October 31, 2012

Vision 2020 Australia Vietnam Trip

I've just returned from what will be one of the most meaningful trips of my life.
As Global Ambassador for Vision 2020 Australia's fight for avoidable blindness and vision loss I travelled over with Vision 2020 CEO Jennifer Gersbeck to experience first hand the work that is being done for this initiative on the global stage.
Arriving in Ho Chi Minh City it certainly was a shock to the system, the humidity and environment couldn't be more different than Melbourne and my inner travel bug certainly kicked in with excitement at being in a new country.

(Trying the local cuisine!)
  As a bit of background Vision 2020 Australia has 20 member organisations who are responsible for different areas of the Asia Pacific region and so with each new area we visited we were looked after by people from each of these organisations. With Jennifer having been to Vietnam before it was really just fantastic to have them showing us around and meeting the Vietnamese local's.  
Our first stop was Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province
which was a 3 hour drive (ferry ride included!) to this province where I met Dr Giap-  an incredible local ophthalmologist. He really is Vietnam's Fred Hollows performing over 1000 cataract surgeries a year! I 

We had an early morning start and headed out to a school to see how Dr Giap and his team screen children to pick up low vision and refractive error. This program is run by the Brien Holden Vision Institute and any child who they find with refractive error will receive free spectacles to correct their vision.

 (Ho Chi Minh City traffic)

(River crossing Vietnamese style)

Well what a day, the team were so efficient they screened over 500 students and all the teachers in one day. I floated around watching what they were up to and having some fun with the kids. It was clear they'd never seen a tall blonde before because the boys would try and sneak up to touch my hair and anytime I walked past a class room they would run to the window and jump and scream and wave until I came over to high five them all, it was great fun although I'm not sure the teachers would have been too happy given at one stage about 4 classes poured out in excitement! 

(Watching an eye screening... photo by the amazing Dean Saffron)   
It was on this day that I met Trang and her father Tuan, a heart breaking story with a beautiful ending. You can read about their story in this blog by Brien Holden Vision Institute. 

It gave me my favourite moment of the entire trip, being there to see the reaction of a father realising that we were giving his daughter the opportunity to have full sight. Brings tears to my eyes just thinking about that day.

Brien Holden Vision Institute-Vision 2020 Australia's Global Ambassador in Vietnam

Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province being a coastal province it was only natural after our day at the school to be taken to one of the local seafood restaurants on the water front. Being a seafood fan I was certainly in my element however I don't think I will ever be able to eat a whole King Prawn, head, tail and all, like they do! 

(World's biggest Oysters yum!)

The new morning rose and it was another early start, today we were heading to the new convention centre to celebrate World Sight Day. There were around 500 people present including many government officials. We were welcomed with some beautiful songs from children from the local blind school, when translated to me they sang 'even though I can not see I feel the world around me through my heart and even though I am blind I deserve to have a beautiful life'. It was truly beautiful. After the speeches Jennifer and i jumped on stage to help hand out what seemed like a million pairs of glasses to local school children who had been screened previosuly and diagnosed with refractive error.

We then headed back to Ho Chi Minh, an abrupt waking from my nap when our mini bus almost collided with a motor bike and large piece of concrete in the middle of the road, luckily our quick thinking driver had us U-turning through a minute gap to the other side of the road where luckily there were no on-coming cars or motor bikes! A short flight later and we were in Hue being greeted by the wonderful, hilarious Dr Phuc (Fred Hollows Foundation). 

The next day we visited the Provincal Hospital where Jennifer and I got to go into the theatre and see eye surgery up close and personal- one of the few times I was appreciative that my ability to see fine detail is hopeless! That day we also drove to another district eye hospital (in an old infectious disease hospital!) and eye clinic, along the way Dr Phuc gave us a history of the war as we were driving through the main area where fighting occured, he also recalled some funny Karoke stories and even started serending us throughout the journey- a man of many talents!

 (Heading in to watch a cataract surgery)

Once again it was back to the airport and on a flight to Hanoi, it was on this flight that I started to feel very unwell, Jen and I were both exhuasted but as we discovered shortly we both had food poisoning which was not fun at all!

The next day and despite feeling terrible we headed off to visit Hanoi hospital and one of my favourite parts of th trip to a school of around 1,200 children including 160 blind and vision impaired children. The teachers were inspirational, I was in awe at the work they have done to create a truly remarkable enivronment for the blind and vison impaired children. The teachers took us into a few different class rooms where I got to sit with and meet some of the blind and VI children. They read to me in Vietnamese, they spoke to me in English, the classes sang the ABC's in English and it was pure joy. It really hit home to me in particular seeing a young vision impaired girl reading to me because it reminded me so much of when I was little and would read with a book close to my face (which I still do now!) 

(Visiting a school for blind and vision impaired children)

Upon leaving the classroom I was cheered away with a 'good afternoon teacher!' and magnificaent smiles and waves. From here we moved to a performance room to be serenaded by the school's band of blind students. They played us traditional Vietnamese songs and they were incredible! The group of students are so talented that they have played throughout Europe and Japan! A group of young blind and vision impaired girls then sang in English and Vietnamese 'It's a small world'. The whole afternoon I was so moved and inspired by our experiances I completely forgot how sick I was until we returned to our hotel where Jen and I both promptly retired to our rooms where we stayed with fever's for the next 36 hours... yes that was not pleasant!

All in all the trip was life changing, it certainly made me appreciate being a person with low vision in Australia and in general just living in Australia, We have so much to be grateful for and every moment in Vietnam reminded me of this. It was a humbling and overwhelming emotional experience meeting the Vietnamese people and I have no doubt our shared goals of avoidable blindness and vision loss is well on its way to being achieved.
I'd like to thank Vision 2020 Australia for this amazing opportunity and to all the incredible people I met along the trip. Thank you for sharing your stories and experiences, this trip will leave memories that last a life time and I look forward to going back to Vietnam hopefully one day soon..I can truly see the powerful effect of what Vision 2020 Australia and their member organisations have achieved and what can be further done in this region in the future. 

And please remember sight is a true gift that we should all cherish.

(My favourite moment of the entire trip- seeing Trang put on her glasses to have her sight restored)

Here are a few links to blogs from our journey:

Vision 2020 Australia- Day Three Jess Gallagher's Vietnam Experiance http://www.vision2020australia.org.au/blog/2012-10-17/day-three-jess-gallaghers-vietnam-experience

Vision 2020 Australia- Jennifer's (Vision 2020 CEO) Vietnam highlights

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