“Binh voi” in Vietnamese Culture

Not merely lime containers for chewing betel and areca nut, “binh voi” (lime-pot) has been, for generations, closely attached to Vietnamese traditions and culture. 

Like other Southeast Asian countries, betel- areca nut chewing has been part of Vietnamese culture for a long time now, with betel and areca nut serving as a bridge in social relations at different degrees or “dau cau chuyen” (serving to start every talk) as a folk verse says. Particularly in wedding ceremonies, betel and areca nut always serve as symbols of a young couple’s aspirations for life-long affinity to each other. As lime cannot be absent in the betel-areca nut chewing practice, which is pasted on fresh areca nuts before chewing, lime-pots have appeared in different sizes, small enough to be put in wallets or on trays for storage of several kilograms of lime.

Lime-pots are usually made in the spherical form with a small mouth where lime can be taken out by wagtails. Each time when a wagtail is pulled out, the lime is unintentionally or intentionally scraped on lime-pot rims which will get thicker and thicker in the pot’s neck or even sealed off, hence the lime-pots are no longer useable. Lime-pots are often used in daily-life activities and replaced by new ones when the lime inside turns hard or the pots cracks. Old lime-pots are usually placed by the side of secular banyan trees or shrives or temples.

Lime-pot dated back to the Ly Dynasty (1009-1225).

Lime-pot dated back to the early Tran Dynasty (1226- 1400).

Lime-pot as the expression of Tran- Cham Pa cultural exchange when Princess Huyen Tran
was married to a Cham Pa King in the early 14th century.

Lime-pot dated back to the Mac Dynasty (1527-1592).

Lime-pot of baked earth dated back to the Hau Le Dynasty (1427-1789).

Lime-pot dated back to the Nguyen Dynasty (1802- 1945).

Porcelain lime-pot decorated with Cay Mai (apricot tree) in green enamel.

Porcelain enamel colour remains intact after hundreds of years.

Large-sized lime-pot.

Lime-pots can be made of different materials such as enamel porcelain.

Decorations on lime-pots are diverse with different patterns.

Lime-pots with handles designed differently from time to time.

Lime-pots are diverse in forms and sizes.

Lime-pots can be made of different materials such as porcelain in white or green enamel, or bronze, either with or without handles. They are decorated with diverse patterns. Some look like tea pots while others look like vases, depending on the inspirations of lime-pot makers. When referring to “binh voi”, Vietnamese often use the personal pronoun of “Ong” (Sir) like “Ong binh voi” (Sir lime-pot) instead of impersonal pronoun “cai” or “chiec” (thing, it) “chiec binh voi”. Such personification of lime-pots by Vietnamese shows their respect, considering lime-pots their family members. And naturally, “Sir binh voi” occupies an important position in the daily activities of every family.

The image of “Ong binh voi” sometimes reminds people of the lovely images of their grand-mothers and mothers, or of wedding ceremonies when people cluster together, cutting areca nuts, spreading lime on fresh areca nuts and making betel amidst laughter and merry talks or chats. All these constitute the values of an age-old cultural tradition, bearing profound significance in the Vietnamese people’s spiritual life through generations.

Story: Nguyen Vu Thanh Dat – Photo: Dang Kim Phuong