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What’s the Big Deal with Vietnamese Traditions?

As 1.5 and second generation Vietnamese Americans,  how do you decide which Vietnamese traditions and customs to follow and how long can you keep them up?  “Ly Xi,” for example, is one of those customs that will remain around for a long time because it’s fun, easy, and well-known.  Even my third grade teacher, Mrs. Hood, gave my whole class “ly xi” back in Tet 1993!

But what about those mysterious customs that we don’t often hear about or really understand, like “cung gio” (family gathering to remember the anniversary of an ancestor’s death) and “le dinh hon” (elaborate wedding engagement ceremony among family and friends)?

My best friend, who’s a second generation Vietnamese-American woman,  recently got engaged.  As expected, we got together over dinner to talk about “the moment” and started making premature plans like what color schemes her wedding will have, etc.  After 30 minutes of talking about wedding arrangements, we realized that we’ve  completely forgotten about her “le dinh hon,” which is a traditional engagement ceremony usually held months before the couple’s actual wedding date.

What is “le dinh hon”?

In the past, most marriages in Vietnam were arranged by parents or extended family.  “Le dinh hon” is an old Vietnamese tradition and a chance for the couple’s families to meet for the first time, to officially announce the couple’s engagement to family and friends, and to pick a good date for the wedding.

Photo from Flickr user "micky69cm"

A “le dinh hon” ceremony begins with the future groom’s family visiting the future bride’s home and presenting gifts wrapped in round lacquered boxes covered in red cloths to the bride and her family.  Gifts often include areca nuts, betel leaves, tea, cake, fruits, wines, a roasted pig, and other delicacies that are beautifully arranged and carried by unmarried women and men to the future bride’s home.  If the future bride’s parents accept the gifts as a sign that they approve of the upcoming marriage between the couple.

While the gifts are presented, accepted, and introductions are exchanged, the future bride, dressed in a magnificent “ao dai” (Vietnamese traditional dress), is hidden in another room.  Her parents will come into the room and walk her out to be introduced to both sides of the family.  The couple then lights incense for the ancestors and serves tea to the elders of both families.

The future bride’s family would have prepared a feast for everyone to  enjoy after the tea ceremony.  That’s not  it!  Appropriate portions and items must be shared with the future groom’s family before they leave the  party.  Each gift has a special meaning and must be shared among the two families  properly for good luck.

Photo by Flickr user "Crazy Cricket"

My friend’s fiancé is not ethnically Vietnamese, and she has no experience in planning a “le dinh hon.”  Among friends who have spent either all or most of our lives in America, we can’t offer much help to my friend.  As you can imagine, “le dinh hon” is a very formal event that requires elaborate preparations for both the future groom and bride’s families.  There are many intricate details to the ceremony that can be easily missed if you’ve  never planned a “le dinh hon” or attended one.  I guess today you can google “how to plan a le dinh hon,” and hope to find a good tutorial.  If you’re lucky, your parents still remember the details of their own ceremony and will help you plan.  Otherwise, you and your possibly non-Vietnamese fiancé have to do it all on your own.

It’s still uncertain if my friend and her fiancé will host a “le dinh hon” before their wedding date.  I’m sure my friends are not the only couple stuck in this dilemma.  Do we wrack our brains trying to keep up with traditions we hardly understand or do we move on and stick with the American customs that we are most familiar with?  Customs and traditions are difficult to preserve as new generations grow up in a foreign land.  But the moment that we stop trying to remember or practice, we’ll forget and won’t have a second chance to relearn them.

Have you been to a “le dinh hon” or planned one?  What are your favorite memories and lessons learned?  My friends and other young Vietnamese American couples will appreciate the comments you leave.

12 responses to “What’s the Big Deal with Vietnamese Traditions?

  1. Le Dinh Hon = engagement ceremony? For that, I think it is a Western concept. IMO, when you say Dinh Hon, it is more like the decision and agreement between the bf and the gf. For Vietnamese, it is more like "Dam Hoi or Le Hoi". It is a bit different. Basically, the male's parent comes to the female's house with dowries asking permission. You are screwed if the parents don't agree. Or both the bf and gf can do whatever they want. If both sides agree, then come the "Dam Cuoi, or Le Cuoi".So do you really want to follow the traditional Dam Hoi?

