Rites of Passage

Births are a low-key affair in Vietnam. After an explosive baby boom at the end of the war, families are now penalised if they have more than two children. The need for the policy is widely recognised, and most couples adhere to it.

In the cities, babies are usually born in hospital, and the father is expected to be present throughout the birth. There is no celebration or gift–giving, although the father might use the event as an excuse for a night out with his friends at the bia hoi. The new mother and baby have no visitors for 30 days after the birth, during which time they are looked after by the family. Being visited by, or visiting, a pregnant or new mother is believed to bring bad luck.

Naming the baby
When the baby is three months old, there is a naming ceremony and a celebration. Unusually, the transition from child to adult is only marked by official regulations – the event is otherwise completely ignored. All births are required to be registered. This regulation is usually adhered to in urban areas, but elsewhere, and particularly among ethnic groups, a significant number often go unrecorded.

Vietnamese marriages are a much more significant event, but the official and the traditional sides are separate. The official act of marriage consists only of signing a form.

The traditional wedding is, inevitably, a family occasion. The betrothal period is either brief or nonexistent – the period between the decision to marry and the wedding can be quite short and is unrelated to the official procedure. The approval of both families is very important – although the tradition of arranged marriages has died out, the event is looked upon as uniting two existing families, and going against parents’ wishes is most unlikely.

Another critical factor is choosing the most propitious day, which involves a consultation with an astrologist. Prior to the event, there will be a ritualised exchange of gifts between the families who visit each other’s houses for that purpose. On the day, a banquet will be held, usually around lunchtime. Each family and its invited guests will sit separately, sometimes in another room, and the bride and groom will move from table to table to greet them and thank them for their gifts and good wishes. Gifts customarily consist of money in envelopes: the trick is to balance the cost of the wedding with the total of the gifts!

Funerals are also a major event. The death is announced, and the funeral gets under way shortly after. An altar is erected with a picture of the deceased, and in the north, a trio of musicians is hired to play traditional funeral music for two days. Buddhist monks are invited to chant the ritual incantations.

Friends and relatives visit to pay their condolences, bringing offerings of incense and money for the family. Family members wear white headbands and each of the deceased’s daughters wears a white muslin veil covering most of her body.

After two days, the mourners gather for the funeral procession, arranged according to complex customs. Traditionally, the procession walks on foot behind the coffin. Any daughters or daughters-in-law walk immediately behind the catafalque with heads bowed to touch its edge, while the eldest son walks backwards barefoot in front of the deceased. Once the corpse is interred, the tomb remains open for seven days.

Mourning continues for two years, with rituals taking place at defined intervals and at a final ceremony. In the north, the remains are then exhumed and reburied in a small shrine as their final resting place. Both in the north and south, the position of the grave is determined by geomancy.

The foregoing relates only to the Vietnamese ‘Kinh’ majority. Minority ethnic groups have many different practices, sometimes extremely complex.

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