Particularly in the cities, traditional medicine has been
largely superseded by Western methods and treatments. However,
it is still popular for particular conditions and in rural
There are many folk ‘remedies’. For example, for stomach
ache, some locks of hair must be pulled out, or the spine
should be sharply pinched. A poultice of betel juice and
tobacco will control acne. A treatment for pimples was to
marinate silkworms in alcohol, grill them to ashes, crush
them, add some liquid – and then drink the concoction!
If such remedies failed, a ‘physician’ was called. This
would be someone who had learned the skills and knowledge
of traditional medicine under a ‘master’ (the teaching of
medicine as an academic discipline is a recent innovation
in Vietnam). He, for physicians were nearly always men,
was also a pharmacist who examined, diagnosed and supplied
medication to the patient. A physician was highly respected
and unpaid, but earned an income by selling medicine.
The early physicians’ knowledge regarding
anatomy and physiology was of Chinese origin. Although Vietnamese
traditional medicine still draws heavily upon the Taoist
beliefs of Yin and Yang and the harmony of natural elements
as well as divination and astrology, modern traditional
physicians are developing their own approach.
The basics of Vietnamese
Vietnamese traditional medicine is based on two natural
elements – the ‘duong’ (the male principle, or vital heat,
or active fluid) and the ‘am’ (the female principle, or
radical humour, or passive fluid). The perfect balance of
these two elements will result in good health.
If vital heat is dominant, the system will
be in a state of ‘hot essence’. If radical humour is in
control, the body suffers from the effects of ‘cold essence’.
The focus of Vietnamese traditional medicine is to determine
the 'heat' of the patient’s 'essence' because all medicines
are deemed to have a hot, cold, or temperate action.
The ‘duong’ is located in the abdomen, and
the ‘am’ in the brain and spinal cord – the three ‘heat
centres’. The ‘duong’ controls the gall bladder, spleen,
small and large intestines, bladder and left kidney, and
the ‘am’ controls the heart, liver, lungs, stomach and right
The three ‘heat centres’ control the flow
of blood and the digestion, and communicate with each other
via channels that carry the vital heat and the radical humour.
There are pulse points on the body's network of channels
where the physician can detect 24 different types of pulse,
all equally important.
The diagnosis is made by feeling the pulses, using the left
hand for the right side of the body and vice versa and is
corroborated by external indications from an examination
of the tongue, mouth, eyes, ears, nostrils and skin coloration.
Once the diagnosis is complete, the physician would prepare
the correct combination of ingredients to bring the ‘duong’
and ‘am’ back into balance, thereby effecting a cure. The
ingredients would comprise Chinese herbs, flowers, leaves,
roots, barks, and grains, and plants and minerals from the
north of Vietnam. Other ingredients included such items
as deer horn, tiger bones, bear gall, rhinoceros and elephant
skin, snakes, earthworms, silkworms, and so on.
medicine in the 21st century
Nowadays, many of the more exotic ingredients are no longer
used, but the diagnosis and treatment is more or less the
same. However, the cost of treatment is no longer cheap.
Whereas traditional medicine was once the medicine of the
poor, it is now more likely to be the middle classes and
foreigners who find their way to the traditional physician.
Poor people who can afford to self-medicate using foreign
or domestically produced drugs and antibiotics usually rely
upon the advice of the pharmacist. Among wealthier groups,
acculturation and local doctors with only limited medical
knowledge have combined to create a major problem of over-prescribing
Those who don’t have enough money for medicine,
or an exemption card from their local authority, use folk
remedies and make do the best they can.
There is now increasing interest in using
traditional medicine to supplement treatment of chronic
illnesses, such as AIDS and cancer. Traditional treatments
are benign, and seem to have therapeutic benefits in calming
patients and restoring their confidence, perhaps because
the methods and medicines are so deeply rooted in the Vietnamese