Posts Tagged ‘Hill tribes


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.


Padaung: a hill tribe in the Golden triangle


Although they are a small minority hill tribe in the Golden Triangle of Thailand, no description of Thai hill tribes would be complete without mentioning the Padaung, better known to the world as the tribe of the long neck women. Most people have heard of the Padaung hill tribe as the giraffe women. The Padaung hill tribe, where the women wear huge brass rings around the neck are not a individual tribe but a sub-group of the Karen hill tribes. The famous giraffe women are located in the Mae Hong Son province of Northern Thailand, just at the border of Myanmar (Burma), in a small secluded valley right outside the provincial City “Mae Hong Son”. Of the 7000 members of the Padaung hill tribe in Burma, about 300 fled to Thailand, to escape the Burmese repression. With the help of the Thai government, they set up a refugee-village in a small valley of Mae Hong Son province.

Nowadays, the small refugee village of the long necked Padaung, is completely geared towards visitors and tourists and is seemingly on every tour agency’s day-trip list. The women of the Padaung hill tribe wear heavy brass ornaments around their neck and limbs. These ornaments look like separate rings but are really a continuous coil of brass that can weigh anywhere from five to twenty-two kilograms and measure up to 30 meter in length. The quantity of visual rings (in reality, the length of the brass coil) is increased every year, according to the age of the woman. Young Padaung girls start wearing rings from the age of six, adding one or two more coil-turns yearly, until the age of about 16. Once fastened, the rings are for life, to remove the full coil of brass would cause the collapse or even fracture of the woman’s neck.

It is a myth, that the brass rings have elongate the neck of the wearer. Any orthopedic surgeon will tell you that: lengthening the neck would lead to paralysis or even death. The reality is, that the appearance of a longer neck is a visual illusion. The weight of the brass rings has over the years pushed down and deformed the collar bone plus the upper ribs, to such an effect that the collar bone appears to be part of the neck. Despite the obvious discomfort and the daily task of cleaning the brass ring coil, plus other handicaps, like having to use a straw to drink, the Padaung women say that they are used to their custom and are happy in continuing the tribe’s tradition. The women are able to carry out a somewhat ordinary life: they can marry and have children, and they are able to weave, sew and do light work.

The origin of the ring-wearing ritual in the Padaung hill tribes remain unclear. Padaung legends say that it is done to prevent tigers from biting their neck when roving in the jungle. It is also claimed that it was used to make the women look unattractive so that other tribes would not capture them and sell as slaves. The most common and also most acceptable explanation, is just the opposite: An extra long neck for a woman was considered a sign of great beauty and the brass a sign of good wealth, this in turn would attract more men, so to have a bigger choice to select a husband. Their houses stand in small, neat squares made of woven and split bamboo with palm leaf roofs. Each home has a spacious, open terrace where the Padaung sit in the shade in front of their looms, spinning and weaving cotton textiles, blankets and tunics.

Blog Stats

  • 126,444 hits
January 2020
« Mar