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The Herbalist Abroad

Natural Treatments in Vietnam and Malaysia

This past spring for family vacation, we went on a different path. This year we decided to go somewhere none of us had ever been. As it turned out we ended up heading to Vietnam and Malaysia. Rather than taking the typical organized tours we decided to venture out on our own and see what we could see.

This trip was personally unique for me as this is the first trip that I've taken to another country which I have seen through the eyes of an herbalist. I was very curious to see what medicine was like in these two very different countries, in comparison to Canada but also to each other. As both countries are in Asia, I was expecting the prevailing medicines to be similar, if not an offshoot of, traditional Chinese Medicine but what I found surprised me - both in its simplicity and the breadth of choice.

As Vietnam is a relatively poor communist third world country I did not expect to see modern pharmacies on each corner. What they did have was something far more intriguing. In Hanoi, the Capital City, there was an intricate series of options available for consumers and tourists alike.

There were numerous private clinics offering treatments and solutions for virtually any concern (although we saw none for weight loss). From the outside many of the clinics appeared quite professional and would not look out of place back home in Canada.

These clinics were augmented by what I would characterize as Micro-specialized pharmacies. These pharmacies were no more than 10 feet wide and maybe 8 feet deep with 3 to 4 people behind the counter to answer questions and dispense. From the product selection I was able to see and the rather abundant street advertising, it appeared that their selection was restricted to what we would call over the counter pharmaceutical drugs as well as cosmetic products and digestive aids. There was not much else, and very few items that could be called natural products. Vitamins were scarce and protein products were nonexistent.

Then there were the herb vendors. Tucked away on winding streets in the historic old quarter section of Hanoi we found the herb storefronts. In amongst the tens of  thousands of vendors selling everything (literally everything) we found a few herb vendors. Their stores were small (even smaller than the pharmacies) with limited selections. Some had as few as 10 herbs.

People would walk up to the counter, speak to the proprietor and walk away with a bag of a single herb or a bag of freshly blended (before their eyes) herbs. A simple transaction where the patient trusts the experience and expertise of the proprietor. It was fascinating to watch.
One store in a touristy section of Hanoi caught my eye. It was a small store maybe five feet square. It was a ginseng store. All they sold was ginseng. However it was nothing like the ginseng stores I have seen in Asian market areas around North America. There was no bulk section. All roots were packed in boxes, bags or jars. They had every medicinal form of ginseng you could want. The centerpiece  though was a large glass apothecary jar (approx 5l) housing a single (large) ginseng root. There were smaller jars lining the shelves but this was "the one". Translation issues aside, the root was for sale and it was in the high 4 figure range. What a root.

A single event best summed up my experience. We were on a boat in a part of Vietnam that is a World Heritage wilderness area. Our guide found out I was a herbalist and I asked my opinion of the medication his doctor (?) told him to take for his digestive problems. He pulled out a bottle of very small tablets and showed it to me. Most of the label was in Vietnamese so reading was an issue. However there was some Latin on it. Hydrastis canadensis. I was stunned. It was goldenseal root from Canada. One of my favorite immune boosters, goldenseal is rarely used here for digestion, but apparently is one of the top selling remedies in Vietnam and most users swear by it! This showed me that despite the differences in our health systems, when it comes right down to it we are not as different as you would think