It was hard not to stare at the women flashing their jet black toothy smiles. Blackening one’s teeth was of the most fascinating customs I saw in the craggy, misty mountainous area of Vietnam.
Practiced by the ladies of the Black Hmong tribe who live in the mountain regions near the Chinese border, blackening teeth speaks to the isolation and remoteness of these people in a country speeding pell mell towards modernization.
The Black Hmongs are one of fifty tribes living in this gorgeous, Swiss alps type area far from the cities. Others are Red Dao, Flower Hmong, Tay, Dao and more.
When our guide, Hoang Ha Van, asked if we’d like to see this, I, of course, was fascinated. Why would they do this? And how?
The 2000-year-old beauty secret is based on the belief that that only wild animals and demons have white teeth. The blackening of the teeth, was an assurance that one would not be mistaken for an evil spirit. Women with blackened teeth are seen as beautiful. At this point it is only the elderly women who continue the tradition.
To get to the remote village, we traveled on narrow roads over some of the highest mountains in Asia, gazing at mazes of terraced rice paddies when we could see them. We visited North Vietnam in the winter when white out conditions occurred due to fog and low lying clouds.Water buffaloes hold up traffic along the region’s developing – though still very rough – network of roads.
Once at the village, Hoang leads us to a home on stilts. I have trouble navigating the narrow steps up and into the dark space while admiring the agility of the residents much older than I am. Once inside, I could see the animals below us through the slats of wood and wondered if the thin boards would hold us. We are much larger than the local people.
We were introduced to a lovely older woman sitting in the kitchen area of the home. She happily demonstrated to us how she made the betal juice mixture and applied to her teeth creating a black lustrous shine.
Fascinating huh? Really shows how different our cultures are and yet at the end of the day, we all want to be attractive.
I found the people in this region of Vietnam with many small villages of minority tribes compelling. While I loved seeing how people live and shop and go to school (see previous blog posts) what haunts me are the faces of the members of the communities we visited.
The tough lives, the beautiful spirits, the simple and the complex. It all shows in the faces…..I share some of them here.