The pharmacy next to the Baby Factory near my house.

Virtually anyone traveling abroad will face some kind of medical issue during their travels. Finding medicine in Vietnam is not difficult, but it is different.

Whether you contract dengue fever, malaria, traveler’s diarrhea, or just are dealing with a nasty hangover from too much bia hoi (fresh-made beer), eventually you’re going to have to get something to help you recover. But finding what you need when you are in pain and not at your mental peak is a daunting prospect.

I’ve been fortunate enough to only have a few medical issues, and most times I can get what I want, when I need it… now. A year ago? Maybe not so much. I take a few daily medications, and, as I’ve documented in my post of medieval bodily horrors, suffer the occasional gout attack. Then there are all those times I went in unprepared, sick or in pain, and left with a product that didn’t help at all (when I was able to get anything at all).

It’s very strange to try and initially find the things you’re looking for, things that you would normally self-diagnose and self-treat. For instance, you’re in a place that looks like a Big Box store (more or less). They’ve got everything from pet food to fresh produce to shoes to fake plants. But can you get something like Ibuprofen or band-aids at a place like this? Oh, hell no!

All health-related products are only for sale at sanctioned pharmacies, which can generally be found clustered around one of the city’s myriad hospitals (which are themselves each highly specialized. If we were Vietnamese, for instance, we wouldn’t go to the baby factory hospital for abdominal pains. As if we could tell which hospital was which). Finding a pharmacy that dispensed one of my daily medications in 2013 was difficult – it was really only guaranteed to be at one pharmacy in a district far from me, because that’s where the hospital that treated this family of illnesses was located.

Pharmacies carry both pharmaceutical/Western medications (Nha Thuoc Tay) and traditional herbal remedies (Nha Thuoc), as well as things like some beauty products, rubbing alcohol, and items that would be common over-the-counter products in America, like Nyquil, allergy, or diarrhea relief meds. Even something as simple as an ace bandage needs to be purchased at such a location.

But everyone gets sick once in a while. How do you ensure you’re getting something that you are confident will help (that last part is critical, in my eyes), and not some tangentially-related placebo? Or, worse, something that’s so ineffectual that you’ve got to drag yourself to the pharmacy to try again?

Some tips for getting what you need, when you need it:

  • In HCMC, pharmacies are usually identifiable by a sign with the Medical Cross, “Pharma,” “Pharmacy,” or some X-treme mixture. Pharmacies will usually be clearly identified by the stacks of medication and signage on the street side.
  • Don’t assume that pharmacists will be able to speak English. If you’re lucky, there’s a single person there that can at least understand a little… but no guarantees.
Easy to spot symbol for pharmacies.
  • If it’s simple (bandages, ibuprofen, NSAIDs, rubbing alcohol), you can usually just walk in and ask for it in English, or write it down (although try not to confuse the issue by adding plural suffixes). The majority of these products have English on their labels and pharmacists see them every day.
  • Not everything needs a prescription, and usually, an old prescription will do for a fresh refill of the same medication. However… some especially time-sensitive or long-term-dangerous medicines DO require successive ‘scripts.
  • If you’re used to a particular OTC med, come in prepared with the specific name written down (if it has a medical name… brand and generic names can vary wildly) or a picture of it.
  • If you’re experiencing a resurgence of an old illness or injury, do yourself a favor and translate the original problem, or a few key words (i.e. Stomach, indigestion, acid reflux) to help the pharmacist get on the right track. SUPER IMPORTANT for pre-existing conditions where you know exactly what you need, but don’t need to see a doctor to get it straightened out.
  • If you have no idea what your problem is, consider going to a western doctor. They do exist, and while they’re expensive compared to local doctors (but still so, so, so much cheaper than American doctor appointments), you have the added benefit of being able to describe your symptoms to an English-speaking doctor who has most likely treated other foreigners with similar symptoms. They don’t specialize in Tropical Medicine for nothing!
Good luck, and stay well! Traveling is a life-changing adventure – it sucks to be sick for it!
Got any good tips for getting the help you need in a foreign country? Please leave them in the comments!