Vietnam Heritage, November-December 2011 — Although marriage is essentially about two people, it can set up a relationship between two families and two clans. _What needs to be done first is not to choose an individual, but check the line of descent and the family.
In order to answer the needs of rice-growing, when considering people for marriage, the Vietnamese peasant is interested first in his and her child-bearing capacity.
Choosing a daughter-in-law or a wife, the people prefer a waspy waist. These women are believed to be good in pampering the husband and rearing their children, and this accords with an old Vietnamese saying.
Some other sayings:
‘You have to know how to choose a sow among the pigs.
When you marry a girl, you need to check her descent.’
‘Marry a girl from a crowded family.’
‘You have to check the mother before you marry her daughter.’
It is customary to spread a mat on the wedding night. The family asks a gentle, middle-aged woman who has lots of children and is living peacefully with her husband to help with this.
The primary concern of the Vietnamese people is the stability of the community, so there is a tradition of looking down on people coming from outside of a village to reside. Choosing mates from the same village is encouraged.
Old Vietnamese sayings reflect this mindset:
‘It’s better to marry a poor husband in the middle of the village than a rich one from somewhere else.’
‘We’d better get back and take a bath in our pond,
Whether it’s clear or muddy, a home pond is always better.’
The bridgegromm has to pay a fee to the girl’s village.
Those who marry people from outside their village have to pay double the fee prevailing if the woman is from the same village.
In the history of weddings in Vietnam, marriage is always for the perceived benefit of the community. The weddings of Princess Huyen Tran to a Cham king and Princess Ngoc Han to Nguyen Hue are exmples. Girls have been married to the tribal chiefs whose territory is on the border, to consolidate the border.
The preliminary agreement for marriage will be cancelled if there is an incompatibility of age. [People born in the year of the pig are not suitable for those born in the year of the snake, for example.]
In order for conjugal life to be stable and long-lasting, since the period of the Hung kings (2879 BC-258 AD), there was a custom of handing the married couple soil and salt, the soil representing a vow to stay close to homeland, and the salt representing passionate and everlasting love.
Recently, the soil and salt has been replaced by a cake called ‘phu thê’ (‘phu’ means husband, ‘thê’ means wife).
The ‘phu thê cake’ is a flour ball placed in a square case made out of the leaves of the coconut tree. The case has upper and lower parts, representing duality (yin-yang). Yin means negative, yang positive. The roundness of the flour ball represents the positive, the firmament, the squareness of the case the earth.
There is also a custom of the married couple eating from the same plate of sticky rice, and drinking from the same bowl of alcohol. This represents a wish for the couple to stay close together (like sticky rice) and be passionate for each other (the effect of alcohol).
The relationship between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law is also considered. After the wedding, the young couple usually stay with the husband’s parents.
Some kind of hostility always develops between the two women, both nourishing a latent wish to have the son and husband entirely to themselves. Once the daughter-in-law comes home, there is a custom that the mother-in-law has to take refuge in a neighbour’s house, taking with her a pot of slaked lime (used for chewing betel and areca nut, symbols of feminine power).
Information for this article came from the book Vietnamese Cultural Foundations (C? S? V?n Hóa Vi?t Nam), by Tran Ngoc Them, Education Publishing House, 1999, Ho Chi Minh City.