Historical Perspectives on Traditional Medicine in Vietnam

Vietnam's hot and humid tropical climate provides for a lavish range of medicinal plant species. Statistics from the Vietnam Ministry of Health show that 1,300 medicinal plant species have been found in Vietnam. Early on Vietnamese people discovered hundreds of medical remedies and accumulated a large range of experience in health care, disease prevention and treatment and these form a basis of Vietnamese traditional medicine.

In fact, many of the courses of treatment and prevention have remained useful until now such as eating ginger as an anti-cold and flu treatment, anti-malaria plants such as Artermisia and Thuong Xanh, tumeric for stomach issues and chewing betel and dying teeth to prevent tooth decay and gum disease and to deaden or anesthetize the gums, etc.)  As early as the 2nd century BC, Vietnamese used hundreds of plant species for medicinal purposes.  Traditional Vietnamese Medicine (sometimes abbreviated as TVM) has a long history starting in the Hung Vuong dynasty over 2,000 years ago.   For thousands of years, Traditional Vietnamese Medicine evolved and was influenced from Traditional Chinese Medicine but also with distinct differences. 

From the Ly Dynasty (11th to 13th century), the Imperial Court had an organized medical division, which was later changed to a medical institute - one of the first in Vietnam. Under the Tran Dynasty (13th to 14th century) medicinal herbs were planted in an organized fashion, nurtured, collected, managed and used for disease treatment.  This record is based on archeological and other records such as the Duoc Son historical remains in Pha Lai- Quang Ninh province. This period was one in which many famous medical doctors made significant contributions to the development of Vietnamese traditional medicine, especially the great physician Tue Tinh, known as the founder of Vietnamese traditional medicine.
medicinal plants such as ginger and tumeric

The greatest physicians in Traditional Vietnamese Medicine are Tue Tinh (14th century) and Hai Thuong Lang Ong Le Huu Trac (18th century) who are known as the medical founders of Vietnam’s Traditional Medicine. 

Normally, according to Vietnamese tradition and custom, those who were considered as the most talented and successful men in any specific field were named as the saints or fathers of their specialty. Tue Tinh was called the saint and founder of Vietnamese traditional medicine. He was also the author of some famous books such as the Miracle Vietnamese Pharmacy and Great Morality In the Art of Medicine. He was the first person to give prominence to an idea of “the need for Vietnamese to be treated by Vietnamese medicines”.

The great physician Hai Thuong Lan Ong Le Huu Trac was the author of a memorable work about Vietnamese traditional medicine known as the encyclopedia of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine.  This encyclopedia has 28 episodes and makes up 66 volumes including “Medical origins with morality and skills”. On his 250th birthday, UNESCO recognized and acknowledged him as a world cultural and well-known man for his great contribution to the development of traditional medicine and culture of the world.

During the Tran dynasty (century XIII-XIV) Royal Medical Physician Pham Cong Ban gained fame for his high ethical standards and precise and successful care in treatment of patients without any discrimination between the rich and the poor. In addition to his work as a medical physician in curing the sick, Ban spent his own money for emergency relief, care of the poor, destitute, disabled patients, orphans and donated rice and medicines to people who experienced epidemics. He saved hundreds of lives and is one of the leading lights in the history of Vietnam medicine.

Another physician Tran Canh under the Tran Du Tong King Dynasty (Century XIV) used acupuncture to save the life of the King from drowning when the King was a small child. After the King grew up and experienced impotency, Tran Canh himself successfully treated him which enabled the King to have 3 sons ensuring the dynasty.

The famous Vietnamese author Chu Van An (XIV Century) gained fame in the history of Vietnam and its’s culture not only as the Headmaster of Quoc Tu Giam college but also the author of the medical work "Detailed explanations to Medicine”.

Acupuncture was practiced since the 14th Century by a Vietnamese physician named Tran Canh.
The great physician and prolific author Tue Tinh, originally known as Nguyen Ba Tinh was born under the Tran Dynasty (Century XIV). In 1351, he passed a state exam organized by the King and received a doctor degree. However, he refused to work as a state mandarin and instead became a monk in a pagoda, making medicine and writing books. In 1385, he was arrested and brought to China as a tribute to the Minh Dynasty. In China, he became well-known as an excellent physician and was granted the title ‘Great Physician and Zen Buddhist’. The “Vietnamese Medicines as Magic” work he wrote chronicled 499 Vietnamese medical herbs and 3932 remedies for treating 184 types of diseases. The “Skills and Knowledge of Medical Treatment” book he wrote recorded 630 Vietnamese medical herbs, 13 remedies for treating various diseases in a Vietnamese way and 37 remedies for cold related disease treatment.

Nguyen Dai Nang was a medical physician under the Ho Dynasty (1400-1406).  He was known as a wizard who specialized in acupuncture in the early XV century of Vietnam.  He wrote a book on “Collection of Acupunctural Techniques and Methods”. The work of acupuncture methods was the earliest logically and structurally written in Vietnamese Nom Language.  Chu Nom language was a written form of Vietnamese that utilized Chinese characters.  Chữ-nôm uses a mixture of standard Chinese characters and new characters invented specifically for writing Vietnamese.  This work of Nguyen Dai Nang repeatedly utilized a style of six words and eight words per sentence poetry in 3020 lines. Apart from his reporting on the dangerous spots of 14 pulses in this acupuncture book of Oriental medicine, this work also showed some special vital points that Vietnamese physicians used at that time.

Phan Phù Tiên, the author of “Comprehensive Manuscripts of Flora” published the first pharmacy book in Vietnam.  This was published in the year 1428.

Nguyen Truc, author of “Bao Anh Luong Phuong” - specialized in pediatrics in the 1400s and published his book in 1455.

The great physicians in the XVI century included Vu Toan Trai.  In the Seventeenth Century, Hoang Don Hoa was a royal physician and a noted healer and also a teacher of the prince Nguyen Dao An.

Noted physicians in the XVIII century that was considered a golden Age in the history of Vietnam traditional medicine included the physician Trinh Dinh Ngoan who was born and worked under the Le Hien Tong dynasty.  Trinh Dinh Ngoan made great contributions to constructing Thang Long Medical Temple.

The above include some of the leading lights in medicine in the early era.  These pioneers set the standards and in some cases identified the cures and the principles of care that in some cases are still in use today.

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