Quang Binh's shamans continue to find patients in age of clinics

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Most remote villagers now seek medical attention at hospitals or clinics, but some still rely on traditional healers

Ac applies betel leaves to a patient at her house in Kim Thuy Commune in Quang Binh Province's Le Thuy District

The sick come to Ac's house in Kim Thuy Commune of Le Thuy District without any prescription.

Like all of the healers who we spoke to for this article, Ac resides in Quang Binh"”a generally poor province sandwiched between the East Sea and Laos. Each rural district in Quang Binh contains a clinic, but many of the ethnic minorities living in the hills turn to people like Ac, for traditional remedies rendered through rituals, herbal remedies and the spraying of homemade alcohol on affected areas"”a process known as "blowing illnesses away."

"My paternal grandfather began teaching me the profession when I was 14," Ac said. "Training was very difficult and demanding. I had to avoid eating snake-head fish, catfish, eel and dishes made with the blood, horns and bones of animals."

She studied her brand of medicine until she was 40; only then did she begin treating patients. Ac only teaches medicine to her daughter; she doesn't bother schooling her sons because the boys can't follow the prescribed diet.

Since she began her practice, patients have arrived at her doorstep with broken bones, stomach aches, rectal problems and kidney stones.

Ac begins every treatment by placing a piece of clean betel leaf on the affected.

She maintains that the patient's illness gets written onto the leaf, where she can read it and render a diagnosis.

If the sickness is very serious and dangerous, Ac asks her patients to go to a hospital.

For all other patients, she rubs crushed betel leaves over the affected areas. While rubbing, she sprays alcohol from her mouth and utters spells"”the nature of which vary for each treatment.

She calls this process "blowing the sickness away."

Generally speaking, Ac said, "the process takes a lot of her energy each time."

When she is not treating patients, Ac scours the forest for medicinal herbs, roots and barks. Sometimes, it takes Ac a month or so to track down everything she needs to fill a prescription which she gives her patients some traditional herbs to take home, boil and drink.

Treatment usually requires her patients to follow a strict diet, which Ac also follows. She avoids eating certain animal products so that she can help staunch bleeding and heal broken bones.

She also avoids breaking firewood or medical herbs with her hands"”instead, she must cut them with a knife. If Ac pulls a manioc tuber out of the ground and it breaks, she does not eat it.

She believes these guidelines help patients recover quickly.

Knife swallowing

Several healers from Ca Roong Village in Thuong Trach Commune, Bo Trach District met with us near the Lao border, and boasted tribal healers who performed incredible feats of strength to heal their patients. Some could hold red hot irons in their mouths others bathed in boiling water.

Only Ma Coong people could do such things, they said, while people from other tribes in the region couldn't.

A local man named Dinh Hop said, "the community has historically relied on traditional treatments-including herbal concoctions and ritual healing."

Dinh Rau, a Ma Coong resident of A Rem Village, Tan Trach Commune, performs an elaborate and breathtaking ceremony to heal the sick.

During our visit, he commenced the ceremony by placing an iron knife into a nearby stove.

Then, Dinh Rau began arranging a pot of moonshine, candles derived from wild bees' wax and betel leaves on a cast iron tray.

When the offerings were ready, he lit the candles, read a few magic words and began chewing the betel leaves. Then he picked up the knife (now red hot) and placed the knife 4 cm into his mouth. He held the blade there for about three seconds before placing it on the ground and rubbing it with his foot several times.

Opinions about the efficacy of Dinh Rau's ceremony varied in the village, but a coffee shop owner named Que said Dinh Rau once saved her life.

The last healer

In Do Village, Trong Hoa Commune, Minh Hoa District, a man named Ho Phoong treats members of the May and Khua tribes.

"In the past, we lived in forests and faced a lot of dangers, so we had to find ways to get rid of them or at least create confidence in our recovery," he said.

The healer is over fifty but looks very healthy. He said nobody taught him how to treat sicknesses. Instead, he says, his capacity for healing was gifted to him by the Forest God.

Rural clinics and hospitals now treat most illnesses he says and his services are only sought for immediate external wounds.

The ceremony usually involves the burning of wild wax candles and a ceremony that requires two pots of traditional wine and absolute quiet for the duration of the treatment.

As Ho Phoong sprays rice wine over the affected area, no one is allowed to laugh or say a word. Otherwise, he says, the "evil spirits" will get angry; the treatment will be left spent, his powers diminished.

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