Vietnam: legend of the areca nut and betel leaf


Two twin-brothers were they, of equal beauty. Both had the same slender frame, the same frank look, the same warm, well-toned voice. So much alike were they that their own mother had never known them apart. One was Lang, and one was Cau.

Lang and Cau had had a happy childhood. Sons of a mighty mandarin, surrounded with care, honour, and affection, their lot had aroused no little envy.

All this happiness vanished in disaster. The great fire which ruined the twin youths orphaned them too, and dispersed their friends. Sorrowful, they went their way, unable to give their dead better burial than a heap of blackened cinders… And every gust of wind scattered the sacred dust more widely.

Cau and Lang sighed for the past — so near as yet — and marched on towards the future. Great was their weariness, and, despite their spirited youth, their star of hope grew wan.

Would they ever find one hospitable soul? — meet a friend who would help them ? — a just master who would accept their work, to whom they might dedicate their wits, or the strength of their arms ?

Lang and Cau followed a narrow path close by the sea. Day was declining, and the sadness of the dying light increased their own melancholy.

The wan waves plunged, broke, and spread sobbing along the strand. The grass-hoppers buzzed, forlorn.

Heavy-winged and enormous, the moths adventured in the shade of the mangroves, and the fire-flies began their luminous dances.

Lang and Cau perceived, amid stunted palm-trees, an assemblage of rustic cabins, heaped and huddled as though in fear, sustaining one another against the attack of some invisible foe, or some monstrous divinity hidden beneath the bitter billows. This was Cua-Han, a little fishing-village.

Among the poverty-stricken roofs, the young men remarked a less primitive
dwelling, surrounded by a green hedge.

” Brother,” said Cau, ” wilt thou, yet once again, appeal to a rich man’s pity? Shall we enter into that dwelling ? ”

” Yes, Lang, let us enter. Who knows whether Destiny have not reserved us here our appointed place? Moreover, I am at an end of my strength, and my feet to-day will bear me no further.”

” I too am broken by weariness, yet not so deeply as by despair.”

” Courage, Lang ! ”
” Courage, Cau ! Thou sayest well. Leaning the one on the other, we can
better endure the strokes of adversity.”

Lang stretched out his hand; Cau placed his own in it. A great tenderness shone in the eyes of the twins, and both cried, well-nigh joyously:
“Let us go in!”


They shook the dust from their garments, bathed their bruised, travel-stained feet, and went towards the rich abode.

Scarcely had they skirted the binh-phong — the stone screen placed before the door, and decked with cabalistic signs — than they stood still, spell-bound by an exquisite apparition.

Standing on the lower steps of the verandah a young maiden, clad in white, seemed to centre on herself all the light of the dying day. Slender, with black diamond eyes and swan-neck, with voluptuous shoulders and undulating hips, she was ravishing to look upon.

Her taper fingers caressed the single string of a quaint musical instrument, and she murmured in low tones what seemed a rhythmical complaint:

– O sun, wherefore dost thou flee? Whither goest?
That thou mayst pour out thy warmth on other worlds?
Wherefore dost allow the night to extend her long veil?
‘Tis the night gives slumber. Why sleep?
To slumber is to die; when we sleep, we love not.
Love, therein is our true life . . . yet I, I know not Love.
The ring-dove loves his mate, as My Lord Tiger his.
Who shall love me. To him I will give my heart for ever.
Come back, O sun! Shine on him, show him, him that shall love me.
That I may love him!

Cau and Lang, unmoving, listened to the lovely songstress. No longer were they fatigued, no longer faint-hearted.


Six months went by.
Lang and Cau were still at Cua-Han. They worked in the house of Giau, the
Mandarin. Every day Giau valued more highly the diligence and devotion of the young men.

And daily Lang, and daily Cau, watching the fair Thi-Trau knot up her raven hair, thought gravely there was no greater joy than that of dwelling in Giai’s abode.

Thi-Trau was dreamy. . . . Her adoring father prayed her to choose a husband among the young sons of mandarins who came to ask her hand. Thi-Trau could not make up her mind.

… Weeks passed, and months. At length the maiden announced to her father that she would wed none save one of the two brethren.

Lang should be her spouse … or Cau; but which of them? So much alike were they that Thi-Trau never thought of them apart… But one or the other must be chosen.

Who was the handsomer, who the wiser, the stronger, the wittier, the better? Cau possessed every desirable quality. So did Lang.

Thi-Trau was a woman; long since had she divined the ardent love of Lang, the loving ardour of Cau. The virgin gave over to Fate the business of showing the spouse who should be hers: she would let fall one of her gilded wooden, slippers, and he who should bring it her; must be her husband.


