Pictures: The groom’s side processes, above, toward the bride’s family house, bearing, first, areca nuts and betel, then rice cakes and fruit and other gifts; the procession is received by members of the bride’s party, right.
Photos: An Thanh Dat

Vietnam Heritage, October-November 2011 — This article contains my research findings on the wedding ceremonies of the Vietnamese people in Quynh Hoa commune, Quynh Phu District, in the northeastern province of Thai Binh.
Quynh Hoa commune covers 766.5 hectares and has a population of over 7,000. There are 450 Catholics and the remainder are Buddhists. Quynh Hoa is by a river, separated from neighbouring communes by rice fields. The local people live mostly via rice, maize and potatoes. Since it is far from the city and commercial and industrial centres, the local culture is well-preserved.
The first people came and settled in Quynh Phu District 2,000 to 3,000 years ago. There are more than 20 clans in the commune. They are all Kinh (ethnically Vietnamese). During the time of occupation (1858-1954), the Japanese and French set up stations in the commune.
In later periods, many people in the commune left for the cities or went abroad to earn a living. In the commune, there are three communal houses, three Buddhist pagodas, one temple, two Catholic churches and many shrines.
I haven’t found any reports that record in detail the events or the customs and habits practised in the commune before 1945. My research is based on interviews with old people in the commune.
L? d?m ngõ is the first of several ceremonies needed for a marriage. The bridegroom’s family prepares an offering tray that consists of a bottle of rice alcohol and a bunch of areca nuts, covered with a piece of bright red cloth.
About ten people are needed to carry out the ceremony, but the presence of a matchmaker and the bridegroom’s parents is a must. The bridegroom’s father puts the offering tray on the altar of the bride’s house, and lights some incense sticks. Usually it is the bride’s father who replies. Then, the match-maker acts on behalf of the bridegroom’s family, and lets everybody know that they want to ally themselves by marriage with the bride’s family. If the bride’s family agrees, both sides choose an auspicious date for the betrothal ceremony. The marriage-offering ceremony usually takes place in the morning and does not call for eating.
The ceremony of marriage-offering means that the garden has been opened for someone; the flower has an owner. After this ceremony, the bridegroom is allowed to visit the girl’s family and talk with the girl (in the old days, if unmarried boys and girls met and talked, they would have been frowned upon). Once the girl’s family has accepted the offer for marriage, they are not allowed to receive the offer from any other family.
If the girl’s family change their mind, they have to tell the groom’s family by visiting and giving areca nuts (which means giving back the areca nuts offered). If the boy’s family change their mind, they just need to inform the girl’s family.
From the ceremony of marriage-offering until the wedding day, the bridegroom has a duty to present the fiancee’s family with gifts during festivals. The gifts are seasonal products such as persimmons, square glutinous rice cakes, betel leaves, areca nuts and rice alcohol.
When the bride’s family celebrates an important event such as a death anniversary or tomb-clean-up, the bridegroom has to participate in and contribute to the event.
The bride’s family usually gives back part of the gifts.
The betrothal ceremony (L? ?n h?i) is conducted about one or two months after the marriage offer. Besides a food tray to the ancestors of sticky rice, chicken, alcohol, betel leaves and areca nuts, the bridegroom’s family has to bring green tea, areca nuts and betel leaves for the bride’s family to use for the offering ceremony. The offerings are put on bronze trays covered with red cloths. Young, healthy and attractively tidy girls are chosen to carry the trays on their heads. (It is a must to be on the head, not at a lower part of the body). All activities must be done in the right order, in which old people come first, then the younger ones. About ten old and important people among the relatives of the bridegroom are invited to go to the bride’s house for the ceremony.
The father of the bridegroom puts the offering on the altar and lights incense sticks. The bride’s father stands up and makes a ceremonious reply, then the match-maker talks. The future bride comes out to greet the relatives, introducing herself. Then she retires.
Both families choose an auspicious date for the wedding and the bridegroom’s family asks what the bride’s family wants. Usually, if both families support the wedding, the bride’s family asks for something the bridegroom’s family can afford. However, if the bride’s family wants to break off the engagement, they ask for something the bridegroom’s family cannot afford. Then the latter give up.
The offering asked for would consist of betel leaves, areca nuts, tea, rice alcohol, sticky rice, a pig’s head, or sometimes even money or jewellery for the bride, such as bracelets, rings and necklaces. The wedding gown is what the bridegroom’s family has to prepare: it is a five-flap slack coat with a tricolour belt. The colour of the wedding gown should usually be brown or violet.
The betrothal ceremony usually takes place at 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. Rich families usually prepare a dinner for all their relatives after the ceremony is finished. Poor families provide areca nuts, betel leaves and green tea.
Formerly, the date for every wedding ceremony was decided by an astrologer. If the girl’s age ended with 1, 3, 6 or 8, then she was expected to wait another year.
Before the wedding day, the bridegroom’s family has to pay a fee to the community of the village. Those who marry their wives in the same village pay 100kg of rice, and those who marry women from another village have to pay much more.
