April 2nd ~ (continued) ~ Near Hanoi, visiting the Black Teeth Women
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
And then she shocked me by grabbing my boob.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Back in town for our final night and goodbye dinner.
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.