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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. advertisement



Once the preserve of the poor in Vietnam, Traditional Vietnamese Medicine [TVM] has taken on a new popularity amongst the middle and upper classes of Saigon. People are returning to traditional medicinal roots in droves, keen to experience the combination of Western medicine and the ancient practices of their ancestors.


Witch Doctors or The Future of Medicine?

Traditional Vietnamese Medicine practitioners may seem like witch doctors to some. The idea of an unqualified mystic talking about energy and using plants to cure disease is frequently dismissed (sometimes correctly) as absurd. The reality is somewhat more complex. Modern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine takes elements of Western medicine and incorporates them with the treatments practiced in Vietnam for centuries. This may seem quite contradictory. Practices such as acupuncture and herbalism are often labeled placebo-effect treatments rather than proper medicinal procedures.


However, to dismiss the potential benefits of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine would be foolish. To understand this, consider aspirin. Present in the leaves of willow trees, aspirin has in one way or another been used for pain relief for over 2,400 years. In 1763, Scientist Edward Stone completed the first successful study on an extract of aspirin as a cure for fever. Credit has been given to Felix Hoffman, a scientist at Bayer for the first chemical synthesis of Aspirin in 1897.


Today aspirin is used to treat a huge variety of ailments, from headaches to heart conditions. All this from a leaf used through the millennia by herbalists who knew that certain plants had beneficial properties.


Modern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine doctors are trained with rigorous discipline. As Le Hoang Son, Director of the Traditional Medicine Hospital explains (on behalf of his doctors), “To become a Traditional Vietnamese Medicine doctor in Vietnam, a student needs seven and a half years to six year to study and 18 months to practice in hospital to get the license.”


Southern vs Northern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine

It’s important to make the distinction between souther Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (Thuoc Nam) and northern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (Thuoc Bac), which is more akin to TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine).


Southern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, unlike northern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, is more based on the use of fresh herbs than reductions and tinctures. Primarily focused on herbalism, with a combination of plant-based cures and noninvasive procedures, it is somewhat more benign than its northern cousin. In extremely rare cases silkworms may be used, but plants are by far the most common medicinal source.


There is also a marked difference in the botany of the regions, with the plants of the north more similar to those found in China than the South, and some variance in the types of diseases experienced between regions.

The Godfather of Modern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine

If modern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine – that is the combination of Western and traditional medicine – can be ascribed to anyone, it is probably Nguyen Van Be (or “Ong Ba Dat Phen”- meaning, roughly, “Man in the second position in the family on the Acid Land”).


“Ong Ba” fought in the American War. During his service he developed a fascination for herbalism as a solution to the lack of medicine in war-torn rural areas. Due to his interest in medicine, the government sent him to the North to study Western medicine. He studied hard, graduated with merit and returned to Ho Chi Minh City to continue his medical studies at the University of Medicine and Pharmacy. It was here that he began his studies in the capabilities of plants to cure snake poison, not a new concept but one which Ong Ba had been sceptical of until this point.


Hidden Risks of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine’s New-found Popularity

Modern Traditional Vietnamese Medicine’s popularity amongst Vietnam’s middle and upper classes makes sense, it takes the best of both worlds and seems to be making great headway in delivering provable results. However, this has led to less well-off Vietnamese getting their medical advice and treatment from pharmacies, which in turn has led to a rise in the use of antibiotics for even minor ailments. There are serious negative implications therein, such as an increase in bacterial resistance to antibiotics which, combined with a lack of funding for new antibiotics, could lead to a rise in antibiotic-resistant diseases.


Traditional Vietnamese Medicine vs Western Medicine

While the empiricism and scientific processes behind Western medicine are central to their effectiveness, it is absurd to imagine that all alternative medicines are ineffective. Traditional remedies, if considered effective for the treatment of any ailment should be put through the rigours of Western empirical study to ascertain their effectiveness. With so many people dying of disease every day we should be doing more to finding cures in unorthodox areas.


Le Hoang Son explains: “Each type of medicine – Western and TVM – has its own advantages. Western medicine is good in acute diseases and surgery, while TVM has strong points in chronic diseases. Besides, [traditional medicinal] herbs were used for a long time and are popular ingredients in daily meals (ginger, garlic, etc.). Moreover, TVM has many non-drug treatments (acupuncture, acupressure, Yoga, and others) that are effective and affordable.”


By combining the disciplines of East and West, it is possible we could be able to cure any number of diseases. It may just require a little more cooperation and a little less cynicism. adv