History of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine
& the FITO Museum in HCMC

- By Van Nguyen, President of Vietnam Alive Travel


Vietnam has a long-standing medical tradition that has served its people well for thousands of years. From ancient times when the country was established, people gathered into groups to live.  These groups or tribes used their experience to form a body of knowledge on folk Vietnamese medicine derived from their experience in the fight for survival and against accidents and natural disasters and diseases. From experience, many kinds of food, vegetable, fruit, herbs and natural compounds were discovered to be drugs or medicines. The proverb “Doi Rau, Dau Thuoc” (Being hungry, eating vegetables. Being ill, taking medical herbs”) illustrates the formation of folk medicine. In this time, Vietnamese knew how to use ginger, arenga pinnata and other herbs and compounds for disease prevention and treatment. There was also the custom to drink eugenia to promote digestion, chewing betel with lime and areca for sweet-smelling breath, keeping the body warm and preventing malaria, tooth dyeing with lacca to protect against tooth decay, etc.

As far back as the 2nd century BC, hundreds of medical herbs were discovered, among them there were precious compounds such as pearl, tortoise-shell, aloe wood, rhinoceros and cinnamon.  When terracotta ware was invented through trial and error, Vietnamese had the tools to steep or cook herbs. Thence forward, people could ferment rice, distill fermented rice to make wine to drink and brew herbs to use as drugs.

In this period, Vietnamese ancient people even knew how to utilize acupuncture. At first, they sharpened a stone bar as a needle. Gradually, along with social development, people made copper, silver and golden needles and acupuncture became more refined and documented.

In the period of Chinese domination (197BC-937AC) in Vietnam, Chinese medicine deeply affected Vietnamese medicine. Gradually, Vietnamese medicine was divided into two branches or specialties: pure Chinese medicine and pure Vietnamese medicine. The two branches at first conflicted with each other, but progressively they combined together to form Vietnamese traditional medicine, which used both Chinese and Vietnamese herbs in disease treatment.

In the independent period (after 938AC), through many royal dynasties, Vietnamese traditional medicine continued developing and refining. The kings from the Ly Dynasty on (11th to 13th Century) often opened examinations to choose talented physicians working in Royal Medical clinics to treat diseases for the king and royal family. Additionally, Royal Medical clinics often held herbal gathering and picking and planting campaigns at special mountain areas and nowadays, the vestige of this is called  “DUOC SON” (“Mountain of Herbs”) in North Vietnam. There were many ancient medical books written by the famous traditional physicians during this time and these continue to be treasured and utilized by herbal doctors who followed these gifted “masters”.

The two most well-known traditional physicians of Vietnamese medical history are Tue Tinh (14th Centrury) and Hai Thuong Lan Ong Le Huu Trac (lazy old man – 18th Century). As is the custom of the Vietnamese, those who reached the pinnacle of any career in ancient time were honored as gods or saints and so is the case with these two.  Even today, many practitioners will have their statutes or pictures. Tue Tinh is considered the god or saint of Vietnamese herbs and the progenitor of Vietnamese traditional medicine. He is the author of many famous books including The Miracle Vietnamese Pharmacy and the Great Morality in the Art of Medicine. He was the first man who gave prominence to taking Vietnamese herbs through the statement “Vietnamese Herbs For Vietnamese”. When he was 22, he succeeded in the examination to become a royal trainee in the Dynasty but he refused to work as a mandarin and went into a pagoda to become a monk. 
At 55(1351), he traveled to China as a tribute sent by the royal household to the Ming dynasty ruler at that time.  In China, he was a mandarin of ninth grade, taking charge in medicine. He succeeded in treating postnatal disease for the queen and so he was honored as a great priest or healer by the king. His death is still a mystery and no one knows when he actually died.

Traditional physician Hai Thuong Lan Ong Le Huu Trac (sometimes listed as only Hai Thuong Lan Ong) is the author of the great work on Vietnamese traditional medicine, which is referred to as the Encyclopedia of Vietnamese Traditional Medicine. His great masterpiece  consists of 28 volumes, and 66 books. The two words in his alias “Lan Ong” mean “lazy old man”. He was lazy in his failure to seek for position and fame at the time but he always tried to help other people. He dedicated his life to documenting and passing on to posterity the precious heritage of Vietnamese traditional medicine. He also set an example for medical morals and is considered the most famous physician of Vietnam. On the occasion of 250th anniversary of his birthday, UNESCO recognized him as a world cultural celebrity due to his contribution to both Vietnamese and world medicine.

The FITO MUSEUM in Ho Chi Minh City:

In the FITO MUSEUM in Ho Chi Minh City, which we recommended that all tourists visit, there is an altar of the two famous traditional physicians. Over the altar is a board with 4 great characters “Y DUC CAO MINH” (bright and lofty medical morals). On either side of the altar are 2 pairs of parallel sentences, which praise the merit of the two great physicians. These two pairs of parallel sentences are originally from Thang Long Medicine Temple and Giam Pagoda (Hai Hung province) – the traditional place of worshipping Tue Tinh.

