If you visit any local markets in Hoi An, it is not difficult to bump into some small stalls of old ladies, selling and munching hard green nuts and leaves, sometimes even spitting out red residue.There are many many foreign friends of Angiee adventures have thrown us lots of questions about these stuff whenever we pass by. “What are they? How does it taste? Is that nut yummy? What do people use them for?”
Ok. Let’s us tell you. They are “Trầu Cau” – betel leaves and areca nut in Vietnamese, they’re not flavorful at all except for their pungency, but they do play an important role in Vietnamese cultural life. In Vietnam, the custom of chewing betel and areca nut dated back to the reign of the Hung Kings, some three thousand years ago. People said that it’s easy to get blisters in the mouth or get drunk when you first chew betel, but when you are used to it, you can become addicted. I’ve never tasted them before but I used to see my granny chew them. First, she peeled areca nut and chopped them into small pieces. Then she used 1 or 2 betel leaves and applied a small amount of edible lime (lime paste, white or pink) on a piece of areca and wrapped them all together. When she chewed, the mixture of betel, areca and lime created a special pungent taste, which cause a small patch of red on her cheeks.
“Trầu cau” seems to appear in every aspect of life, especially in tradition and daily rituals. There’s a Vietnamese proverb says:“Miếng trầu là đầu câu chuyện”, which means: “Betel leaves and areca nuts were offered as a first conversation starter to guests.” In the countryside, chewing betel also reveals the communication culture. It’s very common that old folks offer betel leaves or areca nut to each other other as a way of beginning a conversation. In wedding ceremony, “Trầu cau” should go with tea, fruit, wine, cake – all placed in round lacquered boxes covered with square red silk cloth – as the dowry offered by the groom’s family to the bride’s family. Areca nut chewing starts the talk between the groom’s parents and the bride’s parents about the young couple’s marriage. They help people become closer and more open with each other. Besides, they serve as offerings in funerals and burials as well. To Vietnamese, they are a symbol of love, strong bone of family, and happiness.
Several foreign buddies asked us: “Will young Vietnamese chew betel and areca nuts when they get older?” We said: “We don’t know”. We don’t know because the young has their own choice and nowadays, this unique and beautiful custom is not widely practiced like in generations past, but we do believe that there are still tradition-keepers teaching and inspiring their children to respect and maintain it everlastingly.
*All photos used in this article are from the internet