"Would you like me to go with you to Vietnam?" These words, spoken half in jest months before, brought me to Hanoi this past January. I stood in the doorway of Tu Liem Orphanage, watching as two mothers met their new daughters. One came with a smile, connecting immediately; the other with a wail, inconsolable. Both mothers were stunned, overwhelmed with feeling. With no time to ease into parenthood, we were back in the car, on the way to the hotel.
I had read hundreds of adoptive parents' stories about their trips abroad to bring their children home, and had brought home at least two dozen children from Korea to their adoptive families in Maryland. But I had never experienced the adoption process in a child's home country, nor had I lived with a family during the first week of their adjustment. So when Susan, a second-time adoptive mom, invited me to travel with her, I jumped at the chance.
The tiny, eight-room hotel in the heart of Hanoi's Old Quarter was booked solid by American adoptive parents. Chosen by the International Mission of Hope because of its exceptional service and the warmth of its staff, the Claudia Hotel became our home base and refuge.
I was reminded of my college dormitory experience as the adoptive families roamed freely in and out of each other's rooms, wandered around at night in pajamas, watched the news in the lounge, coordinated times for meals, and traveled together to explore the city. Favors were freely asked and granted. Susan gave her infant seat to a mother with a bad back; the mother who was also a Family Practitioner gave care to children and parents alike; the mom whose high school friend worked in Hanoi directed us to restaurants, shops and cultural attractions.
Two days after our arrival, we drove to a northern province for the Giving and Receiving or adoption ceremony. Although we drove only about 100 miles northwest, the trip took six hours. The further we drove from Hanoi, it seemed the further back in time we traveled. Water buffaloes are still the primary piece of farm equipment, and children as young as four or five traveled comfortably on their backs. Roosters and chickens ran wild, even in government buildings. Rice farming appeared to be incredibly labor intensive, as the planting and harvesting take place under water. I was impressed by what I did not see: children in the fields. The work appeared to be done by adults and older adolescents, although younger children helped with chores before and after school.
Vietnam, unlike some other Asian countries, does not yet have much American government aid or business investment. Assistance from the former Soviet Union has decreased and so they are bringing their country into the 20th century by the sweat and sheer determination of their people. Wherever we went, however, countryside or city, we were welcomed with genuine warmth. Even the beggar women in Hanoi would stop in the middle of their appeals for money to smile, admire the babies and wish us happiness.
The International Mission of Hope staff is an eclectic group. Founded by Cherie Clark, an American nurse with ten children (four of them adopted from Vietnam), IMH employs some of Cherie's children and friends, as well as Vietnamese nationals and others attracted to working with children in need of families.
Cherie Clark's "Man in Hanoi" is Adel, an Indian/Yemite fluent in Arabic, Urdu, English, Vietnamese, Russian and Spanish. In Vietnam, at 6 foot 2, 325 pounds with dark skin and a bear, Adel stands out in a crowd. He was the first one I saw outside the Hanoi airport, and I made sure not to let him get too far from view during the rest of our trip. Adel arranged appointments with harried bureaucrats, obtained signatures from officials too busy for everyone else, smoothed ruffled feathers and soothed crying babies.
Cherie's daughter, Beth and son-in-law, Thai, run the Saigon office and her son Dan takes care of families in Bangkok a they process their children's visas there.
Cherie shuttles among the three offices, government-run orphanages and ministries, keeping the adoption process working in a country with a myriad of other pressing needs. Cherie's twelve years of experience in Calcutta, developing what is now one of the largest child caring and adoption agencies in India, serves her well in Vietnam. Last year, she placed over 100 children from Vietnam into adoptive families in the US.
In spite of a great need for adoptive parents and despite the quickest processing time of any international adoption program (six to nine months), Catholic Charities' Vietnamese adoption program has placed just fifteen children in the past three years. Cherie often asks us for more adoptive applicants, but it is difficult to "compete" with programs such as Korea and China. Having experienced Cherie's program first-hand, I know that it is not for the faint of heart or the weak of faith.
But I also know that the process works quickly (if confusingly), that the Vietnamese regulations are more open and flexible than those of other countries, that the children are just as wonderful a those from Korea, the Philippines, China and Latin America. Call your social worker or me for more information about adopting from Vietnam.
Medical Considerations when Traveling to Vietnam
Judi Baker, a Catholic Charities' client who had adopted a child from Vietnam, is the assistant director of the International Travel Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital. I decided that before I left for Vietnam, a visit to Judi was called for as Vietnam's public health situation is considered less than ideal. Judi spent nearly an hour with me, outlining the health risks and concerns for travelers to Vietnam.
She recommended and I agreed to, a hepatitis A shot, a tetanus booster, a polio booster and typhoid medication. Because I would be traveling in the countryside, I took anti-malarial medication as well. She prescribed an anti-diarrheal medication and I purchased some powdered electrolyte solution in the event I developed "traveler's diarrhea" and became dehydrated.
The anti-diarrheal medication came in handy - although not for me. Another adoptive mother, Laurie, became violently ill, probably with amoebic dysentery. She had not brought anything for this but lotomil. Judi Baker had warned me not to take lotomil (or the equivalent) in case of diarrhea because some bacteria would most likely cause the diarrhea and the lotomil would just keep the bacteria in the system. The medication helped Laurie immediately although she was weak for three days afterward. She was so ill and weak, in fact, that she could not care for her infant, so several of us pitched in to help.
I learned two important lessons from this incident. One, no matter how good your health, and no matter how robust a specimen you consider yourself (as I do), in a country like Vietnam, you are always just inches away from illness. We take for granted our excellent public sanitation and health systems that are enormous factors in our well-being. Caution did us little good. The adoptive mom who became ill was a chef and was the most aware of any of us of the dangers of contaminated food. It was sheer luck that the rest of us did not become sick, as we all ate in the same restaurants.
Two, a person should never travel alone when going a far and as long to bring your child home. Quick trips of four to six days to Korea or the Philippines are doable, if arduous, but a two or three week stay in Vietnam or China is foolish. You compromise the health and care of your child when you travel with no backup. Even those of us who traveled in twos were often tired and overwhelmed. Of all of us at the Claudia Hotel, I had the most experience with travel and with children, yet I came away with a much greater appreciation of my limitations.
Heartbeat, Volume 10, Number 2, June, 1997
(410) 659-4050; (410) 659-4069 FAX
Published on 6/1/97