Healing, the Vietnamese way 

Published: 05/04/2011 05:00


An old pharmacy featuring the northern style, was relocated to the Fito Museum's second floor. It has medicinal chests, small pillows on the table where patients put their arms for the doctor to feel their pulse, and a medicinal scale.

Ngoc Ha looks healthy and youthful at 50.

The woman with her hair dyed blonde walks briskly between six floors of the Fito Museum, home to hundreds of processed medicinal herbs and 3,000 artifacts reflecting the 2,000-year-old history of Vietnamese traditional medicine.

Ha, who is Vietnamese American, stops sometimes to listen to the museum guide’s presentation on the origins and the use of hundreds of knives, pestles and grinders for medicine preparation, some of which date back to the Stone Age.

The artifacts, displayed in glass cases, have different shapes and are made of various materials, including bronze, clay, stone, and timber, made according to the use and the purpose of each medicine, said Bui Thi Hao, the guide.


Local “folk” medicine developed to become Vietnamese traditional medicine under 1,000 years of Chinese occupation from the 2nd century B.C. to the 9th century A.D.  The Chinese abstracted medicinal drugs, among other valuables, as tax and tribute. In so doing, folk medicine from Vietnam was incorporated into traditional Chinese medicine. Likewise, traditional Chinese medicine and culture were introduced to Vietnam during this time.

According to historical records, the Ly Dynasty (11th to 13th century) initially ordered the Imperial Court to establish a medical division, and later changed it to a medical institute. Under the Tran Dynasty (13th to 14th century) medicinal herbs were planted, collected and used to treat diseases, as evidenced by the Duoc Son vestiges found in Pha Lai - Quang Ninh Province. This period witnessed many famous medical doctors who made significant contributions to the development of Vietnamese traditional medicine, especially the great physician Tue Tinh, now known as the founder of Vietnamese traditional medicine.

Tue Tinh wrote the Nam Dược thần hiệu  (Miracle of Vietnamese medicine) a collection of 499 manuscripts about local herbs and ten branches of treatment with 3,932 remedies to cure 184 types of diseases; and the Hồng Nghĩa giác tư y thư (Skills and knowledge for medical treatment), consisting of 630 Vietnamese medical herbs, 13 remedies for treating various diseases in the Vietnamese way and 37 remedies for cold-related diseases.

The monk, due to his great talent in medicine, was brought to China in 1385 as a tribute to the Minh Dynasty, where, he was granted the title of ‘Great Physician and Zen Buddhist’ by the Chinese emperor.

Tue Tinh, however, was also the first man to give prominence to Nam dược trị Nam nhân, the idea that Vietnamese are best treated by Vietnamese medicine.

Following Tue Tinh, physician Hai Thuong Lan Ong Le Huu Trac (1720-1791) wrote a great work about Vietnamese traditional medicine which was an encyclopedia of Vietnamese traditional medicine in 66 volumes titled “Medical origins with morality and skills.”

On the anniversary of his 250th birthday in 1970, the UNESCO recognized and acknowledged his great contributions to the development of traditional medicine and culture.

Among other things, these books help distinguish the substantial differences between Vietnamese traditional medicine  and Chinese traditional medicine which are often lumped together.

Specifically, Vietnamese medicine, unlike the Chinese tradition, is more based on the use of fresh herbs. And although many herbs and trees are found in both countries, there are many that are different and exclusive to one or the other.  Finally, many of the diseases in Vietnam are unique.

As a result, in practice, Chinese practitioners would spend more time giving their patients a sort of theoretical explanation of what’s going on, whereas Vietnamese practitioners would use a more practical approach and concentrate less on theory.

Hao is curious to know if Ha has a business in medicines since she was paying much more attention compared with other Vietnamese visitors.

Ha just smiles at first, but as an afterthought,  says the displays in the museum are both new and familiar to her, adding her health has solely depended on local traditional medicine for years though she’s been in the US for a long time.

Like most visitors, especially foreigners, Ha is impressed by the harmonious architecture and decoration of the whole building, from the tiles engraved with the word tho (longevity) to the bonsais, medical herbs and big shade trees planted even on the 4th floor.

All 18 exhibition rooms together with an elevator are delicately framed and encrusted with black wood and mother-of-pearl, some of which are originally from ancient houses collected and built by the museum’s owner, herbalist Le Khac Tam over 10 years.

Tam, who runs the Fito Pharma Company that specializes in manufacturing traditional herbal medicines with modern technology, spent another three years to ask the best artisans he could find to incorporate parts of the ancient houses into the museum.

He also had them carve a big tree and the names of 100 Vietnamese physicians – who have made considerable contributions to the development of Vietnamese traditional medicine from the 12th century to the early twenty century – on a large wooden tablet.

This tablet weighs nearly 500 kilograms, and was recognized as the heaviest wood carving by the Vietnam Record Book in 2008.

The museum also reserves a special room to honor 15 famous physicians of Vietnam from the 12th to the 18th centuries, including Tue Tinh (1330-?), Chu Van An (1292-1370), and Nguyen Dai Nang.

The warm smell of the various types of wood and hundreds of dried herbs kept in the second floor of the museum on Hoang Du Khuong in HCMC’s Dist. 10 refreshes Ha and other visitors.

“Whenever I return to Vietnam, I always buy traditional medicines to use in America since I’m not used to Western drugs,” Ha said as she lifted a big jar, used to steep medicine in alcohol, to investigate its inside.

 “We don’t deny that Western medicine is the first resort in cases of acute illness or bacterial or viral infections, yet it only treats the symptoms and has many side effects. Whereas the herbal medicines almost have no side effects, yet are more effective in the long run because they deal with the true cause of illness.”

Eating grass

Chinese – Filipino visitor Miriam Chua remarked humorously that the Vietnamese people have a tradition of eating “grass,” alluding to the leaves, vegetables and fruits served fresh during meals.

Medicinal herbs are served with vegetables not only for their taste but also for their restorative, purging and correcting action on the body, said Chua, who bought a lot of herbal seeds from Vietnam during her trip to the country in 2008 to plant in her garden in Ozamis City.

According to Tam, the owner of Fito (from Phyto in Greek, which means plant), Vietnamese have used hundreds of plant species for medicinal purposes in daily life for a long time, and many related practices have lasted until today. He cited the chewing of betel, the dyeing of teeth (to prevent decay) and the use of ginger to fight malaria as examples.

“And it is common that Vietnamese would take less medication than they were prescribed, drink herbs or eat certain kinds of cooking to ‘balance’ a drug’s side effects,” said Tam.

The long history of local traditional medicine is based on the cornucopia of medicinal plant species provided by the country’s hot and humid tropical climate, he said.

According to the Ministry of Health, 1,800 species of medical trees of 238 kinds of vegetation have been found in Vietnam.

Fito Museum

Add: 41 Hoang Du Khuong Street, Ward 12, District 10, HCMC

Fee entrance: VND32,000 (US$1.5)/pax

After the tour, visitors can even have a consultation with experienced Oriental medicine doctors and are served lingzhi tea for free.

Reported by Priscilla Aquilla

Provide by Vietnam Travel

Healing, the Vietnamese way  - Reports - In depth |  vietnam travel company

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