What doesn't kill you makes you stronger

(No.8, Vol.4,Sep-Oct 2014 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

Lá đung
(Cochin China Sweet leaf) indicated for stomach trouble and Lá bò bò (spiny splinter bean leaf) for better blood flow

The efficacy of
Vietnamese herbal

I had been suffering from a bad back-in silence-for fear my local wife would offer me the same remedy as in a previous occurrence of this same ailment. I had been treated with medicinal wine, which after a mere few days, happily cleared up the problem. It was only after the cure that my wife explained that I had been drinking a rice wine that had had a dead cat seeped in it for months. My wife explained that for some reason only black cats had this healing power.
‘Not to worry’, said Mai, ‘my leaf tea is just as good for your lumbago’. So, she put me on a course of it, consisting of a total of around twenty different kinds of leaves collected and dried from the forests of her native Thua Thien Hue Province. She has the produce bought by family and sent by nationwide coach service. Twice a month, a supply arrives for us at the terminal in Saigon. This freight is cheap at only 70,000 dongs a box. The actual leaf mixture is bought at various prices from 60,000 to 100,000 dongs per kilogramme. The brewing process itself is lengthy and quite costly in cooking gas consumption.
We use a small room on the top floor of our house to give the foliage an airing. There is an acrid but not unpleasant smell, and most people looking at the mess on the floor would be tempted to pick up a dustpan and brush and bin it. But of course, it is not rubbish. It is actually useful stuff. Apart from being good as a general muscle relaxant, the potion obtained from these leaves, according to my wife, is helpful in nineteen areas of disorder. Please bear in mind she has neither medical degree nor even a certificate in traditional medicine. However, she is regularly asked for medical advice by neighbours. In her home town, this was so much the case that the local doctor nearly went out of business and heaved a sigh of relief when we left for Saigon. However, she has no agenda, and can probably be trusted much more than some of the ludicrous claims one can see on many commercial packets of herbal cures.

Herbalist sorting through leaf mixture

Firstly, it can indicate ovarian cysts, fibroids, and cysts of the breast. Secondly, it is good for the liver and in fighting hepatitis B, aiding detoxification, lowering liver enzymes, fatty liver, and a tonic for recovery of diseases of the liver. Generally, it lowers bad cholesterol, helps with sinusitis, ear infections, and sore throat. It can also help blood flow and clear blood clots and is good for the heart. Take it if you want to have beautiful skin or delay the greying of your hair. Women who have just given birth should drink it. It can relieve a cough. It is good for those who suffer bone and joint aches. If you are unfortunate to have a peptic ulcer, then this is for you. It is good for the digestion, counteracting bloating and the urinary tract. We must also remember to include its efficacy for sleep disorders, renal complaints and reducing high levels of blood sugar.
Mother Nature packs a lot into just around a score of leaf types. Let me proceed to give a list of the names of these leaves; not their Latin names (with one exception), but what my wife calls them in Vietnamese, together with a sometimes quaint translation. These are: Trinh nữ hoàng cung (Royal virgin), Nhân trần (Adenosma Glutinosum-no English name found) Diệp hạ châu (Asian lettuce down), Cỏ ngọt (Sweet grass), Cỏ hôi (Stinky grass), Hà Thủ Ô (Chinese knotweed), Chè dây (Stinking passion flower), Cam thảo (Chinese liquorice), Trường sinh (Resurrection fern), Lá đung ( Cochin China sweet leaf), Lá vằng (Vietnamese Jasmine leaf), Lá bướm bạc ( Silver butterfly leaf), Lá ngấy ( Briar leaf), Lá bò bò (Spiny splinter bean leaf), Lá hoa trinh nữ (Mimosa sensitive plant leaf), Lá sen (Lotus leaf), Lá mắm nêm (Fermented fish sauce plant leaf), Rau cây ngỗ (Buffalo spinach), Dây cây ổ qua (Bitter Gourd). My goodness; with names like that how could you fail to feel better?
I drink it everyday now. How does it taste? Let us just say it is an acquired taste. Firstly, this is medicine. It is not supposed to taste sweet. It is in fact quite bitter. Many people are left with a contorted countenance on trying it. Personally, now I have got used to it and provided it is well diluted, I now enjoy it.
On now to describe the process of preparation. It is quite simple. Firstly, the leaves need to be washed thoroughly. Ten times over in fact! Then they need to be put into a large cooking pot and boiled for twenty minutes, after which they are removed. Given the large number of leaves and the size of the average large kitchen pot, a second batch needs to be prepared. All the leaves need to put through a sieve in order to remove impurities. The liquid is then poured into bottles and left to cool. The beverage is refrigerated, as it is best drunk freezing cold.
It was quite disconcerting to wake up one morning and upon trying to get up, not only to feel pain but finding oneself unable to straighten a bent back. Usually, I had heard that herbal medicine takes a long while to take effect, but the potion had me ‘Homo Erectus’ again within days. Within a couple of weeks, I was as right as rain. I assessed the root cause of the problem. Sleeping posture, sleeping on a hard bed as most Vietnamese do, and being overweight I reckoned were the culprits. The last one I am working on, but it is difficult as ‘I likes me food and drink.’ I now prefer a hard bed and am not going back to soft springy Western mattress.
I was left grateful to my wife in helping overcome a common minor medical problem.
All countries in the world have modern scientific medicine alongside traditional medicine, which has been built up over centuries of popular wisdom. The Vietnamese put their faith in both systems more than most. Nobody is suggesting that doctors are unnecessary and modern drugs are just a ‘con’. For me, herbal medicine in this case really did the job. I am left in profound gratitude both to Mother Nature and to the mother of my child.

Acknowledgements; My herbalist informant - Madame Truong Thi Mai.
Research (into the English translation of medical and botanical terms - Miss Truong Thi Phi Anh Viet (also known as Miss Angela Elizabeth de Rouvray).

Text by Pip de Rouvray and photos by James Gordon
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