My travelling partner was doubled over in pain, lying on the bed, curled up in a ball. Well, that was his position when he wasn’t hunkered down in the bathroom.
We had just completed an epic (and horrendous) overland journey from Eastern Laos to Hanoi Vietnam, and much of the food available during the food breaks was questionable at best. Think, raw half plucked chicken, sitting in a plastic tub on the ground, being eyes up by hungry, mangy looking dogs.
Being a picky eater (and vegetarian) in Asia had caused me a lot of unnecessary hunger pangs – but it also saved me from the inevitable food poisoning.
I was pretty darn lucky that I had avoided this questionable chicken as well, because I did not take out any travel insurance. My travelling companion on the other hand, did. And it was lucky that he did as well!
At first we figured we would go to one of the public hospitals in Hanoi. I had visited a public hospital in Sukhothai Thailand when I got a minor eye infection and the wait times and treatment levels were better than some that I have experienced in the Western World. Also, the treatment was free, and all I had to pay for was my eye drops. We figured we would try our luck in Vietnam.
The conditions could not have been any different.
We arrived at one of Hanoi’s central public hospitals and were immediateness greeted with mass confusion. Patients lay on beds, or sometimes just the ground out in the hallway – a reception desk was no where to be found – and everyone just looked tired and confused.
Eventually we were noticed by a young doctor who ushered us into a large room filled with other patients. He had my companion lie down on a hospital bed, the sheets dirty and blood stained from some poor previous patient, and proceeded to poke and prod him in the stomach.
The doctor didn’t seem to speak any English, and soon we were surrounded by several other doctors, all taking turns to examine and poke my friend in the belly. Finally, someone who spoke a bit of English told us that he just needed some rest, and lots of water.
Unsatisfied with this treatment, and skeptical of the diagnosis, we decided to bite the bullet and visit the flashy private hospital for Westerners in Hanoi. Upon arrival we were met by what can only be described as the complete opposite of the public hospital. The floors were clean, the reception desk was staffed with friendly staff who spoke fluent English, and there were no dried blood stains to be seen.
Our doctor also spoke fluent English, and after running a variety of tests, came back with a very concerning diagnosis. Salmonella poisoning. And a quite serious case as well, as my friends fever was running dangerously high. We were given all sorts of tablets for the fever and for the food poisoning, as well as strict orders to return if the fever did not subside over night.
Despite my fantastic experiences with public hospitals in other developing countries such as Malaysia, Costa Rica, and Thailand, if we had taken the advice of the doctors at the public hospital in Hanoi, my friend could have found himself in a very serious situation. The best course of action was to visit the Westernized private hospital. But first rate care is not without its price. We had to pay several hundred US dollars up front in order to be seen by the doctor. Luckily, my friend was able to claim these funds back with his travel insurance.
Lesson learned – Now when I travel to a developing country, I look up the cost and quality of public health care. In some situations, I still opt to pass on travel insurance. But in others, like some parts of Vietnam, it’s better to be safe than sorry.