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Saving children’s smiles with a warm heart



On the 25th anniversary of Smile for Children in Việt Nam, an organisation which gives free surgery to poor children with facial deformities, Bùi Quỳnh Hoa talks to Professor Rong-Min Baek, director of Bundang Hospital of Seoul National University, and head of the Smile for Children, about his work.

WINNING SMILE: Professor Rong-Min Baek, director of Bundang Hospital of Seoul National University, and head of the Smile for Children. Photo courtesy of Prof Rong-Min Baek

Professor Rong-Min Baek, a well-known plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Seoul, South Korea, with over 30 years of experience, has performed over 4,000 operations on poor Vietnamese patients. For his humanitarian work, he was honoured with the Friendship Medal of Việt Nam and the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award

Inner Sanctum: Could you talk about the trip to Việt Nam to give free operations to children suffering from facial deformities this September? 

This year, we will visit Central Military Hospital 108 in Hà Nội from September 19 to 24. We will be performing various craniofacial operations, including on cleft lip and cleft palate patients. While it has been 28 years since our first trip to Việt Nam, this year marks the 25th anniversary of our trip because of the three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are especially excited to meet our old friends and resume our long-standing relationship with Việt Nam.

Inner Sanctum: Smile for Children has provided thousands of operations for children with craniofacial anomalies in Việt Nam and other countries. Could you tell us about the association?

Smile for Children was established in 1996 by Dr Se-Min Baek, a world-renowned craniofacial surgeon. There are three main goals of the foundation: to provide free operations to economically disadvantaged patients, to train craniofacial surgeons and experts for future generations, and to change the general population’s view on craniofacial deformities by reducing social stigmas through operations, trips, and events.

Our foundation’s very first international cooperation was in Việt Nam. We have visited over 10 countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, and Uzbekistan.

Inner Sanctum: The association cooperates with Central Military Hospital 108’s Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery. Why did you choose this centre to cooperate and have a long-term relationship with?  

After the normalisation of diplomatic relations between [South] Korea and Việt Nam in 1995, we inquired with the Vietnamese embassy in [South] Korea about possible volunteer trips for cleft lip and palate patients.

We were introduced to the then Major General and People’s Doctor Nguyễn Huy Phan, who laid the foundation for plastic surgery and reconstructive microsurgery in Việt Nam. Prof Phan was then Deputy Director of Central Military Hospital 108 and the founder of the first Department of Plastic Surgery at Hà Nội Medical University.

Reconstructive microsurgery is a surgical discipline that uses microscopes and precision instruments to repair intricate structures such as blood vessels and nerves of less than two millimetres. This field has greatly impacted restoring form and function to individuals impaired by trauma, cancer and congenital anomalies.

It was a great honour to work with a man of such character, who inspired us to expand our volunteer trips. We have maintained a close relationship and continued our collaboration with the doctors at the Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery of Central Military Hospital 108 for more than 25 years.

Together, we have travelled to over 20 provinces around Việt Nam.

We still keep a close relationship with Dr Nguyễn Huy Thọ, Dr Vũ Ngọc Lâm and Dr Nguyễn Quang Đức as partners in our missions.

Inner Sanctum: How many free surgeries have been carried out so far by the association in collaboration with the centre in Việt Nam? And how many patients have there been?

In Việt Nam, we have performed an average of 100-150 operations per trip. Over the past 25 years, we have performed 4,091 operations.


PATIENT CARE: Prof Rong-Min Baek (first, right) during his trip to Việt Nam to give free operations to children suffering facial deformities. Photo courtesy of Prof Rong-Min Baek

 Inner Sanctum: On the 60th anniversary of Central Military Hospital 108’s Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery, as director of Bundang Hospital of Seoul National University, could you say something about the centre’s staff?

I would like to express my sincere admiration and congratulations to Central Military Hospital 108’s Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery. The achievements of the team, especially Dr Lâm, Dr Đức, Dr Linh and others, are truly remarkable. We hope to maintain our friendship and partnership for many decades to come.

Inner Sanctum: Why did you choose this difficult job?

