In olden days, chastity was strongly emphasized with young people being carefully supervised. As with Confucianism, the physical development of love was not highly regarded. Parents frowned on courtship and falling in love and thought badly of its advocates.
Marriage was considered to be a duty, and was generally arranged in a non-emotional manner by the elders in the family. Sometimes, mere children have been committed to each other for later marriage.
Formerly, couples readily submitted to the parents choosing their mates and still do to a great extent in the countryside. In the cities, they have begun to “fight for their rights.” Youngsters have more opportunities to meet each other these days, so often the role of the parents has been cut down to merely advising and counseling.
Choice of Marriage Partners
Certain standards should be maintained in the choice of mate under the traditional system. For instance, social rank, education, moral history, etc. should be similar in background and on as equal a level as possible.
The couple’s horoscope should be in accord and not conflict. Horoscope data has been deliberately misread on occasions in order to be able to tactfully refuse an offer of marriage. Usually a mediator works between the families, and if successful, is often rewarded with a present, such as a pig’s head.
Age at Marriage
Formerly, girls were often wed as early as 13 and boys at 16. Economic reasons often spurred on young marriages. For example, one family may have wished to have their daughter marry so that they would have one less mouth to feed. On the boy’s side, a wife would mean another helping hand in the field, plus the prospect of more children to work on the land.
Daughter-in-laws were considered to be “free domestic help,” and many girls were older than their bride-grooms. On occasions, marriages were held for very young couples to bring about alliances between families.
In Vietnam today, the marriage age may range from 18 to 22 for women and 22 to 25 for men. These figures rise to higher age levels in the cities where the Western influence is felt. Child marriages are not common in Vietnam today.
Though many things have changed, the rituals have stayed more or less the same in traditional marriages. A description of each of the important rituals follows.
This is often called “the crossing of the girl’s housegate.” It is a time when the boy’s family brings the girl’s family gifts which must include a bunch of betel leaves and areca nuts. Tea, cakes, and candies may also be included. The day and hour must be exactly right by the horoscopic calendar.
The procedure is usually quite formal with everyone dressed in his best clothing. Led by a distinguished elder member of the boy’s family, the family walks to the girl’s home. Boys dressed in black with red sashes around their waists carry the gifts on round red trays balanced on their heads. The bridegroom and the intermediary or matchmaker are also present. The matchmaker will discuss the gifts that the bridegroom will later present to the bride’s family. The date for the formal proposal of marriage is set at this time.
The wedding gifts that the bride’s family request will be given to relatives and friends of the girl’s family. The gifts are often sets of tea, candies, areca nuts, betel leaves, etc. These gifts are in addition to the ones brought to the home on this day. If the girl’s parents have a wide circle of friends, then a large number of gifts are required.
In addition to these, the bridegroom’s family must provide the bride with a trousseau of jewels such as engagement ring, earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and perhaps even a certain amount of money.
Formal Proposal of Marriage
The horoscope must be consulted for the right time and hour, and once again the entourage of family and friends descend on the bride’s home in much the same manner in the “gift presenting ceremony.” At the home of the bride-to-be, they are graciously received with tea, areca nuts, betel leaves, and perhaps liquor being served. The gifts brought by the bridegroom-to-be are placed on the ancestral altar. Joss sticks and lights are lit and incense is burned. The girl’s father, the future bride and groom ceremonially bow before the altar. After this, the bride may withdraw to another room and her future husband may take over the entertainment of the guests, acting as a member of the bride’s family.
After a long period of conversation, the head of the girl’s family removes the gifts from the altar, thanks everyone, and divides the edible gifts into two parts, one smaller than the other. The smaller part is given back to the groom’s family indicating that they have been far too generous and that the bride’s family is not greedy. This also indicates good luck and a close alliance between the two families. Later, the other edible gifts are distributed to friends of the bride’s family.
In the past, the waiting time from this date until the actual marriage was sometimes as long as two or three years. All the while, the bridegroom-to-be was supposed to keep up his relationship with his fiancee’s family with generous gifts on many special days. Today, this waiting period has been drastically reduced. The man was not allowed to see the girl very often and then they were closely supervised. Should they by chance meet in public, the bride-to-be would cover her face discreetly with her hat. Instead of being dismayed, this made the future groom proud, as it indicated to all that his future wife was chaste. This old custom has changed considerably in Vietnam today. There are, however, those in the rural areas who still maintain these practices.
The Wedding Celebration
Horoscopes are specially important for the wedding and numerous checks are made, for no one would want to start a marriage off on the wrong foot. Usually the day before the wedding, the boy’s family has a banquet. Among the poor, it may be a tea party or nothing at all.
On the wedding day, the family of the bridegroom go with the groom at a specially chosen hour to the bride’s home. They all walk together in a procession which is normally led by an old man in dark robes carrying an incense burner. The groom’s parents and older relatives follow the elderly man. Next in line is the bridegroom dressed in new clothes and surrounded by his numerous attendants. They are followed by the brothers and sisters and close friends. Women carry betel leaves and areca nuts and offer them to the wedding party en route.
The procession on foot is common in rural areas, especially among the poorer people. It is a status symbol to be able to have other means of transportation in the procession and a great deal of money is often spent by those wishing to make a good impression on others. It is not unusual in large cities to see such processions made up of fancy cars bedecked with garlands of flowers.
