Story & Photos: Tran Tan Vinh

The ancient practice of tooth grinding and blackening is disappearing but can still be seen among some highlands ethnic communities. 

Tooth grinding and blackening is a custom of many ethnicities throughout the Truong Son Mountains – Central Highlands of Vietnam. Several ethnicities in the Northwest don’t grind their teeth like their Central Highlands counterparts, but instead dye their teeth black and coat them in gold. In addition, to cosmetic purposes, tooth grinding, ear stretching and tooth blackening practices were ancient rituals to mark the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The remnants of this practice are now mainly observed among the elderly.

A Lu woman shows off her smile

Several ethnicities in the Truong Son Mountains, such as the Cotu, Mnong, S’tieng and Brau, once widely practiced the custom. The Cotu usually grind up to 12 teeth on both the upper and lower jaw; after finishing, pebbles collected from under streams are picked up to grind teeth smoothly up to their gums. Tooth sawing is always compatible with tooth blackening to protect the teeth from wounds and infection. Cotu people usually employ a type of sap called axớp/axáp to anoint the newly sawed teeth. Ta Oi people saw just six teeth on their upper and lower jaw, sparing the remaining teeth to chew tough foods. Two days after the sawing, teeth are blackened with the extract of the rỏi tree (alok ndong nnee’h).

The Mnong ethnicity in the Central Highlands also have their teeth sawed like their Cotu and Ta Oi counterparts. After the sawing practice, they chop down krai trees, dry them and light one end of the trunk and use the torch to rub and iron stick to yield a bit of black sap that tastes quite spicy. The sap is then mixed with wood ashes. A small stick coated with cotton is dipped in the krai sap and applied on the teeth. Newly ground teeth still bleed slightly, so it is necessary to refresh the sap periodically. The piercingly spicy sap of krai trees and ashes are painful, but the sting subsides after a while. After applying krai sap, most leave it for 30 minutes and then wash their mouths again. Krai sap sticks to the teeth and dyes the entire set in its peculiar black. Every night before going to sleep, young girls and boys are supposed to practice kneading the sap into the teeth so that they are protected from decay and solidified to their root. Krai sap is applied only once a month, but teeth remain firmly black. Some believe that after their teeth are ground and sawed, they can enjoy better meals.

While ethnicities in the Central Highlands have given up their tooth grinding and blackening practices, several communities in the Northwest, including Lao and Lu people are still committed to tooth blackening. When they go to rice terraces, venture to the market or attend festivals, Lao and Lu women usually wear beaming smiles to welcome strangers, characterized by a lustrous black. Lu communities in Hon Hamlet, Tam Duong District, Lai Chau have preserved their tooth blackening practice over centuries. When puberty draws close, girls are equipped by their mothers with a tooth blackening kit called “pằng tèm khèo”. It includes a thin iron stick, which is the integral item during the lifetime of any Lu woman. Tỉu plant, which yields spicy and fragrant sap and grows deep in vast woods is employed to make the hues for the blackening. These plants are collected and dried and stored in their houses at their disposal.

Lu women apply tỉu sap to blacken their teeth

After each meal or before going to sleep, native women usually sit by the fire to practice blackening their teeth. A branch of the tỉu plant is placed into the hearth to be reduced to ashes, then put into a dyeing can, which is covered with a pằng tèm khèo iron stick. As a result, the burning coal will melt the tỉu sap at the bottom of the can, sending smoke high and the lower side of the iron stick is then stained with the black sap. Ladies dip their index finger into the hot sap and rub to dye all over their teeth. The sap is well stuck to their teeth. Tooth blackening is usually practiced after the dinner in the evening. Lu communities still practice tooth blackening as a routine ritual in their ordinary life, which also grants them moments of relaxation and beauty care after a long working day. A special feature of their black smile is a glistening tooth on the upper jaw, which stands out as the hidden and peculiar charm of this ethnicity.

The reason these ethnic groups have their teeth sawed and cut, according to some researchers, is the desire to emulate buffalos. Some scientists claimed that many native people throughout Truong Son Mountains and the Northern Central Highlands adopted the buffalo as the original animal in their totemist beliefs. In his research on Bahnar people of Kon Tum, author Nguyen Dong Chi, wrote “Bahnar people saw their teeth possibly to emulate their sacred animal of buffaloes.” The tooth grinding practice of ethnicities across Truong Son Mountains and the Central Highlands was gradually dissolved after the 1950s because tooth sawing and grinding led to infection and bleeding, threatening overall health.