Dental Care In Southeast Asia

The Famous Dentist Of Vietnam

Since we began our travels in 2005, my husband David and I have learned to expect the unexpected. If something bad is going to happen, it’s going to be at an inconvenient time and, often, not in the location of choice.

A few years ago, we traveled to Myanmar, taking the overland route between Mandalay and Yangon. One morning, while I was eating a piece of toast in a small town roughly halfway through our trip, one of my molars crumbled. Myanmar is one of the last places in the world that I would have chosen for a health or dental emergency…

Dentists here set up rusty, pedal-powered drills on the sidewalk, performing dental surgery in some of the least hygienic settings imaginable. Fortunately for me, the tooth wasn’t painful, and rather than doing the unthinkable, I contacted my dentist in Chiang Mai, who promised to see me on the day that I returned to Thailand. Disaster was narrowly averted…

We were in the Philippines two weeks ago when a similar thing happened. David lost a part of his tooth over dinner. We were in Tagaytay, a fairly small resort town about 60 kilometers south of Manila. The tooth was painful and we had no choice but to test out the health-care system in this town. We asked a resident foreigner for a recommendation, and he sent us to a dentist not far from our hotel.

We entered a tiny office where a young lady told us to take a seat. The waiting room had a couple of chairs, a television, and little else, with no dentist in sight. Our hostess made a call and, about 15 minutes later, the cheerful dentist walked in the front door. Speaking perfect English, he made conversation for some time, before inviting David into the back room. There we saw clean, modern equipment and got the impression this dentist had been practicing for a few years. Feeling reassured, we gave him the go-ahead for a crown.

Two days later, he called to tell us that the crown was in his office and invited us to come by that afternoon. When we returned, we were greeted like old friends. David got his ceramic crown, at a cost of about US$138, and I had my teeth checked and cleaned for another US$20. A dental visit is never pleasant, but we felt fortunate that we were able to find someone as personable and as capable as this guy.

A few days later, back in Hanoi, David lost part of a molar–not the same tooth that was just repaired in Tagaytay. This time, we were more concerned, simply because health care in Vietnam is generally not up to international standards. However, this couldn’t wait until we left the country again.

After asking a local for a referral, we were told of a “very famous dentist” in our neighborhood (in Vietnam, good practitioners are often considered famous). This time, we took a Vietnamese friend with us to interpret, as the dentist was not an English speaker.

David was immediately taken into the back office and encouraged to take off his shoes and relax in the dentist’s chair. The dentist was a younger lady who was literally barefoot and seven months’ pregnant. Without keeping him waiting even a moment, the drill came out and the work began. When she was finished preparing the tooth for a crown, my husband was told to return in a day or two.

When we returned, we were greeted by the pregnant dentist’s husband, also a dentist–as was his father before him. Wearing jeans and flip-flops, he invited us to join him for coffee. There was an ashtray on the table, and we were invited to smoke.

Sitting in the front room of the dentist’s clinic, we all relaxed, talked about friends and family, where we were from, how he was looking forward to the birth of his daughter in two more months…until almost an hour had passed. Our friend later assured us that this is normal when seeing a doctor or dentist in Hanoi. To immediately enter into business in this situation would be considered impolite.

After the new crown was finished, we sat for another half-hour or so, chatting with the dentist and his staff. Two hundred and thirty-five dollars later, David had his second ceramic crown in two weeks — this one came with a 10-year warranty–and a much brighter smile.

In the United States, dental problems such as these would have required a wait of several days or weeks for an appointment, a follow-up appointment after several more days or weeks, and several thousand dollars. Our U.S. dentist would never have been barefoot, and it’s unlikely that we’d sit and chat and get to know each other as part of the appointment (certainly not over cups of tea and coffee). However, I suspect that those two new crowns–that only cost a fraction of the price we’d have paid back home–will last for many years.

It’s just another way that things differ in this part of the world. Relationships are all-important, whether it’s with your dentist or your next-door neighbor. The value of that is beyond measure.

Wendy Justice

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