Vietnam Travelers, Beware!

After two months as an expat in Vietnam, I have a hard time understanding why Vietnam made the top of the list of “best places for expats.” I could list a dozen reasons why it doesn’t deserve that title, but will focus on the most important and unavoidable one, which is healthcare.

As soon as you arrive in Vietnam, you will begin to hear horror stories about the medical system. A coworker of mine broke her collarbone last year. The doctor did not set the bone correctly, and it grew into an inverted-V shape sticking up out of her shoulder. Eventually she returned to Canada where they re-broke it in order to set it correctly.

MVIMG_20190907_143809The worst story I’ve heard was a friend-of-a-friend, a South African expat who had been here two years. He got into a motorbike accident in which his arm was torn off. He passed out and later woke up in a hospital room that was being shared with 9 Vietnamese patients. He was still wearing the same clothes that he had been when he crashed, and was covered in mud. While he’d been knocked out, the hospital had sewed his arm back on – but that was it. They literally just stitched skin to skin, and did nothing to reattach bone, ligament, etc. It dangled like a limp eel, turning blue. He flew to South Africa immediately, but by the time he arrived there was nothing they could do but amputate the arm.

These medical horror stories are everywhere and endless. The culture of “saving face” takes its most ugly form in the healthcare world. Doctors are embarrassed to admit that they don’t know what to do, so they will not relocate or refer patients to other hospitals. In online forums you can find similar instances with LASIK procedures in Vietnam. The doctors don’t want to admit that they cannot do LASIK on a patient, so will do it anyway, resulting in absolute disaster for the innocent patients.

Which brings me to my own story.

Soon after arriving in the country, I began waking up with a yellow gooey film over my eyes. My contacts were getting really dirty really fast, despite wearing sunglasses and a helmet with full face mask while driving. I found myself cleaning my contacts 5+ times a day, and started washing out my eyes with purified water at every given opportunity. I’ve worn contacts since 7th grade, but have never had issues like this.

I had been warned about the eye doctors in Da Nang, so flew to Ha Noi to see an ophthalmologist at the Japanese eye hospital. She diagnosed me with conjunctivitis and blepharitis… fancy words for an eye infection. She explained that the air in Vietnam is extraordinarily dirty, and because of that it is highly unadvisable to wear contact lenses in the country.


See this pile of concrete? There’s one of these on just about every block in Da Nang, where construction is at an all-time high. The problem is, when that nice comfortable ocean breeze starts up, it blows concrete particles into the air. Those little particles love to lodge themselves in your eyes and sit themselves under your contacts. Unfortunately, this can cause bacterial infections and spread viruses which can result in irreversible eye damage.


Would daily disposable contacts work better? Apparently not.

Let’s talk about the eye exam itself. All went well until the retina scan. I’ve had retina scans many of times, and they were no big deal. In the US they dilate your eyes and then take some high-tech pictures.   At the clinic in Ha Noi, however, they grabbed my eyeballs with black plastic pincers. No advance warning. It was so painful and traumatic that I started crying right there in the office. The ladies were caught off guard; for them, it was normal. I guess that’s just how they do the retina exam. But I hadn’t even been warned that they were going to grab my eyeball!

IMG_20190921_081256Fast forward to a week later. I’d been taking three different types of medicated eye drops. I woke up with a searing sinus headache. My entire face was swollen and painful to touch. I panicked, thinking the eye infection must have spread into my sinuses.

There are no English-speaking opthalmologists in Da Nang. I recruited my Vietnamese language instructor to be my interpreter and escort me to the nicest hospital in the city, Vinmec International Hospital, where we asked to see the ophthalmologist. The building was spacious and pristine, but my compliments end there.

After my interpreter explained the situation to him, the doctor grabbed my face and peeled back my eyelid with his bare hands. Read that again in case you missed it. He was not wearing gloves, nor did he wash his hands before or after. He did not use any type of technology, just looked at my eyelid and stated that I was fine. I argued for a while, stating that clearly my face was swollen and that I was in a lot of pain. He finally prescribed me a different antibiotic eyedrop to try.

He also reiterated what the last doctor had said: no one should be wearing contact lenses in Vietnam. He added that with my strong myopia (level of near-sightedness), I should not be wearing glasses either. He recommended that I research ortho-keratology and come back in two weeks if I was interested in it. Unfortunately, neither ortho-k nor LASIK are approved for people with my level of myopia, and quite frankly, any trained ophthalmologist should have known that. Thus I’ll be returning to the USA where I can return to comfortably wearing contact lenses and not worry about what kind of healthcare I should receive if an emergency were to happen.

Motorbike family
Entire family on a motorbike… an accident waiting to happen

So the moral of the story… Anyone who’s considering a move or long vacation in Vietnam needs to be aware that:

  • The air quality is abysmal
  • You cannot wear contacts
  • Travel at your own risk.  Should you have an accident or medical emergency, the Vietnamese healthcare system will only make things worse for you.


Read more:

Vietnam’s major cities choking as pollution exacerbates

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