Black Teeth Women of Vietnam

April 2nd ~ (continued) ~ Near Hanoi, visiting the Black Teeth Women

Our hostess pouring the tea

Our hostess pouring the tea, proudly wearing her pearls

Finally the stop I had been most intrigued about and what had tipped me over the edge to go on todays optional excursion – visiting the small town where the Black Teeth Women reside.

We were very warmly welcomed into a community home, and greeted by two women who were both in their 80’s. Initially neither one wanted to show off her blackened teeth, yet wanted to make us feel at home. First tea was placed in small cups for us, then rice wine was poured into shot glasses, and finally a milk colored liquor was offered. 

Serving us hot tea and rice wine

Serving us hot tea and rice wine

She spoke little or no English, so our guide translated her words for us, or at least some of them as they seemed to be having some great laughs together.

Trong and our hostess are sure enjoying themselves

Trong and our hostess are sure enjoying themselves while Jan photographs in the background

It used to be the custom for young tribal women, when they came of marrying age, to have their teeth blackened or lacquered. It was considered a sign of beauty.

So, how are the teeth darkened? According to Traveldudes.com and the information that was shared by our host through an interpreter, the chemical ingredients used to blacken the teeth can take several forms.

“In Vietnam it is common to use red sticklac, a resin obtained from secretions of a tiny aphid-like insect that sucks the sap of a host tree, as a dye.

The resin is diluted with lemon juice or rice alcohol and stored in the dark for a few days. It’s then applied with pressure to all the teeth. An application of iron (mainly from iron nails) or copper from green or black alum and tannin from Chinese gall reacts with [the] solution to give a blue-black insoluble coating.

In other areas of Southeast Asia coconut husk is burned to form a black sticky char that is then combined with nail filings and adhered to the tooth surface until the dye “takes.””

The dye is applied, every other day for a week. Because saliva would dilute or wash off the dye, she was not allowed to eat solid food during this time period and could only drink liquid through a straw.

The result is that the resin forms a hard Shellac like covering on the teeth, rendering them jet black and hard as nails. In her mid 80’s she had all of her original teeth and they were in pristine condition!

Tim was trying to get her to smile to show off her blackened teeth

Tim was trying to get her to smile to show off her blackened teeth

Trong explained to us that she thought Tim was going to give her a kiss when he put his arm around her. So he gleefully agreed and kissed her on the cheek.

Finally a beautiful smile that shows off those black teeth

Finally a beautiful smile that shows off those shiny, ebony teeth

Note: This is different from the reddish-brown stains on the teeth that occurs from chewing Betel or Areca nuts, which is still a common practice in much of SE Asia. In fact our host and her compatriot were enjoying a good chew when we arrived.

This is what betel nut looks like.

A betel nut that has been opened and ready to use

A betel nut that has been opened and ready to use

Some tribal traditions have long ago passed into oblivion and this one will soon follow suite. Today only the few remaining women in the village who are over the age of 80 have blacken teeth.

But seeing the black teeth, and having a beverage was not all that we enjoyed here. She wanted to show us her bedroom and her most prized possession which was kept beside her bed.

Her bed with sleeping mat on top

Her bed with sleeping mat on top

Under the plastic, right beside her bed was her coffin! She was so proud of it.

And while we were in her bedroom, she decided she wanted to play dress up with me and Meghan. Wrapping us in beautifully colored and beaded dresses, we then posed for more pictures with her. She was a full foot shorter than me and I am all of 5’2″ on a good day.

Dressed in her finery.

Dressed in her finery.

And then she shocked me by grabbing my boob.

Both Meghan and I reacting to this funny surprise.

Both Meghan and I share a similar reaction…

Sometimes life’s funnier moments come totally out-of-the-blue and are completely unexpected.

It was time to say our goodbyes and visit another home in the village. This time is was less eventful, but gave us some “behind the scenes” look at more typical living conditions in rural villages here in northern Vietnam.

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Walking down the street we were greeted by a small gentleman who was dressed in a green uniform. Our guide explained that he was a former North Vietnamese soldier. Today a warm welcome.

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It is hard to balance that he was once considered the enemy to my country.

I know that I have classmates who still suffer from PTSD today. I worry a bit about how these pictures might appear to them.

Other friendly faces curiously watched us and smiled as we passed by.

Several generations. As curious about us as we were about them.

Several generations. As curious about us as we were about them.

We were also shown how locally made rice vermicelli is laid out on woven racks and left to dry in the open air. The drying area was right next to another temple which provided a scenic backdrop.

Right beside where the pasta was drying was this temple

Right beside where the pasta was drying was this temple

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Back in town for our final night and goodbye dinner.

Where the train tracks come right through the middle of town.

Where the train tracks come right through the middle of town.

Our Vietnam trip had come to an end. Tim was excited to return to California to have some home-cooked meals and an easier time of avoiding MSG.

I was not looking forward to doing a pile of laundry.

I still have a couple of posts to go back and fill in gaps from the Cu Chi Tunnels, a different Floating Village, our return to Angkor Wat and (maybe) a wrap up post of my impressions and surprises of what I learned in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Stay tuned…

GRATITUDE MOMENT: Today I am grateful for the opportunity to interact with the charming lady with black teeth. She welcomed us into her home with such ease, poured us multiple beverages, proudly showed off her cherished clothing and coffin and made me giggle like a little girl. I’m glad we got to meet her and learn about this fascinating practice.

