Time to flash that golden smile

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For the Mong people in the northern highlands province of Ha Giang, Tet (Lunar New Year) is an occasion to add some glitter into their lives.

As the Lunar New Year approaches, the Meo Vac seasonal market in the mountainous district of Ha Giang teems with cattle and people.

Business is certainly brisk despite the cold weather in Ha Giang Province, which is around 310 kilometers from Hanoi.

Also braving the cold are dozens of Mong women who have gathered in front of a house near the market’s entrance.

Inside the house, a young woman leans back on an old barber’s chair with her mouth wide open. Hovering above her is a middle-aged man holding a tool resembling a pair of pincers. As he puts the tool into her mouth, those gathered can hear the scrunch as it clenches her tooth.

Golden teeth with hearts carved on them

“She is having him make a golden tooth,” explains one of the women awaiting her turn.

A closer look at the tools being used by Mai Xuan Co reveals several pairs of pincers, hammers and sharpeners laid out on a table, while a nearby small tray contains some thick substance used to stick the “gold” tooth to the normal one.

Using a motor from a sewing machine and a grindstone as small as a coin, Co makes the woman’s front teeth shorter and thinner. He even puts the grindstone into spaces between her teeth and only stops when the gums start bleeding.

Holding a piece of silk cotton in her mouth to stop the bleeding, the woman, Vang Thi Chia, who lives 30 kilometers away, says happily that she will return next week to have two golden caps put around her front teeth.

Chia says it will cost her VND200,000 (US$10.83) to have two golden teeth. The golden teeth are an alloy that is unlikely to contain real gold.

Chia isn’t the only one who is proud to get golden teeth fixed in her mouth.

In Meo Vac District, where some 58,000 Mong people live, both women and men see golden teeth as a way to enhance their beauty and make a fashion statement, not to mention gain status as a well-to-do person.

Mua My Sinh, one of only three golden teeth makers in Meo Vac Town, says, “Among every ten Mong women, nine would choose to have golden teeth. Other people [ethnic minorities in the area] also like having golden teeth but only two to three of every ten would make the choice.”

Mong people mostly choose two occasions to have golden teeth fixed: after harvests, when they have money from selling corn; and for their traditional Tet, which is celebrated every lunar December.

A golden tooth costs VND100,000 ($5.41), but for another VND20,000 ($1.08) to VND30,000 ($1.62), you can get one with hearts carved on them.

Although the prices are somewhat high compared to the local average income, many women are willing to pay even more to have golden teeth.

Sinh, who spent one year learning the trade in Hoa Binh Province’s Kim Boi District, says Vang Thi Dinh, one of his customers, has asked him to make 12 teeth for herself, including four sculptured with hearts, after selling a pair of cows at a good price.

Others often order two teeth at least, he says.

Asked if he is licensed to ply his trade by local health agencies to do the job, Sinh says, “No, I am not. I don’t erect a signboard advertising my service, but only offer it directly to those who ask for it. So, there’s no need to ask the health agency’s permission.”

For their part, local health authorities said they do not interfere in the long-standing custom among the Mong and other minorities. There have apparently been no reports of any health issues arising from this practice.

Gold teeth have long been used in many societies, first as a dental aid before other more natural-looking materials and techniques became available, as a status symbol of wealth, and as a fashion trend, for instance among the hip hop stars in the US.

Reported by Luu Quang Pho

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