In Vietnam: The Pharmacy – Nhà thuốc

There are pharmacies on most busy streets in Vietnamese cities, sometimes several. They are usually small shop fronts with a counter or window opening straight onto the street. Unusually for Vietnam, they usually have a small number of staff on duty. I say unusually, because most shops have numerous staff. A smallish bakery might have half a dozen staff serving. Pharmacies tend to have one person in a white coat and one assistant. Customers will sometimes ride straight up to the window on their motorbikes.

I was once waiting to be served in Ho Chi Minh City, when a guy on a motorbike pulled up right in front of me (queuing is not a custom in Vietnam), and asked for one condom. The girl behind the counter duly got out a packet of three, opened them up, tore off one condom from the strip, and served it to him. As a friend of mine said “not a long-term relationship then”.

The same applies to other products. You can buy a strip of paracetamol instead of the whole packet, or you can buy x days supply. They are happy to cut off the required number of pills from the blister pack or count out loose pills from a bottle.

Anyone can buy antibiotics or other medications without a prescription at these Nhà thuốc.  Vietnamese public hospitals are overcrowded and of questionable quality. Vietnamese people tend to self-diagnose and self-prescribe, and often they will self-prescribe antibiotics. I recently went to a Nhà thuốc because I had a cold and wanted something to relieve my sinus congestion and sore throat. The first question was “do you want some antibiotics?”. Unsurprisingly,  Vietnam has a very high incidence of antibiotic-resistant infections.

The white coated staff members may or may not have some sort of qualification. I’m guessing  most do not. They are, however, almost always helpful and attentive, and will do their best to find what you are looking for or an equivalent. Google searches have been done almost every time I’ve called in. The range of drugs available is limited however. There are some drugs I have prescriptions for from Australia, that I can’t get here.

Everything is securely locked in glass cabinets, probably to prevent theft. This can mean, for non-Vietnamese speakers like me, a lengthy process of pointing to various packs on shelves “no up, left, down, right, yes that one” in order to retrieve something that may or may not be what you are looking for.

Apparently each pharmacy has to be registered to a qualified pharmacist, but there is no requirement for the staff to be qualified. The white coat probably means little. If you’re worried about drug interactions or correct dosage, you’d better check that yourself.

The pictures here are a couple of typical pharmacies, close to where I live in Danang

 

 

Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017
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In Vietnam: The Ride to Work

It’s very hard to live in Vietnam without a motorbike or scooter to get around. When I first experienced the apparently chaotic traffic of Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), I felt it would be crazy to get a bike. So I used taxis for a while, which are cheap by western standards. Buses in HCMC are also quite good, and very cheap – the average fare is less than $1. Then I tried Grab Bikes and Uber Bikes, which are basically motorcycle taxis, summoned via a phone app. At first, it was terrifying to ride on the back of these bikes, but the drivers are highly skilled and mostly quite conservative drivers – their livelihood depends on keeping clients alive.

When I left HCMC, I was hoping to find a city where I could get around on foot or push-bike with the occasional use of bus and taxi. Da Nang is a city about the same size as Adelaide, and just as spread out, if not more so. The bus routes do not seem to have a pattern designed to get people in and out of the city in any logical manner, at least not from the area where I live. There are no Grab or Uber bikes, though there are Grab and Uber taxis which are relatively cheap. An English teacher’s timetable here usually involves working a few hours each weekday evening, and then weekend mornings and evenings. In other words, multiple trips for relatively short working hours. Using taxis is inconvenient. They are not the most reliable and you have to build in a time buffer to allow for situations where the taxi can’t find you or just doesn’t show up.

So getting a motorbike was probably inevitable. You can rent one for about $50 a month which is what I’ve done. For that, the company will come and fix it for you if it breaks down, and service it for you every two months. The traffic in Da Nang is nowhere near as chaotic as in HCMC, though it is crazy enough. My ride to and from work in the city can be quite breathtaking, in more ways than one. But in particular, the ride over the Dragon Bridge at night always thrills me.

Once you’ve ridden for a while, you pick up the unwritten rules: peripheral vision is paramount; nudge forward at intersections and roundabouts until the traffic from your left stops, then proceed; don’t tangle with trucks or buses, their drivers take no prisoners; use your horn all the time to let vehicles around you know you’re there; at intersections and roundabouts, try to ride in a pack and keep downstream of other bikes, using them as a barrier between you and oncoming traffic; don’t expect indicators to be used; don’t bother with road rage, nobody else does; don’t be shocked by anything you see, such as babies sitting on wicker stools between the driver’s legs, children with no helmets, women riding side-saddle, constant use of mobile phones even in the heaviest traffic, seemingly impossible loads of crates, boxes, building equipment, ladders, pipes. Having said that, I’ve only seen a handful of crashes, none of them too serious, and people generally have a co-operative and tolerant attitude towards other road users.

So here’s a recording of my ride to work on a relatively quiet Sunday evening.

Tip: click on the Settings icon and change the speed to 2x, then click on the full screen icon. If you want to skip the suburban commute, the Dragon Bridge to city bit starts around 7 mins 15 secs

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— Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017

In Vietnam : the Dumpling Man – “Bánh Bao Đây”

In Vietnamese cities, there is always something happening. The streets hum all day and into the night. People are on the street cooking and selling food, eating food, drinking coffee, drinking beer, playing cards and Xiangqi (a draughts-like board game), riding motorbikes and bicycles, selling lottery tickets; on the move or just hanging out. There’s nearly always a background buzz, a babble of voices, a drone of engines, a beeping of motorbike horns, a clatter of construction activity, cocks crowing, dogs barking, geese honking, people shouting, call and response.

One  of the first things I noticed was the regular amplified announcements from blokes on motorbikes. At first I thought these were party political slogans on behalf of the communist party, and I think some of them might be e.g. reminders that the capitalist imperialists were defeated, or that a party meeting is coming up.

But the more common announcements, night and day, are those from the motorbike mounted dumpling (bánh bao) and soup vendors. They drive around the city streets with great metal pots strapped to either side of the backs of their bikes. A wood fire underneath the pot keeps the dumplings and soup hot. I dread to think of the results of being involved in a collision with one, but that is only one of the hazards of driving a motorbike in this country.

Until about 10 years ago, they would cycle or motorcycle around the city streets, shouting out their pleas for people to buy their hot food: “Bánh Bao Đây” (Dumplings here). Being heard above the constant din of Vietnamese city streets would have put a great strain on the vocal chords. So someone had the idea of rigging up a loudspeaker and a looped, pre-recorded message powered by the motorbike battery. Now the amplified, nasal recorded call can be heard several streets away, until the early hours of the morning. They all sound like the same announcement to me, and I wonder if they all use the same recording, and if the originator gets royalties!

I used to curse these characters, especially if they woke me up just as I’d fallen asleep. But after a bit of investigation, I came across this wonderful mini-documentary by Angus Ashton. Angus is an Australian photographer who has obviously spent quite a bit of time in Vietnam. His short film tells the story of one such dumpling seller, in Hue, just north of Đà Nẵng. It reminded me of what a hard life many Vietnamese people have, and how privileged I am to live the easy life I do. Like many Vietnamese people, the dumpling sellers work bloody hard just to survive, and to give his children a better life.

I haven’t sampled the dumplings yet, my vegetarianism being the excuse for avoiding them. But when I go to Hue, I will search him out.

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Copyright Mike Hopkins 2017
except documentary: © Angus Ashton 2013 http://www.angusashtonfilm.com