The global journey of Cao Sao Vàng (Golden Star Balm)

One thing I’ve learnt in life is that no matter how much the world changes, you can trust it to be profoundly weird in the most unexpected ways. I was reminded of this recently by a certain old-school Vietnamese product. It all started when I talked to a Kazakhstani acquaintance at university in the US, who mentioned that the only thing he knew about Vietnam was that we produce Golden Star Balm. A little bit of back-translation made me realise that he meant Cao Sao Vàng, which was a product that I hadn’t thought of for many, many years. To me, it recalled a whole range of inexpensive products that were produced by state-owned enterprises during the command-economy era and which were ubiquitous before Vietnam opened up fully to the global economy. These products tended to have a very particular design aesthetic that made them immediately recognisable. With increased competition from imports, most of these products are no longer as prominent but can still often be found in their original forms (having survived partly because of nostalgia but also partly because many of them were and still are quite high quality – I still buy Lubico coconut biscuits, although I now buy them from a brightly-lit supermarket shelf where they’re placed with a hundred other biscuit choices from a dozen countries rather than from a dark cupboard in a corner store where they were the only type available). Others have undergone changes to compete with new products and tend to be indistinguishable from them at this point. But what does this all have to do with Kazakhstan?

The answer to this lies in the Cold War. During the command economy era, Vietnam was part of the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, known as COMECON for short (Сове́т Экономи́ческой Взаимопо́мощи or СЭВ in Russian). This meant that Vietnam traded largely with the other Communist countries. As a poor country that was at war, Vietnam mostly exported agricultural products and… Golden Star Balm (not a bad exchange for industrial equipment!). The balm consists largely of camphor, cajeput oil, peppermint oil, menthol, and cinnamon oil and is part of a class of medicated oils that are used by Vietnamese people for colds, bug bites, and nausea (although my dad himself preferred Phật Linh brand… which I have just learned is stocked by Walmart). It was first produced in North Vietnam in the late 1960s and was introduced in the Soviet Bloc by Vietnamese students and other travellers before becoming a major export to the USSR and Eastern Europe after Vietnamese reunification in 1975. In retrospect, it seems like a perfect product for the Soviet market, as its warming effect makes it well suited for the bitterly cold winters. Combined with the iconic socialist design, the product seemed destined to be a winner.

Proudly brought to you by the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

What has fascinated me, however, is that its popularity in the export markets endured even after it lost market share in Vietnam. Indeed, when my mother attended an Asia-wide conference, the Russian representative requested that she bring coffee and… Golden Star Balm, which was also well-received by the representative of Mongolia (another former member of COMECON). The balm has been recognised by friends and acquaintances from places as far apart as Cuba and Kyrgyzstan, and is apparently popular enough as a Vietnamese item that I saw it stocked in some souvenir shops in Saigon. It is now available even on Amazon in the US (where it has a five-star rating), and through an Amazon review, I found that the balm even features as a medical item in a Russian first-person shooter game, Escape from Tarkov.

Meanwhile, in Vietnam, the balm appears to be regaining some popularity and seems as widely available as ever (albeit with a much higher price tag). Either way, it’s a fun reminder that the world is connected in all sorts of strange ways.

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