“Every family has different ways of organising a wedding,” says my colleague, Hoa. “The point is how to harmonise the styles of the two families.” Hoa’s wedding took place last year in Hanoi with around 500 guests coming to the party (read more about her wedding experience on page 88).
Weddings are also regarded (mostly by the older generation) as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The traditions of the various ceremonies are maintained with the aim of ensuring that the newlyweds will be happy for the rest of their lives.
The Basic Stages
No matter where a traditional wedding takes place, it will have some basic traditional stages. These include:
Cham ngo or dam ngo (matchmaking). This is the first meeting of the couple’s families and is regarded as a necessary formality. The couple’s parents to get to know each other and consider the possibility of their children’s marriage.
An hoi (engagement). At this stage, the groom’s family has to bring gifts to the bride’s house. The gifts include the likes of betel leaves, areca nuts, green rice cakes, candied lotus seeds, rice wine, tea, cigarettes, phu the (husband and wife) cakes, fruits, a roasted piglet and money — all placed in elaborately decorated boxes, covered in red cloth. The number of boxes depends on the groom’s financial circumstances and the region where they live. These boxes will be carried by a team of single men from the groom’s house to the bride’s house and handed over to another group of single women at the door. These single men and women are normally the couple’s closest friends. The an hoi usually ends up with lunch at the bride’s house.
Ruoc dau (receiving the bride at her house). The number of the boxes brought during the an hoi vary. However, jewellery including wedding rings, earrings, a bracelet and a necklace is a must. The procession of the groom’s family is carried out in a specific order. The first person is a representative of the groom’s house, followed by the groom’s father, then the rest of his family and close friends. Members of the procession are introduced to the bride’s family, and the bride’s family introduces its members to the procession. The groom presents his gifts to the bride’s family, and he is given permission to greet the bride, who is finally brought out. Then the couple stands in front of the bride’s ancestor altar. They will burn incense sticks, asking for permission from the ancestors to bless them. The couple turns and bows to their parents, gives thanks for raising and protecting them. The bride and groom then bow to each other. The jewellery will be given to the bride and wedding rings will be exchanged between the bride and groom.
Don dau (bringing the bride to the groom’s house). As the procession arrives back at the groom’s house, the newlyweds will be brought to the groom’s ancestor altar, where another ceremony takes place and the bride is introduced to the groom’s relatives.
Tiec cuoi (the reception for the couple’s family and friends). This is the final stage that most of us have been invited to. Taking place either at a restaurant or the groom’s house, it will have a lot of guests, food and beer, and music. All you do is enjoy it and say “1,2,3, Dzoooooo!” to those who sit at the same table.
North vs. South
The first difference between the north of Vietnam and the south is the number of boxes brought to the bride’s house. While people from the north believe odd numbers stand for good luck, southerners prefer even numbers.
As each region has its distinct characteristics and specialities, what’s inside the boxes as well as the proceedings are different. After the wedding, northerners have one more formality, called lai mat, in which the newlyweds will go back to the bride’s house with gifts. Then, the bride’s parents will officially visit their family-in-law because the bride’s mother stayed at home when the bride was brought to the groom’s house. The lai mat usually takes place on Mondays or Wednesdays.
Meanwhile, the south focuses on le len den, meaning lighting the candles. In the ruoc dau, two big candles will be brought to the bride’s house. The couple will bring flame from the oil lamp on the altar to light up the candles, and then place them on a pair of candleholders. This is regarded as the official announcement of the marriage and represents the strong connection between the bride and groom.
Although most Vietnamese are Buddhists and a significant number are Catholic, the traditional Vietnamese wedding doesn’t change. Vietnamese Catholics still incorporate all parts of the wedding ceremony as well as the reception. The only difference lies in the exchange of wedding rings, which takes place at a church under God’s witness and blessing.
Most current-day Vietnamese weddings are combinations of both Western and Vietnamese styles. One of the new elements sees the bride wearing both a Western wedding gown and an ao dai at different stages of the wedding and the reception. While the first stage, cham ngo, tends to be skipped, the proceedings of the an hoi have become simpler, and are now styled as a Western engagement ceremony. Sometimes, the an hoi and the last two stages — ruoc dau and don dau — are carried out together on the same day. Thus, the actual wedding day may only include the Buddhist or Church ceremony and a large reception.
How Much Should You Give as a Wedding Gift?
Guests are normally expected to bring gifts, and it is traditionally in the form of money in an envelope. Depending on how close you are to the couple, the amount of the money could range from a few hundred thousand to a few million dong. It’s also decided based on the scale of the business you have with the couple.
In the old days, the bride and groom would go from table to table to thank guests for their blessings and collect the envelopes. Most couples nowadays leave a box at the sign-in table for guests to drop in the envelopes.