Since 1994, Buffalo Tours has helped connect people and cultures through extraordinary travel – but our commitment to giving back is still close to our hearts. For the seventh year running, the Buffalo team – along with Educational Travel Asia, and in partnership with Seattle Colleges Global Impact Program – has worked with local and foreign health professionals and students in our annual volunteer medical trek in rural Mai Chau, Vietnam. By combining the efforts of local and foreign experts along with students, this yearly effort is one of Buffalo’s longest-running volunteer touring projects.
Go behind-the-scenes with our passionate volunteers on their journeys of self-discovery on the 2015 Vietnam Village Trek, as they visit some of northern Vietnam’s least-developed regions to create sustainable and actionable health education initiatives. Follow Sabrina Kay, a pre-nursing student at North Seattle College, in this installment.
The strange and sudden drone of a young woman’s voice broke through the quiet morning, streaming steadily out of the loudspeakers set up throughout the streets down below. I crept across my hotel room and opened the window, the sticky heat immediately washing over my face and along with it, the early bustle of motorcycles and pedestrians squeezing through the narrow roads as vendors set up their wares along the sidewalks. Endless rows and alleys crowded with buckets, bags, metal pots, shoes, hats, underwear, bright blue plastic stools, and low-lying tables surrounded by hungry locals hunched over large steaming bowls of Pho. This was the Old Quarter of Hanoi, a familiar part of the capital city (as this was my second visit) but one that has never ceased to fascinate me with its vibrancy, history, and hospitality.
We headed out that morning to Mai Chau district, a 3.5 hour bus ride away from the city nestled deep in the mountains to the southwest. Our group of medical volunteers had come together to dedicate a week of health care to under-served ethnic minority communities within the surrounding areas. Students, teachers, artists, administrators, doctors, nurses, interpreters, marketers, baristas, and off-the-clock comedians, singers, and semi-professional beat boxers…. all of us led by Thanh, our friendly and knowledgeable guide who never failed to let us know exactly how many seconds it would take to reach our next destination: “Three hours, twenty-seven minutes, and six seconds.”
“Our group of medical volunteers had come together to dedicate a week of health care to under-served ethnic minority communities within the surrounding areas.”
I fell asleep through most of it, but not without sitting up long enough to take in the beauty surrounding the winding road high up above the lush green mountains that hovered over blankets of rice paddies and tiny villages below. We were to spend the next few days in two villages like these: Phay and Xo – each one a 6-hour hike apart. I had never travelled into Vietnam’s countryside—having only visited a few cities in the north and central areas of the country—so I was eager to finally get to chance to experience life in these lesser-known parts, while my expectations remained undefined.
We arrived in Phay Village after a quick lunch in Mai Chau and another hour’s drive to the west. ‘I’m walking through a dreamscape’, I thought as our group filed down the path to our homestays, strolling through fields of brilliant green rice paddies that bordered tiny ponds, and rolling hillsides dotted with free-roaming chickens, caramel-coloured dogs, and small wooden homes precariously perched on narrow stilts.
Our homestays were in these types of houses; wide wooden structures whose second-story floors consisted of strips of bamboo set widely enough apart for my foot to fall through. Slightly terrified, I unloaded my backpack on the bamboo mat that sat under my mosquito net, hoping that nothing would slip between the gaps and land on the pigeons, ducks, dogs, or roosters that lived on the dusty ground 20 feet below.
The next morning marked the start of the first of three clinics, following a restless night interrupted by the unrelenting crow of the many roosters who kept each other company under the floor of our homestay from midnight to dawn. “This is such a difficult way to live,” I thought as sweat poured down my tired face while I managed ways to perfect my technique for not falling into the squat toilet under me, my fanny pack swinging wildly around my neck.
I took inventory of the massive amounts of mud that I had tracked in with my shoes, and thought of the villagers and this relatively “survivalist” way of living: minimal electricity, water that cut off throughout the day, waiting 36 hours for clothes to “sort-of” dry in the sweltering humidity, and the constant feeling of uncomfortable sogginess that was only mitigated by the few moments spent in front of the two fans that kept our house-full of guests sane.
My reaction took me by surprise. I had harbored this weird fantasy of living without the comforts of modern life, living “off the grid” and trying to connect to what I considered “being human.” I didn’t, however, realize that even the smallest modern deprivation would throw me off this much, especially for someone who has travelled widely. I considered this as I tended to our patients in the clinic; kind, warm-hearted, and grateful individuals who waited patiently as I performed my first heart and lung exams on each of them, having been trained in this by one of the doctors only minutes prior. Complaints of headaches, back aches, as well as more critical conditions filled the forms of the patient assessments, and as I sat transcribing and listening to them discuss their ailments, I realized just how strong these people are.
These people who always had a smile on their faces, who welcomed us warmly into their village and into their homes, their children greeting our arrival with hand-picked flowers wrapped in white paper cones that quickly wilted in the heat but livened up the railing of our homestay, where we had perched them the day before. These were people whose physical strength and work ethic made mine pale in comparison as I spent one afternoon helping a group of farmers transport a large pile of rocks down a muddy path to the other end of a rice field. These were tiny, fragile-looking women who spent hours shoveling rocks into our wheelbarrows as I sat limply on a nearby log, completely worn out from attempting to shovel just one handful of rocks, but grateful for the hard work and feeling of accomplishment by the end of the afternoon.
“These people who always had a smile on their faces, who welcomed us warmly into their village and into their homes, their children greeting our arrival with hand-picked flowers wrapped in white paper cones that quickly wilted in the heat but livened up the railing of our homestay, where we had perched them the day before.”
We said our goodbyes and made the scenic and semi-treacherous 6-hour trek on foot through the mountains to Xo Village, a smaller and even more remote area tucked away along the mountainside, guarded by the many water buffalo that roamed along its paths during the day. The children of the village were waiting for us the next morning at the local school, running around excitedly as a small group of us arrived with fluoride treatment, toothbrushes, t-shirts, school supplies, bar soap and bottles of bubbles that proved to be equally entertaining for us as well as for the children. They playfully battled each other for the chance to pop the steady stream of bubbles drifting overhead.
I realized how much I enjoyed working with these kids – making them laugh, showing them how to “high five,” and teaching them important self-care skills that will hopefully serve them for the rest of their lives. And as I watched them running circles around the courtyard, I noticed that my physical discomforts were not shared by them and were slowly becoming less important to me. They were strong, bright, and cheerful. I was too focused on what I lacked, rather than reflecting on the strength, skills, purpose, and sense of community that had developed during my stay in the villages. These children, like the farmers and the patients that I met in our clinics, had a certain optimism, determination, and support for one another that allowed them to handle whatever came their way and thrive in ways that I could never have imagined.
Learn more about Buffalo Tours’ volunteer treks in Mai Chau and other educational travel initiatives across Asia by visiting our partners, Educational Travel Asia.