a country like Vietnam, which is just gradually emerging from a bare subsistence level economy and where 95% of the disabled are unemployed! Dave and I are delighted to have been catalysts in their development—and we’re delighted, as well, to have Hien and Phuong’s drawings, paintings and paper mosaics brightening the walls of our home!

The Walls of Hoi An

UPDATE: Check out Hien's newest paintings on-line at the Da Nang Artists Company website!

December 1, 2013

A Little Bit Famous

More photos

About Life in Da Nang

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to Steady Footsteps in the Life in Da Nang category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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