When they reach the bride’s home, they are welcomed and invited in by the girl’s parents. The parents never come out beyond the gate of the home, as they do not wish to appear as initiating the move of offering their daughter’s hand in marriage.
After sipping tea, the head of the boy’s family makes a solemn formal request to take the bride away to their home where she will be a daughter-in-law to the family. Solemnly, the father or head of the girl’s family agrees.
Then the girl’s father or head of the family performs a rite in front of the family altar, requesting acceptance of the marriage by his ancestors. The bride and groom follow suit.
A banquet is often held at this point, but near the end, the groom’s family traditionally acts as though they are very anxious to take the bride to their home.
The groom’s entourage then begins the trip home in procession, with the bride and her attendants, friends and relatives joining in.
Little children sometimes set up road blocks and ask tolls of the wedding party. These are readily paid, as they consider it bad luck to refuse.
Upon arrival at the groom’s house, the party is met by the loud noise of firecrackers. The guests are invited inside with the bride and groom and another ceremony which honors the genie of marriage soon commences.
The genie of marriage is often called the Rose Silk Thread God and is believed to be responsible for the couple getting married. A special altar is set up and lighted with candles, and incense and joss sticks are burned in honor of the genie. An older member of the groom’s family leads the ceremony. He and the bridal couple bow many times before the altar, and a red sheet of paper on which a plea for aid and protection is written to the genie of marriage. This is read aloud. Three cups are filled with a clear white alcoholic beverage by the elder man leading the ceremony. The old man bows three times and gives one cup to the groom who sips a little of the liquid and passes it to his bride who also sips a little. The groom takes some ginger and rubs it in salt, eats a little of it and then shares it with his bride. This symbolizes that no matter what happens, their love will remain true. The sheet of red paper is then burned and the three people bow once again paying their final respects to the genie.
At this point, the couple is considered married and a party is usually held with a lot of speech making, gift giving and merrymaking.
Just as in the West, the groom’s attendants try to keep him busy as long as they can and play jokes on him. In olden days, the bride and groom spent their first night of marriage in separate rooms with their attendants.
The couple usually live with the husband’s parents, at least until children are born. It is expected that the bride will wait on her husband’s family, almost as a servant. This is no the custom with the educated and well-to-do class of people in Vietnam. They are somewhat Westernized in their approach.
Pregnancy and Birth
Except among young moderns, one of the greatest desires of the Vietnamese is to have a large family. Boys are more desired than girls and are especially important to carry on the family line and ancestral worship. A couple having only girls are looked upon by many as having done something wrong in their lives and are, therefore, being punished.
Traditional customs dictate that the mother-to-be must follow strict rules and observe certain customs and taboos in order to have a good healthy baby. She should eat only nourishing foods, but not so nourishing that they would cause the baby to become to big before birth. The mother must carry on prenatal education with her baby, acting and talking as if he was in her presence at all times, guiding and counseling him in physical, intellectual, and moral activities. Alcohol and cigarettes are considered undesirable for the expectant mother.
Pregnant women are often discouraged from undertaking heavy work and getting involved in tense situations. In some lower economic strata, this is impossible, but still desirable.
An expectant mother should not go to weddings and funerals as it is believed that her presence could bring bad luck to the families concerned. It is also considered bad luck for a pregnant woman to meet people about to set out on a trip. Mother-to-be should not step over a hammock lest their child be born lazy. They should not walk too much, reach for things high up, take long uncomfortable rides or frequent places of worship.
Midwives generally deliver babies and cut the umbilical cord with a piece of earthenware or a bamboo knife. The baby is then washed and dressed in old handed-down clothes of his brothers and sisters. Vietnamese people fear that the evil spirits will be jealous of new clothes and cause the baby to become ill. The father may see the child only after the baby has been cleaned and dressed.
Friends send the mother nourishing food, and the baby gold bracelets, clothing and trinkets. The baby’s hair and nails must never be cut during the first month of life.
Whatever possible, the mother is encouraged not to do any strenuous work for at least two to three months. Among the peasantry, they are often back at work within a few days, because of necessity.
After approximately one-month, the newborn baby’s parents have a large party to celebrate the baby’s first month birthday. Offerings are presented at this time to the “Holy Godmother” who is thought to be the protector of the new child. They also believe that the Holy Godmother teaches the baby to smile and that crying means the child is being punished for stubbornness. During the ceremony, a flower which has been wet with special water from the altar is held over the baby and the water is allowed to drip into the infant’s mouth. This is to insure that the child will learn to speak in sweet scented words.
After the prayers and ceremonies, guests have a happy party at which they eat the offerings of food from the ceremony. At this time, it is considered correct to put new clothes on the baby, but care is still observed in not mentioning the good health of the child lest the evil spirits become jealous and make him ill.
The baby has another celebration after one lunar year. It is called “quitting the cradle.” This is a much larger party with numerous guests. The baby is placed on a bed in a sitting position. Several things are spread around him including scissors, flowers, books, pencils, etc. The item the baby picks up first is supposed to determine his future avocation. If he takes the scissors, he may become a tailor; the book, a learned man, etc.
A baby is considered to be one year of age at birth and becomes two years old when the next lunar New Year arrives. It is possible, therefore, for a child to become two years old when he is just one day old if he is born on New Year’s Eve.