A group of Red Dao women in vietnam’s north are dedicated to the task of protecting a precious medicinal herb at risk from growing popularity.

By Grant J. Riley on July 07,2018 08:00 AM


photos:Grant J. Riley

When I first went to Ta Phin village in northern Lao Cai province three years ago I had to dismount from my moped at the base of a muddy slope. It was about a kilometre away from my destination, but by the look on the faces of the small crowd of local people around me there was no other way to get through but by foot. So, somewhat reluctantly, I parked my bike along with half a dozen others and squelched onwards. I have regularly visited the area since, but upon my most recent visit I saw that things are beginning to change noticeably: a bigger road is coming.


Ta Phin is situated in the mountains of north-western Vietnam near Sapa and the border with China. These verdant hills and valleys consist of iconic terraced rice fields and are inhabited by a colourful collection of Vietnam’s ethnic minorities.

Most Vietnamese, 87%, are from what is known as the ‘Kinh’ ethnic group, but there are 54 separate groups living within these borders. This complex assemblage of communities has as an equally diverse historical background: some are thought to have arrived over 2,000 years ago, while others are more recent, from over the last 500 years or so. Each ethnic group has their own tales of diaspora; whatever their story they found a home and settled in Vietnam.


Ta Phin village is predominately Red Dao. The settlement itself is a mere crossroads of two muddied tracks. Ethnically-garbed women sit in clusters embroidering their wares. The Red Dao women are easily identified by their distinctive bright red and white headscarves and indigo dyed hemp jackets and trousers, at times fronted by complex silver jewellery and all elaborately embroidered with distinct colours and motifs. I was privileged to have some of the stories of their embroidery translated for me and was surprised to hear that many of the intricate patterns depicted their diaspora. Journeys over mountains, changes in trees from fruit to pines and curiously bright yellow and gold swastikas. ‘What are these?’ I enquire. ‘Ah, they are the tiger’s footprints in the snow.’

One particular family I have stayed with over time have allowed me to gain an insight into their ancient way of life. Their homestead, down by the river, is where my lovely friend Tan Ta May and her husband Sieu live. May is a Red Dao medicine woman - the Dao are renowned for their wisdom in regard to plant medicine. Here the extended family run a small business for herbal bathing. Wooden tubs are filled with an extremely hot brew concocted from local plants and trees. One immerses into a sweltering hot tub and slowly sinks into the medicinal infusion. It’s a heady and steamy experience. As hot as one can bear, yet with windows open to views of rice terraces, lush hillsides and water buffaloes - all accompanied by the babble of the adjacent stream; it’s a simple paradise. Whether to alleviate the aching limbs of hard worked land labourers to detoxicate, or simply to relax, this ‘therapy’ is at least locally a well-known cure-all and May and Sieu have a reputation for running a good business.

Traditionally the main ingredients for this treatment have been locally foraged, but visitors are coming from further afield and demand for the baths is increasing. Larger commercial operations are also in the main town and surrounding areas. The concentrated liquid for these baths can also now be bought by the bottle. Other vital ingredients have been concentrated into essential oils and now soaps are also being made. It’s proving very popular among Vietnamese people and trade is increasing into northern cities such as Hanoi and even as far south as HCMC. All good for business but, nonetheless, the forest supply is finite.


And here is the positivity I encountered. Through an amalgamation of a Red Dao cooperative formed in 2015 and a Vietnamese NGO and with funding from the Vietnamese Government and some foreign investment, a little bit of cash is hopefully going to go a long way to protect at least one of the essential herbal ingredients used by the group.

The plant is known locally as Chua Du and as Elsholtziapenduliflora by scientists. A relatively tall plant of the mint family, with a delightful aroma and almost magical properties, I personally call it ‘magic oil’. I use the concentrated form on a daily basis. I live in one of the most polluted cities in the world - Hanoi. The oil can be rubbed on your chest, face and head and it immediately relives breathing, blocked sinuses and gives a sense of calm - a wonder it truly is.

So, on my most recent visit the main question on my mind was: ‘How was money going to help protect an endangered plant?’ Upon arrival, May walked us up and down some serious hills and deep into the forest. Here we arrived at extremely isolated small holdings. Only women and children are home - the men are out ploughing the terraces for the next season of rice. Surrounding these large, dark and smoky old wooden houses are farms that simply blend into the surrounding forest. From the chickens in the wood pile to the pigs in their sites, all seemingly merge quite naturally. As we stepped into the forest I saw pots of orchids under the canopy, one essential source of income for these mountain dwellers. And then through marshy areas and onto the forest edge I was introduced to patches of Chua Du and witnessed the careful harvesting of the wild plant. Deftly scythed to ensure regrowth and with a quick demonstration of how easily it is to propagate by simply taking a stem and sticking it back in the mud.

‘How, then, is cash going to prevent over-harvesting?’ It is simply a matter of land and time management among the entirely female cooperative. With some money and an emphasis on the importance of these forest plants, the Dao women are able to prioritise attention to their foraging activities. It gives value to the wooded area where the Chua Du grows and may prevent forest clearance for future arable growth or livestock grazing. The investment will also allow for simple fencing to protect against free-range buffaloes.

Last year May’s own operation required 14 tons of Chua Du and 700 kg of the plant is needed to make just 1 litre of essential oil. She is not alone; many people in this region are commercialising their plant medicine enterprises and I am so grateful to have witnessed the sensible, sustainable management of these wild herbs.

These foragers are now forest farmers.

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