Instead of opting to adorn one’s arms, shoulders, chest or back with tattoos, the Mảng, one of Viet Nam’s 54 ethnic groups, decorate their mouths.
A Mảng must be tattooed at age 16 or 17. The belief is that without this sacred sign, the soul of a dead person will not be allowed to go through the Gate of Heaven to join the collective sotil of the tribe. Instead, the soul will be condemned to wear around its neck a millstone strung On a viper, and cross an abyss on a precarious rope bridge.
To a female Mang, this age-old custom is also a reminder of her filial and matrimonial duties. According to folklore, there was once a couple that lived in love like a peacock and a peahen. Whatever they did, they did it together, planting, fetching firewood, gathering bamboo shoots or fishing.
After two years they had a son, and things began to change. The wife became lazy and quarrelsome. She worked her husband like a slave and disregarded her own parents’ admonition. The Genius Chông Gô Chuôi Lua then manifested himself to the hapless husband and said: “Sew up the shrew’s mouth with this needle and piece of thread. If she’s not compliant, she will not be let into the Gate of Heaven when she dies.”
Told of the fate awaiting her, the wife cried resignedly. The husband softened. Instead of stitching her lips together, he pricked a line around her mouth and dotted it with indigo. The woman became a good wife and good daughter again.
As for how the Mảng wound up in Việt Nam, the legend says that the King of Heaven and Creator of the Universe, Mon Ten, ordered his sons Ai Hue and Ai Hanh to mould animals and plants on the earth to sustain human life. But severe droughts occurred and the two princes sought out then father for help. The King of Heaven then drenched the earth with water stored in a gourd. He did it three times and caused a deluge that lasted three years. People and animals alike rushed for safety on high ground and killed one another for food until only a young man and his sister were left.
The two went different ways in search of other living creatures. Their paths crossed three times, each time in complete disappointment. To avoid a possible incestuous union, brother and sister immolated themselves.
On the depopulated earth, the two princes from heaven were again ordered to make new animals, which, left to themselves, started killing one another again. The King of Heaven then decided to send people, dropping them from a gourd and through a pipe of bamboo. He failed in the first attempt. Anyone coming out of the tube was instantly snatched by a giant pangolin. He tried again, this time by first letting down a hot pumpkin. The trick worked. The ferocious pangolin lost all its teeth to the steaming bait (which is why pangolins are toothless today).
The first people to emerge safely from a hole punched in the half-burnt pumpkin were swarthy. They were the first Mảng and Khmer. Then came the fairer-complexioned Mong and Dao, followed by the Thai, the Tay, the Nùng and so on. The Kinh, or Viet, were the last to land.
Learn more about Viet Nam’s 54 ethnic groups through Quy Nhon Vietnam travel