Craniofacial anomalies are not matters of life and death. However, they can devastate a patient’s confidence and daily life. I take great joy and pride in treating and helping these patients achieve a normal life.

Inner Sanctum: Who is your role model who shaped who you are today?

Dr Se-Min Baek. He was a pioneer in the field of plastic and reconstructive surgery. While he has been retired for many years, his principles still live with us today.

Inner Sanctum:  What are your impressions on your trips to Việt Nam?

The Vietnamese are kind, smart, friendly, and diligent. I was thrilled and impressed by the people, culture, and food from the very first day of our first trip.

Also, working with the Vietnamese staff both in and out of Việt Nam has been a great honour and pleasure.


TEAM EFFORT: Prof Rong-Min Baek (fifth from right, first row) with his Korean team and doctors from the Central Military Hospital 108’s Centre for Craniofacial and Plastic Surgery during a trip to Thanh Hóa Province in 2015. Photo courtesy of Prof Rong-Min Baek

Inner Sanctum: Calling sponsors to raise funds for free surgical trips must be a headache. Which corporations and surgeons support your organisation?

Yes, fundraising can be a challenge and the source of great headaches. Fortunately for us, SK corporation and its subsidiaries, including SK Telecom, SK Ecoplant, and more, have provided us with great financial support since day one. We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the group who have made these trips possible.

Inner Sanctum: For your decades-long humanitarian works, you received the Friendship Medal from the President of Việt Nam in 2016 and were honoured with the Audrey Hepburn Humanitarian Award in 2014. How do you feel about such recognition?

The great honour truly humbles me. But such recognition is not for me alone but for our entire team and supporters. I would like to thank them once again for this opportunity.

Inner Sanctum: What are your plans to help more poor children suffering in future?

To do it for as long as possible. VNS


Your Vietnam

Vietnamese woman brings new life to village of alcoholics



A woman saves the life of alcoholics in Dak Pao Village, Son Mau Commune, Son Tay District, Quang Ngai Province. Alcohol used to be their barrier to poverty reduction in the village. 

Dinh Thi Hang, chairwoman of Son Mau Commune Women’s Union, is this woman. She helped locals fight against alcohol “ghost” in Dak Pao mountainous village.

Village of alcoholics

The path from the heart of Son Mau Commune to Dak Pao Village is as charming as a painting in the cool weather. Hills stretch to the horizon while local farmers are in the fields.

Dak Pao is home to Ca Dong ethnic people.

Hang said that several years ago, it was common to see drunken men lying next to their motorbikes on the streets in Dak Pao. 

“Ca Dong people often drink, but in Dak Pao, they drink too much. They drink until they get drunk and fall.

“Their health may not be good enough to work with the drinking habit. The number of alcoholic men was higher than the number of working men,” said Hang.

Of course, the poverty in the village was the result of drinking.

Figures showed this fact. The village had 50 households but half of them were poor.

Every home had alcoholics. In some families, both the wife and husband were drinkers. 

As their kids were not taken care of, teachers and the local government were forced to step in.

Hang said people called it the alcohol “ghost” village instead of Dak Pao. 

Dak Pao is half-hidden in Truong Son Dong Forest, where the real torments were caused by alcoholic drinks.

Domestic violence was among them. Drunken men lost their minds and beat their wives and children.

When the husband could drink, his wife also drank. They drank despite their poverty. 

“Although officials came to advise them, they deeply abused alcohol, causing domestic violence. The broken-hearted scene I witnessed was kids having cold meals while their parents got drunk,” Hang shared. 

Fighting against alcohol “ghost”

Son Tay is the poorest area in Vietnam. Poverty reduction and education are going to be key targets in the next few years. 

However, its economy has improved in recent years. 

In June 2019, Son Mua Commune People’s Committee and Party Committee hosted a meeting on local economic development.

Hang attended the meeting and proposed getting rid of alcohol drinking in Dak Pao, which was the best way to help the village escape poverty. 

The Son Mau Commune authorities totally agreed with her.

