A women dressed as a nun, just walked up the passage, talking on a mobile phone. Hello princess. She passed back again, a grey ghost talking. Hello princess. Outside, in orange, the mad monk waited. Of course he could help find a money changer. Within minutes he turned up, armed with a motor scooter…and a second helmet. “I take you to tourist area, OK?” I hopped on.

Outside the living lane, half of Saigon was heading for the city, in cars, buses, trucks, mostly on motor bikes. Swinging through a huge intersection I finally found a bar to grip at the back. Whoever this scooter had been designed for, it wasn’t me. Feet on the bars folded me up, leaving no way to grip the seat with my knees. But if I pulled my feet back, and lost my sandals, they were gone for good, and I’d have roast calf, cooked by an exhaust. Bank after bank passed by. The demon wasn’t stopping for them, or for ATMs either.

By the time the street trees of the city centre came into sight, and went, I’d been folded and bumped and sun-boiled into a fatty jelly. When we pulled up, outside a bank of banks, a teller with pale pink nail polish and a beautiful ruby ring handed over a pile of notes. It reminded me of Air Asia, and its slogan, “Now everyone can fly.” Do it with dong. Everyone can be a millionaire.

Back at the street, cheek skin pinched again by the clip of the impossible helmet, the mad monk was doing his best to be Saigon’s answer to Lion Air, ‘we make you fly.” “I show you my house.” OK. “My house” opened into young gamers at computers in a better part of town, with a staircase dim behind them. Whoever “my brother” was, by the look of him the relationship wasn’t genetic.

There’d be an invitation to stay coming out of this at some stage. On a quick casing, it failed, on every front. No signs of a food market within 50m, to live around here we’d need transport. A day without even the local equivalent of 7-11 would really give Tom something to whinge about. He likes the smell of smog in his nostrils and red lights in his eyes. In the living lane beside the An Suong bus station we’ve got the lot.

Back on the road, into the French trees again, I thought we were heading back. There was a sidestop. “Will you come with me to the hospital? Half and hour.” OK.

Whatever it cost me, this was too good to miss. It would get me off a flat griddle filled with petrol fumes and straighten out the crick in my clutching arm. The old fellow’s eyesight wasn’t a hundred per cent . We’d had a few shoulder wrenching stops. Some were quiet ones. Others were when another driver came too close. Then he snarled. He snarled at the second bus as we slid through a tiny gap closing between two of them. He snarled again at the motorbike park attendant, and emerged victorious, waving a white paper. “They think I’m silly! No receipt!” He had one now.

A wave of people washed out of a breezeway nearby. We went against the flow, and into a first holding pond of people, open under the building itself. The mad monk lined up at a window. $4 later, he’d paid to see a doctor. Inside a door leading from the waiting area three clerks, two with computers worked inside a cupboard lined with patients and paper files running up to a high ceiling. Two clerks matched patients and files and updated them. The other clerk used Gmail for her updates.

We passed through one doctor’s room, to another, one with eight stools. Incoming patients, friends and family filled them as they emptied. They dropped their files at the top of a pile as they came in. Each patient added a file to the top of her pile, then retreated to a stool a few feet away. As she pulled a file from the bottom, another patient moved forward to the stool beside her desk. Sometimes the two doors to the room opened. An Xray might come in, be briefly examined, and go out. A patient might return with test results. The doctor calmly dealt with them all, quickly and competently, speaking with authority, heard with respect by patient and audience alike. Occasionally she sipped a covered fruit juice through a straw.

Asthma and lung out-patients was a well oiled system. This time was travel, time travel back to a time when five minutes with a doctor was five minutes of medical treatment. The doctor worked as a doctor, treating patients, not as assistants for record keepers, improving the productivity stats of health administrators. At the doctor’s left hand, a clerk at a computer made file notes and printed prescriptions. The doctor herself wrote bare a few words in five minutes.

Everyone waiting in the outer ring around the doctor’s desk shrank back against the wall as they saw a blood stained bag of fluid enter the room from the inner door. A cadaverous man passed through to the outer door, holding the bag attached to the drip in his arm. The consultation resumed, then patient at the desk made way again, as the cadaverous man returned, this time with a woman with an Xray. He stood as the doctor tried to explain things to him as quickly as she could, so that he could move on. He nodded and left by the inner door. Wherever he was going, he looked as if he would die there.

The consultation resumed again, another prescription printed. A little boy learnt to use a ventilator. Everyone around the wall nodded their approval as he mastered his lesson. Next came the mad monk, and a good scolding. Shit happens when you visit a lung doctor smelling of Craven A cigarettes. But his prescription still printed, and it was out, and across the driveway to a three hour wait in an open hangar dispensary, one with a corner set aside for parking ambulances. The only thing to do here was sleep, and that’s what people did, sitting up and sprawled across the plastic rows of seats. From time to time a muddy amplifier created a mass awakening, a rush to glass fronted counters.

The array of faces that came and went had one thing in common: smart clothes, and new shoes. That none of its patients were poor was the common thread at this clinic of a communist hospital. An ill tempered Eurasian man , was he French? He looked too old to be a child of America.

Out in the courtyard there was flurry. People fussed around a man lying on a raised barouche. He was either dead or very unconscious , and no-one moved to take him out of the sun. A four wheel drive drove up, parked beside his barouche. The driver opened the back tail gate and made room to take him away. When I told Dave, he said last time he was at a hospital 5 people died. “I was there for twenty minutes.”

After three hours the mad monk’s medicine came through. Paying for it was paying for the privilege of seeing under another country’s tourist skin. Even at the old French hospital, life isn’t easy for the sick in Saigon. Ask Mr. Choi. his number is 099 355 46 71.


8 thoughts on “Mad Monk of Saigon

  1. Pingback: Utopia reflected | FARSIDE TRAVEL

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