On my Hanoi food tours, we often walk by a respectful lady sitting by the foot of a giant iron wood tree on Hang Ma street. Her name is Van, 89 years old and she lives by herself. Chewing betel nut in her mouth all the time, she earns living by selling betel nuts and small fresh aroma like pomelo, jasmine and areca followers. A common question I have from my clients is; what’s that betel nut that she is chewing?
Well, chewing betel nut, or “nhai trau” in Vietnamese, is the chewing of the combination of betel leaf, areca nut and slaked lime paste. The taste is bitter and spicy; the mouth feels hot because of the slaked lime in the same way when you eat the hot chili. The juice created while chewing is either spat out or swallowed, if swallowed it creates stimulant and euphoria high effects. After about 5 minutes of chewing and swallowing the juice, the pomace will be spitted away!
The chewing betel nut has been a tradition, custom and a ritual in Vietnam, which dates back to the stone age. Today, Vietnamese still hold tight to its custom, we can easily see ladies with deep blacken teeth chewing their traditional gum on our ways.
The Vietnamese refers to a betel nut legend when talking about the origin of the tradition. As the legend goes, there were twin brothers living together after their parents passed away. They were both happy with each other until the older brother get married, then the younger one started to feel the change between their brotherhood. So he left home and reached a river where he cried till death, and his body magically turned into a lime-stone rock.
When noticed the missing of his younger brother, the older brother left home to look for his twin younger brother. He finally reached that river and also died of tire, his body then turned into an areca nut tree growing next to the limestone rock on the river bank. His wife, when missing her husband, also left home to look for him. One day, she was too tired to walk so she lied down and passed away next to the betel nut tree and the lime-stone rock. Her body turned into a vine climbing on the tree.
Later, people found out that when they chew the betel leaf with the areca nut and a piece of a slaked lime paste, they will see it turning into red color. So the story of the betel leaf and areca nut became a symbol of love and marriage, hence it’s used ceremonially as a symbol to start the talk between the groom's parents and the bride's parents about the young couple's marriage, which is often called the "matters of betel and areca". It’s believed that the reddish when chewing the betel nut brings happiness to the couple.
It becomes so popular that there is a saying “a quid of betel nut starts the conversation”, it explains why we invite our guests to chew betel nut beside a cup of tea. When worshiping ancestors, we also present areca nuts and betel leaves with slaked lime paste on the altar to show our gratefulness.
However, according to modern medicine, beside the stimulant and euphoria high effects, chewing betel nut is a remedy against bad breath. But it can possibly lead to oral cancer and other health effects, so you, my fellow travelers, are not recommended to try.