It’s 6.30 a.m. when my alarm goes off. Today, it seems the rooster that usually wakes me up is still asleep. I dress up and head to Thai Binh Market, a fresh food market in the Pham Ngu Lao area. That is where I always go to buy fruit, of which there is plenty. My senses are immediately awakened by the noises of the streets, the smells of Phở, fresh vegetables and whatever is on sale at the market. Markets are very interesting; there is chaos and a lively atmosphere. Today, a toddler holding a crab with a leash – as if it was a dog – stands out. Released from a tiny container the crab was now confined to the length of the rope, the toddler unaware of the crab’s miserable condition.
Last summer, I went to Vietnam to do research with an innovative medical device for better clinical monitoring and management of dengue patients. Follow me on a typical day in bustling Ho Chi Minh City and discover some of my most memorable experiences.
On the way back I see people in the park playing badminton, running, exercising on funny looking machines and doing something similar to Super Kondi. It is like this every morning, it seems like the Vietnamese are very active and early risers. I prepare muesli with the fruit I just bought, yoghurt from the supermarket and homemade granola my girlfriend gave me be before I left Switzerland– it was a lot so I still have some. I forgot my moka pot in Zurich so I have to buy coffee on the way to the Oxford University Research Unit (OUCRU), the research institution that is hosting me. Around 7.45am I get a cappuccino at my favorite coffee place. For coffee lovers Vietnam is perfect; especially in Ho Chi Minh where there is a somewhat hipster coffee scene.
I book a Grab bike on my phone – this is basically Uber with motorbikes, something widely used in south-east Asia – to bring me to the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, next to OUCRU. The driver finds me quickly, I am very tall and therefore easy to find. He hands me a green Grab helmet that is way too small for me, but I wear it and hope we have a safe ride. I hop on the back of the motorbike with the coffee in my hand and off we go through the crazy traffic of the city. I have never seen this many motorbikes on the road, they never stop and not honking is not normal.
I make it safely to the office without spilling the coffee – I managed to drink it when the traffic lights were red. It’s now 8.15 and I am the first to arrive. We are planning a study with an innovative medical device for body fluid monitoring in dengue fever patients called AMBICA. The device was developed by the Mobile Health Systems Lab (MHSL) at ETH Zurich. I am here to coordinate the work that needs to be done in Vietnam and in Switzerland in order to get the approval to begin our research. Later, I will be responsible for data collection and analysis as part of my master thesis. During the course of the morning my coworkers order bubble tea ask me if I want a cup too. In Vietnam everybody loves bubble tea and there are many companies selling it. It is usually black tea with milk, ice, loads of sugar and jelly bubbles you have to catch with the wide drinking straw that comes with it. Having given it a try a couple of times already I actually start liking it too! Back to work: bubble tea in one hand, keyboard in the other.
For lunch, everybody gathers in the break room. The Vietnamese are sociable and very kind. I always get to try local specialties as people are happy to share their food; and I am of course extremely happy to try. From my side I have brought Toblerone as a dessert and share it with everybody at the table.
In the afternoon, I give a workshop to nurses and doctors to gather insights about the usability of a mockup of the device. The aim is to receive feedback in terms of the design and usability of the device, in order to implement the necessary improvements. The workshop goes very well: a lot of feedback is received and loads of Swiss chocolate is eaten by the attendees.
It’s around 5 p.m. when I open the Grab app to book a driver to bring me home. “Sorry, our drivers are busy!” says the app… rush-hour, as always. I get home at some point later. Tonight I am going for a swim at a public swimming pool with my Vietnamese buddies, although we usually do a street-workout at the park. I buy the entrance ticket, get dressed… On my way to the swimming pool someone from the staff says I’m not allowed to enter the pool with this type of swimsuit and I should buy a different one at the shop by the entrance. I’m a bit confused as these shorts are perfectly fine back at home. Considering my size, finding something that fits me would be hard. Finally, I end up with fluorescent yellow-greenish speedos and a yellow swimming cap. I get admitted to the pool and everyone stares at me, but I convince myself that it must be because I am a very tall foreigner rather than because of my ridiculous attire.
After the swim, we all go for dinner together and have a so called “hot pot”. My friends show me how to prepare and then eat from the pot. A lot of goat meat and vegetables go in it and we take pieces out using our chopsticks… and then comes the goat brain. I first thought they were fooling me but no, we are eating an actual goat brain. They put the whole thing in the pot and tell me I should really try it. I take a spoon and fish out a bit of goat brain, and it tastes good! Before going home, like nearly every night, I stop by the lady that makes fresh fruit smoothies on the street. At 11 p.m. I’m probably already asleep… ah no wait, there is a karaoke singing night on the street and the speakers are very loud. Karaoke is very popular in Vietnam, there are many specialized venues and singers performing with their speakers in front of restaurants on the streets.
I had to modify the casing of AMBICA and found a workshop with tools. I had a very fun afternoon in that workshop and I was stoked by the kindness of these people. I sat with them for some time as the rain poured down, showing pictures of Switzerland which they enjoyed . (photo credit: ETH Zurich/Simon Hofstede)
About the author
Simon Hofstede is a Student in Health Sciences and Technology with a focus in Medical Technology. Simon’s main interests are the interplay of design and technology in the medical world, as well as healthcare solutions for low resource settings. Outside his busy study schedule Simon has played elite volleyball, representing Switzerland in international competitions. In his remaining free time, he enjoys travelling and capturing his experiences with his camera.