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Chaos (Take Three)

By Dan | June 24, 2007

Baths, breakfast (both kids and parents), and showers later, and the kids are back asleep. (Without the anti-histamine, which I think is an extremely positive sign!) Back to the passports… The ‘expedited passport processing’ fee is actually paid to a facilitator that seems to collect all the paperwork and do all the filings and processing instead of waiting on the Government to do it? Not really clear on that process (and given the fee involved and comments by the CIS officer I’m not sure I want to be). Regardless, 300 USD for each passport is really seeming like a bargain after the last few days, considering it would have added at least a week otherwise from what I am told! For all that, it appears that we still needed to do certain things ourselves, and I had to do the last bit of filing myself when filing (although the processor was there to coach somewhat). The passport agent (government, not the external facilitator) made sure I could pronounce Vinh’s name, didn’t ask about Thanh’s, and for some reason had me file for all three (including Oanh, the girl being adopted by the other family).

To get back to Friday, pickup was another of those situations. Shannon did not need to go, so she stayed at the hotel and I took one of the boys and Anna and I met the faciliator at the same passport office. He met us there, made a magic phone call, and a few minutes later Vinh’s name was called over the loudspeaker. He told me to go up, sign, and that was it. (I guess he wasn’t allowed at the window for pickup, only for filing? He never was very clear on that.) Then the agent gave me all three passports, which promptly were given to the facilitator so he could get the Visa medical results for us.

Back to the hotel to finish packing… We had been working on it for 4 hours when I left for the passport office, and it took another 2 to finally finish up with all the demands in caring for the boys, who were probably in the worst shape of the trip at the time. (It took us about 40 minutes to really pack to leave the States.) At that, we were totally disorganized, throwing stuff in wherever we could fit it. Luckily, we managed to compress down one bag due to the orphanage donations tho.

We were supposed to meet Anna to leave at 6 sharp for the airport, so we figured that we should be in the lobby no later than 5:30 to check out. We called for a porter at 5:40, and by 5:50 Anna was calling to find out where we are. (She is always 10 minutes early for everything; I’m not sure if that is her personality or it is her way to make sure everyone gets where they need to be.) We were still waiting for the porter who had been sent to the wrong room. We got to the lobby at 5:55 (with no luggage yet, the freight elevator sometimes takes a while to get) and it took almost 20 minutes to check out, so my gut reaction was correct. The other family was in the same shape at least. We left for the airport, which took almost 40 minutes to get there. (IIRC it’s only 4 miles.)

With all that, we got to the airport, checked in, through security, and into the waiting area pretty much on time for our scheduled departure, which was delayed. We started boarding (which is to say we had moved from the waiting area to a bus as domestic flights apparently don’t use jetways at Tan Son Nhut (HCMC) or Noi Bai (Hanoi), about when the flight was supposed to leave, only to be delayed again for a dignitary arrival. Then finally the ground stop was lifted and we were taken out to where the plane was, to be held on the bus for almost another 10 minutes and then taken back to the terminal, where we found out there were mechanical difficulties! All told, it amounted to a 2+ hour delay, with cranky babies that were supposed to be fed when we left the hotel, and didn’t even start getting fed until after we were in the waiting area. Thanh does not eat well when he is overtired, and won’t go to sleep when he is hungry. Add to that that they were in the carriers (no strollers after security), so they were both overheated, and it was a really rough night for them, us, Anna (who was a saint trying to help holding and playing with kids, handling luggage, whatever she could), and everyone else around us.

HCMC airport is hard to describe. Apparently you cannot enter the airport at all unless you are traveling, so there are constantly throngs of people everywhere outside in the street. This is the same street for drop off and pickup, so the congestion is amazing. In the USA, there would probably be people run over daily. Your luggage goes through an X-Ray immediately upon entering the airport, and is labeled with a sticker. Apparently these sticker are supposed to be very difficult to remove unless by a luggage belt, since half of our luggage was missing them but the other half are not coming off well. Entering is also a relative term, as the first floor to the street is mostly open, so it’s really semi-open air. Check in is similar to the USA, without the trip to the X-ray (since that has already been done). Same with passing through with carry-ons. Then upstairs the “gates” are fairly different: you present your boarding pass and they check you in, but you are held in a holding area until the flight is called. Then cattle call style, you go down to the bus (no escalator – challenging with 5 carry ons, 2 strollers, and 2 fussing children). The upper of the airport is attempting to be modern, with shops and all, but is smoky and fairly dirty. Jet fuel and jet fumes permeate the facility. All in all, not an inviting place (although I’ve been in USA airports that are on par with it).