Dinh Thi Hang (right) talks to Dinh Thi Vum, whose husband used to be an alcoholic. Photo: Tran Mai / Tuoi Tre
Dinh Thi Hang (right) talks to Dinh Thi Vum, whose husband used to be an alcoholic. Photo: Tran Mai / Tuoi Tre

Years ago, villagers chose alcohol rather than their job. Officials even saw them getting drunk in the afternoon although they had just advised them to give it up in the morning. 

Hang proposed her plan “Women say no to alcohol drinks” and conducted the plan in Dak Pao first.

“I think that women are easily approached as they may be too tired of drunken men in their family,” said Hang. 

Hang knew that it was such a difficult journey but villagers could not get rid of poverty if they continued drinking. 

The Son Tay Commune Women’s Union set up a team to oversee villagers. 

Her plan finally got the initial rosy results. More and more villagers gave up drinking and returned to their fields.

“Those getting back to farming work become a mirror of others,” shared Hang. 

A new life in Dak Pao 

Dinh Van Ton and his wife Dinh Thu Muoi both used to be alcoholics. They now have a better life thanks to Hang’s team. 

The couple was punished many times because of getting drunk as they had committed legally themselves to giving up drinking before.

When they got sober, the couple realized that they received a lot of punishment records. 

Since then, they stayed away from drinking and their mental health was better, too. 

Currently, to earn their living, Muoi collects wattle tree bark while her husband collects coffee beans in the Central Highlands. 

“I feel better since I stopped drinking. So does my husband. We now try to work to make a living,” Muoi said with a smile. 

Like the couple, Dinh Thi Vum’s husband used to be an alcoholic. When he got drunk, he beat his wife Vum.

She could not stand him and even walked 20 kilometers in a forest to return to her parent’s home with her kids. 

Hang and her team had to advise Vum and her husband. Fortunately, the husband realized his mistake and apologized to Vum. He also promised to stop drinking. 

“My family got better thanks to Hang. We now have enough money to build a new house,” said Vum. 

The family of Dinh Thi Nhieu also got a good result when giving up drinking.

“I feel happy since I stopped drinking. My kids now study better,” Nhieu said.

Dak Pao currently has only 15 poor households. Many local students have passed the university entrance exams.

The fight against alcohol further expanded

After three years, Hang’s plan to fight against drinking in Dak Pao has been successful.

Ca Dong ethnic people cannot totally stop drinking, but at least there is no scene of people drinking and falling on the streets. 

According to Dinh Van Lia, chairman of Son Mau Commune People’s Committee, the plan helps raise awareness about drinking and it is going to be conducted in the other three villages in the commune. 

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HCM City to host ASEAN food festival



SOUTHEAST ASIAN SPECIALTIES: Vietnamese cuisine will be presented at the ASEAN Food Festival held in HCM City from November 24-27. VNA/VNS Photo Mỹ Phương

HCM CITY HCM City is hosting a food festival featuring traditional cuisine from Southeast Asian countries in the downtown area from November 24-27.

The event is organised by the HCM City Union of Friendship Organisations (HUFO) and its partners, the Việt Nam–ASEAN Friendship Organisation, to mark the 55th anniversary of the South-East Asian block.

Hồ Xuân Lâm, HUFO’s vice chairman, said the event aimed to promote friendship and cooperation among people in Việt Nam and other ASEAN countries.

The festival includes 46 stalls showcasing food, tea, coffee and specialities from restaurants and businesses from Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Việt Nam, as well as universities and colleges in the city.

There will be performances of traditional music and dance from ASEAN countries, street art performances and cooking shows.

The festival takes place on Lê Lợi Street on District 1, and is expected to attract a large number of visitors. — VNS


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Cỗ lá, the food tray that demonstrates Mường ethnic culture in Hòa Bình



Thúy Hằng

For Mường ethnic people, especially those living in Hòa Bình Province, cỗ lá (literally means a food tray displaying several dishes) is more than just a popular food. The food tray represents Mường culture and is an integral part of important occasions, weddings, funerals, New Year or new house celebrations.

A traditional food that has been kept and inherited from generation to generation of Mường people, cỗ lá is unique – from the selection of ingredients to the way of cooking and the food presentation – through which to present the conception of human life of Mường people.

