Making Emergencies Part of the Plan

Even a tiny roadside stall can save your lifeIt was on the third round trip that worry, maybe even fear, began to overtake me.

The tropical sun was scalding and I was sweating, the dust of the red dirt road trailing behind us like a cyclone. The scooter I was driving - more like managing to keep upright - was coated in the dust, dirt and grime of two previous trips back and forth to the island’s only hospital, a mere thirty kilometres away. We were on Phu Quoc Island, my girlfriend and I, and we were in the midst of experiencing, the hard way, why every traveller should always be prepared for emergencies, big and small.

The tiny tear shaped island is corralled between the coasts of Cambodia and Vietnam, and boasts a colourful history of incursions, prisons and, recently, investment. Officially belonging to Vietnam, but claimed also by Cambodia, Phu Quoc has, in its time, been offered to the French, hosted the Republic of China’s retreating army, been captured by the Khmer Rouge, boasted the largest prison during the Vietnam - or American - War, and finally, been left alone to develop into the next tourist hot spot. The island is exceedingly beautiful. At the risk of being superfluous, it is magnificent, idyllic, bucolic and pristine. However, it is also being examined from afar by people with enough money to turn this adjective laden paradise into a bland and overdeveloped mega hotel.

We sought this relatively undisturbed natural beauty as my girlfriend and I finished our month long trek from Hanoi to Saigon. Phu Quoc was the natural choice: a quiet island about 300 kilometres from Ho Chi Minh City.

We wanted something quiet and removed, and so we left the developed main town on the island, Duong Dong, and headed to the southern coast. Rumours of a resort being built near Bai Sao beach were our hopes. We found two: My Lan, an overpriced abode with bungalows for rent and, next door, the former Gecko Jacks currently unfinished, nameless lodge. We chose the lodge - which boasted a whopping three rooms - and for our three-night stay, we were the only guests. Besides our Vietnamese friends working at the bar, we had only to contend with one or two score of day trippers from Duong Dong during the day, to be rewarded with solitude at night broken only by the cacophonic orchestra of wild dogs. Our envisioned plan was to sleep in, eat a slow breakfast, swim in the ocean, maybe have an afternoon nap on the beach and take a scooter out to explore the island. We were tired, our clothes were dirty and our money was low. My stomach hurt and my body was exasperated from trying to fight something which, incidentally, I would later find out at a hospital on the other side of the world, was untreated salmonella poisoning. Even the combination of physical and mental malaise from spending a month on our feet could not stop us from exploring. After all, when you wake up under a mosquito net with a balcony facing palm trees and ocean waves, there is an undeniable urge to look around.Gorgeous views make you want to explore

Five minutes after renting the scooter from the bar, my face was in the dirt, the bike was on top of me, my girlfriend was hurt and we were on a deserted dirt road. She had a circular white mark on her leg, but the pain hadn’t set in yet. There was no choice but for us to limp back to the lodge. Taking stock of my injuries, I was lucky: a bad bruise on my leg, cuts on my arm, foot and hand, and a body length ache on the side that hit the ground when the bike lost traction in the dirt. Our first aid was rusty, but from my tiny and ancient kit I managed to cobble together a bandage - exhausting all of our supplies - for her wound. Later that afternoon, feeling resilient and full of bravado, we decided to give it another go and take the hour long trip on the scooter into town.

The road from Bai Sao in the south to Duong Dong in the centre of the island is incredible. From the tree line on the right your eye can span over the red dirt road - full of potholes and divots - to a line of sparse palm trees, a sharp decline to the beach, gentle waves and a few lonely boats for pearl diving or fishing. The road takes you past two pearl factories, where you can watch someone cut a pearl out of the oyster’s belly, a sparse village where the road is inundated with water daily to keep the dust clouds down, and a tiny shack where you can buy a bite to eat and a Coke or a beer to wash it down. We were lucky enough to have stopped at a local roadside shop to replenish my first aid kit. The look of disgust from the teenager working the pharmacy as she spied my girlfriend's wound worried us enough to send us to the hospital for treatment. We ended up taking the journey twice more before we left the island. 

