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Black Teeth: How Vietnam’s Hottest Beauty Regimen Went From Vogue to Obscurity

Once the hallmark of youthful beauty in Vietnam, nowadays dyeing one’s teeth black is a dying custom that can only be spotted in the country’s oldest generation.

Recently, the local cybersphere was mesmerized by a video clip by the 100 Years of Beauty team that put the charm and elegance of Vietnamese women on center stage. The short feature starts in the 1910s, and many were surprised by the black headwear and teeth that the model dons.

It’s understandable that netizens were flabbergasted by the darkened teeth, as the practice has been obsolete for decades. According to Thanh Nien, black teeth can be traced back all the way to the age of the Hung Kings, when it was a rite of passage for young coming-of-age women.

It was very popular among women in ancient Vietnam, and not only commoners. Members of the royal family and mandarins were spotted with shiny black teeth as well.

There are many theories surrounding the ritual. The prevailing assumption links the color with betel nut chewing, a custom commonly practiced by women from northern provinces. However, according to Ngo Duc Thinh, a professor from the Institute of Cultural Studies, black teeth is not a byproduct of a diet; instead it has a meaning that’s deeply rooted in Vietnamese spiritual beliefs.

Thinh shared with the news outlet that back then, long white teeth were associated with ghosts, underworld ghouls and wild animals. Thus, the darkened teeth were meant to protect their owner from evil spirits and supernatural beings.

As much as black teeth were celebrated back then, dyeing one’s teeth black was not a cakewalk. It was a painful and complicated process that only professional “teeth dyers” could take on.

For an average Vietnamese girl at the time, the ritual usually happened by the time she had lost all her baby teeth. Before the actual dyeing began, both the mouth and teeth had to be thoroughly sanitized: for three days, girls in the same dyeing “cohort” helped each other brush their teeth using dried betel husks, stewed charcoal powder and salt.

The day before the ritual, they had to chew on lemon wedges and rinse their teeth with a rice wine-lemon juice concoction in order to erode the surface of their teeth. This was to allow for optimal dyeing of the enamel.

The rigorous cleaning was often painful for the girls, as their jaws were sore and the insides of their mouth became swollen due to excessive friction.

After days of sanitizing came the dyeing rituals, which also involved several stages to achieve the black sheen as seen in old photos.

They first applied a mixture of phèn đen (Phyllanthus reticulatus), a plant extract, and shellac. This was done once per day for seven to ten days.

Lastly, a blackening solution made of burnt coconut shells was slathered on the stained teeth to create a pitch black layer of lacquer.

In the past, in order to keep the color, women had to go through the entire process annually. Today, reapplication is impossible since the ingredients for the dye have become rare, while most “teeth dyers” have passed away. Moreover, the process was such a painful ordeal that, over the years, many preferred to avoid it altogether once toothpaste arrived in Vietnam and white teeth became fashionable.