Barbara Adam investigates an unusual museum dedicated to Vietnamese herbal drinks. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
Even before he came to Vietnam and met the love of his life, Canada’s Maxime Godin-Murphy was interested in traditional medicine. And not only because his mother was into homeopathy when he was growing up.
Maxime’s interest took a back seat to traveling, falling in love with an astute Vietnamese businesswoman, finding a role in her business, getting married and having a child.
That businesswoman, Nguyen Thi Theu, and Maxime are the proud owners of the Nguyen Shack empire, which operates four friendly homestays: the original set up by Theu in 2012 near Can Tho in the Mekong Delta, another in picturesque Ninh Binh in Vietnam’s north, a third tucked away in an alley in Ho Chi Minh City and a fourth in Phong Na, near the spectacular Son Doong Cave.
At one point in all this expansion, Maxime fell ill with what turned out to be salmonella. Western medicine didn’t seem to help. “Nothing worked,” Maxime said. “Then I went to a traditional doctor and he fixed my problem like that,” and he clicks his fingers.
After this experience, Maxime became even more interested in Vietnamese traditional medicine, visiting many traditional doctors and spending months reading about the field.
After a while his interest turned to ruou thuoc, Vietnamese medicine wine.
Ruou thuoc is distilled rice wine infused with herbs, spices and, in the past, animals or animal parts, such as snake, tiger bone, seahorse or raven. The Vietnamese government has outlawed animal rice wine, although that doesn’t mean it’s no longer available.
Maxime began experimenting with medicine wine, much to his wife’s chagrin. Apparently “are you drinking again” echoed through the marital home quite regularly while Maxime was in the research phase of his latest project, Drink Vietnam: the Little Museum of Nguyen Shack.
Maxime’s “little musuem” is a front room-sized cafe-shop-showroom on the ground floor of the Ho Chi Minh City Nguyen Shack in an alley off Cach Mang Thang Tam Street.
The museum’s simple bamboo shelves contain about 150 types of infused spirits and about the same number of herbal tea blends, including a tea to soothe sore throats, made with hibiscus, peppermint, malva nuts and licorice.
Many of the infused spirits aren’t traditionally Vietnamese, but Maxime had a whole lot of fun “inventing” new flavours and combinations. He stresses he is not a qualified medical practitioner, and everything available in his museum is designed to educate, inform and pique people’s interest, rather than be regarded as actual medicine.
Some of Maxime’s concoctions were almost lost to human history. He was a bit to enthusiastic in taste-testing some of his best recipes … and ended up not being able to remember them the next day!
His Vietnamese absinthe is as I remember my one and only taste of the real deal … at a bluegrass night at a Czech bar in Melbourne many years ago.
Several different plants and herbs going into Maxime’s version, including ngai cuu, or wormwood, which is the base of the original spirit, and a small amount of betel leaf.
There is also a Christmas Everyday Tonic, Age Stop and Super Tonic, as well as red and yellow fruit blends.
All his medicine wine blends are based on rice wine from Kim Son Province in Vietnam’s north, known as the Bordeaux of Vietnam. The rice wine he uses is made by his sister-in-law.
As well as catering to tourists, those interested in herbal remedies and everyday lushes, Maxime hopes his museum will become popular with young people in Ho Chi Minh City, who will stop by for a shot of two of something quirky, or a cup of herbal tea, before heading out to a bar.
Medicinal herbs, used in tea or medicine wine
Ambarella is a fruit believed to boost the immune system, improve vision and skin health, help treat coughs and digestion problems and help in weight loss.
Bitter Melon or Bitter Gourd is used in the treatment of diabetes, hepatitis, malaria and to get rid of parasites. Also used as an aphrodisiac.
Black Cardamom is believed to be beneficial for those with high blood pressure, a weak immune system, halitosis, dandruff, respiratory infections and iron deficiency.
Figwort is used for cleansing and detoxifying and is believed to strengthen the lymphatic system.
Ginger is believed to boost the immune system, reduce fever, regulate blood sugar, aid digestion and increase hair health.
Gogi berries, also known as wolf berries, are used to improve energy, sleep quality, mental alertness, bowel regularity, detoxify the liver and boost fertility.
Gotu Kola, also known as Indian Pennywort, is known as a longevity herb and a general health tonic.
The herb has also been used to treat fever, syphilis, hepatitis, epilepsy, stomach ulcers, and diarrhoea.
Snake Gourd is believed to treat diabetes, induce abortion, reduce fever and relax the bowel.
Wormwood is used to stimulate appetite and sexual desire, induce sweating, treat Crohn’s Disease, insect bites and worm infestations.