Beautiful Vietnam
Vietnam: the purple marks of belonging
  • | Guardian Weekly | June 16, 2010 09:13 AM

Cao gio is an indelible part of local medicine. It might be a placebo, but it is also a social bond and a link with the past.

Farmers move rice in boats along flooded paddy fields in Vietnam. Photograph: Ngoc Ha/EPA

My girlfriend, Thuy, is lying face down on the floor, naked from the waist up, her head resting on a pillow. An old woman straddles her and, with rhythmic sweeping motions, rubs a silver coin into the exposed flesh. Thuy's back is covered in bruises – vivid purple stripes extending symmetrically outwards from her spine. On a nearby bed two children are playing cards. In a hammock an old man is snoring. Nobody seems interested in the torture scene being enacted under their noses.

Actually, this is not torture but an everyday slice of life. When I first arrived I was bewildered by the number of people walking around with grotesque markings on their skin – women with purple bruises running down their necks; shirtless men flaunting the tracery of welt marks across their backs.

Enlightenment came abruptly and comically. I arranged to meet a pretty Vietnamese girl in a restaurant. In I walked, and there she sat, smiling sweetly, apparently oblivious to the purple blemishes all over her neck. My first thought was: "Lovebites!" I didn't tell her this, instead gently broaching the subject of her neck ... er … injuries. Whereupon she burst out laughing and initiated me into the world of cao gio.

In England, if you have a headache or a pain, you take aspirin. In Vietnam you allow your body to be scraped with a coin, or spoon or similar object. The skin is first lubricated with a balm or oil and the coin is rubbed firmly and repeatedly in a linear pattern until blood appears under the skin. This is cao gio (pronounced "cow yaw"), which literally means "catch the wind". Illnesses are believed to be caused by an excess of wind and cao gio is believed to release the excess wind and restore balance.

Does it work? The Vietnamese seem to think so, but, to my sceptical Western mind, it is the patient's belief in the efficacy of cao gio, plus the therapeutic effect of massaging that are responsible for any cure.

Cao gio – along with herbalists, acupuncturists, sorcerers, fortune-tellers and priests – is an indelible part of Vietnamese medicine. More than anything, cao gio is a social bond, a link with the past and with your neighbours – a highly visible sign that you are part of tradition and truly Vietnamese. One of these days, I might try it myself.

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