Vietnamese Hill Tribe custom: Tooth Blackening

Asia is a land full of weird and wonderful customs and rituals. Throughout the continent there are literally thousands of different traditions that remain alive to this day. A strangely interesting custom that is often misunderstood is the Vietnamese ritual of tooth blackening or tooth lacquering.

Tooth blackening is not total uncommon for those Vietnamese people living traditional lives, nevertheless many tour guides still tell tourists that the blackening is the result of chewing betel nut. This mild stimulant comes in the form of a tiny parcel made up of betel nut, the fruit of an Areca tree, and lime paste wrapped in a leaf of the betel pepper vine. It is chewed in a similar way to tobacco and this stains the teeth. It is actually quite easy to spot the difference between blackened teeth and those stained by betel nut, the betel nut stains the teeth a dark red-brown color, and the constant chewing and spitting is a clear sign of the use of it. Betel nut can be found all over Asia, predominantly in areas occupied by hill tribes, but the more abrasive procedure of tooth lacquering is a tradition that only really remains in Vietnam. The chemical ingredients used to blacken the teeth can take several forms. In Vietnam it is ration to use red sticklac, a resin obtained from secretions of a tiny aphid-like insect that sucks the sap of a host tree, as a dye. The resin is diluted with lemon juice or rice alcohol and stored in the dark for a few days. It’s then applied with pressure to all the teeth. An application of iron or copper, and tannin from Chinese gall reacts as a solution to give the blue-black insoluble coating.

As with most Asian traditions, there are long standing cultural reasons for tooth blackening. It was believed that only savages, wild animals and demons have long white teeth. The blackening of the teeth, was an assurance that one would not be mistaken for an evil spirit. Back in 1938, a French survey found 80% of the countryside folk of Vietnam had blackened teeth. The procedure has been quite popular throughout the Asian history. But when the French came to Vietnam, they did not appreciate the implied beauty and the procedure was discouraged. Since then the numbers of Vietnamese dropped drastically, but in these modern times, the traditional people of Vietnam are once again trying to revive an almost lost tradition.

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March 2011

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