The old has had a saying of “a quid of betel and areca-nut starts the ball rolling”. It means that Vietnamese people often invite their guest a quid of betel as a conversation starter. Over thousands years passed, betel chewing is still maintained a feature of a valuable and popular custom and habit in Vietnam.
The legend has it that the custom of betel chewing has appeared from the Hung King, associated with the Legend of Betel and Areca Nut. It tells the story of the spouse love, brotherhood and great sacrifice. In a village, there were two brothers alike as two drops of water, that was difficult to distinguish who is older brother Tan and who is younger brother Lang. The loved together so much. Then, the older brother got married with a beautiful girl of his teacher. The three people lived happily together until one day the wife confused the younger brother as her husband and held him closely in affection. The husband just came back home in time and saw that. He expressed his jealousy to his brother and brotherhood became distant. Lang was upset and left home. He incessantly cried and turned into a limestone lying on a bank of river. Tan regretted and went to the road looking for his younger brother. He found Tang petrified and he cried unto death and also turned into a straight-up-to-sky tree beside the stone. The wife could not wait for her husband’s come back, thus she left home to look for him. Also, she found the place where her husband and his brother died, she was too painful so that she turned into a betel vine that crept and twined round the tree. When the King Hung came through the place and was heard the story from villagers, he surprised and ordered his servants to pick the tree’s fruit for tasting. Incredibly, chewing the fruit and leave of the vine made a strange taste: sweet, hot and pungent, simultaneously create a red liquid as blood. Since then, the King Hung demanded all his people to popularly plant this tree and vine throughout regions and custom of betel chewing in marriage to memorize and wish the great and passionate spouse affection.
In Vietnam, a quid of betel consists of four parts: an areca nut, a betel leaf, a root of Chay tree, and hydrated lime corresponding to four tastes: sweet, hot, bitter and pungent. Betel chewing becomes a unique custom in Vietnam’s festival, wedding and engagement, and formal occasions. It connects people closer and symbolizes the goodness of village, neighborhood, family relationships, friendships and love. As a symbol of love and marriage, the Vietnamese has a phrase of “matters of betel and areca” (chuyện trầu cau) or some regions call engagement ceremony as lễ bỏ trầu or lễ dạm ngõ. In this ceremony, the groom’s parents bring a tray of betel, together with tobaccos, cookies and fruits to the bride’s home in order to talk about their children’s marriage. In wedding ceremony, dishes of betel and areca nut are given to all guests to share happiness with the owner’s family.
In the occasions of festival and Tet holiday, betel quid is used to invite and make acquaintance guests. In funeral or ancestor worship, the Vietnamese also use betel and areca nut on their altar to show their sadness and respect. Nowadays, betel chewing is no longer popular among young generation, but it is also retained among the old, the ethnic groups (Kinh, Tay, Nung, Thai, Muong, San Diu, Dao) and almost regions in the North of Vietnam. Betel and areca become a typical image in poetry symbolizing love as the Vietnamese people still croon:
“Loving each other, six-part areca nut is only separated into three parts,
Hating each other, yet the six-part areca nut will be separated into ten parts”