The trip to the hospital was a journey in and of itself, to say the least. My girlfriend was brave; the tiny facility certainly lacked inspiration and did not instil any amount of confidence in me with its open air rooms and patients on wooden benches in the hallway. Not to mention the burgundy drops of overlooked and by then dried blood, and the fact that we no longer had any medical insurance since both of our teaching contracts had finished.

Cost was the last thing on my mind, however. I was sick and she was worse off. The doctor examined her leg, scribbled on his pad and pointed me out the door. The language barrier between us made the situation stressful and I certainly didn't want to leave my girlfriend. I was bewildered, but I reluctantly followed his point to a squat concrete building near the hospital entrance with barred windows. It wasn’t until after I had approached the counter and looked through the window that I realized it was the local pharmacy. After I handed the clerk my scrap of paper with a few short words on it, she thrust the necessary supplies into my arms: iodine, saline, ointment, gauze and medical tape. This would become my daily ritual. Each day as I approached the tiny building, the clerk’s smile would grow a little wider as she prepared the goods the nurses would need to painfully patch my girlfriend's burn.

When I returned to the hospital’s narrow hallway, I was ushered inside the room where my girlfriend, the nurses and the doctor had been waiting. It seemed time had frozen as no one had changed positions and her wound was still exposed. Seeing my arms full, the doctor and nurses sprang into action, cleaning and dressing the wound. We were all finished before you could say cahm urn (thank you). I don’t know if it is the communist state or the rudimentary medical supplies, but 150 000 Vietnamese Dong, around five dollars, isn’t too bad for a medical bill!

Grabbing the bike and throwing my weight backwards to steer it back onto the road, it was time to head home. The irony of the situation was that we could not escape the bike itself; cabs were too expensive and the distance too far to walk. Our reluctances were outweighed by the slim wallets in our pockets. And a shame, too: high winds are not conducive to maintaining cleanly wrapped bandages. By the time we got back to our rustic room, her bandage was falling apart, dirt and dust seeping in to sully the just-cleaned wound. If only I had had more supplies with me, which even the more rudimentary first aid kits would have had. All I could do to keep her spirits up was to take the less dirty pieces and wrap them around her leg. It is not easy to be positive in a situation like this, where even the simplest tasks have become serious challenges. Even the sultry air, the swaying palms and the peaceful scenery could not erase the worry and fear from our minds. Two more mornings we ferried into Duong Dong, making the trip back through the blaze of the fiery sun each afternoon, the leeching dirt making her condition worse every hour spent on the auburn road. There was nothing to be done.

A few days later, after forty hours of flying and layovers, I was burrowed in my family’s home to ward off the ice and snow that permeates Christmas time in Atlantic Canada. Somewhere between Ho Chi Minh City and Saint John, New Brunswick, my body being crushed by lethargy and a swollen stomach, it struck me that all of it was preventable. Within a day of landing I had been through the emergency room for the poison in my stomach and my girlfriend had been to a specialist for her leg. Though neither of us could avoid what happened, our responses could have been a little more informed and a little less haphazard.

Now when I travel, instead of relying on stomach medication proffered through the goodwill of strangers and or what’s contained in the catacombs of my dusty first aid kit, I come more prepared. I’ve learned that travelling problems are inescapable: blisters, warts, cuts on the feet, lacerations, muscle pains, bacteria, poisons, sunburn, burns, and bruises everywhere. All will happen; all can be treated. If you are a fast on your feet traveller and have little space in your pack, you can still save a world of hurt with simple preparation. My indispensable list of travel tools: wallet, passport, and now, a fully stocked and streamlined first aid kit.

About the Author

Sean Smyth finds himself teaching primary children as a day job but is passionate about travelling, eating and football - in that order. As a recent import to Singapore, he spends his time writing, reading and exploring. Originally from the east coast of Canada, Sean has an undergraduate degree in International Relations and has been living in Asia for almost two years.

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see  Full name: Socialist Republic of Vietnam

 Population: 91.52 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Hanoi

 Largest city: Ho Chi Minh City

 Area: 331,210 (127,881 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Vietnamese, English,  French, Chinese, Other

 Major religions: Buddhist, Catholic, Other

 Monetary unit: Dong

 GDP per capita: US $3,300

 Internet domain: .vn

 International dialling code: +84

 Source: CIA World Factbook