My husband has a special relationship with ginseng. Sometimes when we hike in the woods, he’ll hover in one spot like a dowsing rod and say, "I know it’s right here somewhere." He’ll usually find it. He is a self-appointed guardian of ginseng. Every fall he’ll visit about half a dozen ginseng patches to make sure the scarlet berries are safely planted under the leaf cover before the birds can devour them.
We live in the rolling green hills of southeastern Vermont. It was because of my husband’s reputation as the steward of ginseng that Quang Van Nguyen was brought by a friend to our house, to go on a ginseng walk.
I watched as Quang climbed out of the car and stood awkwardly in the driveway. I left the others and walked around to the other side of the car to meet him. He was very slight of build and, apart from his Adam’s apple, looked more like a boy than a man. I had never seen an adult whose eyes were as clear and tender as a child’s.
You had to be practically telepathic to understand Quang’s attempt at speaking English. He told me that he was a doctor in Vietnam and that he practiced herbal medicine and acupuncture. During the walk, he stopped to see, smell and taste many plants. He was eager to see the plants growing on the top of the mountain because, he explained, plants that can withstand low temperatures are the most powerful.
My husband dug out a large and beautiful ginseng root and presented it to Quang. Then Quang took out of his pocket a red cloth bundle and carefully unwrapped it. Inside were three ginseng roots. They were dried and preserved, but they were not wrinkled and did not appear to be dehydrated. He took out a pocketknife and cut a few slices for us to try. The roots had a translucent quality and tasted fresh, even though they were bone dry.
Then something happened in which, all at once, I understood our friend’s excitement about introducing us to Quang. We had reached the top of the mountain and Quang started talking about tigers. He was asking us what Americans do when we come across a tiger. He was instructing us. I thought he was saying, "You take off your shirt and take several steps backward. Never turn your back on a tiger." He honestly didn’t know there weren’t any tigers in Vermont. That was the moment when I had my first inkling of how immensely different our spectrums of reality were.
Three weeks after our first meeting, our son Jovi was not well. A pain that he had been complaining about in his right hip had now become excruciating. I took him to every kind of doctor, but none were successful in diagnosing or treating him. I decided to take him to Quang, who was working at the time washing laundry in a nursing home in Bennington, about an hour’s drive away from us in Vermont.
Quang took our coats and then sat down behind a card table and waited for my son to sit opposite him. On the table was what appeared to be a paperback book covered up in a little red cloth pillowcase. Quang placed Jovi’s hand, palm up, on the cloth-covered book. He then traced an invisible line on his skin before placing his own three fingers on my son’s upturned wrist.
Quang began to read my son’s pulses. Something made me avert my eyes from Quang’s face. He was concentrating so hard on what he was dong that he was vulnerable to my scrutiny. To this day I never look at Quang’s face when he is reading pulses.
It was then that he made the diagnosis that my medical team at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York had missed entirely, a life-threatening infection inside the joint capsule of his hip. The hospital doctors had used the most advanced medical technology available. Exploratory surgery was performed and a biopsy was taken, but the culture came out negative. Basing their diagnosis on the results of the culture, the hospital diagnosed Jovi as having degenerative autoimmune arthritis.
It was because of Quang that I doubted the hospital’s diagnosis.
Quang sent us to the Western doctors to get "pharmacy medicine," because he said it would work much faster than herbal medicine in this case, but our doctors were not interested in exploring further.
Meanwhile, in Rio de Janeiro, Jovi’s Uncle Henrique heard of the standoff at Mount Sinai. His partner at work had a son with a similar-sounding problem. Henrique arranged for the doctor of the Brazilian boy to send a case history to our doctors in New York. Jovi tested positive for tuberculosis of the bone. It was just a matter of time before the germs would enter the bone marrow, and by then it would be too late. Thanks to Quang, we caught it in time.
I wanted to do something for Quang in return to show my deep gratitude to him for the part he played in my son’s complete recovery. I learned that his wife was still in Vietnam. Her name was on a waiting list at the Vietnamese embassy overseas for the past four years. Quang had been sending a monthly "fee" to the embassy of $300 "to keep her on the list." He had all but given up hope of seeing his wife again.
We didn’t see any police. We walked through a market, and I bought a new shirt and put it on. Then I put some things inside my old shirt and tied it into a bundle.
"Will you take this to my wife?" I asked Tam.
He said he would.
