While some forms of alternative medicine have been available in Vietnam for thousands of years, it hasn’t been until relatively recently that newer treatments popularised in the west have been imported. This has left some wondering whether it is a legitimate answer to the frequent over-medication by doctors in Vietnam and if we really should use treatments that are so controversial. By Chris Mueller. Photos by Lee Starnes.

The wide green doors of the Tran Thai Duong clinic open to a sparsely furnished waiting room. The walls of the room are plastered with posters depicting skeletons, muscle structure and meridian lines. At the back of the room, a squat old Vietnamese man tends to his patient, removing needles from packs and carefully sticking them into the other man’s half-naked body. This small shop off of Pham Van Hai Street near the airport in Tan Binh District is one of hundreds of modest acupuncture shops in Ho Chi Minh City.

On this drizzly afternoon, about 10 people patiently wait for their procedures. One patient named An, talks to me through broken English and Vietnamese. He says he comes to the clinic at least twice a month for his treatments, adding that it helps him relax. When I ask him how acupuncture works, he says, “I don’t know, but I do it all my life.”

An certainly isn’t the only one in Vietnam to rely heavily on acupuncture. This form of alternative medicine, cham cuu in Vietnamese, is hugely popular around the country. Originating in China, with the first written records of acupuncture dating back to the first century BCE, it didn’t take long before it crossed into Vietnam. Now small shops and larger clinics can be found throughout the country, especially in areas with a large Chinese population like in District 5.

For Vietnamese, acupuncture has both the benefit of being cheap, non-invasive, and a time-tested practice. Tran Huong, an acupuncturist in Hanoi, has been working in the field for over 30 years. She has become so well known that even westerners fly in to be treated by her. She is also one of the most popular acupuncturists in the capital, seeing 20 to 30 patients a day.

Alternative medicine in VietnamBefore becoming a professional acupuncturist, Huong says she studied conventional medicine in France where she got a master’s degree. But to her, acupuncture had always been more appealing.

“It’s much more of an experience, more harmonizing,” she tells me by phone from Hanoi.

While her clients range from wealthy Europeans to working-class Vietnamese, most come to her for the same reasons.

“When I stimulate the body with acupuncture, the body releases endorphins,” she says. “People come to me to have me treat pain, stress relief, and headaches.”

But it’s not just acupuncture that is popular in Vietnam. Vietnamese have practiced traditional medicine for centuries, using herbs and controversial remedies — many of which have been scientifically discredited — made from various animal parts. This traditional medicine is actually considered mainstream in Vietnam. However, there is a growing interest in newer forms of alternative medicine, mainly imported by westerners.

Despite a lot of negative publicity, the popularity of alternative medicine in the west has skyrocketed. In the United States, 40 percent of adults use some sort of alternative medicine, according to the National Centre for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine. And this popularity seems to be spreading.

Now, in Saigon alone, practioners of everything from chiropractic, osteopathy to reiki and homeopathy have set up shop in the city. But with so much debate about the validity of alternative medicine, are these treatments a viable option for expats?

“I don’t think there is any such thing as alternative medicine,” says Dr Paul Offit, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Centre at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “If an alternative medicine works, then it’s medicine. If an alternative medicine doesn’t work, then it’s not an alternative.”

Offit is the author of Do You Believe in Magic?, which takes aim at the $34-billion alternative medicine industry and debunks some of the myths surrounding it. He argues in his book that celebrity endorsements and marketing is largely to blame for the explosion of alternative medicine in the west.

“I think there is a sense that our technology hasn’t helped us, that it has taken us farther and farther away from nature and that has hurt our spirituality, if you will,” he says in a Skype interview. “Here you have this back-to-nature thing, which I think includes getting back to those things we did a couple thousand years ago when we were all dying by the age of 30.”

The main problem with alternative medicine, Offit argues, is that people too often use it when more conventional medicine is needed and is more likely to cure the patient.