That husband was Lang. Lang was infinitely happy. His happiness dazzled him, made him drunk. He saw only Thi-Trau, heard only Thi-Trau, and consequently perceived not Can’s sombre reddened eyes, and features worn for want of sleep . . . heard not his twin-brother’s sighings and woeful sobs. Thi-Trau alone existed in all the world.

Cau was in despair. Cau suffered a nameless martyrdom; the woman he loved
could never be his; and Lang, his other self, had not only bereft him of his beloved, but denied him also that brotherly love, so sweet, so profound, which hitherto he had lavished on him. Oh Lang! Oh Thi-Trau! And Cau longed to die.

That autumn eve was soft as a kiss. The sea sang its caressing song. Cau went wandering on the strand, with unkempt locks, with burning brow.
Oh to suffer no more! To sleep for ever, nor dream of cruel life!

To feel no more that fiery torrent which coursed in his veins, that mountain of grief crushing his heart in his bosom!…
Die, and love no more those heartless beings who loved not, or who forgot!

Cau took the plunge. The flood opened to receive the beautiful slender body, but closed not over it. It rocked the dead youth as a mother rocks her new-born child, and softly laid him on the beach.

Then the miracle was accomplished. The slim body was transformed into a lovely slender tree; It was the areca.

Horrified, meanwhile, Lang and Thi-Trau had beheld the drama, and their locked fingers were unloosened. Lang rushed out on the strand.

“Cau, Cau, come back, my brother! Forgive me! I have been selfish, ’tis true, but I love thee, oh believe it! … I have never left off loving thee. Come back, Cau, or takejne whither thou art gone!’

The portent was renewed. From the soil beaten by the salt waves sprang up two splendid areca-trees, one by the other, mingling the foliage of their magnificent crowns, both alike as fair and proud as Lang and Cau were equal in beauty and in nobility.

And Thi-Trau bewailed herself: Oh, my spouse! Oh, my brother! Why have you abandoned me? Would I might die with you, since ’twas I who caused your deaths!”

The young wife embraced with her fair arms the trunk of the tree-genie.
“May the gods join me for ever with my husband!”
She spoke, and her desire was accomplished.

Her slim, supple body grew slimmer and suppler still; her fingers, her locks, became graceful leaves. Thi-Trau was a liana twining round the
areca-tree; she was a betel-giant.

Merciful are the gods. Thi-Trau’s fleshy arms embraced in modesty only the body of Lang; her vegetable arms caressed both Lang and Cau.


This was in the time of one of the Hung monarchs, a time when so many marvels happened. This king, apparently the third, went to Cua-Han, that he might admire that creeper and those singular trees.

The seventh month had stirred the sun’s fires. So overwhelming was the heat that the plants were dried up, the beasts crawled painfully about, and men perished beneath the planet’s burning rays.

The king’s bearers themselves could only with great difficulty sustain their majestic burden. The cortege, nevertheless, crossed the Pass
of the Clouds, and traversed the high brush amid apathetic tigers, prostrate elephants, and indolent boa-constrictors.

It was nearly decimated when it reached Cua-Han. And immediately the Hung
monarch betook himself to the beach.

He bathed, made all his escort bathe, and stretched himself wearily under the charming group formed by the trees and the twining betel. A burning thirst dried up his throat, and his lips were on fire. Not a tree all around bore fruit to slake the royal thirst!

The sea-breeze shook the lofty heads of the two arecas. Amid the lanceolated leaves, the king observed certain green nuts. He ordered that they be gathered for him. This was no easy matter, and the king’s servants did not go swiftly to work.

The king, in his impatience, began to chew a leaf of betel. It was yet in his mouth, when they brought him an areca-nut. It was a revelation! The burning thirst vanished; the king’s lips grew cool and sweet-scented.

The whole court copied their sovereign, and felt the better for it. When the royal cortege left Cua-Han, not one among the servants went heavily and painflly as at their coming. They all went singing, gay and happy, despite the fearful heat about them.


Don’t be surprised if, in memory of that miracle, the Indo-Chinese perpetually chew betel and areca-nuts! They keep up the old tradition.

That betel and those nuts are to them no mere “refreshments” ; they are symbols and emblems. They are images of conjugal love, fraternal love, family love.

A branch of betel, twined round an areca-bough, is given as a symbolical gift by the young man betrothed to his future wife. Could he more gracefully plight his troth?

Text: Chivas-Baron, Clotilde
From the book: Stories and legends of Annam
by Chivas-Baron, Clotilde; Smith-Dampier, E. M., translator
Publication date: 1920
Publisher: London and New York: A. Melrose, ltd.
Photo: cover of the book in Vietnamese language “Su tich trau cau”


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