Story & Photos: Tan Vinh

Ear stretching was once an essential fashion practice for tribes in the Central Highlands.

The practice of ear stretching for jewelry has long existed in communities all over the world, including the Dong Son culture that thrived in ancient Vietnam over 2,000 years ago. This practice is fading away in Vietnam but can still be seen in several ethnic communities in the Truong Son Central Highlands, including the Mnong, Ma, Xtieng, K’tu and Brau. These tribes traditionally stretched earlobes to wear earrings of wood, bamboo, ivory, lead, bronze or gold.

The traditional practice of creating stretched earlobes is time-consuming. A thorn from a lemon tree is used to pierce the ear carefully – the piercing must be in the center of the earlobe or else it cannot be stretched very far. The thorn is left there for days, with the piercing kept clean with boiled ginger water.

When the wound is healed, the wearer starts twisting the thorn day by day. A single turn a day is made, until the larger end of the thorn can fill the hole. After that, the original thorn is replaced by a slightly larger one, and the twisting process is repeated. A slightly larger thorn is then used, and the entire sequence happens over and over, with the lobes washed in boiled ginger water daily. After several months, earrings can be worn in the stretched earlobes.

Wealthy Mnong, Ma, X’tieng and Bih tribespeople traditionally wore ivory earrings, which could stretch their ears up to their jawbones, sometimes even near their shoulders. This practice was mentioned in folk chants of the Mnong as follows: “Ivory is meant for suitable ears; bead necklaces meant for suitable necks; flower scarves meant for suitable heads.” 

Ivory earrings were particularly prized for guest receptions, relative and friend gatherings or festivals. A pair of ivory earrings is worth a buffalo with one-hăt-long horns (a traditional measurement unit of the Mnong, which is dictated to measure from the elbow to the central finger once fully stretched) or an ancient jar.

A quick glance at earrings and earholes is enough to suggest the social and material status of their wearers. Wealthier men wear ivory, while poorer ones don wooden or bamboo pieces or faux ivory earrings made of dried cassava. Some also just slightly stretch their earlobes to wear aluminum earrings. Wealthy women also love ivory, while some prefer silver or lead earrings with flower strings and beads. With each step these dangling earrings sway back and forth and make jingling sounds.

Nowadays, the relics of ear-stretching practice are mainly evident among the elderly. Their earlobes sag down with large holes, evidence of their possession of precious jewelry and the old-fashioned beauty rituals of their communities. Ivory earrings that were once the most precious asset of these elderly have faded into obscurity, having been sold to dealers of antiques and ethnic belongings. This cosmetic practice has faded away with time, and the young now prefer to wear fashionable contemporary earrings.