The “Story of the Betel Leaf and the Areca Nut” is a famous “Vietnamese” story. I have Vietnamese in scare quotes here because the Vietnamese are not the only people who have this story, and it probably did not emerge among the Vietnamese. The reason I say this is because the Vietnamese version is highly Sinicized/Confucianized, whereas those elements are absent in other versions of the story.
What follows is a summary of a Lao version of this story. It comes from a French translation by Pierre-Bernard Lafont of the story which was published in the Bulletin de la Société des Études Indochinoises in 1971. Lafont’s translation in turn was based on some Lao manuscript which the EFEO obtained in 1925.
Obviously it would be better to see a Lao original version, so if anyone who knows where one would be ever reads this, please let me know.
The Lao story is about Sam Luong, Sam Lan and Ing Dai. They are three friends and they study together. Ing Dai is actually a girl, but the other two do not know this. She is also from another village, but is staying in a different village with relatives so that she can go to school. The there are inseparable, and they even sleep on the same bed at times. Then things start to change because Ing Dai’s body starts to change.
At the beginning of the story, they go swimming, and Sam Luong notices that Ing Dai’s breasts have gotten larger, but s/he says that she was bitten by insects the night before, and that they therefore were swollen.
Sam Luong, believing this explanation, then invites Ing Dai to go look for girls with him. S/he agrees, but then when they are passing Ing Dai’s relatives house she tells Sam Luong to go ahead, and to come back to the house later. Ing Dai then goes in and changes into girl’s clothes, and starts to blacken her teeth. When Sam Luong comes back, he sees a beautiful young girl blackening her teeth. Not knowing that it is Ing Dai, he asks if he can blacken his teeth together with her. She says yes, and . . . he leaves early the next morning at the sound of the cock’s crow.
The two then live a double life. They study together during the day, and then make love at night. Sam Luong still doesn’t realize that his classmate during the day is the same person as the girl he stays with at night.
Then Ing Dai is called back to her home. She leaves, and leaves a note for Sam Luong in which she reveals her true identity. Sam Luong goes looking for her. When he finds her, the two are very happy and spend the night together. The next morning, Ing Dai’s mother finds the two sleeping side by side, and gets angry. She says that she will never give her permission for them to marry.
Sam Luong goes back home, but before he does he talks with Ing Dai. They decide that they would rather die than be apart. Then Sam Luong comes up with a plan. He says that he will pretend to die. After he does, he wants Ing Dai to tell her parents that his wish is to be placed in a stone coffin which is big enough to hold two people.
Sam Luong leaves, and pretends to get sick on the way back and then “dies.” His parents go to cut down a tree to make a coffin, but the axe can’t cut the tree. So they send for Ing Dai to see if she knows if Sam Luong had any final wish. She tells them, and they make a stone coffin. Then when it is being transported to the cemetery, Ing Dai asks for the people carrying it to stop and open it. She then gets into the coffin, and somehow it is closed again and the people can’t open it.
The parents of Sam Luong and Ing Dai are sent for, as is the cao muong [i.e., the leader of the muong]. The cao muong orders that the best friend of Sam Luong and Ing Dai, Sam Lan, come to answer questions. The coffin is opened and the two are alive. The parents get angry at the trouble the young people have caused and wish them all dead.
Magically, all of the three young people die right there on the spot, and then they transform. Sam Lan becomes lime, Ing Dai becomes betel leaf, and Sam Luong becomes an areca nut.