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Whether your wondering what to expect during your travels trough Vietnam or suffering from various symptoms, the following health guide provides a good starting point for health information. We provide some useful reference at the bottom of this page for further research, and recommend you consider vaccinations or medication if available.

Health care availability
Traditional medicine
Drinking water
Futher information

Health care availability

The significant improvement in Vietnam's economy has brought with it some major advances in public health, though rural areas can still pose a problem when it comes to finding good health care. If you become seriously ill in rural Vietnam, get to Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) or Hanoi as quickly as you can. If you need any type of surgery or other extensive treatment, don't hesitate to fly to Bangkok, Hong Kong or another renowned medical centre as soon as possible. Government hospitals in Vietnam can be overcrowded and basic. The private clinics in Hanoi and HCMC should be your first port of call. They are familiar with the local resources and can organise evacuations if necessary. Self-treatment may be appropriate if your problem is minor (e.g. travellers' diarrhea), you are carrying the appropriate medication and you cannot attend a recommended clinic. If you think you may have a serious disease, especially malaria, do not waste time - travel to the nearest quality facility to receive attention. It is always better to be assessed by a doctor than to rely on self-treatment. Buying medication over the counter is not recommended, as fake medications and poorly stored or out of-date drugs are common. Check the expiry dates on any medicines you buy. If you need special medication then take it with you.
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Traditional medicine

A number of traditional medical treatments are practiced in Vietnam. Herbal medicine, much of it imported from China, is widely available and sometimes very effective. As with Western medicine, self-diagnosis is not advisable, see a doctor. Traditional Chinese doctors are found wherever a large Chinese community exists, including HCMC, Hanoi and Hoi An. If you visit traditional Chinese doctors, you might be surprised by what they discover about your body. For example, the doctor will almost certainly take your pulse and then may perhaps tell you that you have a 'slippery' or 'thready' pulse. They have identified more than 30 different kinds of pulse. A pulse could be empty, prison, leisurely, bowstring, irregular or even regularly irregular. The doctor may then examine your tongue to sec if it is slippery, dry, pale, greasy, has a thick coating or possibly no coating at all. The doctor, having discovered your ailment, such as wet heat, as evidenced by a slippery pulse and a red greasy tongue, will prescribe the proper herbs for your condition. Once you have a diagnosis you may be treated by moxibustion, a traditional treatment whereby various types of herbs, rolled into what looks tike a ball of fluffy cotton, are held near the skin and ignited. A slight variation of this method is to place the herb on a slice of ginger and then ignite it. The idea is to apply the maximum amount of heat possible without burning the patient. This heat treatment is supposed to be very good for diseases such as arthritis. It is common to see Vietnamese people with long bands of red welts on their necks, foreheads and backs. Don't worry, this is not some kind of hideous skin disease, but rather a treatment known as cao gio, literally 'scrape wind'. In traditional Vietnamese folk medicine, many illnesses are attributed to 'poisonous wind', which can be released by applying eucalyptus oil or tiger balm and scraping the skin with a spoon or coin, thus raising the welts. The results aren't pretty, but the locals say this treatment is good for the common cold, fatigue, headaches and other ailments. Whether the cure hurts less than the disease is something one can only judge from experience. Another technique to battle bad breezes is called giac hoi. This one employs suction cups, typically made of bamboo or glass, which are placed on the patient's skin. A burning piece of alcohol-soaked cotton is briefly put inside the cup to drive out the air before it is applied. As the cup cools, a partial vacuum is produced, leaving a nasty-looking but harmless red circular mark on the skin, which goes away in a few days. Looks pretty weird on the forehead though! There is some solid evidence attesting to the efficacy of acupuncture. Some major surgical operations have been performed using acupuncture as the only anesthetic (this works best on the head). In this case, a small electric current (from batteries) is passed through the needles. If done properly the practice doesn't hurt. Knowing where to insert the needle is crucial. Acupuncturists have identified more than 2000 insertion points, but only about 150 are commonly used. The exact mechanism by which it works is not fully understood. Practitioners talk of energy channels or meridians that connect the needle insertion point to the particular organ, gland or joint being treated. The acupuncture point is sometimes quite far from the area of the body being treated.
Non-sterile acupuncture needles pose a genuine health risk in this era of AIDS. You would be wise to purchase your own acupuncture needles if you plan on having this treatment in Vietnam.
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Drinking water

The number one rule is be careful of the water, ice can be particularly risky; if you don't know for certain that the water is safe, assume the worst. However, a lot of the ice in Vietnam comes from factories introduced by the French, so it is as safe as the bottled water.
Following these rules will help you avoid water-borne diseases

  • Never drink tap water
  • Bottled water is generally safe - check the seal is intact at purchase
  • Boiling water is the most efficient method of purifying it
  • The best chemical purifier is iodine. It should not be used by pregnant women or those people who suffer with thyroid problems
  • Water filters should filter out viruses. Ensure your filter has a chemical barrier such as iodine and a small pore size, i.e. less than four microns

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Further information

In relation to health and travel related issues:

UK: The National Travel Health Network and Centre

Travel health information for people travelling abroad from the UK

The Australian Government's travel advisory and consular assistance service

World Health Organization: International Travel and Health

The Travel Advisory Group

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