In Vietnam, men call their wives em, which means "little sister." I had written a note for Mai. It said, "Em, I went to the mountain, and then I escaped to Thailand. I was in a hurry and didn’t have enough time to let you know. Please forgive me. When I get to a free country I will send for you. Don’t worry. Quang."
I also put some other things inside the shirt – my watch, my last gold ring, and a new plastic zipper that I had found lying in the street. I knew Mai liked to sew.
…Our boat rode waves that were so steep and high that it seemed at times that our boat was standing on end. The rain was so heavy that it was difficult to see what was happening. We tried not to fall out of the boat while we were bailing out the water.
At one point during the storm I looked over the boat and saw a woman standing in the water, as if the ocean were only chest deep. She was bare-breasted and had long wet hair. She motioned with her hand for me to come with her.
I thought we were going to die, because she must have been a spirit coming to help our souls find our way to heaven. – Excerpt describing Quan’s escape from Vietnam
I promised Quang I would get his wife out of Vietnam. It took four years and the unrelenting support of Vermont’s senators James Jeffords and Patrick Leahy, and our congressman, Bernie Sanders.
It was during those four years as Quang’s legal advocate that I learned about his life, culture and education. He told me he was adopted as an infant by a 64-year-old monk named Thau who used traditional medicine and Buddhist magic to heal and protect people during the French and American wars. Thau’s intention was to raise Quang to follow in his footsteps, but Quang told me he gave his father no end of trouble. It was because our cultures were so different that I found his anecdotes to be utterly unpredictable and spellbinding.
ÊI had also been actively trying to understand the extent of Quang’s medical knowledge. I had the privilege of conferring with Dr. Leon Hammer, an internationally renowned authority on pulse diagnosis and President of Dragon Rises College of Oriental Medicine, in Gainesville, Fla. Dr. Hammer came to Vermont to meet Quang and confirmed my hopes that he was indeed a master physician who possessed medical knowledge and spiritual experience that had been phased out during the Communist-led cultural revolutions in China and Vietnam.
When Mai finally arrived and was reunited with her husband after 11 years of separation, I felt justified in asking Quang to accept me as an apprentice. He refused. When I asked him at a later date if we could write a book together, he agreed, though he really didn’t know what he was agreeing to. He had never even read a book (they didn’t have books where he grew up, aside from textbooks, poetry books and prayer books).
I began interviewing Quang, asking him countless questions to jog his memory. I recorded and transcribed 22 90-minute cassettes. Quang was like a person waking up from amnesia. The more I probed, the more he started to remember his former life in Vietnam. I wrote several chapters, but the writing was boring and flat. I decided to give the transcript to a published author and act as an editor, but when I read what she had written, I took the material back because she filled the pages with thoughts and emotions that Quang would never express. I tried a different author with the same bad result. I had no choice but to abandon the project.
Five years later, I watched a French film called Himalaya by Eric Vall*, in which Nepalese villagers played themselves in a fictional story that was filmed in their own timeless mountain village. That night when I returned home, I started to visualize certain episodes of Quang’s story and I began again to write. I submitted a chapter to a random (and wonderful) literary agent in New York who called me three days later to say she was sending us a contract. We found ourselves in a whirlwind. We were now under a deadline.
We began meeting once a week to put the whole story in order and fill in the gaps. The writing process we invented is another story unto itself; we pantomimed and drew a lot of pictures. We used our author’s advance to travel to the Mekong Delta, where Quang brought me to meet some of the people and to see many of the places in the book.
I was 15, but my aunt was still a head taller at 80. There was something changed about Aunt Gioi. She started to look frail. She had stopped dying her hair and using makeup. I held on to both her hands as if she was going to fade away altogether.
My father disappeared behind the house. When I saw him again, he was carrying a shovel and an empty woven sack and was headed into the coconut trees. I wondered what he was up to.
I followed him. He didn’t talk to me, but he didn’t tell me to go away either. My father never spoke much, except when he was teaching. He said that if he were to chatter all day long, he would spend his power for nothing.
He crossed the small pole bridge and stopped by a row of banana trees that were growing on the other side of the canal. He began parting the grass as if he were looking for something. I thought, "Oh, he’s got more gold buried around here."
He was mumbling to himself as he searched. Whatever treasure he buried, it must have been a long time ago, because there were tall bushes and mature bamboo growing on some of the places he looked,
I heard the whimpering sound of a dog and looked up to see Lucky at the other side of the canal.
