Black teeth in Vietnam is a strange yet common tradition that has only fallen into obscurity since the late 20th century. Female commoners and royals alike dye their teeth black. Nowadays, this trend can only be spotted among females from traditional tribes or women from the oldest generations.
It is assumed that black teeth were results of long periods of chewing betel nut (a popular snack in the old days). However, shiny black teeth achieved through chemical dyes are indeed different from the reddish stain of the betel-chewing teeth.
The “reddish-black teeth” from betel nut
The origin of this custom stemmed from the spiritual belief that long white teeth belonged to ghosts, animals, and savages. Consequently, black teeth in Vietnam took root as a practice to protect humans from supernatural evil forces.
Gradually, black teeth dyeing became a rite of passage for young girls stepping into adulthood, indicating that she’s ready for marriage.
Black teeth were the fashion, and fashion always has a price. To be considered “a proper lady” who has black teeth, girls had to undergo pain. 3 days prior to the ritual, their mouth must be sanitized by charcoal powder, salt, and lime. The process was meant to erode the natural enamel of the teeth for the ink to seep in, so the girls’ mouth would get very swollen and sore.
The dying process itself was complicated, involving natural black dyes like bot canh kien (shellac) and phen den (potato plant). The concoction is applied on teeth every day for 7-10 days, and girls had to refrain from consuming solid and hot foods as they would temper with the dye. After the teeth are stained, a blackening blend from coconut shells and coal is used to create a perfect black finish.
To maintain the teeth’s blackness, women would chew betel regularly and have their teeth repainted every once in a while.
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In the 1900s, foreign influences from France as well as the Western world discouraged the practice of black teeth in Vietnam and gradually replaced them with the gleaming white teeth images. Efforts to revive this treatment have been unpromising, as the original materials for the dye are now extremely rare. Follow our blog to read more about traditional and modern Vietnamese cultures!
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© Written by Chau Tran for itourvn.com
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