Ginseng enters a rarefied world in Vietnam

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Pieces of aged Ngoc Linh ginseng root belonging to Nguyen Thanh Tuyen's collection

It is not something that one would think of as a collector's item, but ginseng collectors have come into their own in recent years, boasting possession of the root in different species, shapes, sizes and so on.

Nguyen Thanh Tuyen from the central city of Da Nang is a big name among ginseng collectors in Vietnam.

He is most interested in collecting  the Ngoc Linh ginseng (Vietnamese ginseng or Panax vietnamensis); and so far, has 60 one-meter-tall bottles of ginseng-soaked wine that produces  more than 1,000 liters of ginseng wine in total. He has several bulbs of fresh ginseng weighing from one hundred grams to more than one kilogram kept in a big fridge. All these are diplayed in a 20-square-meter-room in his house on Nui Thanh Street, Hai Chau District.

Tuyen, well known as a ginseng supplier for people with life-threatening conditions, does not hesitate to spend up to hundreds of millions of dong to purchase good quality ginseng the minute he hears of it.

Tuyen said he was first introduced to Ngoc Linh ginseng several years ago by his friends when he was visiting Kon Tum and Quang Nam provinces, where the Vietnamese variety is mostly found. At that time, Tuyen was looking for medicine for one of his friends, who was suffering from a form of cancer that doctors said could not be treated further. 

Tuyen's income at that time was not such that he could afford the VND50-100 million per kg price tag for high quality ginseng, and he was not sure if it would really work, so he traveled to the central coastal town of Phan Thiet to look for other traditional drugs and herbs, such as xạ Ä‘en (Celastrus hindsii benth) and rắn Ä‘ầu Ä‘ỏ (red-head snake), believed to be effective in treating cancer.

However, the medicine didn't work on Tuyen's friend and his condition worsened. However, the friend was lucky that he was still alive when the dedicated Tuyen met renowned herbalist Dao Kim Long.

Long, who is said to have learnt about the Vietnamese ginseng from the ethnic minority communities in Quang Nam Province, told Tuyen about the miraculous effects of Ngoc Linh ginseng. Tuyen says his friend's health has improved considerably after he began taking the ginseng.

Since then, for ten years now, Tuyen has been studying and collecting ginseng as a hobby and to help others. He has met with famous herbalists including Long and Tran Lai, and traveled several times to ginseng land at heights of more than 2,000 meters above sea level.

"Ngoc Linh ginseng is not only good for health treatment, but it is also my passion, for each root is really a piece of art created by nature. I can spend hours just contemplating the collection, seeing its beauty from different corners and angles. It is how I relax after stressful work."

Saigon collectors

Ho Nganh of Quang Nam Province, who has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for more than 40 years, is also a ginseng collector. His collection does not focus particularly on Ngoc Linh ginseng. He also owns various kinds of local ginseng family related herbs and worms, including sâm Ä‘ất (Sipunculus nudus or peanut worm); sâm bố chính (Hibiscus sagittifolius Kurz); and sâm mây (Peliosanthes teta Andrews).

"In the beginning, I only collected Ngoc Linh ginseng, but since many started doing the same thing, I turned to other varieties to make my collection is more valuable."

Nganh's treasure has now built up to 2,000 liters of Vietnamese ginseng wine, among which a 2-meter-long sâm bulb with a root that is shaped like a beautiful woman has received several purchase offers that he has declined.

"The value of the ginseng cannot be measured in money. So, though I paid only a few dozen million dong, and people are now willing to pay four times as much, I am still not interested in selling," said Nganh.

Thanks to his passion, Nganh, who knew nothing about herbs before, has become a traditional medicine "specialist". He can now tell the difference between plants, their medical properties, distribution, and growth.

"Sâm cau is popular in the north and effective in treating kidney failure and impotence, whereas sâm mây is used for detoxifying and strengthening."

Nganh's passion has been fueled by the fact that he is able to help sick people, giving them valuable advice on buying the right type of ginseng.

"Rather than seeing me as an extravagant and arrogrant collector, people trust me and find me helpful," said Nganh.

"My joy is doubled whenever my ginseng works on people's health," says Tuyen.

Nganh's collection, however, apparently dwarfs in comparison with that of a Chinese-Vietnamese businessman in District 5, who only wanted to be identified as H.

H, who owns several Oriential medicine shops on Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street in HCMC's District 5, keeps his ginseng collection in a 100-square-meter room in the Phu My Hung area in District 7.

For the past 30 years, thanks to his business, H has been able to collect ginseng from different parts of the world including Korea, Russia and Japan.

"Each hobby has its own rule and class, and this changes depending on the owner's interest," H said.

Some people, for instance, just focus on the shape of the ginseng or the age, others are interested in just one species, yet others collect various species, and some just consider this a business, H added.

H says his collection of ginseng wines is so large that even three succeeding generations of his will not be able to consume it.

Kinh, whose collection is rumored to be even larger than H's, said that a genuine ginseng collector should be discreet and seldom expose his name or consider himself higher than others, because like antique collectors, they all have different interests and goals, which means "we cannot tell who is the best."

Agreeing with Kinh, H said, "No matter how different collectors are, we all agree that ginseng is a rare, precious, miraculous remedy, which is wanted by everyone.

"But unlike antiques, ginseng not only satisfies the owners' eyes, but also his health, and is a treat for his family and guests."

Genuine article

Regarding the ginseng he has collected from foreign countries,
H said, "I have never paid attention to the ginseng sold in the open market. As a collector, I always visit the plant's hometown to check its authencity with my own eyes. If I don't, I might end up paying a high price for fake ginseng."

He advised new collectors that without experience and knowledge, it is difficult to distinguish the wild ginseng and planted ones, which have different prices. "While one kilogram of wild ginseng costs more than VND100 million, the planted one costs less than half."

Nganh also felt new collectors "should focus on one kind of ginseng only, and turn to another one only after he masters the field, or else he easily get lost in the matrix of ginseng."

It is also possible to have the ginseng tested at laboratories or research centers.

H said, "Good quality ginseng, especially Ngoc Linh ginseng, which is very expensive, is always sold with a certificate."

In order to be sure about its quality, Tuyen, H and Nganh bring their newly-purchased or about to be purchased ginseng to be tested at the Ho Chi Minh City Center of Ginseng and Medicinal Materials under the National Institute of Medicinal Materials or the Training Center for Research and Development of Natural Medicines at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Medicine.

To share their experience and knowledge about their hobby and help distinguish the real ginseng from the fake ones, Tuyen and his friends have launched the websites www.choisomngoclinh.vn and www.choisom.org.

In the future, Tuyen plans to build a ginseng garden on the top of Ngoc Linh Mountain, Tu Mo Rong District in Kon Tum Province to protect and preserve the plant.

Ngoc Linh ginseng (Panax vietnamensis) can be found in the central region of Vietnam. It grows at elevations between 1,200 and 2,100 m under the leaf canopy of jungles and in wet areas besides running water.

Ethnobotanically, it is a secret medicine of the Sedang ethnic group who saw it as a miraculous, life-saving plant that can be used to treat many serious diseases and for enhancing body strength for long journeys in the high mountains.

Chemical studies of the constituents of the plant in 1978 identified 26 common saponins, including 24 new compounds.

Studies also found that some of the saponins and compounds, like protopanaxadiol and protopanaxatriol saponins were higher in concentration in the Vietnamese ginseng, but in higher concentration in this species. In addition, an extremely high concentration of ocotillol saponins, i.e. majonoside-R2 (5.3 percent of dried rhizome) was also identified.

Ngoc Linh ginseng is priced higher than Korean ginseng.

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