In an emergency, catch a plane

After seeing two road fatalities within a week of arriving in Vietnam, I was in hospital soon afterwards. While cleaning crews meticulously clear the roads of litter daily, the invisible liquid waste that frequently pollutes the surface making lethally slippery. That’s what I’d discovered, the hard way.

The surgeon at the French Hospital, supposedly Hanoi’s top medical facility, confirmed that my shoulder was not just broken. It had shattered. “Don’t worry” he said. “I treated Stuart O’Grady for the same thing when he was in the Tour de France.” Stuart O’Grady had been one of Australia’s top cyclists. “I will need to operate tomorrow.”

The regional medical officer (RMO) supervising our international community’s medical emergencies asked whether I wouldn’t prefer to be treated in Singapore or Bangkok. Why would I do that, when the surgeon had treated one of the world’s top cyclists.


A week after the surgery it became apparent why that had been a bad decision. A lump had appeared under the skin of my shoulder. I went back to the French Hospital, to be informed that the operating surgeon had returned to France, but that his replacement would conduct the inspection. He visibly blanched as I took off my shirt to reveal the problem.

“Was I in pain?” he asked. I wasn’t. “Come back if there is pain, or it breaks the skin.”

Not happy with the response, I sent photos to the RMO, asking his professional opinion. His two word response: “Not good!”

The next day I was on a flight to Bangkok. The following, Christmas Day, a second operation set about fixing the damage caused in the first operation, and repairing my shoulder.

The surgeon in Bangkok gave me the primitive pieces of wire used in the first surgery. 2016 02 22 14 50 03 It was clear why I’d had a problem from the first surgery.

A couple of weeks later, the RMO interviewed the head of the French hospital about my case. “These things happen” was the director’s response.

Not so. Not in a civilized country, subject to rule of law, and where litigation is a viable option.

While telling this sorry tale to a group of newly acquired friends in Hanoi, one of them confirmed that he and his family had had a bad experience with the French Hospital. His story is a lot worse.

That’s the best treatment in Hanoi. In an emergency, catch a plane.

Vietnam’s new war

Within a week of arriving in Vietnam, I’d seen two fatalities. Within a couple of months the tally was five. Vietnam has the second highest road mortality rate in South East Asia, after Thailand. Both comparable with the worst in the world.

After cycling in the country for almost three years, the reasons are clear. Vietnam’s unique road customs are not adapting well to the increased level of traffic.

Right of way has a different meaning to standards that are the norm in the rest of the world. The biggest vehicles rule. Cyclists and pedestrians have no standing. Motor cyclists have little more.

Intersections are mostly unguarded, even when they are blind. Only rumble strips act as a warning that there is an intersection ahead, and to anticipate vehicles coming into your path. Accidents are common.

Indicators are purely decorative. Movements are used to show intent. Drivers do not wait for a break in traffic to cross opposing traffic, they just slowly move into the path of oncoming vehicles. Taking one’s eyes of the road is dangerous.

But it is common to see drivers of both cars and motor cycles texting and driving. No problem.

Even vehicles traveling in the same direction are a hazard. As a matter of course, motor cycles and cars will overtake, cut in front, and then slow down. Incidents that would precipitate road rage anywhere else in the world, are the norm. It is not unusual to have a vehicle overtake, cut in front, and apply brakes to make an intersection. Like untrained dogs, motorcycles will come off the pavement into heaving traffic, the rider not even looking at the vehicle flows to assess the level of risk.

I have seen a little old lady hurled through the air by a huge Harley as the rider insisted on passing a truck in the gap between the sidewalk and the traffic. The rider did not care to stop.

The authorities have addressed the issue of Vietnam’s poor road mortality statistic. Previously the bodies were covered, and left on the road until the forensic investigation was complete. Now, they are whisked away to hospital, where they are classified as something other than a road fatality.

Living in Vietnam is an unforgettable experience. That’s if you live.