It is 2:00pm and Hanoi’s heat is as stifling and claustrophobic as a damp wool sweater that is three sizes too small. The bodies of Korean, Canadian, and American volunteers glimmer with sweat- filthy from traffic exhaust and mosquito repellant. The women no longer bother to wipe the perspiration that streams down their temples, backs, and legs. Only Thuy, the group leader – who is from Hanoi– is as sweat-free as the scores of women who glide down the road on mopeds in long-sleeved shirts, pants, facemasks, and hats.
The group marches through the pediatric hospital’s security gate, and troops up six flights of stairs. They visit a different floor each afternoon, clomping past parents who carry or lead their sick children up and down the steps. The elevator, as the volunteers are told, is reserved for the doctors.
Each floor has a community room, which is an open space lined with some blue plastic chairs, a few tables, rattan mats on the linoleum floor, and faded paintings on the wall that vaguely resemble Richard Scarry characters. There is no air conditioning and no electric fans – only respite from the penetrating glare of the sun. As the volunteers unload toys, games, and balloons from plastic bags, mothers poke their heads out from the rooms down the hall and file in with babies on their hips or bashful older children in tow.
One volunteer mans the pump, shooting air into long skinny balloons and passing them through the small assembly line of artists who twist them into various shapes: flowers, dogs, and bunnies. The novice volunteers’ balloon creations are more abstract. It is hard to keep up with the demand: mothers have poured into the room; each determined to get one or more balloons. Some of the children squeal with delight; others, defeated by the heat and illness, appear nonplussed. By now, the volunteers know that they are really creating the balloons for the parents, a patch of bright color in an otherwise dismal day.
Several of the volunteers alight on the rattan mat, spreading toys and coloring books across the floor. Soon they are joined by babies plunked down by their mothers, and by children bold enough to sidle over alone.