I forgot to mention that Shannon and I had not eaten since breakfast. This was the first time we had eaten together as a family… Shannon and I had been splitting breakfast since we couldn’t get the boys calm and awake on the same schedule, and other meals were either room service, catch as we could, or in most cases, missed entirely.

The flight probably wouldn’t have been bad had it not been for the really bad circumstances leading up to it. They were coach tickets on a fairly large Airbus 321 (of course Vietnam Air uses a French supplier), we were in row 30 of about 45 or so. We had about 2 inches more leg room than the typical American coach plane, and the plane was clean and unworn and perfectly prepared, down to neatly crossing each and every seatbelt on the seat. I really wonder how on earth they keep the planes that new, considering the passengers generally treated it even worse than US planes get treated. We were fed a choice of a Vietnamese beef noodle plate or a Dim Sum variety. The smell from the beef noodle plate turned my stomach so badly that I wasn’t going to eat, but I toughed it out and gave the Dim Sum a try. It was typical airline food, well thought out, but suffering from being prepared 2+ hours ahead and resteamed. It settled my stomach a little at least.

Watching the Asian looking passengers eat (I assume most were Vietnamese, although I am not proficient at identifying nationality characteristics regardless of race) was not a stomach settling proposition either. Most ate the noodle dish, shoveling it in with about 3 chopstick loads. Belching is appropriate here, so the smell after the meal was worse than before (at least for several minutes until the air recirculated).

Once we finally arrived in Hanoi, luggage was prompt, but one of the strollers arrived missing a wheel, so it was another 10 minutes until they found that. (Luckily it just popped right back on, although the plastic is distressed so it will not stay as tightly. Should be functional as far as we need it to be tho.) Then, it was still 45 minutes by car (with almost no traffic) to the hotel, so it was past 2am by the time we were checked in, luggage out of the way. The boys had slept in the car at least, but were having nothing to do with sleeping in the hotel. Yet another night with almost no sleep, and Shannon and I were in such bad shape (physically, mentally, and homesick wise) that we both needed to hear familiar voice, so we called our respective parents and that bolstered our spirits as much as anything short of other than miraculously healthy babies and an instant 20 hours of sleep could. We both ordered room service for breakfast despite the free buffet, and mostly because it was what we should do than because we actually felt like eating.

Luckily Friday and Saturday morning will hopefully be the absolute rock bottom for the trip. We started the morning at the usual 5AM with the sunrise and fought through cranky babies all morning until we went to meet Anna in the lobby at 10 to fill out the Visa application. I think the twins kinda hit rock bottom too, as they were relatively well behaved through the process. Thanh was due to Gabriel (the 5 year old from the other family) generally acting like a clown and keeping him well entertained, but Vinh just looked like he could sleep for a week.

After the application was done, Anna had made an appointment for 11:30 at an International medical group not far from the hotel, so we chatted for a while and went there. American clinics should visit and take notes, as this is how clinics should run! Minimal waiting area, because there was minimal wait, minimal paperwork, the necessary drugs were available on the spot and all this for under 250 USD for both children. If we were home, the drugs alone would have probably been close to 200 USD. To top it off, they can’t file insurance for obvious reasons, but gave us all the necessary documentation already in English and compatible with the US insurance system to do so, plus the doctor took the time to draft and email reports to us the same day that we can supply to their pediatrician when we get home. We were both completely blown away.

Our particular doctor was a French national whose wife is Dutch and assigned to the Dutch embassy currently. He said he just pretty much follows her wherever she is assigned around the world… Anyway, our read on the boys’ conditions was pretty much right, plus an outer ear infection on Vinh’s part. Also, some of the more scratched at skin bumps and lesions are starting to show signs of infection. After about 2 hours, we walked out with oral antibiotics and antihistamines, cortisone cream, and electrolyte replacement powder for adding to water. He said that should help, but time was the only remedy for most of it. As to the constipation, he said it was most likely caused by dehydration, and we should give them as much water as they wanted (hence the electrolyte powder). He also has recommended starting them on very small amounts of Mango juice (ideally, orange or pineapple will also work, but Mango is apparently the best), about 1oz / 2x day to start, and that should help stimulate the digestive tracts as well. He also gauged their actual age to be more like pushing 7 months due to the number of teeth presented and the milestones we were describing. Not all that important, but interesting to know since we were expecting that they were at least a month older, but starting to suspect they were even older than that as well.

