In the past, the weddings of Kinh people – Vietnam’s ethnic majority – were arranged by matchmakers. Before marriage, the betrothed were not allowed to touch each other. If the young woman wished to offer her suitor a quid of betel, she placed the quid on a tray. Feudal ethics forbade any direct expression of love.
If the newlyweds were happy, the matchmaker became their benefactor and was thanked with a bowl of steamed sticky rice, a boiled chicken, and a silk dress following the wedding. When the couple celebrated the one-month anniversary of their first child, the matchmaker was invited to the party.
Following an introduction by the matchmaker, the grooms family would visit the bride’s family to ask after their daughter’s name and age. This ceremony was an important tirst step, as the girl’s age determined in her suitability as a bride. The groom’s family would study the horoscopes of the prospective couple, only agreeing to a wedding if the pair’s horoscopes were complementary. As well as having suitable horoscopes, the couple should come from the same social class.
Asking for wedding presents was a feudal custom that placed a lot of strain on both families. Some couples had to break up because the girl’s family demanded gifts beyond the grooms family’s means. The brides family might request dresses, bottles of wine, cakes, betel nuts, rice, pigs, chickens, jewelry, and money. Sometimes, the groom’s family would go deep into debt, forcing the young couple to spend years paying back the costs incurred by their wedding. Resentment between the bride and groom and their respective families was inevitable.
A traditional wedding ceremony involved a great many gifts. Phu the cakes were mandatory. Made of rice flour, sugar, coconut and green beans, these cakes consist of a round filling between two square layers – said to represent the earth and the sky. The cakes are associated with loyalty, flexibility and honesty.
To raise pigs you must collect ivater ferns. To get married you must be pay “way ahead” to the village.
“Way ahead” was a sum of money that the grooms family offered to the girl’s home village. If the boy and the girl were natives of the same village, the groom’s family still had to pay “way ahead”, although the sum was smaller. Only after receiving the “way ahead” would the village officials issue a marriage certificate. The collected money was to be used for public works, like sinking a well or building a road.
An hour or two before it was time to fetch the bride, the groom’s uncle or aunt would go to the brides house to discuss the correct time to pick up the bride. This custom allowed the families to solve last-minute obstacles of poor weather or heavy traffic.
At the bride’s home, the bride and groom worshiped at the ancestral altar, praying that the ancestors would support their future and ensure them a happy life. After that, the bride and groom offered a tray of betel nuts and cigarettes to thek guests, starting with the eldest and most respected guests. Finally, the bride and groom kowtowed to the brides parents. The brides parents reciprocated with a small gift, normally earrings or some money.
The mother-of-the-bride was not permitted to send her daughter off to the grooms house. It was considered the fathers right to arrange the marriage. Often, the bride would cry as she worried about her future among strangers, while her mother would cry at the thought of losing her child. According to custom, the mother was forbidden from watching her daughters departure.
Upon arrival at the grooms house, other customs were observed. In the central provinces of Nghe An-Ha Tinh, the mother-in-law would welcome the bride by placing a water scoop and a large brass pot full of water beside the front gate. Inside the pot she would throw a few coins. The water symbolized her blessing for the bride, while the coins showed that the new daughter-in-law had access to private capital.
After honoring the groom’s ancestors, the mother-in-law led the bride into the wedding room. Here, a respected older man or woman with both a son and a daughter had spread a new flowered sedge mat on the bed. This tradition was designed to ensure that the couple would have a son and a daughter and a happy future.
In ether parts of Vietnam, the mother-in-law was not allowed to meet the bride, but instead took a pot of lime and went to a neighbors house. This custom showed that, while she was passing authority to her daughter-in-law, she retained the lime pot, symbolic of a woman’s role in managing the housework.
In the past, most newlyweds were teenagers. It was common for girls of 13 and boys of 16 to marry. Bridesmaids would often accompany the bride to the groom’s house and spend a few days teaching the bride how to become a wife and daughter-in-law. The bridesmaids typically departed after two or four days, when the newlyweds performed a custom known as lot mat, in which they returned to the bride’s house to visit her parents and bring them some gifts. This tradition expressed the children’s filial piety towards their parents.
Today, young people in Vietnam are free to choose their own partners. To outsiders, weddings may appear very Westernized, as most brides don white gowns, while the grooms family hosts a large reception, often in a restaurant or hotel. Behind the scenes, however, many of the old traditions persist. From the offering of betel nuts to the ceremonial laying down of the newlyweds’ sedge mat, wedding rituals have retained their symbolic value.