The wedding march

Will you marry me? For the Pa Then, a minority group in northern Vietnam, popping the question is anything but simple.
One marries only once in life,
One is buried only once after death.
-Pa Then proverb


There are some 4,000 Pa Then people scattered in remote villages in Vietnam's northern provinces of Tuyen Quang and Ha Giang. In Chinese, 'Pa' means 'family', while 'Then' means 'eight', a reference to this minority group's belief that they are descended from eight founding families.

To this day, the Pa Then retain their unique customs, including their distinctive wedding traditions. For the Pa Then, getting engaged is a complicated process, involving no less than six visits by the grooms family to the bride's family. At these meetings, members of the groom's family are expected to make flowery speeches, such as:

"It is the job of Heaven and Earth... a rule no one can hinder... Thanks to Heaven and Earth there are trees and flowers, many kinds of rice, and people living in pairs..."

The proposals often involve elaborate figures of speech:

"To ask for a good vegetable stalk or a juicy fruit in the garden, who dares to be arbitrary? We must first ask permission of the owner who has spent a lot of time cultivating the garden. Moreover, asking for a gift is not reasonable or judicious. We ask your forgiveness for our presumptuous words."

The reply is equally diplomatic:

"Even insects, birds and ants live in pair... and chickens have their crows to call others to the coop. How we can leave our daughter, a very nice girl, to live alone?"

While outsiders may regard these speeches as excessively flamboyant, the Pa Then feel a need to articulate the groom's perseverance, which they describe as the willingness to "cross hundreds of mountains and thousands of hills".

On the day of the wedding

The clothing of the bride and groom reflect the families' status. The brides scarlet outfit is especially striking, consisting of a shirt (ke tu), a skirt (ke tanh), a scarf (k so), a hat, and a headscarf (su chi), which is draped over the hat in such a way that it resembles an umbrella. This headscarf— now replaced by a towel—is thought to ward off bad luck.

Embroidered motifs on the bride's clothes include figures of dogs, crosses and triangles. As it takes years to make a single wedding outfit, many Pa Then girls lack the time and skills to produce an acceptable dress. Although Pa Then girls start to learn how to spin, weave, dye and embroider at the age of seven or eight, they muse often turn to their elders for help in decorating their wedding attire.

The clothing of the groom, groomsmen and other male family members is generally simpler. The groom wears an indigo shirt, indigo trousers, a scarlet headwrap, a long scarf wrapped around his neck, and a rowel on his wrist. Like his future wife, he wears many rings, chains and bracelets to reflect his family's wealth and power.

According to tradition, the grooms family members line up in a special order as they travel tomeet the bride. At the front walks the shaman, then the groom and two groomsmen, followed by two bridesmaids.

When the groom's party travels to the brides house, it is considered bad luck to encounter an owl or a deer, to hear the sound of a fox or a muntjac, or to pass a fallen tree, a rockslide, a blocked path, or a broken bridge. The shaman leads the way, reciting incantations to secure happiness for the pair.

When the groom's family approaches the bride's house, her family closes the doors. The grooms people respond by singing the following song:

"We are coming about an important issue.
We wish you to accept the common life of our two families' children.
Please give them your pity By opening your golden and silver doors so that we can tell you
The good news and good luck About the life story of our two children."

Even though the grooms family has spent many visits negotiating the marriage, they are still expected to beg to receive the bride. It is no easy matter for a Pa Then man to get a wife!

The wedding party travels back to the groom's house, where the celebrations last well into the night. When the party ends, the bride accompanies her relatives to the door and bids them a tearful farewell. She then goes inside to clean the houses assuming her role as an official member of her new family.