An insight into the ancient practice of healing through herbs and needles
“Eastern medicine is for everything, not one specific problem,” explains Dr. Le Van Canh, who studied at the Ho Chi Minh Medicine and Pharmacy University, and who now owns a small practice in the heart of Cho Lon. His clinic is like any other with an examination bed, a small desk, and a pad for writing prescriptions. The one exception is the anatomical chart hanging on the wall showing where needles must be applied on the body for acupuncture.
Where Western medicine works by attacking the source of the problem, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) works in a more universal way. This practice believes that problems arise from blockages of qi, energy, in one’s body and you must unblock this to get back to a proper state of health. There are many different theories and beliefs associated with qi—the energy works in conjunction with your blood. Its two main functions are to transport the blood around the body as nourishment and to protect against harmful imbalances within the body.
To keep qi flowing as it should, the medicine must remain 100 percent natural rather than relying on chemicals or other substances which may have adverse side effects.
“People come to me based on trust. I am personal, I have been here a long time and I know my patients,” says Dr. Canh, who feels that trust is key when treating people’s health.
He believes this personal approach is something that can be lost—albeit unintentionally – in modern hospitals where the patient is treated after a fair wait by the next available doctor on duty, in often over-crowded conditions. “My aim is to bring people back to their real-self.”
Dr. Nguyen Thi Le also emphasizes the need for trust between patient and doctor. “I have been practicing Eastern medicine since 1992, and for any emergency, as soon as I detect it, I refer the patient to a hospital. First and foremost is my duty to the patient and their well-being.”
Both doctors, who have over 40 years experience between them, assert there must be compatibility between Eastern and Western medicine. Dr. Le’s patients predominantly complain about bone and joint problems, not cancerous livers or tumors. She believes treating these problems with acupuncture is more useful than treating them with modern medicines or physiotherapy. “Acupuncture has been used for centuries to release blockages in the body and Western medicine doesn’t have this understanding yet.”
Dr. Canh agrees. “The body, and in particular the nervous system, is like a sewage system in a city. It is of course necessary for the health of the whole city, but occasionally blockages do occur, and we must unblock them quickly and efficiently. This is what Eastern practices do for the nervous system.”
Cang is 48-years-old and began visiting Dr. Le for nerve pain from his spine to his feet. He places his trust in acupuncture and the doctor. “She knows my symptoms and treats me personally, rather than any other patient. Having acupuncture really helps me feel more mobile.”
However, acupuncture is only a part of Traditional Chinese Medicine. The other involves hundreds of various herbs, fungi, seeds, nuts, plants, barks and animal parts—all stored in wooden drawers behind the counter.
At Dai An Duong herbal medicine shop, Hue Lien can concoct any herbal remedy out of her 1,000 plus ingredients. “I get these ingredients from all across Asia—Hong Kong, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan… the list goes on,” she says.
Asking for something to help a cold, brought on by the recent intense humid weather, no fewer than 11 ingredients are mixed whole or crushed as required and all wrapped in a tidy book sized package.
At only VND80,000 it seems a bargain and with instructions to drink four cups as a first dose and three cups as a second, all mixed with warm but not boiling water, I was hopeful for a quick recovery. Although the final instruction of “don’t make in metal pan,” seemed like overkill, Lien’s instructions were followed to the letter.
The cold symptoms began disappearing the very next day and although the sniffly nose persisted, the chesty cough and sore throat were gone completely. However, on paying Lien, a bottle of Vietnamese mass produced cough medicine was also added to my bag, with advice to take as needed, and this may well have made the real difference in the gravelly chest.
Over at Vinh Phat, Le recommends dried artichoke and Linh Chi mushroom as go-to ingredients for boosting your immune system. She goes the furthest of all those interviewed to declare that Linh Chi mushroom can help fight against cancer and HIV. She does then add, however: “But I am only the pharmacist, not a trained doctor.”
While all the doctors, pharmacists and patients interviewed were extolling the benefits of TCM, none took the leap to say that it is better than Western medicine.
It is evidently true that most feel they gain something from TCM, but should anything serious arise, don’t take the gamble on exclusively TCM treatment. Even the doctors in the know will tell you so.
Images by Oi Vietnam