Hundreds of pharmacists, doctors and drug makers are pushing anti-cancer supplements on naÃ¯ve cancer patients.
Vietnamese consumers have been willing to pay for these expensive products in the hopes of curing their illnesses, despite a lack of scientific evidence.
The pharmacies surrounding the K Hospital (aka the Hanoi Oncological Hospital) in Hanoi are now pasted with leaflets and posters promoting cancer-curing food supplements made from lingzhi mushroom, noni fruit and ginseng.
One saleswoman advised Thanh Nien reporters to buy Sun Ginseng after they asked for a drug to treat a relative suffering from cancer though they never mentioned what kind of cancer.
The woman claimed that Sun Ginseng was derived from South Korea's red ginseng which has the power to prevent cancer cells from growing, protect brain cells and prevent relapses.
"It sells like hot cakes here, and my relative's health has improved after (taking) several packs," she said.
In another store, a huge poster touting Agel UMI food supplement claimed the power to cure liver, breast, throat, bone, intestinal, uterine and tongue cancers.
Noni (Morinda citrifolia) a a type of fruit often used as a food supplement is recommended for those undergoing chemotherapy treatments in order to "shrink and reduce the development of cancerous tumors," the billboards in front of the drug stores said.
A salesman said noni can be used to cure every kind of cancer.
Le Dinh Quang, 54, from the northern province of Phu Tho, was admitted to the K Hospital for throat cancer three months ago.
He said he had used at least three food supplement products prescribed by doctors, or recommended by pharmacists and relatives.
He said he's spent around VND20 million (US$968) on the products and his condition has yet to improve.
"Doctors and nurses talked me into buying them, and several cancer patients said the products were good, so I bought them," he said.
Inside the K Hospital, a woman named Tuyet rushed up to the pharmacy counter seeking Ä‘ông trùng hạ thảo.
A doctor prescribed the food supplement to her 51-year-old husband, who has been diagnosed with throat cancer.
But the drug store had just run out of the product.
Tuyet continued to search several drug stores outside the hospital, and finally tracked down two packs for VND900,000 ($43).
"Since my husband fell ill, we've spent hundreds of millions on drugs," she said.
Tuyet added that a doctor wrote her the prescription, and she had no idea if the Ä‘ông trùng hạ thảo would cure his throat cancer.
The indications included in the pack claim that the product can play a supportive role in the treatment of liver, lung and cardiovascular ailments and gastric cancer.
Nguyen Quang Thanh, 63, travelled all the way from his home in the central province of Nghe An to have his esophageal cancer treated at the K Hospital.
He said he has paid a lot for many kinds of drugs, some of which were not sold in drug stores inside the hospital.
"This kind of food supplement White L-Glutathione is very expensive," he said, holding up a box. "A tiny pack costs me more than VND1.6 million ($77); each time the doctor writes a prescription, he recommends two packs.
"Many people have told me that food supplements cannot cure cancer, but (the doctor) said the product can slow down the development of cancer cells."
Bui Thong, a former pharmaceutical representative, told Thanh Nien that food supplement suppliers use a number of tricks to dupe people into buying expensive products.
They select the hospitals with the most cancer patients and pay commission to doctors and pharmacists so that they include food supplement products in their prescriptions, he said.
On the other hand, they promote the cancer-curing effects of the products on leaflets, posters and by word of mouth, Thong added.
Nguyen Thanh Phong, deputy chief of the Vietnam Food Administration, affirmed that dietary supplements cannot replace treatment drugs, but a number of suppliers have conspired with doctors to promote the health properties of their products.
Tran Dang, chairman of the Vietnam Association of Dietary Supplements (VADS), said: "Food supplements cannot cure any diseases "” cancer least of all. Those who claim that food supplements can cure cancer should be beheaded!"
Several doctors interviewed by Thanh Nien said, in principal, doctors are not allowed to prescribe specific dietary supplements.
Dr Pham Xuan Dung, deputy director of Ho Chi Minh City Oncological Hospital, said food supplements are banned from sale in his hospital and doctors are required not to list food supplement products in prescriptions for cancer patients.
"Doctors can only give advice about which food supplement products can be used," said Dr Nguyen Ngoc Anh, chief of the Oncology and Nuclear Medicine Faculty under Hospital No. 115 in HCMC.