Many people in Vietnam turn to their gardens when it comes to curing sicknesses. Lorcan Lovett finds out about some of the most favoured Vietnamese home remedies. Photo by Jonny Edbrooke.

In a time long before the ubiquitous pharmacies lined the streets, headaches, colds and other common ailments were treated with whatever was growing in the garden.

Tropical plants became a cornerstone of Traditional Vietnamese Medicine, and through centuries of experimenting, each generation passed down their knowledge to the next, ensuring poor people could always access some form of treatment.

However this knowledge is being dissolved with the advent of factory pills. Like many of her peers, grandmother Nguyen Thi Ngoc Loan, 55, from Saigon, is still a staunch believer in home remedies.

She looks to the garden every time one of her family has a medical problem, applying Thuoc Nam, or ‘Southern Medicine’ before taking any other action.

“You can pick plants up anytime and it does not cost you anything,” she says. “We believe that anything traditional is better than modern.”

Loan’s approach to sickness involves the balancing of the yin (cold) and yang (hot) energy in the body by introducing a measure of whatever is felt to be lacking through medicines or food.

As the thinking goes, an illness is a medical manifestation of these yin-yang imbalances, and modern medicine brings only a surplus of hot yang energy. Home remedies are best at finding the balance that leads to healing, says Loan.

Her methods may send a ripple of discontent among skeptical readers, but those in the clutch of a piercing migraine are unlikely to refuse anything which may alleviate their pain.

For headaches, Loan rubs eucalyptus oil over the forehead and then pinches the bridge of the nose again and again until the skin is red. A cup of ginger tea for the sufferer follows soon after.

Another similarly discomforting practice is coining therapy, which involves putting ointment on the painful spot and then rubbing a coin or the edge of a spoon vigorously over the bones until an abrasion is seen.

Aloe Vera is well known for its skin-boosting qualities and in Vietnam it’s close to reaching panacea status.

Its juice destroys the toxins in your body, Loan says, and is especially good for digestion and the liver, while the gel can cure acne, sunburn and fight ageing by keeping the skin firm.

Hangovers are promptly banished with lemon juice with sugar, says the grandmother, although that pales in comparison to the capabilities of the average looking basket plant (callisia fragrans), or cay luoc vang, which is slated to cure cancer as well as many other illnesses when cooked and drank.

Loan says she’s always on the hunt for the fleshy rau tan day la, known as Mexican mint (plectranthus amboinicus), whose potent, earthly smell changes to a minty scent after it’s cut. The juice is used to treat coughs, sore throats and blocked noses.

In her family, the go-to treatment for the common cold is lemongrass and pomelo leaves boiled together in water.

Japanese honeysuckle (lonicera japonica), or day nhan long, is Loan’s personal favourite – the most effective, she says. You pick the top of the vine or the biggest leaf, clean it and then steam or boil it to help lower fevers by inducing sweat. Its antibiotic elements are also said to kill bacteria while others use it as a mild laxative. Loan says it also works for people who cannot sleep.

Loan adds that drinking the broth of boiled cay cho de, known as stonebreaker (phyllanthus niruri) is a good detox and combats jaundice.

She once treated her daughter’s warts too, with cay dam but, or hibiscus, mincing the pretty red leaves and applying them to the growths.

“If you take too much modern medicine you will leave bad things inside you,” she says. “People should focus on home remedies rather than modern medicine because it has no side effects and you know what you’re getting.”

Plants are not kept in the fridge but rather used straight away. And they’re not used just for physical ailments. Some shrubs are cultivated for spiritual matters such as bathing with pomelo leaves before Tet to wash away all bad events endured by a person in that year.