As I turned down Lãn Ông street, two things struck me. The first was how quiet it is compared to the rest of Hanoi’s Old Quarter: The flow of motorbikes is less incessant, the lights a notch dimmer. The second was the smell: somewhat musty, sometimes sweet, and unmistakably herbal.
I was on Vietnam’s “traditional medicine street.” Shophouses all along the row were stacked with herbs and medicines. Dark-colored ointments filled glass bottles. Red ginseng and artichoke tea was packed in cardboard boxes. Plastic bags were stuffed with monk fruit, lotus seeds, and strips of bark. But I had come in search of something a bit more elusive: rhino horn.
Although banned in Vietnam, rhino horn is still available for purchase—if you know how to find it. The Southeast Asian nation is the largest consumer of rhino horns in the world, and the illicit trade is so strong that it’s fueling a poaching crisis in South Africa, where more than 1,000 rhinos have been killed in the past year alone. In one of the most recent arrests, police seized two frozen tigers cubs, four lion pelts, and nearly 80 pounds of rhino horns in raids conducted across the country’s capital, Hanoi.
The Vietnamese government is now facing fierce international pressure to put an end to the crisis, before rhino populations are devastated beyond repair. But weeding out rhino-horn consumers is a challenge. A piece of horn used to be sought after by older Vietnamese folk, who would visit traditional medicine shops in Lãn Ông street and elsewhere for that special ingredient to add to herbal tonics. But these days, it’s wealthy young businessmen driving the demand—and their interest in horns lies beyond its purported medicinal benefits.