Getting hospitalised in Hanoi

Mike - 26 January 2017

Whether it’s a short holiday or long term travel, it sucks to get ill abroad. Being poorly is when you really start to appreciate all of the things you take for granted at home. Unfortunately on a 6 month trip it was fairly inevitable that we were going to get ill at some point and for me this struck in Hanoi, Vietnam. After some truly exceptional meals aboard the Treasure Junk boat in Halong Bay, I succumbed to food poisoning. I have no way of knowing what was to blame, but I’m pointing my suspicions at the dastardly clams!

Feeling well at Halong Bay“It was the clams, in Halong Bay, with the poison!”

In addition to the normal symptoms of food poisoning, I was suffering from a bad headache and lumbar pain. Every time I stood up I felt like I was going to faint so I was walking around stooped over a peculiar Quasimodo figure. A couple of days after coming down with the bug I’d optimistically tried to eat some breakfast at the hotel, but started feeling ill. Walking towards the stairs to head back to our room, my vision completely clouded over. Rather than risk collapsing on the stairs or being sick inside the hotel, I walked straight out the main doors into the road and crumpled in a heap on the floor. Apparently this was a cause for concern for various onlookers who all very kindly offered their help.

After four days I was getting worse instead of better and in the evening I took a particularly weird turn. I was lying in bed listening to an audiobook called ‘Into Thin Air’ about a real life disaster on Everest. I was probably suffering from fairly severe dehydration and my head was pounding with a terrible headache. I drifted off to sleep, but awoke drenched in perspiration under the belief that the reason I was ill was because I was at 26,000 feet suffering from hypoxia. While deep down I knew the reality was that I was in a Vietnamese hotel with a raging temperature, my brain couldn’t separate reality from fiction. After taking the last of our paracetamol to quell the fever I managed to properly fall asleep at 3am and didn’t awake until the morning.

We finally decided that it was time to accept this wasn’t going away on its own. Emma tried to call World Nomads, our insurance provider, but couldn’t find any way to reverse the charges from Vietnam. Every international operator number we found online was coming up as an invalid number. Eventually we were saved by Skype. Top tip: get Skype credit for your app, so you can make wifi international calls in an emergency! It cost us about £0.05 for the call.

Once Emma had explained the situation, World Nomads recommended that we get our hotel to call us a doctor, as they’d know somewhere local. They didn’t provide any real help, but did give us a reference number for any claims. They explained that for some countries they do organise medical help for you, but in Vietnam they don’t. Presumably this is because Vietnamese hospitals tend to be good, whereas in other countries you need to be much more cautious about which hospital you’re taken to.

Our guest house (Happy Moon Guest House) phoned a doctor for us. Throughout the time I was ill, Happy Moon Guest House were amazing. I really can’t thank them enough for going so far beyond what could have been expected. Free meals, cancelling other bookings to ensure we had a room, showing real concern for my well being. Seriously guys, you made a fairly rubbish time a lot more comfortable and I hugely appreciate all the help you provided.

Within ten minutes of Happy Moon calling the hospital a doctor and nurse arrived in my room. After an initial assessment they decided that I needed to get to hospital sharpish so it was straight to the ambulance parked outside. The hospital was about 500m from where we were staying, but the driver felt the need for sirens and a high speed journey, including charging the wrong way down one-way streets. Driving in Hanoi is sketchy enough at the best of times, but I was blissfully unaware of our high speed journey given I was feeling groggy in the back of the ambulance. Emma, sat in the front of the ambulance, got to enjoy the full ‘the Fast and the Furious’ street racing experience.

On arrival at the hospital I was seen in the most brutally efficient manner possible. I was carried in the stretcher up the steps into the hospital, being treated as if I were on the brink of death, which we felt was a little over the top! I was immediately triaged, seen by a doctor, given an ultrasound and taken to a room for tests and an IV. Within an hour of calling the doctor I was lying in a hospital bed receiving care. Given my level of dehydration, blood tests were surprisingly difficult. Getting the needle into my arm was fairly traumatic and required two nurses to have a go and quite a lot of needle wiggling. A few lazy drops of an extremely viscous black-red syrup begrudgingly rolled out of the vein, and it took a lot of arm squeezing to get the required amount of blood.

Hospitalised in Hanoi

There were three beds in my room, but the other two were both empty. I received a few IVs in the afternoon and was then seen by a doctor again. He decided that I was too ill to leave the hospital and would have to stay in for 2-3 days. Brilliant, my first time staying in hospital and it’s in Vietnam! Emma left to collect some essentials from the hotel and I spent most of the rest of the day just lying on the bed. Throughout the afternoon a few children were brought into the room accompanied by their parents, but after being hooked up to an IV for an hour or so they were all discharged. The only particularly traumatic event was one toddler who required four nurses to hold her down in order to get the IV into her. The screaming was nauseating and the whole thing felt more Guantanamo Bay than hospital care.

A nurse with limited English shook me to wake me up and asked what I wanted for dinner. I hadn’t eaten anything in about a day and half, but I wasn’t sure if I was really hungry or had no appetite at all. I was given a menu with about 20 pages of different foods, but no time to look at it. Instead random things were pointed at and I was asked “this?”. Feeling completely out of it, I agreed to some of the most inappropriate foods. Spaghetti with tomato sauce and a massive (and I mean MASSIVE) slice of creamy cake. So much for ‘BRAT’. Food arrived quickly and I devoured it like it was my first proper meal in a week. In fairness to myself, it was.

Enjoying my quiet room to myself, I changed into my hospital-provided pyjamas and fell asleep around 10pm. I made a point of not listening to anything about Everest before bed and instead used Emma’s Kindle to read my brothers book (available here for anybody who is interested). After barely falling asleep I received a bedroom companion, a young baby and two very annoying parents. At this point I started to wonder if I was actually in a pediatric ward...

The entire night the family played loud videos on a laptop and insisted on having all of the lights turned on in the room. This included the light by my head which they turned back on four times after I kept switching it off. Needless to say it wasn’t the best nights sleep. In the morning they enhanced the psychological torture by playing a single 2 minute video at maximum volume on loop for over four hours. “Driving in my car, feeling like a star, driving in my car!”.

In the morning I was seen by a doctor and feigned enough of a miraculous recovery to be discharged. Hanoi was probably one of the best places to have been hospitalised during our trip. The hospital was clean, hygienic and very efficient. Had we been in rural Laos, I’d have probably avoided hospitalisation at all costs. The total bill for being seen by a doctor in my hotel, an ambulance, being an inpatient for a night in hospital, meals, four IVs, blood tests, an ultrasound and a lot of meds to take away came to £212 ($260). Pretty cheap, really! We had to pay a £100 excess, but World Nomads covered the rest.

It took a couple more days in the hotel room to fully recover, but on Christmas Eve we were finally able to book a last minute flight and fly to Ho Chi Minh City for Christmas Day. It was an inconvenience losing over a week of our time in Vietnam to feeling ill, but luckily we are away long enough for it not to be a major issue. From now on I’m going back to dodgy looking street food and avoiding fancy meals which are clearly a hidden danger!