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Huế's Fantastic Herbs and Where to Find Them, Now in Book Form

Have you ever walked past a plant and wondered "Hey, I wonder what that could do?"

Such curiosity is what ultimately led Henry Herbert to spend two years writing the new book, Wild Medicinal Plants of Central Vietnam. Herbert, who lives in Huế, took a fairly circuitous route to get to this point. "After graduating in the United Kingdom, I went to work as a web developer in London," he tells Saigoneer in a call. This was six years ago, and he quickly discovered that he was deeply unhappy: "I just felt completely devoid of meaning in my life, utterly down, depressed actually. It was a really difficult time in my life." 

Eventually he quit, sold most of his belongings, and decamped from London in order to volunteer at farms, initially in South Africa, and then in Columbia. "I immersed myself in that and through working alongside people who are much more knowledgeable than me, learned about plant life and farming," Herbert says. "I'd top that up with courses and intensive reading, but most of it came through experience."

After spending the early part of the pandemic in Columbia, Herbert moved to Hanoi, where he struggled with the stress of a major city for a year before relocating with his wife, Linh, to Huế. "It's a beautiful place," he says. "The nature is majestic and lovely, and there's lots of space to walk around. It was much, much more suitable."

Herbert walking in a forest outside of Huế.

The duo then began volunteering at a series of local organizations including the Lotus Education Farm, and at the same time Herbert launched a Facebook page called Đom Đóm Permaculture in order to share information about the region's native flora. This is where the seeds of the book took root.

"The whole book thing started then because I'd started to learn more and more about wild plants just through working with people," Herbert recalls. "I also have a dog and I'd often take him on walks in the forest, and I'd meet local people harvesting various plants in the forest or in the fields."

Herbert, who, in his words, speaks "decent, not perfect" Vietnamese, would stop and ask people what they were collecting and what they used it for. "My curiosity was to just know more and ask more questions and do my own research," he said. "It took about two years of asking a lot of people, a lot of research, a lot of trying things myself, because I wanted to back up what people were saying with what has been scientifically proven." 

The result is a book featuring 203 different species of flora found in the wild around Huế, broken down into annual herbs and grasses; perennial herbs, succulents and cacti; shrubs; vines and climbing plants; trees; and ferns and aquatic plants. Accompanied by color photos, each species includes the local name, any other Vietnamese name and, if available, the English name, as well as details on how to identify the plant, which areas and when to find it, and the traditional medicinal uses it has. There are also chapters on how to respectfully harvest plants in order to avoid taking too much, and how to clean and ultimately prepare a plant for medicinal use. 

Herbert gathering medicinal plants.

As Herbert dove deeper into his book research, he realized that most of the knowledge related to these plants and how they can be used had a single repository: members of elder generations. "Traditionally, it would pass down from generation to generation; that's how the knowledge got there in the first place," he said. "But increasingly, that's being ignored. Young people would rather go to the city and earn money or watch TV and not listen to grandma's knowledge." 

Herbert had first-hand experience with this, as his grandmother in the UK was a keen botanist: "She loved to teach me about certain plants, and mostly I just remember not really listening and not really caring, and that's increasingly happening. It would be an absolute shame if this knowledge is lost." 

While he hopes the book can be a humble contribution to the storage of this expertise, Herbert was also routinely astonished by just how accurate the wisdom the people he spoke to was.

"I'd ask someone what they're using a plant for, and they'd tell me, 'I'm picking this one and using it to wash my skin because of scabies or some kind of infection,' and on multiple occasions I would go back and look the plant up online," he explains. "And eventually I'd be able to track down the scientific name and do a whole host of reading in English and find scientific studies, and it's always exactly what they said it is."

"It's amazing," he goes on, "what they say they're using it for is exactly what it's for, whether anti-inflammatory properties or good for bathing sores on the skin or ringworm. That just absolutely blew my mind, the fact that these people have never read any scientific paper or book, it's just known." 

Ultimately, Herbert hopes that Wild Medicinal Plants of Central Vietnam can, if nothing else, remind us of the importance of respecting those who came before us. 

"I think we often kind of turn our nose up at what we might think of as homeopathy stuff," he says. "There can be stuff that doesn't work, of course, and there can be ineffective treatments, but there's a reason why this has been passed down for generations for so long." 

You can order a copy of Wild Medicinal Plants of Central Vietnam through the Đom Đóm Permaculture page. A portion of the proceeds will go towards Tịnh Trúc Gia, a community for young adults living with disabilities in Huế.

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