I recently visited Vietnam as part of a course elective program offered at Griffith University. With OS-HELP travel loans and various funding options available, I happily enrolled.
Our travel guides were two experienced public health academic staff who guided us with humour and patience through a jam-packed itinerary. My travel companions included twenty students from different Griffith health programs – undergraduates and masters students studying biomedical science, nutrition and dietetics, psychology, and public health. The aim of the study tour was to deepen our knowledge of international health environments, and to help us gain a culturally diverse perspective of global health.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, it was impossible not to be in awe of the sheer volume of mopeds on the roads, weaving between cars and pedestrians, carrying multiple passengers and laden with assorted cargo – from groceries and puppies through to doors and mattresses (yes, on a moped!). Although you hear stories about the traffic before you arrive, to see it firsthand is an experience in itself. As we moved towards our hotel, I observed sidewalks bursting with locals, chatting and laughing, drinking and eating, some cooking, others sleeping; all the while looking completely relaxed amidst the chaos. Immediately, I could tell that Vietnam was a place with some serious personality.
Over the course of sixteen days we spent time in Ho Chi Minh City, the Mekong Delta, Vung Tau Beach and Dalat (the Parisian hinterland of Vietnam). We had fun discovering bustling marketplaces, shell covered beaches, floating markets, temple gardens and rooftop bars. We were simultaneously captivated and horrified with artefacts seen at the War Remnants Museum. We explored the labyrinth of Cu Chi tunnels, which were built in response to high-tech artillery, bombs and chemical weapons (such as Agent Orange). Some areas of the underground network were several stories deep and contained makeshift kitchens, hospitals, and weaponry supplies. The tunnels were improvised by the Viet Cong in order to survive through multiple wars.
We explored historical mountains, natural caves and waterfalls, rode bikes around peaceful villages and through rice plantations, travelled in cable cars high above green country landscapes, and watched the changing scenery from the window of our tour bus.
We did work too, most days were spent visiting various health departments, hospitals, medical colleges, health prevention centres and small local health commune stations. Throughout our meetings we were able to talk to department officials, medical practitioners, local health workers and students to piece together the areas of population health that require focus and improvement. Essentially, I was able to see firsthand the challenges that a developing country such as Vietnam faces, particularly under such rapid growth conditions.
I absorbed as much as I could of the culture, history, food, economics and politics of Vietnam, and all of these provided context for my learnings of the health system in this country. It was easier to ponder the emerging diabetes epidemic of Vietnam whilst sipping on a heavily sweetened Vietnamese coffee.
Travel in itself is an education that will broaden your horizons and increase your perspectives about the world around you. As a tourist abroad you are exposed to the culture, history and customs of the places you are visiting. This alone improves your awareness of the differences and similarities that exist within and between societies. Our guided study tour provided an even deeper insight into the workings of a different culture.
With industry professionals and academics guiding the way I was able to appreciate population health in a country vastly different to Australia. Overall, the Vietnam study tour provided me with a great deal of learnings which will impact on my growth as an individual and as a future health professional.
Amanda Booy is currently studying an undergraduate degree in public health, with focus upon health promotion and public health nutrition. Amanda is fascinated with how the world operates, particularly those social aspects of society which influence our daily lives, and importantly our health outcomes. Public health, with its big picture focus, and its exploration of the underlying determinants of health is what Amanda is most compelled by.