Those were the words of a lovely young woman that struck up a conversation with me in an amazing French bakery called Saint-Honore in the trendy, expat section of Hanoi called West Lake. Finding delightful baked goods anywhere in the world is one of my not so hidden talents! Vietnamese cuisine is delicious and fresh and I have been sampling plenty of the local specialties too. It is humbling, exhilarating and challenging, often all at the same time, to drop into an unfamiliar culture and totally foreign language. Hanoi is teaching me many lessons, not the least of which is how to ask for help, something I am reluctant to do in my U.S. based life. Everywhere I go, on the street, in my office building or out walking around Hoan Kiem lake with hordes of tourists and locals alike, my smile is met with a gracious smile in return.
There is a frenetic energy to the city. Just crossing the street can be a harrowing experience. There are cars and motorbikes coming and going from every direction and a constant cacophony of beeping. The old quarter is particularly challenging, with its narrow streets and passageways over flowing with vehicles and people. It is a bit of sensory overload with so many sights and sounds to take in, but there is an underlying zen that belies the surface chaos. A spirit of cooperation, where everyone is allowed their piece of the street corner to operate their food stand or sale their wares and collisions are miraculously avoided.
PATH is a non-governmental organization that focuses on providing technical assistance and partnering with the private sector to innovate and create solutions to global public health problems. Making the adjustment from my U.S. sales based pharma mentality to global public health in the non-profit sector has been a refreshing change of pace. Luckily, part of my duties here, to commoditize and create demand for HIV preventative services in Vietnam, like condoms, lubricant and low density space syringes are synergistic with my sales and marketing experience. Not so different from what I do in Las Vegas and Palm Springs with HIV medications.
Through it’s Healthy Markets project, which is just past the mid-point, PATH partners with manufacturers and distributors to increase HIV self and lay testing and recently launched access to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) services in conjunction with other partners in Vietnam, in addition to the preventative services that I mentioned in the paragraph above. This is a huge undertaking, that requires a network and infrastructure that is not yet well developed, and a very close partnership with the Ministry of Health to pull the services through to populations at risk. I am mostly helping with the communications, editing and correcting the English in promotional pieces and reports. I am compelled to point out that my job is quite easy, as my Vietnamese colleagues all speak and write English nearly flawlessly! One of my current projects is to write a fact sheet on Transgender Women in Vietnam, general information about the community including legal status. It is a fascinating topic and a bit of a stretch for me as I am not used to technical writing, but a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Part of my research will include a trip to Ho Chi Minh City to meet with transgender women focus groups to better understand their needs, challenges and openness to using PrEP. I have already had the opportunity to visit a Community Based Organization (CBO), Lighthouse, in Hanoi, analogous to ASOs at home. The director is a young man named Tùng Thanh Đoàn. He is dynamic, well informed and motivated to serve the LGBT community. I am delighted to report that he is receiving a grant from ViiV’s Positive Action program for removing stigma and discrimination at the upcoming IAS meeting in Paris. Very proud of my company and the work we fund around the world to help PLWHIV. It’s inspiring me to contribute my very best to my PULSE assignment.
The Healthy Markets team has created a Facebook page called Xom Cau Vong, which translates to Rainbow Village. I respectfully request that my readers like and follow this page, especially my friends working in the community. It is in Vietnamese, but you can get an idea of the great work that we and our CBO partners and others are doing to reach our target audiences. As everywhere else in the world, social media is the key to mass communication.
I have only scratched the surface of the wonders of this 1000 year old city. I will share more stories, adventures and misadventures in the weeks to come. I am thoroughly enjoying my own “eat pray love” journey, but my loved ones are always close to my heart and mind. Talk with you soon.