I crossed the small bridge to play with Lucky for a while. When I came back to check on my father, he was digging. He had dug several holes and had left piles of earth here and there. This was taking far too long. I went off with Lucky again.
When I returned, I found my father on his hands and knees sifting through the soil. Next to him, on top of the sack, was a pile of small bones.
This was no treasure; it was a dead dog or something. Maybe he had buried a dog over the treasure so that if someone dug there they would think it was a dog’s grave and nothing more. It seemed as if my father was painstakingly searching for every little bone. I wondered why he was being so meticulous about finding a bunch of old dog bones.
Then I noticed a jawbone in the pile. It had blunt teeth.
I had a creepy feeling, as if the bones were from a human. I wanted to cry out, "Just what do you think you are doing?" but I knew better.
My father put all the mottled pieces of bone into the straw sack and stood up to leave.
"That’s it? No gold?" Then I thought, "This must be some kind of magic. Why else would he be making all this fuss?"
When we reached the house, my father started piling up brush to make a fire. When the flames were high, he threw the bones into the fire.
I asked, "Ba, are you making a magic spell to make me good?"
He said, "You are very good and curious."
I stood and watched the flames licking at the darkening sky.
My father told me to go back into the house to get some dinner. I came back much later and found my father sitting next to the fire. I sat down beside him.
He said softly, "When I die, I want you to put the ashes of these bones inside my coffin."
I whispered, "Whose bones are they?"
Now I was thoroughly confused. I knew that Co was still alive, because I had seen her last New Year. Even if she had recently died, there would still be some meat on her bones."
"Lan and I were to be married when we were 17. I loved her very much. One month before our wedding date, she got sick and died suddenly. I went crazy with grief. I went to Ky Vien Tu Temple and began my spiritual practice. I immersed myself in the Buddhist doctrines, I went out every day with my begging bowl and asked the villagers for mercy. After four years, my master began sending me to chant at funerals. I understood the people’s grief and I shared my broken heart with them, and they felt better. Before long I had many requests to chant at funerals.
"I cried for Lan at every funeral, but it gave me no relief. I had the idea to become a doctor to save people’s lives.
"I went to talk with my father, who was a powerful doctor, more powerful than I am now, and told him I wanted to become like him."
I sat looking into the fire in silence; I had never heard my father speak about his problems before. At one point he told me to go inside to bed.
My father kept the fire going through the night. When I woke up the next day, he was asleep on his hammock in the front room. After lunch, he called me to the altar. He took down a small wooden box and said, "This box contains the ashes of my first wife, Lan. When I die, put this box into my coffin with me." He placed the little box into my hands. I saw that he had carved it himself.
We believe that once we die, our bones are where our spirits reside when they come back to visit this world. – Excerpt from Fourth Uncle in the Mountain
Today, Quang works out of a tiny office on the side of his small house. He is devoted to his many patients who come to see him from as far away as Texas.
Healing charm from the Seven Mountains in Vietnam:
An Edge Life Expo appearance
The shamanistic tradition of administering healing and protection charms is still practiced by some Buddhist monks in Vietnam, although this practice predates Buddhism. Charms such as this one are infused with intention and power through the daily practice of drawing the image in conjunction with chanting an incantation.
Considered the home of Buddhist magic and healing in Vietnam, the Seven Mountains (That Son) is a small mountain range on the southern Vietnamese/Cambodian border. Throughout the ages, the Seven Mountains have been a special destination for spiritual initiates from all over Asia to practice qi (chi, or life force energy) cultivation and healing.
Virtually inaccessible until recent times, each of the Seven Mountains was an impenetrable fortress of primordial jungle, home to tigers and the largest pythons on earth and surrounded by crocodile-infested marshes and flood lands. Following a prophesy made by a beloved healer in the region that in a hundred year’s time, a war of apocalyptic proportions would eventually destroy the spiritual legacy of Vietnam (the French War started 97 years later in 1946), a number of culturally diverse spiritual communities were founded, comprising Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, Thai and Lao peoples.
It was during this time that Quang’s grandfather ventured into these mountains to learn healing. Quang, his father and grandfather and others who studied healing in the Seven Mountains, were known throughout South Vietnam as cuu dan do the, the ones who healed people and rescued mankind.
In celebration of the paperback release of his book, Fourth Uncle in the Mountain, Quang will be making a rare appearance at the Edge Life Expo, at a booth opposite the front entrance, where he will sign books and administering charms as blessings. Visitors are welcome to ask for blessings to help with specific health conditions and life challenges.