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About Tim and Joanne Joseph

Hi and welcome! We are Tim and Joanne Joseph and we have just embarked on our "next chapter". At a stage in life where traveling the world, taking pictures, and sharing our adventures with friends and family will be our dream come true.
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42 Responses to Black Teeth Women of Vietnam

  1. Anyone (I was in the US army from 1965 to 1967) that can not see the genuine and loving smile in that old Vietcong soldier is blind. Anyone that can not forgive, no matter what, can not be forgiven. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen” . This is not just something to be said and then forgotten, this is a command that can not be put aside for any reason whatsoever by those who claim to be Christians. I apologize for getting on my high horse and maybe offending some, but I don’t believe in Political correctness even when the political correctness is in support of the right instead of the left. I commend you Tim for your bravery and compliance with God’s command

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing your belief in compassion and forgiving. The world would be a happier and kinder place if there was more forgiveness and less judgment.

      Liked by 1 person

    • kmanthie says:

      Hi Tim & Joanne: Kent Manthie, here, from Independent Review – I just wanted to write you back and say thank you so much for your “thumbs up”, so to speak, of my most recent review, Music of Morocco, 1959, recorded by the late, great Paul Bowles. Incidentally- while Paul & Jane, American expats, settled in Morocco in 47, and were obviously there in 59 – well, 1959 was a banner year for others: it was in the late 50s, culminating in the work that Ginsberg did to help William S. Burroughs collate and put together all of WSB’s writings when HE was living in Tangier – talking, about Naked Lunch, which also came out in 59! 1 more thing – are you familiar w/Hamri? The Master Musicians of Joujouka? When I 1st received this album to review I saw there were no songs by the MMOJ. But- see, I’m not quite sure when MMOJ got started. But the stuff they did was not that different from the stuff one can find on Music of Morocco, 1959.
      Also – I did scan through the article above which you two put together about the “black toothed” women of SE Asia. Also – I do remember reading about the whole Betel Nut fad in that corner of the world. You guys are great. And, as a team – in more than one way- you have each other to help one another and you must love what you’re doing. If I had the money and the aim/subject, etc.I’d LOVE to be able to travel to distant corners of the world and write about something, someone or a people who are/were iconoclasts, a dying breed, underappreciated artisans/artists, etc. Great work!! And again, thank you so much for taking the time to read my review and for complimenting it!! Good luck to you in all your endeavors!!
      Have a great one,
      Kent Manthie, 4-29-16

      Like

      • Hello Kent and welcome to our little corner of the blog map 🙂 The black tooth women were very interesting and such a contrast to the Western standard of white teeth. We appreciate your kind encouragement.

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  2. adriennesip says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful story and photos of the black teeth women. I found it very interesting to learn about the process and get a glimpse into their home.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting on the black teeth that it apparently protected them, Joanne. Think of the billions we could save in dental bills. Maybe we should all get on board for black teeth. The dental care and beautification industry would go ballistic. Also fun on the coffin. And I can only imagine how high you jumped on the pinching. 🙂 As for Vietnam Vets, all of my friends who fought there, are eager to go back. Great, and fun post. Thanks. —Curt

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  4. I ate betel nut for 5 years. When eating betel nut, you want to chew it up well and swallow all of the juice and do not spit any of it out. You must eat at least two at a time. Otherwise you will not get the high. If you brush your teeth everyday, you can prevent the red-black buildup. But if it does begin to build up, you can easily chip it off with a drill bit. Do not worry too much if you get an overdose and go into tachycardia it is only a catastrophic drop in blood pressure and will subside in about 10 minutes. In the operetta South Pacific, Bloody Mary was called that because her mouth looked like blood from the betel nut. I love betel nut. Uncle Hanzi in China 2016

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  5. Andy Smart says:

    Really interesting. Thank you for a great post.

    Like

  6. mommermom says:

    Very interesting. I guess this is one of those things that gives credence to “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.” Can’t miss the beautiful beautiful smiles though!

    Like

  7. I love this post, and I love the black toothed woman, and the fact that she is excited over her own coffin. Oh, if we could all be so comfortable with the fact of our own deaths! And I love the NV soldier shaking Tim’s hand. What a beautiful thing, really. Just beautiful.

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  8. Where in Vietnam do the Black Teeth Women reside? Did you visit them with a tour company or by yourselves?

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  9. It always fascinates me how differenty beauty is considered in other cultures. We do our best to keep our teeth nice and white, even using whitening toothpaste in some cases, and here we have people proud of their artificially acquired black teeth: simply amazing! Not sure about the boob grab, thogh! Lol! Love your faces! ☺

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  10. Wow what an amazing post! Black lacquered teeth, showing you her coffin, grabbing your boob… whatever next?! And then your sober reflection on the lingering effects of the war, on both sides. I admire your openness to new cultures and experiences, thank you for sharing!

    Like

    • Christine, such are the joys and sorrows of traveling. Thankfully there are much more in the joyful column. We feel so fortunate every day by the amazing things we get to see, taste, experience around the world. Very grateful that others are enjoying following our journey. Thank you.

      Like

  11. Fascinating, but no thank you

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  12. Absolutely fascinating! I had never heard of this custom before, you learn something new everyday!! 🙂

    Like

  13. Adrienne & Dave says:

    What fantastic photos and so interesting !

    Like

  14. nikitaanandguha says:

    Very interesting!!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. paperpopups says:

    Wonderful writing and photos. I am so glad I found your blog.
    Keep up the great works.

    Cannot wait to see more.

    Happy thoughts,
    Petrina

    Like

  16. Travel Nurse April says:

    Wow! That’s very interesting.That’s new to me. Beautiful pictures tell a great story.

    Like

  17. So surprising that you found much interesting in the “black teeth” of old women – the old tradition fashion now. Younger generation almost forget it to seek for “as white as possible” by many modern techniques. Follow your tittle, I would like to add some information: Did you realize that those black teeth were very firm and strong though the old women are about 80s year-old? it is one of wonderful result of choosing an areca mix often. It is believed a tradition therapy: choosing a mix of areca (including the nut) + Piper betel leaf + watered slaked lime.

    Like

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