Cỗ lá is very unique presents the conception about human life of Mường people. — VNS Photos Thúy Hằng

Bùi Xuân Phú and wife Nguyễn Thị Vi run Mường Thàng Quán – a restaurant specialising in Mường dishes in Hòa Bình City for 20 years. To create the distinctive yet natural light sweetness of the dishes, all dishes presented on cỗ lá should be prepared with wild leaves and vegetables collected in forests or gardens.

“Depending on the scale of the event, a cỗ lá should consist of at least seven different dishes, including the compulsory ones of cỗ ngọn (slices of boiled pig liver, heart, and maw), boiled pork, chả lá bưởi (grilled pork in pomelo leaves), grilled pork in banana leaves, gà đồ măng chua (steamed chicken with sour bamboo shoots), rau đồ (steamed wild vegetable), and canh loóng chuối (soup cooked with wild banana stem),” Vi said.

The Mường woman also said that it takes at least one and a half hours to prepare a cỗ lá because “you have to finish cooking all the dishes before displaying them all on the tray.”

Gà đồ măng chua (steamed chicken with sour bamboo shoots). 

To grill the pork, Vi said that it’s necessary to marinate with lá mắc mật (clausen indica leaves) and hạt dổi (wild pepper) to get the aromatic flavour for the meat.

The steamed chicken with sour bamboo shoots should be chopped into bite-sized pieces before mixing with sour bamboo shoots and a little bit of salt, then wrapped in banana leave and steamed for about half an hour.

“The tip to making this dish good is the ingredients. Hen is preferred as its texture is more tender. To make the sour bamboo shoot, we use only the bamboo shoot of giang (a kind of green-trunk bamboo) as it retains the natural sweetness after being fermented,” Vi revealed her cooking tricks.

The savoury and palatable canh loóng chuối is cooked with wild banana stem, pig bone, and lá lốt – a kind of aromatic leaves.

Canh loóng chuối is cooked with wild banana stem, pig bone, and lá lốt – a kind of aromatic leaves. 

Her husband Phú said there are some rules for the presentation of cỗ lá.

“The presentation of a cỗ lá for a wedding or festive event must be different from the one for a funeral,” he said. “A tray must be spread with a banana leaf cut in half. However, for the wedding, the tip of the leaf has to point out; on the contrary, for a funeral, the tip has to point in.”

In the old days, Mường people used only wild banana leaves to spread on the tray. But nowadays, when finding wild bananas is inconvenient, they can replace by other kinds of banana leaves, except the aromatic banana “because it has lots of acrid resin that can harm the taste and flavour of the food displayed on it,” Phú said.

He also said that to prepare cỗ lá for important occasions such as weddings or new year celebrations, each family has raised pigs and chicken for a year before butchering the best ones to offer to the ancestors.

In the past, wealthy families used an engraved copper tray to display cỗ lá while ordinary people used the bamboo tray.

According to the 65-year-old restauranteur, seating arrangement rules had to be followed in the old days.

“In the Mường stilt house, the side with windows has been specified as the ‘upper place’, which is for elders only, and the younger ones sit next, in order from old to young,” Phú said.

Nguyễn Thị Vi, co-owner of Mường Thàng Quán, a restaurant specialising in Mường dishes in Hòa Bình City, demonstrates how to present a cỗ lá. 

Due to modernisation, traditional custom has been fading. Many can not speak the Mường ethnic language, and they don’t use the correct Vietnamese word when they mention cỗ lá.

“Many of our guests, especially the young ones, when they place an order for cỗ lá, instead of asking for a mâm cỗ lá (a tray of cỗ lá), they used mẹt cỗ lá (flat winnowing basket of cỗ lá). In our culture, the flat winnowing basket is used to offer food for the Hungry Ghost,” Phú said.

Nguyễn Xuân Tùng, a tourist from Hà Nội, said that although he had many chances to taste cỗ lá when he travelled to many places in the northwestern region, the one he sampled at Mường Thàng Quán is the best.

“It’s not only about the food, but about the rich ethnic culture presented through every dish, especially the traditional customs and stories told by the restaurant owners, who are authentic Mường people,” Tùng said. — VNS


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