This summer I spent 3 weeks working as a student nurse in one of Vietnam’s poorest public hospitals.
The scale of this venture did not sink in until I had waved goodbye to my family at Heathrow airport, continuing through airport security, alone. This was the first time I had travelled beyond Europe by myself, and the first time I’d had to navigate connecting flights through foreign airports.
Having struggled with my own mental health in the past, there were times at which I felt overwhelmed by my choice to make this journey. I questioned if I would be able to cope on the other side of the world, immersed in a different culture with a huge language barrier. However, booking through a specialist healthcare company, who arranged everything, definitely made the transition easier.
I tried to keep an open mind about what the conditions would be like in the hospital. I wasn’t surprised to see patients sharing rooms, but seeing a child with cancer squashed into a room with patients old enough to be his grandparents saddened me, and the mould-ridden walls made me question its suitability as a healing environment.
One thing that did stand out to me, however, was the willing attitudes of hospital staff. Despite the lack of resources, nobody complained, but simply got on with their duties. All of the Vietnamese people I met outwardly practised generosity and gratitude – a reflection of Vietnam’s strong Buddhist values.
However, whilst these values might suggest a positive attitude towards mental health, this was not the case for those who required specific psychological care. I encountered shocking cases where a doctor told me that epilepsy was a ‘psychiatric’ illness, and another where a woman was slapped if she made any noise during childbirth. The damage that these beliefs and practices may have on a patient’s mental health could span a lifetime.
Outside of the challenging placements, the evenings and weekends provided an opportunity to explore with new friends, and focus on my own mental wellbeing. The city of Hue is home to many attractions such as the Imperial City, restaurants and markets. Visiting Bạch Mã National Park and the city of Hội An were definitely highlights of my trip. The views of the Vietnamese mountains were unrivalled, and with a hostel costing roughly £3 a night, travel was cheap and easy. One thing that surprised me was Vietnam’s love for karaoke. It’s definitely worth joining in, if you ever get the chance!
Travelling to Vietnam taught me more than I could have imagined about mental (and physical) healthcare. Whilst it could be easy to criticise certain procedures that I witnessed, it has been eye opening to learn more about how cultural beliefs can influence a country’s healthcare practices. I am returning to the UK with a newfound sense of gratitude: one I aim to project into my work in the NHS, and far beyond.