The Vietnamese custom of chewing betel and areca is being celebrated and explained at an exhibition that opened in Hanoi recently.

Entitled Betel and Areca Culture, the exhibition displays more than 100 objects and documents to provide an insight into the fascinating lore and culture of betel and areca chewing in Vietnam .

Betel and areca are the most important offerings in traditional ceremonies, including betrothals, weddings and funerals. They symbolise love and the inseparable bond of marriage.

The tradition comes from an old folk tale about two loving brothers. One gets married and begins to forget about his younger brother, who runs away from home and eventually dies of sadness and transforms into a lime-stone. The elder goes searching for him, and dies of despair beside the stone, changing into an areca tree. His wife then searches for him in turn, and dies beside the stone and the tree, becoming a betel plant and climbing around the tree.

It is said that one day the legendary ruler of the country, King Hung, discovered a temple the local people had built for the three who died, and learned of the story. He ordered his men to grind together a leaf of betel, an areca nut and a piece lime. The result was juice as red as human blood, which the king tasted and found delicious. He recommended that betel be chewed along with areca nut and lime at every marital ceremony.

The habit of chewing betel has long been taken by common people, and it has become an integral part of the country's traditional culture and custom.

Nguyen Van Cuong, director of the Vietnam National Museum of History, said that a key aim of the current exhibition is to foster understanding and so provide a basis for preserving and enhancing the tradition.

In recent years, the custom of chewing betel-areca has gradually declined and seemly only continues to exist among the elderly generation, mainly in rural areas.

However, betel and areca are still essential offerings at every important festival and traditional ceremony.

On display at the exhibition will be intricate and artistic betel chewing kits and many ancient lime pots which are used to contain the slaked lime that is chewed with the betel leaf. These are considered to be highly spiritual by some Vietnamese people who believe in the folk tale.

The exhibition is divided into three sections. The first one explores the custom of chewing betel and areca nut from the era of Hung Kings and traces the tradition to the time of the Ly dynasty in the 11th century.

Another section shows how betel and areca culture has spread over the many ethnic groups throughout Vietnam . The tradition varies with each different culture and living environment creating uniqueness.

The rest of the exhibition displays videos and photos showing how the betel and areca culture has been treasured and prolonged through folk songs, poetry, music and modern movies.

The exhibition has been organised with help from the Vietnam National Museum of History, the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, the Vietnam Women's Museum and collector Nguyen Trung Thanh from the northern province of Hai Duong. It will run until the end of January at the National Museum of History, 1 Trang Tien street , Hanoi.-VNA