Virginia McKenna's visit: Part 1

It was early November and there she was sitting in the Hong Kong departure lounge by the gate for Hanoi. Virginia McKenna had just flown in overnight from London but looked fresh as a daisy and was raring to go. We were leaving for Vietnam where we were to meet up with Tuan our Vietnam Director and team, and join freelance journalist Simon Parry who was doing a story about the farmed bears.

Tuan had managed to organise a visit to some farms and it would be Virginia's first time to see these caged victims first hand - and it was clear that although she knew she "must" go, she really wasn't looking forward to this visit at all.

First job first - and our arrival into Hanoi saw Tuan whisking us off to a meeting with Dr Huong, who heads up the countrywide association of traditional medicine practitioners, where he gave us some wonderful news. Following a meeting that Tuan and I had attended in September (where he and Tuan made presentations about the bears and associated problems with contaminated bile), all 150 members of the associations represented at this meeting had now pledged never to prescribe or promote bear bile.

Dr Huong was now introducing this pledge into the Vietnam Traditional Medicine Association's articles and regulations, and contacting all 7,000 members countrywide. He told us he believed that in another five years, the sale of bear bile could have ended completely.

Virginia wondered whether the people who took bile would be influenced by seeing the tragic condition of the bears - and Dr Huong replied that until it was more widely known that bile contained contaminants that could harm or kill, he didn't think those people would stop. I asked him if he'd treated anyone recently who had taken bear bile with negative effects, and we all listened wide-eyed as he said he was treating a patient who had drank bear bile with rice wine. The patient's nails were turning black and falling out. Dr Huong said he had had told the patient that if he continued, he would die.

Then it was off to the traditional medicine shops in Hanoi's famous Lan Ong Street with Tuan, and Chinh and Thuy, who were helping to investigate and translate. Virginia pretended to feel rather queasy with a liver problem, asking what would the pharmacists recommend? In the third shop we visited, the female owner advised that Virginia would benefit from bear bile as it was especially good for liver-related problems and, before we knew it, she had thrust a box of bile into our hands. Even more astonishingly, the bile originated from China - a bear farm literally just down the road from where our rescue centre sits in Chengdu, and the address and contact details clearly on the box. This in itself was illegal - and now we had the box, and pictures, to prove it.

The bile cost US$20 and the pharmacist confirmed that it was new and recently imported - clearly evidenced by the sell-by date too. Now Toby in China will be passing these details to our Government partners and I'll be discussing this during our presentations later this week at the European Parliament.

That afternoon, everyone was relieved to drive up to Tam Dao and go and see the bears. Virginia renamed "Trouble" bear, "Leila" as a promise to a very kind Born Free supporter and now bear sponsor, who had named Leila in memory of her dearly departed friend. It couldn't have worked out better - as Virginia stood there outside the bear den - there was Leila, poking her nose curiously through the den bars and gently sniffing her new-found friend.

As we walked around - and met up with my lovely, lovely friend Jane who had come over to Hanoi on her way from Australia to the UK and her gorgeous daughter Molly - we spent a wonderful few hours enjoying silly bears having a marvellous time playing outside in the sun, as we tried to forget what the next day on the bear farms would bring.

Part 2 soon ....

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