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The Custom of Chewing Betel in Vietnam

Updated on October 31, 2012

Chewing betel is one of the oldest custom of Vietnam. Chinese historical documents state that in the time of Eastern Han Dynasty (about the 1st century AD), chewing betel and betel nut was already very popular in An Nam (Vietnam nowadays). Vietnamese records maintain that since Au Lac time (about the 3rd century BC), betel vines and betel nut trees presented in every family garden. A piece of betel nut wrapped in betel leaf with a dash of lime is believed to prevent and cure bad breath, tooth decays and some tropical diseases. It is also the symbol of friendly and solid social relations in Vietnamese culture.

The legend of betel

The symbolic quality of betel, betel nut and lime comes from a tragic legend believed to dated from the Hung Kings' era (the Bronze Age). A twin brothers became estranged after the elder got married. Then came a serious misunderstanding resulting in the younger leaving the house. The elder was remorseful and went to look for his brother without telling his wife. The distressed wife also set out finding her husband. They couldn't meet each other but all fell dead on the same spot. At the place of their death appeared a limestone, a betel vine and a betel nut tree. When people chew betel leaf, betel nut with a little lime, they feel slightly intoxicated and the mixture becomes red as blood, which is interpreted that the bond between the siblings and the couple lives on beyond death.

Betel in Vietnamese culture

The betel consisting of betel leaf, betel nut, lime and sometimes bark of atocorpus is an essential part of traditional Vietnamese life. It is indispensable when making offerings to the genies or the ancestors. Guests are welcomed with betel and tea before conversation to help them feel at home. In social gatherings, betel is offered to the attendants to warm up the atmosphere. When one offers a person betel, one expresses the wish to be friend with that person and the receiver has the moral debt to reciprocate that. This is especially meaningful in relations between young people of opposite sexes and girls are warned not to accept betel from those they don't know well. Above all, betel represents the unbreakable bond of marriage. To ask for a girl's hand, a man has to present her family with betel leaves and a whole bunch of betel nuts to show that he is serious about the marriage, which was even an official law in the Le Dynasty (the 15th century). In folk songs, betel is the allusion of passionate and sincere love.

Nowadays, only old people living in the countryside still chew betel. There are fewer and fewer people can live on growing betel and betel nut. However, betel is still a part of traditional ceremonies, especially weddings.


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