In the period of independence, acupuncture continued to develop splendidly.

Many acupuncturists wrote books on acupuncture and Vietnamese physicians discovered many new pressure points during this period.


In the period of French Domination (1885-1954), two milestones
were the formation of medicine and pharmacy associations in 1936 and the establishment of a trade union on traditional medicine in 1953.

There are many explanations from experts why Vietnam has the abundance in kinds of plants and trees and the rich genetic biodiversity. This abundance is due to many different factors. Firstly, Vietnam is a tropical country with the advantageous climate for tree development. There is no desert in Vietnam although areas in Ninh Thuan are extremely dry. Besides, in ancient times, many species were able to survive in Vietnam and were not driven away by the cold frost that dominated Northern and southern climes. 
And Vietnam is a place for bidirectional exchange with South China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippine in near past. If in the Amazon Jungle, on average, 90 species are found on 1 hectare, in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, 160 species are found in the same area. This is a cornucopia for Vietnam. 

So far, the experts have collected 1,863 species of 238 families of herbs, and through the gathering of nearly 8,000 specimens of 1,296 species, discovered nearly 40 animals, which can be used as medicine.  They also have collected approximately 40,000 prescriptions handed down from generation to generation, which were dedicated and prescribed by 12,513 physicians.  Additionally, 497 books on traditional medicine in China-transcribed in Vietnamese and 202 books in Vietnamese script dealing with Traditional Medicine have been noted.  By the year 1999, the scientists discovered 155 famous physicians in the history of Vietnam focusing on Traditional Medicine and among them, 80 physicians who dedicated their books to documenting for posterity various aspects of Traditional Medicine.
Today, some old Vietnamese medical books are still randomly found in public, although most of them are now collected and preserved at the Chinese-Transcribed Vietnamese Research Institute in Ha Noi. The set of books there on Vietnamese traditional medicine includes 388 books, among them 74 ones belong to the pharmacy branch and the remaining belong to the medicine branch or both.

The precious book “Nam Duoc Than Hieu” (The Miracle of Vietnamese Herbs) by Tue Tinh was published in 1922, and includes 9 printed books and 4 hand-written books and with a total number of pages reaching 3,200
Totally the set of traditional medical books comprises 100,000 pages.  If all the pages are put adjacent to each other, they will cover a distance of 15km. Unfortunately, some Chinese-Transcribed Vietnamese medical books now are in other libraries in Vietnam or foreign countries and are not conveniently viewable in one location.

Today, Vietnamese Traditional Medicine is quite an important part in the Vietnamese Medicine system and is utilized by many modern Vietnamese. With the purpose to help those who desire to study and research on Vietnamese traditional medicine, the pharmaceutical company FITO PHARMA opened FITO Museum. The objects, the pictures and images displayed in the museum are deeply related to Vietnamese traditional medicine through different periods of the country’s history.

There are many tools used in traditional medicine. Among them, there are two indispensable though simple items.
They are the medical herb slicer and the boat-shaped grinder. The grinder is used to grind dried herbs to powder and the medical herb slicer is used to cut herb into slice-bars.

The grinder was used from the most ancient times. Though being simple, nowadays, it is still helpful. The materials to make this tool are diverse; some are made of terra-cotta, some of wood, some of stone, but usually an apothecary’s mortar are made of pig-iron. To meet the demand of aristocratic circles in the old days, this tool even was made of precious metal such as gold and silver to grind valuable herbs.

The size of grinder is extremely varied, some are only a few centimeters long, but others are over 1 meter long and very heavy. This tool can be handled by the hands or feet. The “hand” grinder is smaller than the “foot” one. To increase activity of the grinder, people apply an additional device with this tool so it will work like a rice-husking machine. In the FITO Museum there is a stone grinder from prehistoric time, which was found at the bottom of the Red River in the north of the country. It is one of the most precious items of the museum.

The medical herb slicer is a tool to cut dried herbs into slice-bars. Many slicers have been passed along from generation to generation in families engaged in traditional medicine and some are still in use today and can be viewed in traditional medicine stores throughout Vietnam.

Many other containers, tools and other implements in traditional medicine are also displayed in the FITO MUSEUM such as wine jars, bowls to contain herbal decoctions, lime pots and cylindrical lime holders.
The wine jar was used to contain tonic wine. Soaking medical herbs in wine has been a method of herbal processing since the most ancient times. Ancient people thought that wine can activate blood and regulate energy and blood. In the view of Oriental medicine, wine is a drug guidant, nourishing, activating and regulating blood, activating channel and vessels to deliver the medicine or herbs.

To make medicated wine, people chose white wine, which is made of rice, maize, potatoes or other items.  In Vietnam, some villages have become famous for their wine. In the old days, the wine jar was often buried under the ground for up to a hundred days then taken up for use. Vietnamese people often like to use ceramic pots to contain medicated wine. Some jars have two handles on either side to be put down and be taken up easily.

