I was sick a great deal of the time in Vietnam. That was more a reflection of how poorly I took care of myself (a combination of hubris and overwork). The diary tapes I kept are filled with sniffling and sneezing - in hindsight I realized that more than half the time I had either a cold or flu. I don't believe you have to get sick if you go to Vietnam, but I do think you have to spend more time and energy than you normally would in maintaining your health.
WHEN TO MAKE USE OF THE VIETNAMESE MEDICAL SYSTEM...
Never. Well, almost never... The closest reasonable medical facilities are in Hong Kong or Bangkok. If you have any real concerns about your health, get out of Vietnam.
VIETNAMESE RURAL MEDICINE|
The Vietnamese are fervent believers in traditional medicine. This runs the gamut from bear gall to some very useful herbs. Although you should avoid the medicinal use of rare animal parts, don't dismiss all of traditional medicine. It is an ancient and highly revered art which Western medicine is only now beginning to understand.
In remoter areas an entire village may share a single needle/syringe (the needle gets awfully blunt).
Vietnamese believe much more in injections than they do in pills. You will see many simple remedies that we usually take in pill form available only as an injectible.
There is no such thing as prescription-only medicine. If it's available at the pharmacy, you can buy it.
You will often see Vietnamese with round red bruises on their foreheads, chests and backs. This is a form of traditional medicine. They burn a piece of alcohol-soaked cotton inside a cup (to drive out the air) and then immediately turn it upside-down over the skin. The skin and flesh is sucked into the cup, creating an angry-looking bruise. I've even seen these cups applied to two-month-old babies.
Another traditional remedy is to scrape the injured area with coins or other metallic objects. If you see children with red marks on their necks or arms, this is probably the reason.
Give yourself plenty of time to get all the vaccinations you need before going to Vietnam (some may take a month or two). The best place to go is a tropical diseases institute at a nearby hospital. They will discuss which vaccines you need given your travel plans. The following is a sample of information distributed by the CDC and is in no way meant to be a definitive list of vaccinations to take before going to Vietnam.
- hepatitis A
- hepatitis B
- TBCG (TB)
- Japanese encephalitis
- Yellow fever vaccination required if coming from YF area within six days
- Cholera (get info. from doctor)
SUGGESTED MEDICAL KIT
All over Vietnam you will see giant posters depicting skeletal figures and the letters SIDA. This is the Eurpean word for AIDS and the Vietnamese government is taking the disease very seriously. So should you.
ONCE YOU'RE THERE
Water. If you're buying it bottled, make sure the cap is sealed. Tap water needs to be boiled for twenty minutes, not just brought to a boil. Do not use ice - most parasites and bacteria can survive being frozen.
Most of the milk in Vietnam (when you can get it) has not been pasteurized. Yoghurt is apparently fine.
If you're traveling with someone, find out his/her blood type. It will be your only clean supply of blood if you get injured.
Sanitary napkins make great bandages (they soak up a lot of fluid).
Do not buy (and take) any medication in Vietnam because the "pharmacist" recommends it. Most of them speak very little English and are selling you drugs that have English dosage and directions - in other words, their information is third-hand at best. I've been given vaginal cream for an eye infection and aspirin for a stomach flu...
Rural doctors are somewhat analogous to 14th century barber surgeons, as a friend of mine found out the hard way...
Westerners are extremely suspicious of traditional Eastern medicine. Although I would question the medical benefits of snake blood and rice whiskey, traditional medicine has many herbs and roots that really do make a difference. Depending on your ailment, it may be worth a try.