(No.1, Vol.2, Jan 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)
An old Vietnamese saying goes ‘??u n?m mua mu?i, cu?i n?m mua vôi’, at the beginning of the year buy salt, at the end quicklime powder.
During the first days of the new year, salt is hawked in small bags sometimes colourfully decorated. Professor Ngo Duc Thinh, a folk expert, is quoted in Lao ??ng Newspaper explaining that possible reasons behind this custom are that salt is an indispensable thing for life, it can be used to drive away ghosts and it symbolises sincere, strong relationship. In Vietnamese ‘salty’, m?n mà also means sincere, strong in relationship.
Quicklime on the other hand, represents ungratefulness, betrayal and fragility. The Vietnamese avoid buying it at the start of a new year but whitewash houses with it as part of making spick and span for the new year.
The Vietnamese used slaked lime before the arrival of paint. Whitewash was popular in rural areas of Vietnam until the 1990s. It is still used in some rural areas, partly because it is cheap. Whitewash is used to paint socks on trees to keep them safe from dangerous insects and make them look nice, according to the Ho Chi Minh City’s Park and Plants service.
Blocks of quicklime, obtained by baking limestone, are thrown in a purpose-dug hole of about ten square metres with water in it. The mixture of water and lime boils and becomes a paste of slaked lime. After a couple of days, the paste is blended with more water to make whitewash.
The paste is also used as cement in building houses.
The same paste, but more diluted, is used in chewing betel, wiped on the leaf before the leaf is wrapped round and chewed with an areca drupe.n