How Has Traditional Vietnamese Medicine Evolved over the Years?

By: Emilio Piriz

Vietnam has a long-standing medical tradition that has served its people well for thousands of years. The Vietnamese have a saying that goes “Doi Rau, Dau Thuoc” (when hungry, eat vegetables; when ill, take medical herbs), which clearly illustrates the importance of traditional medicine in their culture and daily life.

But who was the first practitioner that brought these natural methods and remedies to Vietnam? Did the Chinese import these techniques during their ruling period?

For several thousand years, Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (TVM) has evolved under the shadow of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), which is a much larger and, in most cases, better known discipline. To this day, it is nearly impossible to separate and delineate Traditional Vietnamese Medicine or Thuoc Nam (Southern Medicine) from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Thuoc Bac (Northern Medicine) because their developments have always been interconnected.


Tue Tinh, Founder of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine

During Vietnam’s period of Chinese rule (197 BC-937 AD), Vietnamese medicine was divided into two branches, or specialties: pure Chinese medicine and pure Vietnamese medicine. The two wings progressively merged to form Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, which used both Chinese and Vietnamese herbs to fight diseases. In the Independent period (after 938 AD), through many royal dynasties, Traditional Vietnamese Medicine continued to develop and refine. And that’s when Tue Tinh pops up in the history books.


It is fair to say that Tue Tinh, a Buddhist monk, was the founder of Vietnamese medicine. In fact, Tue Tinh has always been considered the master of Southern medicine and the teacher of practitioners of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, as stated in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Born in the 14th century during the Le Dynasty, he is considered the god or saint of Vietnamese herbs, and wrote many well-regarded medical books including Miracle Vietnamese Pharmacy and Great Morality in the Art of Medicine.

During his time in China he successfully treated a postnatal disease for the queen and was honoured as a great priest or healer by the king. His death is still a mystery –no one knows when or how he actually died.

Besides Tue Tinh, Hai Thuong Lan Ong is the second-greatest traditional physician and a large contributor to Traditional Vietnamese Medicine thanks to his works such as the Encyclopedia of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine.


Revitalisation of Traditional Medicine

Thanks to all the aforementioned historical events, Vietnamese people have discovered hundreds of medical remedies and accumulated life-saving experience in healthcare. Many of them remain useful today, such as chewing betel, teeth dying (which prevents tooth decay) and eating ginger to protect oneself from malaria and other maladies.

FITO museum, located in District 10, provides visitors a unique opportunity to see how traditional medicine has evolved over the years in Vietnam. FITO showcases more than 3,000 objects used in TVM, ranging from the Stone Age to today. Medicinal root slicers, apothecary’s mortars, lime pots, ceramic teapots and many other instruments used for natural cures and remedies transport visitors back in time. Moreover, the museum is equipped with modern audio-visual technology, and regularly screens "A Century of Health Care Experiences”, a documentary about the history of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine.


Although Vietnam is modernising quickly, traditional medicine in Vietnam has not disappeared. If anything, it’s starting to revitalise! Young Vietnamese men and women are becoming increasingly interested in learning about traditional medicine. More and more, we’re seeing students attending institutions such as the HCMC Medical and Pharmaceutical University (221B, Hoang Van Thu, Phu Nhuan District), the HCMC Traditional Medicine Institute (273-275, Nguyen Van Troi, Phu Nhuan District) or the Le Huu Trac Traditional Medicine Intermediate School (120, Hoa Binh, Hoa Thanh, Tan Phu District).


Time will tell if healthcare practitioners in Vietnam will go back to traditional treatments that, as opposed to Western medicine, are deeply rooted in their culture. This might help restoring people’s trust about today’s healthcare system.