April 8, 2014

1055 VIETNAM - Only demons have white teeth?

The areca nut is the seed of the areca palm (Areca catechu), which grows in much of the tropical Pacific, Asia, and parts of east Africa. It is commonly referred to as betel nut (even if it isn't a true nut, but rather a drupe), as it is often chewed wrapped in betel leaves, a custom which dates back thousands of years in much of the areas from South Asia eastward to the Pacific. Usually for chewing, a few slices of the nut are wrapped in a betel leaf along with lime (not to be confused with the citrus fruit named lime) and may include clove, cardamom, catechu (kattha) and/or other spices for extra flavouring. Betel leaf has a fresh, peppery taste, but it can also be bitter to varying degrees depending on the variety. This mixture is a mild stimulant, causing a warming sensation in the body and slightly heightened alertness, much like a cup of coffee. Even though it seems to have some positive effects on health, the custom is suspected to be carcinogenic.

In Vietnam, the areca nut and the betel leaf are such important symbols of love and marriage, that the phrase "matters of betel and areca" is synonymous with marriage. The tradition of chewing areca nuts starts the talk between the groom's and the bride's parents about the young couple's marriage. Therefore, the leaves and juices are used ceremonially in Vietnamese weddings. The folk tale explaining the origin of this tradition is a good illustration of the belief that the combination of areca nut and the betel leaf is ideal to the point they are practically inseparable, like an idealized married couple.

Many tour guides tell the tourists that the blackening of the teeth of vietnamese women is the result of chewing betel nut, but this isn't entirely true. The betel nut stains the teeth a dark red/brown, so is quite easy to notice the difference between blackened teeth and those stained by betel nut. The ritual of tooth blackening or tooth lacquering is yet relatively common for people living traditional lives. It takes place after the age of ten (when the girl has all her permanent teeth), but usually after menarche, and certifies that the girl is ready for marriage. Are needed three applications (every other day for a week), because saliva washes the chemicals. For that period of time the girl can't eat solids and can drink only through a straw. It is common to use as dye a red sticklac, a resin obtained from secretions of a tiny aphid-like insect that sucks the sap of a host tree, diluted with lemon juice or rice alcohol and stored in the dark for a few days. An application of iron or copper from green or black alum and tannin from Chinese gall reacts with solution to give a blue-black insoluble coating.

The procedure has been quite popular throughout Asian history (in Japan, Indonesia and Philippines), but it only survived in Vietnam, even if the French discouraged the procedure. There are long standing cultural reasons for tooth blackening, respectively the belief that only savages, wild animals and demons have long white teeth. Moreover, it is believed to enhance sex appeal in addition to maintaining healthy teeth. The studies have shown that indeed, those with blackened teeth maintain a full set of teeth for longer than those without lacquered teeth.

About the stamps

The two stamps are a Singapore-Vietnam joint issue, issued on August 12, 2013, and depicting a bird each from two contries to mark the 40th anniversary of establishment of bilateral relations.
• Vietnam’s grey peacock pheasant (10500 VND) - it's on the postcard
• Singapore’s red jungle fowl (2000 VND) - it's on the postcard

Areca nut - Wikipedia
Tooth Blackening - The Forgotten Tradition - Traveldudes

sender: Chu Manh Trung
sent from Ho Chi Minh City (Southeast Region / Vietnam), on 11.02.2014


  1. I remember my great grandmother chewing something similar. The mix we call in the Philippines "nganga", with the stress on the last vowel sound. The same word "nganga" with stress on first vowel sound means "mouth open".