It's 5:30 AM.
Early, by American college-student standards. I wake up to the sounds of motorbikes honking on the streets and my aunt's cooking in the kitchen. I rinse my face, in mental preparation to begin this day, adrenaline rushing, ready to make it to the ferry on time for work. It is preferred that patients have not eaten or consumed copious amounts of coffee or tea before performing the screenings (glucose testing and hypertension) so Jenny and I make sure to arrive to the clinic early. Our goal is 7:30-8:00AM, with our 2 hour commute. But that is already very late by Vietnamese standards, as people wake up as soon the rooster crows and begin their day. It also does not help that coffee is its own food group in Vietnam.
Commutes to Can Gio and the clinic are no joke. It takes about 2 hours total one-way, and Jenny and I blindly figuring it the way there ourselves. This is why getting to and from Can Gio makes us feel like we are literally in the Amazing Race, every single day:
1. Mode of transportation....whatever you can find. "Just go straight."
When we asked the locals how to get back to Saigon/get to Can Gio, the answer was simple.. a little too simple. "Just take the bus on the main road and keep going straight."
...but wait. "Which bus?" and "how often does it come" and "how do we know when we get there or when to stop?" The answer is you simply have to try it and find out.
The microbus. The two microbuses that we have to take are the 20 and the 90. I do not think I will ever forget those two numbers. And the only reason we knew to take those two buses was through asking the local people here, who all were very helpful and welcoming.
The microbus is tiny and filled with people crammed up against the railing or the windows, all holding on for dear life. For some, it is the only mode of transportation. I am especially appreciative of the fact that it only costs 4000 dong (about a quarter), because the low cost makes it easier for everyone to get around. Though not the best option, for some, it is the only option.
The ferry. After taking the first microbus, we are next loaded onto the ferry Binh Khanh to get to Can Gio island. The ferry takes about twenty minutes, and although a lengthy addition to our commute, it is a fresh breath of air for Jenny and me. At 6am, the skies are a perfect hint of blue, and the river just as so. There are people from all walks of life on the ferry at 7AM--parents and their kids, mothers needing to go to hospital in Saigon, day workers going to work. But just as the ferry transports and connects us to Can Gio, it also is a reminder of the differences between the city center and the island of Can Gio that we are soon approaching. Development has not reached Can Gio.
2. Befriending strangers and xe oms drivers (motorbike taxi drivers). In Vietnam, if you have a motorbike and a few extra helmets around, you can be a motorbike taxi driver. On our first day, as Jenny and I get to the intersection, we are lost as to how to get to the health commune--as it is another 5 miles deep into the street--and we are carrying heavy medical equipment. Across the street, two men approach us with their "xe oms" signaling for us to get on. However, we sensed that we were not safe in the way they approached us and denied. They also wanted 20,000 dong each. After that, another xe om driver came and offered to take us both for 15,000 dong. He was direct and respectful so we both agreed. Jenny, the driver, and I myself all crammed onto the small motorbike seat and held on for our lives as he whirled down the narrow road to the clinic. After that, we got his number and he promised to be our designated xe om driver during our time in Can Gio.
3. Bring packs of instant noodles with you. Chi (Sister) Linh works as the pharmacist at Tram Y Te Tam Thon Hiep. She has a warm glow and a kind heart. She has those motherly and older-sister qualities that Jenny and I both desperately needed at the time. On our first day at the clinic, she came over and sat us both down. "Remember, don't eat the local food until your stomach becomes used to it. You might get stomach pains." Then she saw half the sandwich I bought near the local village market and told me to throw it away. She said that she would make us some "mi goi" or instant noodles.
Dr. Dung, the main doctor at the health clinic, overheard our conversation and immediately chimed, "Let me run home and get you girls some instant noodles! Then we can cook it up here." Immediately, he took his motorbike and ran home to get us the instant noodles and a mini gas stove to cook it. Chi Linh then made us two bowls of sizzling instants noodle, and that is forever one of the best meals I have had in Vietnam so far.
So even as I write down what an adventure our commute has been, the people at the clinic have been so warm, so friendly, and so welcoming that it all makes the tiring days worth it. And there is a sort of invincibility that comes with exploring this place, meeting strangers, and making it out alive.
Right, partner in crime?
*This was a pre-written journal entry from June 2012 that I finally got around to publishing.