He also asked a lot of questions about the orphanage, including many of the same questions that the CIS officer asked. His reasoning was purely informational, and he was sad to hear some of the answers. He also does not hold the orphanages here in high regard as a whole, but his attitude comes from a sense of pity for the children rather than the disdain of the CIS officer. He said it sounds like Vung Tau is now a little better than average and has cleaned up some, but still falls short of suitable for child care. He also said that there are a lot of issues with the way the orphanages are run, and in some cases the “abandoned” children’s mothers work at the orphanages until their children are adopted, then just disappear. Consequently, they are always curious to find out how many care givers there are at any given time, and informally it sounds like they track the ratio of children to care-givers as a partial indicator of what happens in that regard. No matter what point of view you look at, the situation is pretty unfortunate, although I would be surprised if it were a whole lot different in any other country that has an active foreign adoption program.

We also met a lady from Canada (specifically Toronto) there who had already been in country 7 weeks working on an adoption, and had not even gotten to the Giving and Receiving yet (basically the first step). She had her 7 year old with her, but her husband was at home. I think meeting us and chatting a bit lifted her spirits, as she was very calm and patient, but clearly frustrated at the endless delays. To top it off, she later said it was her and her husband’s anniversary. Imagine being away from home on your anniversary, in an exotically foreign country with your 7 year old! Anyway, I wish we had exchanged emails, as we would both like to keep in touch to find out how she turns out, and we may try to find her as Shannon thinks she remembers her name and I’m pretty sure that she is staying at the Army hotel. Otherwise, the community of adoptive families from Vietnam is not that big, so we may be able to locate her through the Internet (Yahoo groups or something) either directly or indirectly. Regardless, we spoke at some length about our various experiences, and she seemed genuinely happy for us that we had gone through a relatively rapid process. A couple obvious differences that are probably making all the differences for her are that she is adopting a blood relative of her first adopted child, so she is working outside the normal procedures. The US State Department makes it very clear that they do not look favorably on adoptions where the adoptive parents know the identity of the child prior to starting the process. I understand this is to help prevent baby-trading and a host of other unethical activities, so it may well be for good reason. That said, if that statement is true I would expect it is true for other governments as well. The various Vietnamese governments generally also kinda like to run the show, so coming in with a specific child in mind probably creates cultural problems as well, no matter how well meaning the intentions are.

Second, she is adopting from a base of Hanoi, and the rules and process in the North is much different than in the south. For standard adoptions, Northern adoptions typically take a real 4 weeks in country (reinforced by a friend Shannon has made through the local adoption support group who is not traveling until next week and will not return until August), and often have more issues that cause delays. (Plus the quirk of the difference of the US consulate processing immigration vs. the Embassy processing visas costs an extra week for US folks.) This is the reason that most agencies we spoke work in the south and all but require the parents to travel in country during the process. The variation in times depending on the particular orphanage and local province is something that the agencies we talked to as part of our agency decision did a very good job of making parents aware while downplaying until travel time. But I digress.

Anyway, back to the hotel for baths, drugs, food and naps. The anti-histamine did it’s job (both the primary purpose and the secondary sedative purpose) and the kids zonked out off and on for most of the afternoon. Shannon and I finally managed to get 6 hours of sleep in roughly 2 hour increments, which felt like almost a full night. We ordered room service around 1am (which never arrived and we didn’t realize until after another sleep cycle, so about 3:30 am) and continued through the night in about 2 hour increments. At 3:30 we realized the food never arrived and decided to stick it out until the buffet opened at 6 (a very convenient time on our very newly established routine besides), so yet another period of 24 hours between meals. 5am brought the sunrise, and the kids stayed out until after 5:30 (a first they weren’t up with the sun), at which point they got bathed, fed and loaded into strollers. Breakfast seemed like a feast, and for the first time in quite a while we actually felt good about eating. We had Dim sum dumplings, omelets, chocolate filled croissants, dried fruit, nuts, tea, Asian noodles, ham, cheese, chicken sausage, roasted tomatoes and cheese bread! Came back upstairs and had baths and the kids have been asleep for 3 hours, pretty much a new record. Even more encouraging was that they fell asleep it a heap of body parts on the bed before we could give them the antihistamine, so it was even natural sleep! Thanh woke up fussing but Vinh woke up quietly and is now entertaining himself with a rainbow worm that we brought from home. That didn’t last long tho, so I will have to stop for a while as it is lunch time with a vengeance… :)

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