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Meet the man saving snake bite victims in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta

Saturday, January 09, 2021, 09:51 GMT+7
Meet the man saving snake bite victims in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta
After saving lives for more than two decades, Ha Van Thanh is now content with his pastoral life in U Minh District, located in Ca Mau Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Pham Quoc Rin / Tuoi Tre

For nearly 20 years, Ha Van Thanh, an herbalist-turned-physician in the Mekong Delta’s Ca Mau Province, has provided free treatments to snakebite victims.

Throughout Khanh Thuan Commune in U Minh District, Ca Mau Province, Thanh, known to his neighbors as Ba Thanh, is the go-to man for help in curing dangerous snakebites.

For two decades, the 63-year-old herbalist has been using a mixture of homegrown and locally picked herbs to give life-saving treatment and care to victims of venomous snakebites in the region.

Though Vietnamese people have used herbal remedies for generations, Thanh’s herbal concoctions are prized for their 100 percent success rate in curing life-threatening bites and injuries.

A healer with a heart of gold

Part of Ha Van Thanh’s garden of herbal plants in U Minh District, located in Ca Mau Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Pham Quoc Rin / Tuoi Tre
Part of Ha Van Thanh’s garden of herbal plants in U Minh District, located in Ca Mau Province, southern Vietnam. Photo: Pham Quoc Rin / Tuoi Tre

Many in Vietnam believe that treating snake bites brings physicians bad luck, leading to poverty or death for those who make money off snake-related professions.

Despite what fate may have in store, Thanh is more focused on saving the lives than local myths. For more than two decades, he and his wife have spent their time treating snake bite victims and nursing them back to health.

Thanh’s father, originally from Ca Mau Province, met his mother, a member of the Thai ethnic minority group inhabiting Trieu Xuan District in the north-central province of Thanh Hoa, during the American War in Vietnam.

When Thanh’s father would travel away from home, Thanh would accompany his mother into the forest to pick the herbs needed to treat snake bite wounds. When the war ended in 1975, Thanh’s parents settled in Ca Mau.

In 1997, Thanh took his wife and their five children to U Minh Forest, where they built a new life by reclaiming a five-hectare plot of land. They’ve lived there ever since, despite the hordes of snakes that seemed to constantly be slithering into the homes and gardens of local residents.

“I made an oath not to slaughter snakes, become involved in snake trading activities, or make use of snake bite cures for my personal gain,” he said. “I know that if I go against the vow, the reptiles will take their vengeance.”

Thanh shared that the fear of snakes in U Minh District’s Hamlet 20 was once so widespread that residents used to fear going out at night. Still, venomous snakes, such as cobras, often found their way into households. As the hamlet only had limited access to medical treatment, those who were bitten often died.

According to Thanh, the situation has only slightly improved.

Ha Van Thanh. Photo: Pham Quoc Rin / Tuoi Tre
Ha Van Thanh. Photo: Pham Quoc Rin / Tuoi Tre

In one recent case, a local man was rushed to Khanh Thuan Commune Clinic with swollen legs and foaming in the mouth following a snakebite. Clinicians directed the patient’s family to rush him to a province-level hospital for treatment. Halfway through the commute to the hospital, they changed their route and decided to see Thanh for treatment instead. 

Thanh applied an herbal balm to the bite and fed the man a tonic, saving the man’s life in what many described as a miracle.

Thanh’s success in curing snakebites has made him and his wife, Le Thi Nghia, the go-to couple in snake-related emergencies. According to Thanh, the duo often treat four to five victims in a single evening. Of course, each treatment Thanh offers is free-of-charge in order to ensure that local myths about harm befalling those who profit off snakes do not come true.

“My wife and I lead a simple life. If patients can live, that’s enough to make us happy. We don’t expect anything other than casual greetings if they bump into us on the street,” he said.

Thanh shared that he is happy about his rustic life, which he tries to keep as simple as possible, raking in an annual revenue of more than VND100 million (US$4,322) from cajuput forestry and poultry farming.

Despite the devastating damage and even loss of life that snakes cause, Thanh does not bear any ill feeling against the reptiles.

“There are fewer snakes now than in the past. They mean no harm and only strike in self-defense,” he noted.

A large part of Thanh’s garden is dedicated to growing the herbal plants he uses in his treatments.

Most of the herbs can be found in abundance across U Minh Forest, but there are some that are painstakingly sought from elsewhere, according to the veteran herbalist.

Appreciation of Thanh’s efforts also comes from local doctors and authorities.

“Since Thanh began to practice herb-based medicine, his patients who are left in critical condition following venomous snakebites have all survived,” said Tran Cong Muoi, deputy chairman of Khanh Thuan Commune People’s Committee.

“Traditional herb-based remedies for snakebites have been scientifically and clinically tested. These practitioners provide first aid and a calming effect to the victims,” Dr. Nguyen Huu Dang, head of the commune clinic, said, adding the victims need to be rushed to hospital afterwards for further treatment.

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Ngoc Hanh - Pham Quoc Rin / Tuoi Tre News

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