Good Morning Vietnam – By Lucy Thomas


It’s a rather long and convoluted tale as to how I ended up working in Vietnam which I won’t go into today. Save that excitement for another time. Ha!

So September 2009 I land in Hue, Central Vietnam, to start a three month contract with a charity there teaching English to children in orphanages throughout the city. Due to where it’s situated (near the de-militarised zone, aka DMZ) Hue was hit badly by the Vietnamese War. Not just by conflict but economically and socially as well. Even though some time had passed people were only just getting on their feet so if a child came along unexpectedly and finances were tight it was common for children to be dropped off at the orphanage. Hue Help (the charity) was set up to give these kids a fighting chance in becoming successful adults. This is where my ginger self came in.

On arrival I was asked by my new boss if I’d ever taught children with special needs before, and would I be interested. Though feeling slightly overwhelmed I recognised a good challenge, one that would take me out of my comfort zone and put things into perspective. So for three months I taught in various places all over the city teaching blind children, deaf children, children with cerebral palsy, and children with autism. It was phenomenal, and without a doubt one of the best things I’ve ever done.

Yes, alright I’ll stop wittering on and make all this relevant to diabetes. That’s why you’re reading this right?
One of the biggest things of Central Vietnam is the all-encompassing heat. The humidity is astonishing. I’m talking every part of your body will sweat. Even your knees and toenails. I had never experienced anything like it. And it was HOT. Jesus was it hot, 40 degrees centigrade on most days. As you can imagine that heat and that humidity sucked the energy out of you and just performing simple tasks, like going to the supermarket, could be exhausting. Cue the potential for hypo hell.

Given I was teaching in places all over the city, and in keeping with the majority of Vietnamese people, I chose a very, very, very, very, very old bicycle as my mode of transport and cycled absolutely everywhere. Walking was out of the question as it would immediately attract 7,000 cyclo (big tricycles with huge seats – Hue’s yellow cab as it were) drivers declaring ‘I take you citadel…good price…good price). So in one week I’d be cycling up to 80km all over the place. Again more potential for hypo hell.

From the point of view of my diabetes it was an extremely difficult 3 months. Vietnamese food is lovely, but not really substantial. In my fifteen years as a diabetic I’ve never taken such little insulin, before I went I was on 5 injections a day, this soon got cut down to 3 because with all the cycling and jumping around whilst teaching (I can never sit or stand still for long!) 5 became too many. There were that few carbohydrates in my diet that the need for that much insulin was no longer there…I even lost 1.5 stone!

My mum was fantastic, after a week or so in Vietnam I realised how challenging keeping my sugar levels up was going to be so she sent a huge package of more dextrose tablets and I will forever be grateful. They definitely kept me going! You can get chocolate etc. in Vietnam but most shops in Hue were run independently from the front door of people’s houses and prices had to be negotiated on EVERYTHING! Have you ever tried haggling the price for food at the beginning of a hypo? It’s torture! You’re stuck between just getting something to eat but not inclined to pay 3 times the amount for it just because you’re a tourist.

One of my worst moments was before my mum’s package of dextrose arrived and I was down to the last packet I’d bought with me. I’d been teaching at one of the orphanages and late morning could feel the creeping symptoms of a hypo coming on so snuck to my bag to surreptitiously have a couple of dextrose but one of my students spotted me and started begging for one. It was my last packet of dextrose, I didn’t know when my mum’s package was going to arrive and I knew if I gave him one all the kids would want one then I’d be left with nothing. I had to say no. I felt awful. My Vietnamese assistant tried to explain it was medicine, not for children but to make things worse the student was deaf so the explanation all too transparently definitely got lost in translation as the look on his face said it all. There I was, the fat foreigner eating food that I wasn’t going to share.

As well as the work in the orphanages I also taught an adult group whose English was fantastic. Each week I’d pick something different for us to talk about and one week I decided to tell them about diabetes. Not one of them had ever heard of it. I’ve done a bit of research and whilst there are some Type 1 Diabetics in Vietnam the numbers are very very low. Whether it’s down to diet and/or genetic make-up I’m not scientific enough to know. What I do know is my adult students were extremely baffled as to why I’d inject myself. Despite my very thorough explanation most of it went over their heads.

Needless to say, I survived! I went on from Vietnam to Australia and my first meal, I’m ashamed to say, was a Subway. I had really really really missed sandwiches! My experience taught me that it’s ok to be adventurous, and travel and experience a slightly different way of living but it also taught me to never underestimate how complicated diabetes can make things. Well it taught me that and never let a Vietnamese person order for you in a restaurant, you will end up eating frog’s legs and drinking wine made out of fermented monkey. Delightful.

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Wow what a lot of great responses. Thanks everyone.

Basically, without going into loads of detail, I worked in for 6 months in China and then went down to Vietnam. It was really difficult as I could only get 6 months of insulin before I went so I took 6 months with me then luckily two friends came to visit and try bought more out with them to china.

Luckily where I lived in Vietnam i could keep my insulin cool I just had to be careful when I was out and about.

It was hard but I definitely recommend it….if you want to do it, do it otherwise you’ll only regret it. Worst comes to worse you can come home :-)

Am on diabetes club here in the Gambia and am the president .working on a websit too and I will be very please if we can be in touch

Tremendous post! I always fancied working in another country, but the thought of organising the medication (insulin primarily) was a concern, such as where to get it, and where. It always has put me off from leaving the UK for more than 3 months. Good to see a post that shows ‘diabetes’ does not limit you. A good read.

Hi Lucy, I loved this article.

Thank you for posting such an honest account of how difficult it is to travel with diabetes – especially in such a culturally diverse place as Vietnam. I travel up to six times a year to china with my job, often for weeks at a time. I can completely relate to the low carb meals, the heat and the very limited knowledge that many local citizens have regarding diabetes. It certainly makes the job harder. After eight years of doing this, it never gets any easier but you learn to manage it. And I think it helps you to learn a little more about yourself every time :-)

Helen x

Very sweet article. I am type 1 and I have wanted to travel/live abroad for ages. There needs to be more articles like these as not all diabetics want a boring life :)
Thanks again x

Great story, I bet it was very fulfilling teaching those kids.

I’m Australian and living in the UK and one day when I head home I would love to spend some time in Vietnam doing that kind of thing.

How did you get on with your insulin and keeping it cold and getting more? Did you take enough to last three months? My worry is that if I ever ran out of insulin on a long trip somewhere…