Saigon thought it could destroy me once but I don’t break that easily and now I’m back and I’m going to show Saigon who’s boss.
If I was making a film of this trip I would have stepped off the train from Mui Ne, flung my backpack down onto the platform of Saigon station and delivered these lines direct to the camera, all pouty and dangerous and leather-clad like Black Widow from The Avengers.
What happened was this. It was June 2014 and we had been travelling for around five months all over South East Asia. We had explored the length and breadth of Thailand, spent two weeks in Burma, went to Singapore, travelled down through Malaysia, fell in love with Bali, Indonesia not so much and finally made it to the place we were both convinced we were really going to like – Vietnam.
I wasn’t feeling my best. An ache in my stomach kind of like a hunger pain but I had no appetite at all, a headache, a listless feeling like my muscles and flesh were just kind of hanging off my skeleton, I just didn’t feel well. I had felt this way on and off for around a month so went see a doctor in Saigon who was very enthusiastic about ordering lots of expensive tests and issuing various prescription meds but when it came to giving me an actual diagnosis he was less keen.
I had been harbouring a grim, hypochondriac fantasy that I had Malaria and would probably lose a limb or two before I was diagnosed but thankfully the test results ruled this out, along with most of the other nasty diseases I had bookmarked on webmd during my lengthy self-diagnosis sessions. In an effort to get me out of his office and out of his life the doctor offered the explanation of ‘probably some kind of bug’, hardly definitive or worth the £200 bill but he looked the part with his white coat and stethoscope and had given me all kinds of new pills to try so I shrugged, shook his hand and left it at that.
I did what we all must do in this life every single day and I cracked on like nothing was the matter, managing to enjoy myself in Saigon- visiting the Restoration Palace, Ben Thanh Market, the Museum of War Relics and eating many, many spring rolls – despite feeling green about the gills. Then, one rainy afternoon it all went very wrong and I found myself confined to a hospital bed in the French quarter of Ho Chi Minh City.
I had passed out and had a seizure, something that has never happened to me before and scared the life out of Shaun who had the unfortunate task of stopping me from bashing my own brains out on the bathroom floor before negotiating my transfer to hospital in a city we had spent just three days in and incredibly has no ambulance service. I can remember lying on the floor in the bedroom with lots of men standing over me. One of them attached an ancient-looking heart monitor onto the parts of my chest he could reach without taking my top off, he must have been shy, and announced that I had had a heart attack. Despite being semi-conscious I knew this was not the case and told him so; I just wanted to go to bed.
Getting me out of the hotel and into a waiting van on a stretcher gave the people of So 7, Pha Ngu Lau, quite a show and I learned first-hand that no-one, not even a pretend ambulance with wailing sirens has right of way on the roads of Saigon. I spent five days in a remarkably clean and well-staffed hospital leaving once to go to the University hospital for more tests. The difference between my hospital, which I assumed was costing me a fortune based on the number of times I was asked to confirm I had medical insurance, and the University hospital was stark. There were thousands of people crammed into the building, patients in pyjamas sitting on the floor and eating meals brought in from the street outside, dirty, noisy, chaotic, the receptionists looked like they were close to tears and I was pushed through it all in the wheelchair the hospital insisted I used, quite literally running over the feet of the people who had been waiting all day to see the specialist I was jumping the queue to see. This was the privilege my travel insurance bought me but it felt shameful, like I had jumped to the top of the pecking order, knowing that when it comes to accessing healthcare no pecking order should ever exist.
I found myself in front of the doctor hundreds of people were fighting to get five minutes with and as he spoke no English and I spoke no Vietnamese except ‘thank you’ and ‘water please’ it was a silent examination. My eyes were taped shut but I was aware of a nurse arriving with an important package for the doctor who opened it immediately and then continued to conduct an examination OF MY BRAIN while drinking an iced coffee and taking bites out of a sugared donut. It takes some decent hand-eye coordination to test the electrical activity in someone’s brain while sipping coffee and holding a donut so when the doctor back-handed the little metal stand holding my drip, sending it crashing to the floor I could forgive him. Accidents happen.
The needle was still in my arm and thankfully hadn’t snapped or bent but with the IV bag on the floor blood instantly began to flow out of the vein, flooding the tubing that leads to the bag with a speed that made me feel quite sick. And you know what the doctor did then? He picked up the bag, he held it up above my head and he squeezed it. He squeezed the IV bag. He SQUEEZED it. The pain of the blood being forced back into my vein coupled with a vague notion that this could kill me (air bubbles in the vein?) made me scream so loud that the nurse came bursting into the room and took over. We finished the test and I hoped that the doctor could read the hateful thoughts of vengeance I was sending him in the wiggly lines of brain activity snaking across his computer screen.
Over the coming days I endured more examinations that even people who think they’ve been abducted by aliens would struggle to put into words and became a test dummy for new nurses improving their blood-taking technique, losing a worrying amount of my most precious fluid to the bed sheets in the process. After five fun-filled days the doctors agreed to discharge me with the following statement: ‘there is something wrong with your brain, maybe you have epilepsy, you should go home.’
Now, this was new.
And so we went home, back to the warm, matronly bosom of the NHS where I was to await tests to confirm that there was – as I had always suspected – something not quite right with my brain. I can be all flippant and ‘well, it could only happen to me!’ about this episode now but at the time it was bleak. The experience gave me a new and deep sense of sympathy for people who live with disorders like epilepsy over which they have no control. I was advised not to drink, not to drive, to avoid flashing lights and to rest, until I had seen a doctor. As our time back at home was supposed to be very temporary, only as long as the NHS epilepsy specialist waiting list, we were living with Shaun’s parents who shared their home with us for what ended up being almost six months, an act of kindness I’ll never forget. But the whole situation made me feel like I had lost my much-treasured independence and every time I left the house alone a nasty little whisper in my ear said ‘what if it happens again’.
As it turns out I haven’t got epilepsy, my brain is ay-okay and I have had no more seizures. ‘A funny turn’ is the best way to explain what happened to me. A bug, dehydration, possible heat exhaustion, an unexplainable physical freak-out, an anomaly with no clear cause. Once an epilepsy specialist said the golden words ‘you are fit to travel’ we set about planning the next leg of our exploration of the world.
And here we are, three months into this trip and back in the city where it all went wrong. I know now that travelling again and coming back to Saigon was the only way to put the bad bits behind me, overcome the anxiety of ‘what if’ and remember this as the place it all went right.