78-year-old Tran Van Quyen at his home in Nghe An Province's Anh Son District
For three decades and counting, quite than a few mothers in Nghe An Province in the north central coast region have relied on the three words "Tran Van Quyen" when it comes to weaning their babies.
The simple phrase is the name of an extraordinary 78-year-old father of eight and grandfather of many more in Hamlet 4, Long Son Commune in Anh Son District, 100 kilometers from the provincial capital of Vinh.
Every morning, Tran Van Quyen, who resembles a character in a fairy tale with his wide forehead, ruddy complexion and white hair and beard, wakes up early, cleans his house, prepares a big pot of tea, and waits for his patients mothers and their unweaned infants.
At seven o'clock, everything is ready, and Quyen sits on a wooden chair at a wooden table placed in the front yard of the three-compartment house surrounded by fruit trees.
The first to arrive today are Bui Thi Luan from Hamlet 3 and her two-year-old daughter Nguyen Thi Ha Anh. The busy factory worker thinks her child is too old to be breast-fed all the time.
"My neighbors told me that Quyen could help my child since he treated theirs," Luan tells us.
In order for the old man to perform his "magic", as some people describe it, both mother and baby must be present at his house.
First, Luan, sitting opposite with the daughter on her lap, is asked to provide their full names.
After that, Quyen says nothing, but stares at Ha Anh for a while. Suddenly, he shouts at the little girl twice, "Ha Anh, you are no longer allowed to suck your mother!" frightening the child and causing her to burst into loud wails and cling tightly to her mother, hiding her face in the maternal lap and not daring to look at Quyen's face.
"It's done," Quyen tells Luan. "Even if you permit her, she will no longer demand to be breast-fed."
He then gives her a concoction of roasted sweet-gourd seeds, gall of grass carp, wine and nux vomica, an extract from the strychnine tree, to massage into her breasts when they are full of milk.
And he stresses the importance of the mother saying Quyen's name aloud if by chance the little girl does want further breast-feeding.
The same performance is repeated for two more mothers and babies that morning.
"There's no secret or superstition in my treatment," he tells Vietweek, "I just use the medicine and my look to impress the infants, though at first they find me friendly."
Yet his "bullying treatment" has worked on thousands of children from inside and outside Nghe An Province.
Quyen boasts a success rate of 90 percent. For some reason, the stubborn few who resist the treatment are more likely to be found among his neighbors.
His first patient all those years ago, also his first successful case, was a neighborhood boy named Dung who is now in his thirties and has a family of his own.
Not only does Quyen help mothers of unweaned babies, he also treats for free babies who refuse the breast as well as women who don't produce enough milk for their babies.
This home-grown physician even treats cows with a medicine he concocted. His latest case was a difficult bovine owned by an army unit in nearby Tuong Son. Barely a few minutes after swallowing Quyen's medicine, the cow let her calf approach her and suck on her teats.
Quyen says he learnt the skill from his father, the late Tran Van Tho, a practitioner of traditional medicine in the area. What's more, he even looks like his old man.
He says Tho was a gifted physician who could fix many common childhood ailments like diarrhea, poor appetite, indigestion, disordered metabolism, and overmuch crying at night.
Of Tho's six children, only Quyen followed in his father's footsteps.
All six did try to learn the skill, but they gave up one by one except Quyen. His induction happened by chance one day 30 years ago when his father was away and Quyen took it upon himself to help an area woman wean her baby son off the breast.
He was surprisingly successful and realized he had found his vocation.
Many others have tried to emulate Quyen, including his four sons and four daughters as well as his patients, but without success. Some of the would-be healers even enroll the aid of scary-looking people to "intimidate" their kids, again to no avail.
"So far, only by being brought to me have the infants been weaned," says Quyen modestly.
"It's a mystery how he's the only one who can do it," says Nguyen Thi Mai from Hamlet 13. Mai credits Quyen for her son stopping breastfeeding at the age of three, giving her more time for work and other chores.
Another successful case is that of Nguyen Thi Hien and her two-year-old son. Before seeing the old man, a desperate Hien even sent her son to her mother's house, expecting that, after so many days away from Mum, the boy would forget about breast feeding. It didn't work.
"After I took my son to Quyen, for the first few days, he looked frightened and dared not ask to be breast-fed whenever I mentioned his name in front of him. In fact my son hasn't asked again," says Hien.
Like her, most of the mothers working at the nearby Anh Son cement plant rely on Quyen when it's time to wean the little ones.
Nguyen Huu Ba, head of Hamlet 4, cannot explain Quyen's success. "I have no idea how he does it, but he certainly has helped many people from all over. His method is so simple, yet it works."
In his 30 years as a physician, Quyen has never explicitly asked for money though he sometimes receives it for services rendered. His "payment" can be simply a packet of tea or cigarettes.
"If I charged everyone money, I would probably be rich by now," he says with a smile.
His major concern nowadays is finding a successor. "I can still work and help others for now, but at my age, I don't know when I might up and die. I have taught the art to my children and tried to pass my gift on to them, but so far none is able to do what I can do."
What an expert says:
According to Dr. Le Thi Kim Dung, an obstetrician at the Hanoi Health Labor Center, weaning babies by threatening them has no scientific basis whatsoever and could give the children nightmares and even make them withdrawn and repressed.
"Successful weaning depends on feeding them the approriate solid food at the appropriate time. By the weaning stage, breastfeeding is not to provide nutrition but merely a habit that takes a child time to kick."