With lime pots, cylindrical lime holder and a stick, people can spread lime on the betel then chew the resulting combination. This is a custom of the Vietnamese that dates to the olden days for health preservation.  Tea pots can be used to make tea to drink or to steep or brew herbs with boiling water before using. In the old days, people didn’t designate the difference between tea and medicine. In royal dynasties, there was a room for drinking drug decoctions, but words relating to drugs were forbidden so this room was call “tea room” instead of “drug or pharma room”.
Bowls are used in daily living activities but are also useful to contain herbal decoctions. Bowls of different shape are displayed in the FITO Museum.

Mortars and pestles are also tools in traditional medicine. Besides, they were often used in Vietnamese daily living activities especially in rural areas. Nowadays, mortars and pestles are still useful in life, cooking and even in herb processing. The copper mortars and pestles were usually used in traditional medicine practitioners store.
To know the weight of herbs, people need the help of the scale.  In the old days, they used the oriental scales. Some scales can weigh goods even to hundreds of kilograms. Occidental scales were brought into Vietnam by Western businessmen in century XVI-XVII.
There is a model of a traditional medicine physician’s store at the FITO Museum. Normally, a traditional herb store includes 3 parts. The front space is used to display herbs or the place to prepare herbs according to the prescription written by the physician.

In the second room, which is connected with the first one, there are many bags containing drugs, herbs and compounds such as nutmeg, amomum, tangerine skin, etc. The innermost part is not a laboratory, but there are many stoves, spans for roasting, tools for herbal soaking process, etc. Outside the store is a signboard with pairs of sentences and a board on which the name of diseases and the correlative drugs for them are written. In a traditional medicine herbal store, drugs are put in a wooden cabinet with many drawers and each may be divided into many boxes. Each box contains a kind of herb. The labels with the names of herbs in a drawer are attached on the outside surface. The labels are often colored and beautiful. On the cabinet, ceramic or glass pots are put to contain glue of animal bone or herbs. According to the type of herb, the traditional herbal doctor chose the appropriate containers to store as well as to take out easily to use or to process more. In the middle of the main room, there is a big counter on which there are many mortars, pestles and scales of different sizes to prepare herbs. Each kind of herb, after being weighed by the scale will be divided into many parts to put on several squares of paper because multiple bags of herbs are prepared at the same time. When finishing preparing the herbs as the physician’s prescription, every bag of herbs is wrapped up. Several bags of herbs are tied together then delivered to customers. The cabinet often has 81(9 x 9) drawers; 8 and 1 making 9 – this is a lucky or auspicious number. Some physicians like to design the cabinet with 72 drawers (9 x 8) which represent for 72 magic miracles of Sun Wu Kong in the novel “Traveling to the West”.

Visitors to the FITO Museum can visit a model of a royal medical clinic. In the old days, the Royal Medical Clinic was the place to take care of the health for the king and royal family. The vermilion lacquered and gilded wooden pictures on the wall describes the activities relating to traditional medicine such as planting, harvesting, processing herbs, feeling pulse and writing prescription. The Royal Medical Clinic of the museum is also used as a cinema room to show the film on Vietnam traditional medicine for visitors.

In the museum, the visitors can see a great wood-carved picture “Viet Nam Bach Gia Y” (Hundred Vietnamese Tradition Physicians) which is attached with the names of one hundred famous Vietnamese traditional physicians who made remarkable contributions to the development of Vietnamese traditional medicine from the century 12th to the beginning of 20th century.

There is also a collection of traditional medical books from the ancient times up to now.

On the wall of the staircase leading down to the ground floor, there is an inlayed picture which maybe the biggest Vietnamese picture on traditional medicine. On the upper part of the picture, people can see depicted the imaginary depiction of the three parts of Vietnam. The lower part of the picture describes the streets of traditional medicine. This is a detailed picture describing many aspects of Vietnamese living activity including traditional medicine and is emblematic of the unique treasures that the FITO Museum has gathered all in one very unique, educational and esthetically attractive location.

About the Author

Nguyen Cao Van, Vietnamese Associate of Runckel & Associates has long had an interest in Taditional Medicine. Van has worked extensively in the travel and tourism sector and is known for his excellent English and his wide ranging knowledge of Vietnam and its culture, history and geography.  Van has worked extensively with many cruise lines in Vietnam and is routinely sought out as an interpreter, travel guide and general resource for many VIP and other visits to Vietnam.  In addition to the above, Van also has extensive sourcing experience and is well experienced in finding suppliers and recommending Vietnamese companies for key projects.  With a BA in English and Tourism Management from the Ho Chi Minh City University of Foreign Languages, Van both writes and speaks in excellent English.  He brings these skills to his work for Runckel & Associates which has won accolades from many of our clients. Van also owns and runs his successful travel company, Vietnam Alive Travel (www.vietnamalive.com).  Those privledged to travel with Van will have a much richer trip because of his extensive cultural and historic knowledge.



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