The Vietnamese on the other side of the Saigon Bridge refer to weddings as “paying off the mouth’s debt”.
On a recent Saturday, past the Saigon River and the District 2 development zones, deep into Nhon Trach bordering Dong Nai Province, blushing bride My Trinh married her fellow villageman, Tai. While that Saturday marked the start of the feasting, the wedding process itself had begun weeks ago, starting with the dam ngo, a private ceremony where the groom asks the bride’s parents for her hand in marriage, followed by offerings from the groom’s family to the bride’s family.
The dam ngo officially kick started their countryside wedding, which traditionally are long, multi-phased, costly affairs that include several days of feasting and often land the newly wedded couple into debt. However, without a lavish ceremony, their friends, families and the community would most likely not acknowledge the matrimony. Regardless of whether the married are rich or poor, firstborns or youngest, a small wedding feast is a lifelong source of shame and, in the rural Vietnamese consciousness, never to be suffered even at the cost of crippling financial losses.
Following the dam ngo is the van danh, a complicated and costly ritual involving gifts, which can be anything from gold and betel leaves and areca nuts to a roasted whole pig and cash, carried by a succession of family members or hired gift bearers, an event which brings out the entire village.
Only with the completion of these two ceremonies are the couple considered engaged. But My Trinh’s fiancée status lasted only two days as the couple hurried to their wedding feast. The invitations had already been sent out and on Saturday morning, the guests arrived by the hundreds. These weren’t only close friends and family, but also coworkers and distant relatives, many of whom traveled across the country to attend the wedding. Anyone that was considered important was also invited.
The wedding started at 8am as children dressed in red, arranged by My Trinh’s family, tied ropes on the door of her house. Tai was only allowed entry once he had paid the tolls, a few pieces of candy, to the children to persuade them to untie the ropes. An elder bearing incense led the procession into the bride’s home, to give his blessing.
From the bride’s house, the procession made its way to the couple’s future home. At the door, Trinh’s mother-in-law came out to greet her new daughter, holding a limestone pot in front of her face as she let Trinh pass through. This greeting is a small rite in itself, signifying that both sides hope to never bear any ill will towards the other.
Let the feast begin
Once the groom’s family had shown the bride to her carefully arranged wedding bed and the couple shared a cup of rice wine, the wedding feast was finally able to start. The feast is the longest, most rigorous and costly of all rites of marriage for both My Trinh and Tai. Unlike their city counterparts, countryside weddings can be four to five days of nonstop eating and partying. On the first day they received the closest guests and nearest living relatives. In a show of solidarity, the relatives stayed to help out with all the wedding tasks including the cooking, the greeting, prepping the bride, dealing with drunken guests, and the cleaning up afterwards.
The next few days saw the arrival of guests from far off provinces. Some were distant relatives (whom the couple didn’t personally know) and coworkers from My Trinh’s office in the city.
Only when the last of the guests trickled out and the wedding tent was disassembled on the fourth day did the wedding feast officially end and the bride and groom allowed to relax.
“Betel and areca. It used to be that without betel and areca and without a proper multi-day feast, it wouldn’t be considered a wedding at all,” said My Trinh at the end of her own wedding. “Most of my friends and coworkers in Saigon do not keep the traditions anymore. They don’t hold the dam ngo. Only some of them still do the an hoi (public engagement ceremony). And the wedding itself is more or less just a half-day party with religious props at either a church or nowhere at all.”
“They can do all this because city life wouldn’t have allowed them a truly traditional wedding anyway. A five-day city wedding feast the same size as mine comes with a bill in the billions. Even all the way out here, in this little village, it costs us nearly a hundred million for the food, the wedding tent, the dresses, and the entertainment. It will take all our lives to repay that kind of debt. And can you imagine pleading off work for an entire week? My boss would sack me,” she explained.
“To be honest, I’m a little bit jealous of my city friends,” My Trinh confessed. “But it’s done. We have paid our ‘debts of the mouth’. We can now start our life with each other. Build our own future. But if there’s one part of the traditional wedding I look forward to, it’s the part where we get to count our lucky money.”
Images by Ngoc Tran