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Explore the Unique Culture of Yao Marriage Rituals at the Vietnamese Women’s Museum

Weddings are an essential part of life in every country across the world. In Vietnam, weddings are considered to be one of the most important events in a person’s lifetime, and the ceremonies are very solemn and significant. Vietnam is diverse, with 54 ethnic groups across the S-shaped country, each with many different colourful and lively marriage traditions. On visiting the Vietnamese Women's Museum, visitors have the opportunity to learn more about the subject in the permanent gallery ‘Women in Family’. The exhibition explores marriage ceremonies and personal stories from women across different ethnic groups. It looks at both patrilineal and matrilineal societies and customs, including different ethnic groups such as the Viet, Thai, Xinh Mun, Bru-Van Kieu, Ta Oi, Co Tu, Hoa, Ê de, Mnong Gar, Chu-ru, Coho and Yao ethnic groups1.

For the Yao people, the marriage ceremony is important not only for the couple but for the entire family. It consists of many different rituals, from the couple becoming acquainted, consulting ritual masters, proposal, engagement, and finally, the wedding. The Yao believe strongly in a couple having compatible ages, and a ritual master is consulted to check their birthdates in Taoist manuscripts. If they are considered compatible, the groom’s family will then select a mediator to help negotiate an engagement. If the bride's family agree, the groom’s family begins to organize the engagement ceremony. The Yao choose the date and time of the engagement ceremony very carefully, in accordance with traditional beliefs.

Divinatory Taoist manuscript, Yao, Ham Yen, Tuyen Quang (Displayed in the VWM)

1 The Yao group are one of the 54 ethnic minorities of Vietnam, with a population of 751,067 people (2009), living in the mountainous areas in the north of the country (Cao Bang, Ha Giang, Lao Cai, Yen Bai , Lai Chau, Tuyen Quang province) and in some central areas (Phu Tho, Vinh Phuc, Hoa Binh and Quang Ninh province).

Weddings are expensive and include many rituals. Respect for the bride’s family is shown by symbolic gifts from the groom’s family, such as silver ingots, meat, alcohol, rice, clothings and jewellery for the bride.

Gift offering: Silver torque, silver earrings (displayed in the VWM)

One of the most distinctive features of the ceremony is the bride’s beautiful wedding dress, which she wears during the ceremonial procession to the groom's family home. The bride is responsible for making her own wedding dress, which consists of two main parts – a long black embroidered dress, and an elaborate red headdress. The dress is made from fabrics, beads, coins and accessories provided to her by her in-laws. She also makes her groom’s outfit and clothes for his family members. It takes four months to complete. The dress is decorated with fine embroidery, which showcases the skill of the bride and is admired by guests on the wedding day. The headdress is known as a gong, and is made from a bamboo frame affixed to a large circular wooden disc and draped with long red fabric, which covers the bride’s face. The rectangular fabric that forms the top of the headdress is known as pa dao. It is finely embroidered with typical Yao designs, and decorated with hanging red tassels, beads and bells. According to Yao beliefs, the bride has to cover her face during the wedding because she is the most beautiful person, whose soul could be easily stolen by the sun. This would bring her bad luck in future life. On her wedding day the bride joins a ceremonial procession to the groom's family home. She is accompanied by a ritual master, musicians, her parents, siblings and relatives. Because of the distance, they have to wait in a temporary shelter until a favorable hour. The next day the bride washes her hands with water consecrated by the ritual master, then enters the house by stepping across a bowl of embers with the groom and both families. From then on she is considered a member of the groom’s family.

As can be seen, the rituals associated with marriage are longstanding, complex and beautiful, and contribute greatly to the identity of Vietnam. Due to increasing cultural exchange between ethnic groups and the pressures of contemporary society, many traditional customs are beginning to change. In particular, the Yao wedding rituals are beginning to lose their unique characteristics.

The Vietnamese Women’s Museum’s mission is to enhance public knowledge and understanding of the tangible and intangible culture heritage of Vietnamese women. The museum collects and preserves artifacts, and introduces exhibitions to create dialogue and discussion amongst local communities and domestic and international visitors. Displaying the costumes and explaining the rituals and meanings behind Yao wedding ceremonies is one method which the museum uses to safeguard traditional cultural values.

Vietnamese Women’s Museum