Herbal remedies of the Dao

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Herbalist Ly Van Nguyen fills a patient's prescription at his shop in Yen Son Village, Ba Vi District

The Dao people of Yen Son Village in Hanoi's outlying Ba Vi District have long been known for their successful treatment of the sick with their home-made herbal remedies.

These days more and more ill people are relying on the medicine made from herbs cultivated around Ba Vi Mountain.

The villagers say they learn all about medicinal herbs and their uses from a young age.

Modern medical services are hard to obtain in the remote hilly area 400 meters above sea level, so the villagers have long relied for their health on the bounty of medicinal herbs that grow nearby.

"Our grandparents and parents treated the various diseases themselves, and we and our children do the same," says Ly Van Nguyen, one of the well-known herbalists in the village. "We have also cured many people coming from elsewhere."

Due to their limited land for cultivating crops, Nguyen and his fellow villagers make a living mainly from selling the herbs they grow and the prescriptions they make for them. They have even traveled around the country to extol the benefits of their natural medicine.

For their efforts they have been rewarded with a widespread reputation and a growing influx of visitors coming to the village for treatment.

Ly Van Nguyen is the first herbalist in the area to complete a course at the Tue Tinh College of Traditional Medicine and be certified by the Ministry of Health as a qualified herbalist. He is also a member of the Hanoi Oriental Medicine Association.

The 46-year-old doctor says that their patients are mostly poor people who cannot afford modern hospital treatment or are considered incurable by mainstream medicine and so seek alternative treatment.

"Our medicine is much cheaper than western medicine. For example, it only costs VND250,000 for a 10-day treatment," Nguyen explains.

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"What's more important is that many patients respond well to our herbal remedies and get better. Therefore, more and more people with chronic ailments and even cases the hospitals have written off as hopeless are coming to us."

While the natural approach might take longer to be effective compared to prescription medicine, there are no side effects from taking the herbal remedies, according to Nguyen.

"Depending on the disease and the patient's condition, we use more or less herbs in our various prescriptions, which normally contain around 20 different herbs each."

Their better known remedies include herbal concoctions for treating arthritis, gastritis and certain tumors.

One of the most popular is the herbal steam-bath mixture for women who have just given birth. It uses more than ten different kinds of dried herb and is said to aid post-natal recovery to such an extent that a woman can resume hard work just one week after her baby is born.

Preparing the medicinal herbs after harvesting them is simple but time-consuming as they must be cleaned, cut up, dried and then simmered for 15 minutes.

"As we have more customers from far away, and shipping and preserving may be a problem, we have worked out a new way of processing the herbs: grinding them and letting their moisture evaporate to turn them into paste," Nguyen says.

Sustainable development

With an ever-growing amount of herbs being collected to meet the increased demand, many kinds of herbs have been over-exploited and some are on the brink of extinction. Indeed, an official of Ba Vi District claims that 120 out of over 500 medicinal herbs are on the verge of extinction.

To save the area's biodiversity, the exploiting of medicinal herbs in and around Ba Vi National Park has been banned since 1991, so the villagers cultivate them instead.

A project funded by the Rockefeller Fund and the Center for Environment and Community Development has been carried out to raise local people's awareness of the need to protect the herbs and use them in a sustainable manner.

Many doctors from Hanoi Medical University have gone to Yen Son to teach local families and particularly the herbalists about growing and processing herbs properly.

In addition, the herbalists have been encouraged to establish a company to promote and register their products.

The project also helped publish their first reference book Cay thuoc nguoi Dao Ba Vi (Medicinal Herbs of the Dao in Ba Vi). It details 507 kinds of medicinal herb used by the Dao people in Ba Vi.

The book was written by Dr. Tran Van On, head of the botany department at Hanoi Medical University, after 20 years of studying and growing the herbs in partnership with the local people.

Some familiar herbs can be very helpful in treating disease, according to Dr. On's book. One of these is đinh lăng (Panax fruticosum), which is used in 17 remedies to build up the body's resistance, treat coughing up of blood, or haemoptysis, even for itching.

While waiting for the herbs to grow in their gardens, the herbalists of Ba Vi travel as far afield as Tam Dao and Sa Pa to obtain more medicinal herbs for their growing clientele.

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