  2. nowaday, even for Vietnamese people who actually live in VN, they do not see "Le Dinh Hon" / "Dam Hoi" the way Dan describes it. Today, youth already agreed to marry each other and then, plan the "Dam Hoi" ceremony. They bring gifts into lacquered boxes to the future bride to be's familly and then both famillies have a formal meal together. But no more parents acceptance or denial are required. I think it's a great tradition to keep as in Western countries, people do throw Engagement parties..our customs are to bring areca nuts, betel leaves, tea, etc…which are the traditional gifts of ours. I'd like to keep it alive, it make us not forgetting our roots.

  3. "DAM": Parents both sides will meet and know each others. Also get permission for their children officially dating."DAM HOI": They bring gifts into lacquered boxes to the future bride to be's familly and then both famillies have a formal meal together. Then plan for the wedding date.

  4. @Author of this note: We may not have much luck when googling "how to plan le dinh hon" but if you or your friends read Vietnamese then the keywords would be: "l? ?n h?i". Before "l? ?n h?i" there's a less formal ceremony called "l? d?m ngõ" (also "l? ch?m ngõ" or "l? xem m?t") during which the two families meet for the first time to get to know each other. Wikipedia has a very detailed entry on "l? ?n h?i": and a rough entry on "l? d?m ngõ":õ

  5. Engagement Party or something like that, in short answer. @Kamel, back in time- love is overrated. the parent doing the whole thing find someone to match up for their kids(arranged mariage). my parents got married without know each other before. hard for the west to understand but they are happy ever after. :)but now its whole new game.

  6. I’m living in Vietnam at the moment and it’s still very much the tradition here. However, the stricter the rules, traditions, and superstitions apply to those families who are very traditional. Some just bring simple gifts and others have a more elaborate style with trays of food, teas, fruits, with a ceremony.

    If you’re friends want to know how they conduct the event here, email me and I’ll get the details from the my traditional Vietnamese friends.

  7. When my wife and I got married we did the "engagement ceremony." I found it very interesting and enjoyable. Next year we will be going to VN for TET and I am hoping we will have a big celebration for our 10 year anniversary.

  8. I was raised as an American and my parents and I speak English to each other. When my grandparents were living, they tried very hard to instill the Vietnamese culture in me and make sure that I didn’t turn out too “whitewashed,” but being raised here, it was almost inevitable. My grandparents only spoke English to me when they were trying to explain what something means in Vietnamese, other than that, it is strictly Vietnamese at their home. That is a tiny example of how “Vietnamese” I actually am, because of what I have been exposed to. One tradition I will never let die in my family is “cung gio.” My grandparents took care of me when I was young and worked very hard to constantly teach me to be proud of my Vietnamese heritage, and though I am not very religious, I do believe they are in the afterlife and deserve to be remembered and respected. I remember from a very young age, my grandfather being very serious and working very hard spending hours making sure the alter was perfect to cung gio. I have lit incense sticks and bowed down to gray and torn pictures and an old sacred book with the names of all the family that has passed over many generations. I asked my grandfather one day what we were doing, and when he explained it to me in English, I knew it was important because he actually wanted me to understand every word of what he was saying. Until this day, I still believe that my grandparents and my ancestors live peacefully in the afterlife constantly looking down at their lineage protecting us and knowing that my Ba Noi and Ong Noi are watching me, I know that I will always want to show them that I still remember them and that I still have the utmost reverence and respect for them, as well as the remembrance of my heritage.

    I have thought a lot about whether or not I will have le dinh hon. I constantly wonder how will I, not only combine the wedding traditions of two different cultures, but also the wedding traditions of two different religions. Even if my husband-to-be is willing to go through with such traditions with me because he loves me, I wonder if his entirely white family would feel comfortable walking down the sidewalk to my house bearing gifts of tea, fruit and even a full roasted pig. I know that I would love to keep this tradition, but I understand that over time, things change, and my fiance coming to my parents house with his entire family and friends to “ask for my hand in marriage” with gifts seems like it would be very uncomfortable for those standing by. This tradition stems from long ago when you didn’t know who you were marrying until the day you married him, and he came to your house presenting your father with gifts of food, fruits and wine to show that he was wealthy enough to take care of his daughter. After your father’s approval, you would come from your bedroom as if this will be the first time he will meet you and you marry right there in your living room. There are many parts of the traditional Vietnamese wedding I will keep, but out of respect for my husband-to-be and his family, I am sorry to admit that this is not one of them.

  9. LOL. My aunt did this le dinh hon the day OF her wedding. And her husband’s family came over her parent’s house. I’m not too sure, although I am also a 2nd generation vietnamese-american. if u have any specific questions I could try my best to answer them.

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