A couple of days before the wedding, people in both families visit relatives and neighbours, friends and other guests to invite them to the wedding ceremony. Guests are invited by the people of the same rank in the family hierarchy; the people of a lower rank are not allowed to invite the guests of an upper rank. The ceremony usually lasts from the previous afternoon until the following afternoon. People related to the married couple come to help set up tables and chairs, prepare betel and areca nuts for chewing, and boil water and cook food. The officials in the village as well as many relatives are invited to dinner on that day. On the next day, after the wedding ceremony has finished, both families get together and eat at the bridegroom’s house.
On the day before the wedding day, the bridegroom’s family sends a group of people to the bride’s house, bringing wedding clothes as well as the offering that the bride’s family has requested.
On the tray of offering to the ancestors, besides glutinous rice, chicken, betel leaves, areca nuts and rice alcohol as before, there must be one item that is extremely important: a pig’s head, which is a metaphor for ‘maiden’. [In some places, after the wedding, if the groom’s family visits the bride’s family with a pig’s head with the ears cut, that means the bride has lost her virginity before the wedding]. This time, the bridegroom (not his father as before) places the tray on the altar and lights some incense sticks. The matchmaker stands up to ask permission to collect the bride and announces the pick-up time for the next day.
On the wedding day, the bridegroom’s family sends a group of people to pick up the bride, usually from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., bringing with them a simple offering tray with betel leaves, areca nuts, rice alcohol and a few incense sticks. There would be neither bridesmaids nor best men.  The bride’s family meets the group and invites them to chew betel and areca nuts and drink tea while the bride and the bridegroom come inside to kowtow to the ancestors.
At the chosen time, the matchmaker or a representative in the bridegroom’s family (usually the uncle of the bridegroom) stands up and asks the permission to take the bride home. This time the bridegroom’s mother, taking a conical hat and a threaded needle, go into the bride’s room, pin the needle on the flap of her gown, put the hat on her head and then hold her hand and take her out of the room.
A dowry, if any, should be handed over at that moment. The bride’s mother usually prepares for her a pack of rice mixed with salt and some small change for her to drop when crossing over a bridge or passing by a pagoda, a mound or a shrine, as an act to drive away devils and ghosts. It is the bridegroom’s mother, not the father, who goes to pick up her daughter-in-law. The bride’s mother is not allowed to accompany her daughter to the bridegroom’s house. When the bride is getting ready to leave, her mother usually reminds her to say good-bye to all relatives before leaving. At this time, many girls can’t hold back their tears.
The old people explain that when a girl gets married, she becomes the daughter of other people. That is a definite departure. ‘A daughter is the daughter of other people’, as the old saying goes. A daughter-in-law is really ‘a daughter her parents have paid for and brought home.’
The bride wears a five-flap slack gown. The braid of her hair wound up on her head, her hand holding a conical hat to hide her face. The bridegroom wears a traditional double coat, a ready-to-wear turban on his head, and black or brown shoes. When the bride arrives, the bridegroom’s mother takes off the conical hat for her, which means that she has made it to the destination. The couple lights up incense sticks, kowtows to the ancestors, then goes out into the front yard to perform the pink-thread ceremony (l? t? h?ng).
In the yard, a temporary altar has been set with incense sticks and candles on it. The bride with an offering tray on her head kneels down to listen to the monk read an oration to the pink- thread matchmaker**. The content of the oration praises the merits of this matchmaker who has created a good opportunity for the couple to get married and wishes that they protect the married couple so that they live happily, bearing many children.
This tray has the same items of food as the one prepared for guest, but the difference is that after the ceremony is finished, it is carried into the bedroom where only the bride and the bridegroom are allowed to eat. As soon as the ceremony is finished, the bridegroom’s family together with the married couple invite everybody present at the wedding to stay to enjoy the food.
The banquet consists mainly of pork. Each tray is reserved for only four people and they usually drink rice alcohol. The bride’s family doesn’t have to spend much money for the wedding. They use what is given by the bridegroom’s family (usually glutinous rice, rice alcohol, a pig’s head, betel leaves and areca nuts and tea, to serve the relatives and guests). Generally speaking, the bride’s family do not have to dine and wine much. They usually invite a few close relatives for a banquet or no banquet at all if they are poor. There is not a custom for guests invited to a wedding to give money or gifts to congratulate the married couple.  In case the husband’s family is poor, the relatives usually provide assistance, offering rice, rice alcohol or tea.
Three days after the wedding, the bridegroom’s family prepares a tray of glutinous rice, chicken, betel leaves and areca nuts, and rice alcohol for the ceremony of L? l?i m?t, then the matchmaker together with the boy’s father or mother visit the bride’s family. They usually arrive at 10 a.m., stay for lunch, and go home in the afternoon.
The newly married couple go to the front of the altar and kowtow to the ancestors. This ceremony informs the parents and the ancestors that the wedding has been achieved successfully, and that everything is going in the right direction.
