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Exquisite containers...with a twist!

15 Jul '14

Mun Ebony

Posted by Lanchi Vo

"The house in Tra Vinh has columns made out of mun ebony." I was told. That ancestral home belonged to my great grandparents. My grandma grew up there. My mother spent part of her childhood there. I also spent many hours of my childhood vicariously walking about in that old place, following my grandma footsteps down her memory lane.

From her stories, I could visualize the long, narrow house, with an outhouse way back in the garden, amongst the soft green banana stands. I made the point to visit that house on my trip back to Vietnam. Gotta check out those columns of ebony. I saw them alright. But why are they so blurry? The whole house looked blurry. What I saw very vividly was the mental image of my grandma here and there in that ancient place. I missed her so much! Painfully so.. Darn tears! They robbed me the one and only chance to take in clearly the sight of that family's relic. A few years later, the old house was sold. They would probably tear it down and replace it with the ubiquitous multistory building. What would become of those ebony columns? I often wonder, thinking about the multitude of chopsticks I could make out of them.

Yes, Mun ebony chopsticks: the object of my desire. Mun ebony is the material of choice for chopsticks, it gets blacker, shinier with use, the dense wood does not absorb water and get moldy in the hot, humid environment. I did search for them in many markets and stores back there, without success. That was about 18 years ago, when the elitist, luxury Mun chopsticks has no place in the idealistic proletariat Vietnam. But now, they start to come back, along with intricate, hand carved furniture from various precious timbers. In the economic and political twilight post-embargo, a super class (even richer than the upper class!) emerged from the supposedly class-less society. They go to no end to keep up with the Joneses, or should I say the Nguyen's. The demand is back. Old grown trees up rooted from ancient forests and transport to manicured gardens (many of these trees are on the Red list, but enforcement is another story), exotic wild animals encased for the collections of the riches. I often wonder where they got the Mun from. I was told back then that there were no more Mun left in Vietnam. Perhaps, these Mun chopsticks did come from columns of old houses like my ancestor's after all.

Thanks again to the internet, I found a source here in the US for Mun Ebony. Imported from Lao, where the natural range of the species extends. But according to the wood vendor, all they can get were stumps, leftover from the logging of these ancient forests. The good stuff were sold mostly to China, by the truck load. I better hold on tight to a few Mun sticks I managed to find!

Lidded box from Mun Ebony with Betelnut inlay