Elderly women hark back to a time when black teeth were in fashion
An elderly woman in the northern province of Bac Ninh, revealing her blackened teeth dyed when she was teenager
It would raise more than an eyebrow and cause jaws to drop now, but there was a time, not too long ago, when people, especially women, sporting shiny black teeth was a common sight in Vietnam.
In fact, among communities where this practice was prevalent, white teeth was almost looked at askance.
It has been assumed by many people, including guides for foreign visitors, that the black teeth were the result of chewing betel nut (a combination of betel leaf, areca nut and lime). Given that most people with the black teeth are also betel-nut chewers, the assumption is understandable, but it is completely wrong.
There were strong cultural and religious beliefs associated with the practice of having lacquered teeth, but they were also a sign of beauty and a rite of passage that marked women's coming of age.
Prof. Ngo Duc Thinh of the Institute of Cultural Studies says one of the beliefs associated with the black teeth tradition is that long white teeth belonged to underworld creatures, savages and wild animals. The black teeth warded off fears that an evil spirit lurked inside a person.
Dating back to the Hung Kings (2897 BC), the tradition of tooth blackening was also linked to marriage rites. A woman was deemed ready for her nuptials only after she had her first tooth blackening ceremony.
Flashing a wide smile given an added glint by her shiny, jet-black teeth, 73-year-old Le Thi Tinh of Yen Phu Ward in the northern province of Hung Yen said, "Unmarried young women whose teeth remained white were considered improper, therefore we all had our teeth dyed."
The custom acquired such popularity that it was practiced with various techniques not only by commoners, but also by the royal family and mandarins. The central province of Thua Thien-Hue was considered the thriving capital of this tradition.
Nguyen Thi My, Le Thi Tinh's neighbor, provided some more backing for the black teeth tradition: "Though it is old-fashioned, it reveals the elegant beauty of old people. Only the elderly with black teeth are considered beautiful. Those whose teeth weren't blackened but stained by chewing betel looked terrible."
The beauty of black teeth has also evoked the muse among poets.
A set of black teeth used to be one of ten traits of beauty among Vietnamese women. The famous folk song Muoi thuong (Ten traits) reads:
"First, love the tuft of hair
Second, love the impassioned speech
Third, love the dimpled cheeks
Fourth, love the glossy teeth blacker than custard apple's pip."
At a painful price
While it was desirable to have their teeth blackened, it was not an easy process. Often, it was a very painful experience.
The blackening had to be done by professional "teeth dyers" or experienced elders in their families.
Le Thi Tinh still remembers the time when she had her teeth lacquered. The best time to do it, she said, was when all the milk teeth had been replaced. The teeth were still forming at that stage and the dye would penetrate more easily, she said.
Before the dyeing process, both mouth and teeth had to undergo a severe sanitization process. For three days, Tinh and five other young girls helped each other brush and pick their teeth with dried betel-nut husk and stewed powdered coal mixed with salt. One day before dyeing, they chewed lemon and held it in their mouths, and later rinsed their mouths with rice wine mixed with lemon juice to erode the enamel to make depressions in the teeth.
Le Thi Nhien, 75, who had her teeth dyed at the same time as Tinh, said that all her teeth, lips, tongue, gums and the mucous membrane swelled up and her jaws were very sore.
The group then bought a dye, made of bot canh kien (shellac - a resin obtained from secretions of a tiny aphid-like insect that sucks the sap of a host tree) and first-extract lemon juice mixed in the right proportion from a local market. This was daubed on a white piece of cloth or silk and applied on the teeth after dinner, and replaced at midnight, for seven to ten days.
In the morning, after taking the substance out, they had to rinse their mouth with fish sauce and saline solution to eliminate all traces of it.
"During this time, we were not allowed to chew solid or hot food. We had to gulp it down to avoid interaction with the dye, which could affect the color of the teeth later," Tinh said. "And only when the teeth turned dark red did we apply the blackening solution for two days."
The blackening solution was a mixture of phen den (potato plant or phyllanthus reticulatus poir.) and shellac.
"For the last stage, we fixed the color of the teeth with a sap made from coconut shells burned on live coals," said Tinh, adding that the very last stage created a layer of fermentation on the teeth that made them very, very black.
In order to maintain the dark luster of the dyed teeth, the women chewed betel and had an annual reapplication done. Now, however, said My, the dye was no longer available. "My teeth are discolored, but I don't know where to buy it."
Since there are no takers now for this traditional beauty treatment, and a revival looks distinctly unlikely, chances are that My will not be able to find the materials needed to restore her teeth to their "original" blackness.
My sighed wistfully: "In just a few years, I guess people with blackened teeth will be just a memory to the younger generation."