There is so much to love about the isolated mountainous town of Sapa, only a few miles from the Chinese border, in northern Vietnam. First, relief from the otherwise hot and humid climate in the low lands of Vietnam. Next, streets lined with North Fake and Funder Armour shops. And, last but not least, fresh spring rolls with peanut sauce that we have been dreaming of since our arrival in Vietnam.
Sapa, the northernmost region of the country, is home to many indigenous people and direct descendants of the Hmong tribes, that originated in the Yellow River basin in China. The Hmong people have migrated all over the world to seek refuge from persecution, primarily to Vietnam, Thailand, and Laos, but also to states such as Wisconsin, Minnesota, and California. Here in Vietnam, they have preserved their cultural traditions, and their children are just beautiful.
This is our second clinic day with Children of Peace International, a non-profit which my dad talks about in depth in his blog. But as promised, I decided to write about the 1,238 patients that our volunteer group treated, the majority being kids.
At the San Sa Ho Middle school, we treated 240 students, many of which live in the dormitories that COPI has helped fund. As they wash their hands at the hygiene station, the indigo stains on their fingers dye the water blue, and as they brush their teeth (many of them for the first time in months) their gums bleed. Smiles are big as we take turns blowing bubbles from the upper balcony, and practicing our multiplication before they have their vitals taken. They take great pleasure in reading out the numbers on the thermometer as I take their temperatures.
Many of them work on their basic English taught by their school and parents (who sell textiles to the tourists), and ask me over and over again where I’m from and point to my hair. The US, I explain to them (even though it’s obvious that they don’t know where that is), as I organize another craft to keep them busy as they wait their turn in line. I don’t think they would care either way though -patience is well practiced here.
Our group’s cook, Tuyêt, passes out snacks, but the kids look inquisitively at the dried cranberries and I have no choice but to pass them out one by one to the plethora of little hands in front of me. Then a 15 year old boy proudly holds up his drawing of Cinderella from the coloring book. Well done, I say with a big thumbs up as he smiles for a picture.
Lunch is a community pot of rice, and I imagine it has been that way for their whole lives. Everything is done with a sense of raw enthusiasm, and I find myself wishing for just an ounce of their energy and curiosity.
The next day we visited their partner school, the San Sa Ho Elementary School. The students are mostly healthy, though every so often one child explains that he can’t keep up running with his friends, and the doctors find a heart murmur. We mark them down for follow ups, and with COPI’s assistance they will get the further medical support that they need. Most still have baby teeth, but even so, our dentists patiently fill each cavity. No fluoride here, though. A handful of children have large circular bruises on their foreheads, a traditional suction cupping technique performed by the local medicine man, and believed to draw out pain or impending illness.
When they finish the whole clinic rotation, it’s toy time, and each kid gets a hand knitted scarf, hat, and a gift of their choosing. There is no preconceived gender/color association, which became obvious very quickly. The boys picked out the pink bracelet kits as eagerly as the girls picked out shark stickers and toy cars. Bigger is not better either, because the largest teddy bears went completely unnoticed. Nobody knew quite what to make of the Barbie dolls, though, as they hung them up in the air by their long legs and stared at the bleach blond hair.
School does not end at the last bell because none of the students have a sense of time. The winner never gets a prize, nor do they want one, because here in Sapa, they truly understand the meaning of our kindergarten phrase, “you get what you get and you don’t get upset”. Maybe they don’t know how bad they have it, but I came to understand that maybe they don’t have it all that bad. Healthcare is lacking, and education could be prioritized, but the kids do what they do best: they learn and play without the constraints of time and space. Clearly material wealth is not the key to happiness, and has only diluted our sense of community in the 1st world.
Before we know it we are waving our last goodbyes to all 130 children who are still playing the same games, hours later. As we load the bins back into the van, our minds turn to the prospect of a shower and a snack. Mostly though, I start to miss their smiles.