The healing effects of pins and needles

Traipsing through the city’s must-see destinations, I stumbled across FITO’s Museum of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (41D Hoang Du Khuong) in District 10. Everything from hand-carved wooden photographs to manuscripts in ancient Chu-nom language – a rather confusing Vietnamese language using Chinese characters – are on display. While the bulk of the museum’s contents explore the medicinal value of Vietnam’s plentiful flora, it was the archaic acupuncture charts that stood out among the displays. As I gazed at the display, a curator approached. “Vietnamese schools of medicine were heavily involved in trading knowledge with those of China throughout the second century B.C. to the ninth A.D. During this trade of expertise, both schools ascertained the preventative, healing and curative powers of natural remedies,” she explained.

I wondered why traditional Vietnamese medicine wasn’t given its credit with that of big-brother China. Especially since, she continued to tell me, “they also began charting the body’s many systems, including those beyond the understanding of Western medicine; the flow of life force energy, you may have heard of it as ch’i, along an invisible system of 12 main meridians. When these channels were mapped, so were over 365 points and the genesis of acupuncture.”

We toured the rest of the displays, and as we did, my curiosity for Vietnam’s history and use of acupuncture grew. Where she referred me to next was the last place I would have expected – a beach resort in Nha Trang. The Six Senses Spa within the Evason Ana Mandara is the only resort spa within the country to have a full-time licensed acupuncturist. Ms. Giao is also the assistant spa manager, spa trainer, yoga therapist, reiki master and massage therapist. When I first arrived for the interview I was suffering from standard Saigon stomach syndrome, and before discussing her trade, Giao ushered me into a calming treatment room.

I lay face-down on a comfortable massage bed, peeping through to a decorative bowl with fresh, floating frangipani. The treatment began with singing bowl therapy so as to harmonize the environment. “Ch’i is harmonized with the polarizing forces of yin and yang. If, at any time, there is a disruption or an accumulation of one over the other, then a body’s ch’i must be realigned,” she explained. “Otherwise it leads to illness or can manifest disease, as believed in traditional medicine.” Unlike modern medicine that tends to treat the symptoms, traditional methods will treat the whole system through a holistic approach. In the case of acupuncture, it’s with delicately placed needles.

The insertion of the needle can be at various depths within the dermis and muscular system. I felt a light throbbing sensation under the needles. “There should never be any pain involved in treatment,” said Giao. She sterilized each needle prior to insertion. How many and the location of the needles depends on what blockages in your ch’i your practitioner needs to clear. The needles may not be kept local to the troubled area, as the meridians run the full gamut of the body. In my case I also had a few needles in the back of my knees. While Giao coupled the treatment with reiki I slipped into a trance-like state.

As I woke at the end of the treatment my body had already expelled many of the needles. Following a period of relaxation and ginger tea, Giao addressed the flow of ch’i through our bodies with a calm efficacy, as if continuing the comfort of the treatment. “Each of our meridians serves to relegate the flow of energy throughout the body, and a practitioner must be as knowledgeable about this flow and its access points as a modern doctor is about anatomy or physiology.”

Treating Impotency

Acupuncture is not only part of the fundamental teachings of traditional medicine, but also of Vietnamese folklore. Born during the 14th century, Tue Tinh is heralded as the founder and saint of traditional Vietnamese medicine, followed by the great accounts of Tran Canh who rescued the King of the Tran Dynasty from drowning, later successfully treating his impotency with acupuncture. More recently lauded, Vietnamese professor Nguyen Tai Thu made waves setting up his own acupuncture centers in 50 countries around the world. He found his passion for medicine and saving lives as a young solider during the French occupation, studied in China, and in 1958 brought his trade back to Vietnam. By 2009 he was honored as the “People’s Physician” and “Labor Hero” based on his success in providing some 500,000 disabled children access to free treatment and the recovery of more than 1,200 drug addicts through acupuncture.

Therapist with one hand holding the needle with the other hand enters their desired point on the patient's back

According to the World Health Organization, acupuncture treats more than just pain. It also treats stomach illness and the common cold, neurological disorders, infections, stress, mental exhaustion and cancer, to name a few of the recognized 28 symptoms. The American Academy of Acupuncture lists several other conditions appropriate for seeking acupuncture, including ulcers, premenstrual syndrome, infertility, endometriosis, anorexia, insomnia, drug detoxification, depression and anxiety. Some practitioners may refuse to treat during pregnancy, but historically Vietnamese medicine has used acupuncture to alleviate nausea, depression or cramps while carrying a child to term. A series of treatments may be necessary, but you will feel relief after only one. To this, I can attest.

acupuncture-slide-01 (OiVietNam-3N)

Curious to give it a go? You don’t need to travel all the way to Nha Trang, try the Traditional Medicine Hospital (179 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D3) in Saigon.