Once a month, Dr. Le Thi Ngoc Anh of Hanoi loads a van full of medical supplies and a few other health care providers and heads for the mountains about an hour's drive from the Vietnamese capital.
Le's team makes its rounds to remote villages in Hoa Binh Province, an impoverished region inhabited largely by Hmong, an ethnic minority in Vietnam. Malnutrition is rampant in the area, and half the children suffer from its effects. Many also suffer from conditions such as softened bones, cleft palates, anemia, weakened heart muscle and a shortage of red blood cells.
Without care brought in by the 79-year-old pediatrician, many of the children would go without medical care and some would die.
“I've always tried to help, the need is so great,” Le said, speaking in Vietnamese with her niece, Anh Larson of Santa Rosa, translating.
A specialist in nutrition, Le counsels young mothers on proper feeding for their children. For its sickest patients, the program provides surgery at district hospitals or in Hanoi.
Le's medical mission started 17 years ago as a clinic funded by Santa Rosa-based Veterans Resource Centers of America, a nonprofit founded here in the mid-1970s to “heal the wounds of war,” said Peter Cameron, the organization's executive director.
It cost about $4,600 to start up the Luong Son Clinic in 1997 and Anh Larson, the wife of Army veteran and now-retired credit union executive Jim Larson, was instrumental in recruiting her aunt as director. Because villagers were walking miles to reach the clinic, it switched to a mobile outreach program in 2007 and Veterans Resource Center now supports it with about $22,300 a year -- all in donated dollars.
Cameron, who served with the Army in Vietnam in 1966-67, said he had always wanted to help the people of Vietnam, as well as American military veterans, recover from the devastating war, won by the communist North Vietnamese in 1975.
“There was a whole lot we could do with a little bit of money,” he said of the clinic and three elementary schools built in Hoa Binh Province.
The indefatigable Dr. Le, one of 11 children from a prominent Hanoi family who became a pediatrician in 1960, keeps on making it happen.
Some of the villages have to be reached on foot, and “she's always the first to get there,” Jim Larson said.
A diminutive, soft-spoken grandmother, Le walks two miles and does 90 minutes of tai chi exercise a day.
“Every year I ask her when are you going to retire,” said Anh Larson, a Vietnamese who came to the U.S. in 1968. Her aunt's answer: “This is my life's dream. As long as I'm healthy, I will continue to do it.”
Vietnam, under a communist government, has rebounded considerably from the war. Hanoi, pounded by American B-52 bombers in December 1972, now has more than 100 skyscrapers over 330 feet and boasts both a growing middle class and a wealthy elite.
But the country has extreme economic inequity, with widespread poverty in rural areas, especially in the mountains where some villagers “live as if it were 100 years ago,” Anh Larson said.
The couple, who have visited Vietnam more than 20 times since the 1990s, said they have never encountered any animosity from the people, who “love Americans,” she said. Coca Cola and Nike are among the U.S. companies with factories in Vietnam.
The Larsons met in 1969 at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, where Jim had been sent by the Army to learn Vietnamese and Anh had been hired as a language instructor.
Le, who is fluent in French, reads Russian and speaks limited English, is the grand-daughter of a viceroy of Vietnam, a post that once was second only to the king. During the bombing of Hanoi, she was sent to a commune separate from her husband and two children, where she worked as a physician for five years.
Now, Le is making her second trip to the U.S., along with her son, Phi Phi Le, an orchestra conductor, and her grandson, Adam Le, 17. Phi Phi Le toured the Green Music Center on Tuesday, and jumped at a chance to play the piano onstage and sample the acoustics at Weill Hall. .
“Everything seems more organized,” Le said, comparing the U.S. to her homeland. “The streets are cleaner,” she said, and traffic is minimal, compared to the motorcycle and car-crowded streets of Hanoi.
Before returning to Vietnam, Le's family plans to visit the Grand Canyon and Southern California, with a possible visit to Disneyland for Adam's benefit.
Back home, she will resume her medical missions to the children in the mountains. Their appeal is simple, she said. “If I love them, they love me back.”