Traditional Vietnamese Weddings circa 1900
The traditional Vietnamese family was patriarchal and the central element in a tightly structured social system. Families were linked in a ‘clan’ with a common ancestor and consisted of individuals, living and dead, spanning no more than nine generations. Each individual was obligated to increase the reputation and status of the clan throughout his or her lifetime.
Until the arrival of the French colonists and catholicism, traditional Vietnamese weddings were a completely secular affair and, for the Buddhist majority, still are. However, at the turn of the century, Christian converts were beginning to seek religious ceremonies.
A traditional marriage in Vietnam had three purposes: to perpetuate the clan’s name, its human and material stock, and its ancestral lineage. Consequently, fecundity and strict adherence to the rules of Confucius were regarded as essential for a successful union.
The process began with a family wish to form a beneficial alliance with another family. To do so, the necessary negotiations were entrusted to a neutral intermediary. When a suitable family was identified, and the necessary mutual transactions resolved, the village astrologer was asked to chart the couple’s horoscopes using the eight cyclic characters indicating their exact hour, month and year of birth. If the result was favourable, it was considered that the couple were fated to be married.
Typically, the potential bride and groom were not involved in, consulted with, and often not even informed about the process.
The marriage then proceeded through three separate rites:
1. The proposal of marriage
2. The betrothal
3. The wedding
Each stage was accompanied by various rituals linking the two families.
The wedding itself began with a double private ceremony. First, the couple would worship before the ancestral altar of the bride’s family and before her parents, then repeat the ritual in the bridegroom’s house. After the latter, the ‘red threads’ ceremony honoured the Old Woman of the Moon (it was believed that the god of marriage was an old woman who used magic red strings to bind the hands of young people together under the moonlight).
The ‘visit of the second day’ took place at the bride’s house. A few days later, the bridegroom or his family would distribute the dowry in their native village.
Marriages were not registered until the French colonial authority introduced the practice in 1924. However, the traditional ceremony and civil registration were completely separate, the former being considered as joining the couple in wedlock and the latter as a mere formality that was often overlooked.