If a man is to marry a woman for a concubine, there is no ceremony of marriage offering (l? d?m ngõ), and no betrothal ceremony either. The bride’s family does not have the right to ask for any gifts. The bridegroom’s family decide the date, then inform the bride’s family for preparation. Usually both families do not organise a banquet or invite many people. The matchmaker and relatives of the bridegroom’s family bring betel leaves, areca nuts and rice alcohol to the bride’s house and light incense sticks, kowtow to the ancestors and pick up the bride. The wedding usually takes place quickly and quietly late in the afternoon. If the first wife initiates the wedding, she might come together with her husband to pick up the concubine.
There is a general custom that during a mourning period, which lasts about one year, no wedding is allowed. So in cases where pre-wedding ceremonies have taken place, special changes are made. The announcement of the death to the public is delayed while a simple wedding takes place. Banquets are not allowed and the wedding ceremony just consists of tea and water, betel leaves and areca nuts and only relatives are invited. All ceremonies are dropped except the one of picking up the bride which takes place very swiftly and simply toward late in the evening, and another ceremony for the newlywed’s first visit to the bride’s family three days after. Right after the wedding, the newly married couple can return to the family in mourning to go into mourning. The bride is not allowed to get pregnant for about 100 days.
 After the feudal period (after 1945) the custom of asking the bridegroom’s family for gifts in wedding (thách c??i) and paying fees disappeared and a matchmaker was not needed. The other ceremonies are not as extravagant or expensive as before. The betrothal ceremony needs only betel leaves, areca nuts and some rice alcohol. For the wedding, only some relatives are invited to the banquet, and other people in the village come to chew betel leaves and drink tea. These ceremonies continued to exist during the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1960s, the pink-thread ceremony has disappeared because it requires a fortune-teller. During that time the government’s movement to abolish superstitions was taking place, and the presence of a fortune-teller would be considered superstitious. Since the 1970s, in the wedding ceremony, there have appeared boxes of cigarettes, which have become one of four indispensable items: betel leaves, areca nuts, tea and cigarettes.
The bride’s wedding dress is a large-sleeved robe, a pair of pants in black satin and plastic sandals.  The bridegroom wears a white shirt and a pair of western-style pants. People begin to congratulate the bride with money and firecrackers are used. When the bride arrives at the groom’s house gate, the firecrackers are lit.
In the 1980s, bands began to appear. The musicians also did such things as setting a stage and conducting entertainment activities during the wedding ceremony. Cosmetics, such as face powder and lipstick, also appeared.
In the old days, at the time of picking up the bride, every bride would burst into convulsive sobbing, but these cries diminished little by little and then stopped. They probably don’t want the face powder and lipstick to be washed away.
The groom’s mother still brings with her a needle and a new conical hat, but as soon as the bride is out of her house’s door, the conical hat is taken by somebody else, or else the hair which has been done carefully by hair designers, would be messed up. Thus, the custom of the mother-in-law taking off the bride’s hat when she arrives has disappeared.
Makeup and hair services for the bride also appears during this period. The hair designers  come bringing all kinds of equipment.
The custom of the bride’s family attending a banquet at the bridegroom’s family after the wedding has also disappeared by this time.
When the wedding ends, the bride and the bridegroom bring a tray of betel leaves and areca nuts and cigarettes to each of the guests, invite them to pick some, and then see them off.
By the end of the 1980s, there was a big change in the wedding ceremony, dress for the bride and groom. The bride wears a white wedding gown with a veil pinned to her hair together with a bow.
The bridegroom wears a suit, shoes, and a tie; on the lapel a blazing red rose is pinned.  When crossing a river, or passing by a temple, hill or a mound, the bride has to throw out salt, rice or small change, as was done before. Her mother pins nine needles to her wedding gown, or tucks them in her hair, or packs them up and holds them in her hand.
If two wedding procession groups meet on the way, the brides have to exchange something to drive away unlucky things.
Since 2000, the number of wedding services has boomed. Beauty shops in the commune makeup the brides, and rent out wedding gowns and dresses for the betrothal ceremony. Before the wedding, most couples have a romantic photo album made.
In this commune, except for the pink-thread ceremony, which has been abolished, every other ceremony concerning the wedding is still preserved, but carried out flexibly. Depending on the situation, these ceremonies can be combined and carried out at the same time.
**Note:  Formerly, in China, there was a man named Vi Co who once took a trip to enjoy the moonlight and met an old man who was spinning red thread. The old man said his name was Nguyet (the moon), and he made arrangements for marriages. Once he ties pink threads on the legs of a couple, there is no way they can run away from each other. This information about Vi Co comes from Vietnam Customs, by Phan Ke Binh, Culture and Information Publishing House, Thanh Hoa, Vietnam, 2005.n
*Phan Hoa Ly, born in 1976 in Quynh Hoa commune, Quynh Phu District, Thai Binh Province, is completing her doctoral thesis at the Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences.

By Phan Hoa Ly*