Traditional Medicine in Vietnam’s Healthcare System

People in Vietnam, China, and other countries have used traditional medicine for over 4,000 years.


Since its origin, traditional medicine has been prescribed by healers and traditional medicine doctors primarily for its preventative properties. Healers commonly use herbal medicines in an oral or topical form to treat developing symptoms of a certain ailment. Traditional healing can also commonly include physical exercise, massage, or acupuncture to promote the flow of blood and energy. In addition to the physical effects of treatment, traditional medicine is theorized to have hormonal and energy-balancing properties, like the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang.

Traditional Medicine in Vietnam's Healthcare System
Traditional practitioner weighting lucidum for the recipe. (Photo: Shutterstock)

History of Vietnam’s tradition medicine method

Northern Vietnam and southern China shared multiple ethnic groups, many of which held traditional healing beliefs. As a result, traditional forms of medicine in Vietnam are very similar to those in China. Vietnam’s medicinal use of plants and China’s theoretical framework around traditional healing merged to create an alternative form of medicine that persists today in healthcare in Vietnam, according to Borgen Project.

For several thousand years, Vietnamese Traditional Medicine has evolved under the shadows of Chinese Traditional Medicine, culture, and rule. At this point in time, it is nearly impossible to separate out and delineate Traditional Vietnamese Medicine or Thuoc Nam (Southern Medicine) from Traditional Chinese Medicine or Thuoc Bac (Northern Medicine) because their developments were so inter-twined, said Etho Med.

Traditional Medicine in Vietnam's Healthcare System
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Famous Vietnamese physicians

In 938, the Vietnamese claimed victory at the battle of Bach Dang River and over 1,100 years of Chinese rule came crashing to an end. The next thousand years became a pivotal period in the development of Thuoc Nam as it brought with it the field’s two most important and revered physicians – Tue Tinh and Hai Thuong Lan Ong.

Tue Tinh was born in the 14th century, and although he’s about 1500 years late to the party, he is often referred to as the founder of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine. He wrote a number of highly important texts, including Great Morality in the Art of Medicine, and came up with the idea of “the need for Vietnamese to be treated by Vietnamese medicine.”

Hai Thuong Lan Ong came along 300 years later. In the mid-1700s, after studying for dozens of years, he published a 66-volume Encyclopedia of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine that is still referred to today as one of the seminal works on the topic, according to Culture Trip.

Traditional Medicine in Vietnam's Healthcare System
(Photo: Tap Chi Dong Y)

Traditional medicine in Vietnam’s healthcare system

While the use of traditional medicine is still common throughout cultures that partake in traditional healing, it is often not used on its own. In contemporary Vietnamese medical culture, individuals seeking care consult both traditional and biomedical practitioners for treatment. The two systems can be complementary: biomedicine aims to physically eradicate an illness, while traditional medicine treats the symptoms and psychosocial harm of the ailment. For example, if a person develops cancer in Vietnam, they might consult a biomedical physician for chemotherapy and a traditional medicine doctor for a remedy that counters the symptomatic effects of chemotherapy.

Gaining a dual perspective from biomedicine and traditional physicians in Vietnam is so common that this practice is reflected in the country’s health insurance system, which makes both kinds of medicine accessible. The payment method for healthcare in Vietnam varies based on the sector in which a person obtains treatment, whether public or private. Treatment in the public sector is covered in full, with an occasional co-pay expense, as public health insurance is compulsory in Vietnam. Private health insurance is paid out of pocket. Both public and private insurance can cover traditional medicine hospital expenses, though the costs for traditional medicine are generally paid privately.

However, when a person is unable to pay for either public or private insurance, they are still able to access traditional forms of medicine. In Hanoi, a major city in Vietnam, there is a full street of vendors that sell traditional medicinal herbs. These vendors can even help to fill prescriptions from hospitals at a reduced price, making traditional medicine more accessible to the public.

Traditional Medicine in Vietnam's Healthcare System
(Photo: Thay Thuoc Viet Nam)

Traditional medicine in modern-day

Thuoc Nam is still very much alive in modern-day Vietnam. Numerous herbal remedy stores can be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Traditional medicine can be studied at the Ho Chi Minh City Medical and Pharmaceutical University, while treatment can be received at the government-run Traditional Medicine Institute. A museum highlighting the benefits of the age-old remedies even exists. It’s clear that in the last 20 years the country has undergone massive changes, but many traditions of the past have endured through it all.

The accessibility of traditional medicine with and without health insurance fills gaps in healthcare in Vietnam, making the population healthier overall. In addition, the Vietnamese prioritize preventative medicine because the population is familiar with traditional health values. With ready access to health resources, along with a generalized understanding of the values of self-care, healthcare in Vietnam excels.