Local witnesses love and luck in Vietnam
Post Independent Contributor
The tiny girl at the group home gazed up at me and then reached out trusting arms. She had a dark pixie cut with bangs, and wore a white dress printed with yellow cherries. I lifted her and asked her age, pegging it as 4.
“She’s 8,” said her peppy little housemother.
I stared, then understood: Not enough food. The girl wrapped a companionable arm around my neck, smiled.
She was an orphan, said young housemother, herself also in a sleeveless print dress and bare feet. Her grandparents couldn’t afford her care.
“She always help,” the housemother said. “Every meal, she helping with the food and dishes.”
So, Mike, what if I brought a little someone home from Vietnam…
THE TWO TEDS
I was with my brother in Da Nang, visiting Giving It Back to Kids, a nonprofit founded by an American who with his wife had years ago visited Vietnam to adopt their daughter, and always remembered the children left behind. Owner of a pizza restaurant in Newport Beach, California (clearly successful, though he told me meaningfully, “I barely made it out of high school”), he came back. The organization now funds 10 orphanages or “street kids’” homes, funds eye and orthopedic surgeries, gives away bicycles to help children reach school, and has given 100,000 wheelchairs to children and the elderly. I saw braces on the teeth of two children nearby.
I had arrived in Hanoi five days earlier, met at the airport by two Teds: my brother and son.
My brother, Ted Osius, is in his dream job there, serving as American ambassador. My son, Ted Benge, was working an internship in Hanoi, living with my brother; my brother’s spouse, Clayton Bond; and their two tiny children, adopted from El Paso, Texas. I hadn’t seen their new baby daughter in person yet. When an invitation had come from my brother and Clayton asking if my mother and I would like to visit while my son was still in the country, I was in.
My son, moving around familiarly, took charge, and in the three days we overlapped, he led me around within the four-story ambassadorial residence; to the lake called Hoan Kiem, containing a crumbling pagoda; to his favorite place for “fa” noodles; and to the busy weekend Night Market in temps that never seemed to cool. He helped me figure out the hundreds of thousands of “dong” (currency) it took to buy anything. He bought us coconut drinks, watching calmly as an old woman on the street whacked the coconuts open with her knife.
In one of the more dangerous experiences of my life, I rode on the back of his beloved rented motorbike, aka the Beast. For over a decade, the streets in Vietnam have been thick — clogged — with motorbikes. There are almost no traffic lights. People swerve, cut each other off, charge the wrong way up one-way streets.
“Good thing there’s no rules!” Ted B. said as he whipped into the oncoming lane to pass a car.
Around us were riders in flip-flops, high heels, dresses. Entire families rode on their bikes, a toddler standing on the running board in front of the father driver, a spouse hanging on behind, the blankets of an infant peeking out in between.
I asked if people often crashed, and Ted said, “Sometimes.”
BONDING WITH BABIES
Much of my trip was quiet. My mother and I, and even my son, spent hours in the family room where the children are based. Living there all summer, my son had bonded with “the babies,” tormenting me by sending pictures of his infant cousin and describing her “big brown eyes,” adding, “You don’t even know her.”
Cared for by nannies, the children understand — or will understand — equal parts English and Vietnamese.
When I traveled to Da Nang on my brother’s official visit, the first stop was to a Fablab, part of an MIT-founded program that brought in bright children from poor backgrounds to study technologies, in this case in a crowded, hot private garage. On one screen, three girls were “designing” a smartwatch, while other children presented my brother with a miniature White House made on a 3-D printer.
The next day we attended the opening of the newly renovated Hoa Quy Medical Station, which in partnership with the U.S. Navy will provide health care to the surrounding community. Our guide was Capt. Chris Engdahl, commodore of a medical ship we were soon to tour.
Introduced everywhere as the ambassador’s sister, not wanting to do anything out of place, I quietly asked Chris for an OK to hold one of the babies in the clinic.
“Oh, sure,” he said, looking around in vain for one. “You should have been here an hour ago. They were givin’ ‘em away!”
Yet in the next corridor an 8- or 9-month-old boy looked me in the face and smiled, his wee countenance lighting up. When I reached for him, he curled into my torso like a baby bear.
So, Mike, what if I brought home two …
U.S. HELICOPTERS OVERHEAD
Sirens screamed. Shouting people poured down the stairs, and from a side room emerged individuals with bleeding head injuries and white arm and leg bones visible in gaping wounds. They rolled and wailed on the floor. Whap! From an upper floor dropped a heavy “body” onto the sidewalk.
I sat with my brother and representatives from the U.S. Navy and the Vietnamese ministries of health and defense, watching a simulated disaster-relief operation for a tsunami. Anchored offshore was the USNS medical ship Mercy, with 17 decks, 1,000 hospital beds and 12 operating rooms. The Mercy travels to countries in crises and was here completing two weeks of humanitarian work: training, clinics and surgeries. As my brother told me, a military presence doesn’t have to be threatening: “It can be good.”
“In the three years I’m here, there will be a disaster,” he said soberly. Floods are the most common.
The Mercy’s crew was on hand to aid today’s “victims,” and so were 100 locals, largely fishermen newly trained as first responders. They assessed the patients, brought out backboards, inserted the wounded into squalling ambulances.
We were taken to a rescue boat where the faux injured lay in gurneys waiting to be loaded on board. Chris asked one long-prone patient if he’d like a catheter; the man’s eyes widened as he said no thanks.
We boarded the Mercy just in time for lunch, so the patients stood up from their gurneys and ate, soon to lie back down to be taken into “cas-rec” (casualty reception) and, for some, simulated surgery.
From our table, we heard a whop-whop-whop of a helicopter above on deck.
Cmdr. Brent Freeman, the naval attaché, raised his eyes and marveled. He said, “It may seem minor, but it has taken many months to make this happen.”
The sound marked the first time in 40 years, since the Vietnam War, an American helicopter has been permitted to operate here. The ship’s medical helicopter, it holds a crew of 12, including two rescue swimmers.
PRIVILEGE AND LUCK
I was in Vietnam only nine days. It was a surreal time for me, who by nature lives a no-frills life (I’d still be driving my 1997 Toyota if it hadn’t died in December). I was “the ambassador’s sister,” offered (unnecessary) help getting in and out of cars or around on boats; served every meal on official china (at home I often eat at my desk); and driven around in a bulletproof Cadillac with an American flag on the hood.
My son Ted B., who as the visiting nephew had been part of embassy life, rued: “It’s going to be terrible to go home. I won’t be important by association anymore. People won’t all want to talk to me. Everything will be expensive, and I’ll be broke again.”
One evening I walked on the beach in Da Nang in mist and rain, knowing it would be inconvenient to my brother if his sister was nailed by lightning, yet euphoric as the sky lit up the mountain ridge above the 80-foot Buddha statue glowing white on the far shore.
Like my son, I shared a job-of-a-lifetime experience with my brother. I still miss the babies, can almost feel my niece’s little form as if my mother and I were up for a 6 a.m. feeding. Daytimes, my son would pop in, pick up baby Lucy, and half-stand her on her bendy little legs. “That’s your entire body,” he’d marvel to her.
Those sweet children, adopted from Texas, live steeped in the love of their daddies and nannies, and can look forward to lives of abundance and educational opportunity. Only luck separates any of us from the little ones in orphanages or those who will suffer in floods and need a helping hand or helicopter.
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