“Steve Jobs is the poster-boy for that,” Offit says. “He had a type of pancreatic cancer that was quite treatable, but he chose acupuncture and bowel cleansing and fruit juices and vegetable juices. And by the time he finally had the surgery that could have saved his life earlier, he was too late.”

Offit’s concerns do seem to be well founded, and most responsible practitioners of alternative medicine even agree.

“I prefer [patients] go see a doctor first,” says Nicolas Dupaux, a French osteopath at Centre Medical International in District 1, “because you never know what’s behind the back pain. I’ve had patients come in with chronic pain, we did an MRI and found bone cancer.”

Osteopathy is based on the belief that most diseases are related to problems with the nerve, muscle and bone systems and that the structure and function of the body are related. It involves using manual therapy to manipulate the structure of the body to restore a state of balance and harmony.

Wade Brakenbury of the American Chiropractic Clinic in District 3 says in his experience both conventional doctors and alternative practioners need to work well with each other. If one form of medicine doesn’t work, then the other form should always be considered.

“I work a lot with medical doctors, high-end doctors,” Brackenbury, who is also a trained acupuncturist, says. “I believe in medicine. I think conventional medicine is great, but alternative medicine does a lot for improved health.”

Dupaux says there is no doubt conventional medicine plays an important role in health, and agrees alternative medicine can be dangerous if performed by an untrained practioner. He says he often treats damage done to patients by local masseuses who have little knowledge of the body. But at the same time, he believes many opponents of alternative and complementary medicine are too quick to judge its usefulness.

“What is real medicine?” he says. “Today’s science has proven a lot already, but if you look at using non-conventional medicine, there are a lot of patients with amazing results. The reality is that you have good doctors and bad doctors and good osteopaths and bad osteopaths.”

Dupaux also takes the opposite stance to Offit when it comes to alternative medicine’s popularity versus conventional medicine’s proven track record. While Offit blames marketing and celebrity endorsements for the unchecked growth of alternative medicine, Dupaux blames the medical industry and the $300-billion-a-year pharmaceutical industry for tainting non-traditional treatments.

“Today, the whole medical system is based on money,” he says. “It is not about healing people, it is more about business.”

But what exactly do things like chiropractic, acupuncture and osteopathy do for improved health?

Some studies show people can learn to stimulate their immune systems through alternative treatments. And Offit believes this is largely due to a placebo effect. “The placebo response is very real and physiological based,” he says.

While alternative treatments like chiropractic and osteopathy do seem to at least have enough positive results to justify their practices, what about more dubious forms of alternative medicine like reiki or homeopathy?

“Things like reiki fall into a category that I think is disrespected in both fields,” Brackenbury says. “But that doesn’t mean it is useless.”

Reiki is a traditional Japanese treatment developed in the 1920s. Reiki healers claim everyone has unseen life force energies and the healer uses their palms to transfer this energy between healer and patient. Most reiki advocates say the technique can easily be learned by anyone.

“You need to be open to reiki to benefit from it,” says Sarah Martin, an Australian-trained massage therapist who has been practicing reiki, among other things, out of her home in District 2 for the past six years. “It is just a way for people to cope with things rather than seeing a doctor or therapist.”

Surprisingly, Dr Offit does see some use for things like reiki. Studies have shown that alternative healing, like reiki, can greatly reduce stress and, in turn, improve the immune system. “I think you can argue that yoga and mediation — anything that reduces stress — is good medicine,” he says.

Once again, the problems arise when a line is crossed and these therapies that have no scientific basis are used in place of conventional medicine. In the end, Offit and alternative medicine practioners like Brackenbury and Dupaux agree that there is a place for both forms of treatment, but they should be used in tandem, and only when they are appropriate.

“As consumers, we have certain responsibilities,” Offit wrote in his book. “If we’re going to make decisions about our health, we need to make sure we’re not influenced by the wrong things — specifically, that we don’t give alternative medicine a free pass because we’re fed up with conventional medicine.”