Living in Hanoi offered me a cosmopolitan view of a fast-developing nation. However, it wasn’t until I explored Vietnam’s remote Dien Bien province in the mountainous northwest, where I documented the impact of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded Sustainable Management of the HIV/AIDS Response and Transition to Technical Assistance Project (SMART TA) project led by FHI 360, that I really began to understand its depth and diversity.
Dien Bien was a target province for SMART TA due to the significant challenges the location poses for healthcare providers seeking to identify and care for HIV patients. These challenges, including geographic exclusion, cultural and language differences, and extreme poverty, are tempered by its residents’ resilience and ingenuity. During my time in four District Health Centers (DHC) in the Dien Bien Province, I interviewed a range of people, including HIV+ patients at methadone clinics, outpatient clinic doctors and DHC directors.
My FHI 360 team and I were welcomed with kindness everywhere we went, yet I also experienced profound lows during my program visits. For example, we met one visibly ill HIV+ man, a 31-year-old intravenous drug user who had resigned himself to death and planned to stop his antiretroviral treatment. We cried with him as he described his despondency at being a disappointment to his parents while self-consciously covering his bruised arm. Before we left, we shared his story with the DHC director who promised to follow up with him and his counselor. Days later, I could not forget the man’s hands which were tattooed with beautiful flowers. As more than one HIV patient cried while sharing their story, we tried in vain to mitigate their sorrow by giving them tissues and holding their hands. Later, I learned that these small kindnesses generated outsized appreciation, as the stigma of HIV leads to many of these patients experiencing discrimination.
I also experienced colossal highs while traveling through Vietnam. From meeting HIV patients who were well-educated about their disease and the need to adhere to treatment regimens, to speaking with doctors who poured their energy into their patients’ wellness, much of my time in Vietnam was uplifting. Wherever I traveled, I saw a country investing in its future with new hospitals and schools, and encountered generous locals who shared gifts like locally-grown coffee and raw honey.
These visits allowed me to witness the impact the SMART TA project had on the lives of HIV/AIDS patients in Vietnam and provided me with valuable insights to fulfill my main fellowship objective – to develop stories that illustrate the success and positive impact of the USAID SMART TA program on Vietnam.
Tory Archibald manages internal communications for the European Regional Head of Pfizer’s Essential Health Business.
From April through August 2016, Tory served as a Global Health Fellow with FHI 360 in Hanoi, Vietnam. FHI 360 is a nonprofit human development organization dedicated to improving lives in lasting ways by advancing integrated, locally-driven solutions. Tory joined FHI 360 in the final year of the United States Agency for International Development Sustainable Management of the HIV/AIDS Response and Transition to Technical Assistance Project (SMART TA) to support its strategic communications efforts. SMART TA was a five-year initiative managed by FHI 360 that strove to ensure quality, comprehensive and sustainable HIV services through a strengthened national response.