Current Affairs

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.