The fever came and went, and came again. I found myself resting on every third step of the endless climb to my second floor room. One morning I awoke to bleeding gums and for a week could bear nothing more solid than yogurt and old bananas. With no end in sight, I resigned myself to the care of the much-maligned Vietnamese medical system.

Medical establishments, like eateries, worry me when they have no patrons. I always wonder if I'm missing some important bit of news. I seemed to be the only one sick in the whole of Hanoi that day, and after an hour at the International Hospital I began to worry that a recent epidemic had wiped out not only the patients, but the staff as well. At last a nurse appeared and beckoned me to follow her. We tramped in silence down enldless halls, past doors labeled Endocrinology, Radiology and Neuropsychology, all opening into empty rooms.

The doctor, a brisk woman in a reassuring white coat, poked around inside my mouth and nodded knowingly. She handed me a pack of Vitamin C, an unlabeled bottle filled with tarry black traditional medicine, and a dose of motherly advice; "Gargle two times each day with salt water." West, east, and old fashioned. She had covered all the bases.

I was disappointed. I wasn't, after all, some backwoods farmer, ready to be cured by anything that came packaged as a pill. I knew that Vitamin C was no miracle drug, and gargling with salt water seemed about as useful as slurping chicken soup. Perhaps the unmarked bottle had some secret ingredient that would make me well.

Later, after an application of the black paste had sent me careening off the guesthouse walls in excruciating agony, I took the time to decipher the label. It was, to my relief, meant for teeth and gums. It was, to my horror, made with snake venom. That's it, I thought. It was time to bring in the big guns. I called my private doctor -- my mom.

She was home, thank God. At four dollars a minute to make the call, I got straight to the point.

"Mom, I've got bleeding gums, intermittent fever, mouth ulcers, and my skin smells like I've died already."

She was immediately professional. "Sounds like scurvy," she said.

"Scurvy! I thought that went out with Captain Cook."

"It's a vitamin C deficiency. Have you been eating enough fruit?"

"It's winter here. There's nothing but bananas."

"Bananas won't work. Can you get your hands on some tablets?"

I looked sheepishly at the pile of pills on the dresser. "Yeah, I think so."

"Get some rest," she instructed, "and gargle with salt water, that should help the ulcers."