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The mastication of betel and areca nut, a dying custom, is a way of life in one small village.

For thousands of years, it has been customary to offer guests betel leaves and areca nuts and lime paste at weddings, feasts and on various other occasions in several Asian countries including India, Thailand and Laos.

In Vietnam, there was even more to it than met the eye.

While people many years ago, the youth and the elderly, chewed the mixture of the leaf, nut and lime to keep their breath fresh, there was also aesthetics involved. The reddening of lips that followed the chewing contrasted with teeth dyed in black was seen as a thing of beauty.

And as in other countries, the folding of betel leaves after adding slices of areca and daubing it with lime was elevated into an art form, with practitioners deploying various methods of doing it, picking the ingredients daintily from elaborate silverware.

However, this habit has all but disappeared in Vietnam, and the leaf and nut have virtually become ritual offerings at wedding ceremonies and death anniversaries. It is difficult now to find betel chewers even among the elderly.

That is until you visit Tan Hiep Village in the central province of Quang Tri.

At Tan Hiep Village in the central province of Quang Tri, virtually everyone chews betel, whether they are old or teenagers or even younger. Nguyen Van Hon, 86, and his grandchild Tran Van Tuyen, 14, chew betel regularly.

MEDICINAL PROPERTIES AND HEALTH RISKS

Scientific analyses show that betel leaves’ essential oils can treat malaria and dysentery. Active ingredients in the areca nuts, meanwhile, is said to be good for treating parasitic diseases. Water boiled with betel leaves is used in traditional medicine to treat sore eyes and other ailments in several countries.

However, some research groups like the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer warns that regular betel and areca chewers have higher risk of damaging their gums and acquiring cancer of the mouth, pharynx, esophagus and stomach cancer, especially when tobacco is added to the mixture.

Here, locals have given no thought to kicking the habit, and virtually everyone chews betel, whether they are old or teenagers or even younger.

At 96, Mai Thi Xuan and her younger brother, 85-year-old Mai Xuan Can are well known for their ability to chew tens of quids of betel and areca a day.

“My mother-in-law has chewed areca and betel since she was 16,” said Dao Thi Vo, 66, Xuan’s daughter-in-law.

“She now has lost most of her teeth, but still insists on chewing it. I myself began chewing betel and areca nut to have red lips and pinky cheeks when I got married,” she said.

Tran Van Vuong, head of the village, said, “Tan Hiep Village now has 213 families with 978 people, and at least 70 percent of them chew betel, or rather, are addicted to it.”

Many years ago, inhabitants of the village lived on boats along the Cam Lo River, so they had to chew betel and areca, which can cause a mild hot sensation, to keep their bodies warm, Vuong explained.

Between 1965 and 1968 they moved to settle down at Tan Hiep Village, but didn’t forget to bring with them the betel chewing habit, said Vuong, who is also a chewer himself.

They didn’t break it even when they came to the new village of the same name nearly four years ago after the old one was destroyed by a landslide, he added.

In fact, to keep the habit going after the latest move, residents frequented markets in surrounding areas to buy areca nuts and betel leaves for several years, because newly planted areca palms and betel leaf vines in their village could not be harvested yet, Vuong said.

They even bought areca nuts in bulk during its season to store it.

“When it comes to chewing betel and areca, this village is a good choice [to learn about the habit],” a local woman said.

At Tan Hiep Village, it’s not rare that many families have all their members, from grandparents to grandchildren, addicted to betel and areca.

Take Nguyen Van Hon’s family, for instance.

Hon, 86, said he started chewing the leaf, nut and lime mixture when he was seven years old, and now he adds tobacco leaves to make it stronger.

His eight children and 20 grandchildren also chew regularly, including his nine-year-old granddaughter.

“People here love the mixture’s strong flavor since they are born,” another woman said.

The bonding spirit

For Vietnamese people, the strong flavor created by the combination of areca and betel signifies the inseparable bond between husband and wife, or more generally, between human beings.

A popular folk legend has it that during the reign of the Hung King (2879-258 AD) there were two orphaned twin brothers who loved each other very deeply. But everything changed once the elder of the twins got married and he didn’t care about his younger brother as much as he used to.

One day when the younger brother came to the study room to meet his brother, his sister-in-law hugged him, mistaking him for the elder twin. Adding to their embarrassment was that the elder brother just happened in on the scene at the same time. Later the elder brother maintained an even greater distance, prompting the younger to run away.

On the way, the younger twin came across a river, and he sat on its banks, crying till he died and turned into a lime stone.

Very soon, the elder brother noticed his younger brother’s absence and went looking for him. He also stopped at the river. Learning about his brother’s death, he leaned against the stone and cried till he died, becoming an areca nut palm.

The young wife then searched for her husband, and on finding out what happened, also wept to death, becoming a betel vine twined around the tree.

Their village later built a shrine to honor the deep bond between the three people.

One day, the Hung King passed by and heard the story. He ordered the people to take and grind a betel leaf, a slice of areca and a bit of lime together for chewing. The mixture came out as red as blood, and tasted as strong as love.

The king then ordered that the mixture be used at every engagement ceremony.

Reported by Nguyen Phuc

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