Whether or not the custom is obsolete or inappropriate in today’s world, ‘pulling a wife,’ a deeply-rooted practice of Mong ethnic men, remains a unique cultural trait of the community.
The custom is traditionally observed by the Mong who inhabit several districts in the northern province of Ha Giang.
According to the practice, a man who wishes to marry a girl he loves must be able to ‘catch’ her and bring her to his house in order for the wedding to take place.
Traditionally, the ‘pulling a wife’ ritual is just for show, as most couples would have already consented to the marriage beforehand, and the girl would fake resisting her lover’s grip to add to the drama.
Alternatively, the custom is also of great help to couples whose parents oppose the marriage, as once the girl has been ‘kidnapped’ and brought to the man’s house, she can no longer be rejected by his family.
In springtime, particularly at Lunar New Year festivals, paths meandering around rugged rocks across the UNESCO-recognized Karst Plateau, are frequented by groups of young Mong men and girls, who dress their best in traditional costume.
This is also a time when many young couples will practice the custom and find their lifelong partner.
Inside a ‘stone fortress’ perched on the flank of the Ma Pi Leng Pass, Mua Thi Mai held her baby and stared at the gaping abyss near the thread-like Nho Que River beneath, as if it represented her unknown future.
The pass, at the heart of Dong Van Karst Plateau and one of the northern region's most spectacular, snakes its way through Meo Vac District.
Five years ago, when she was just 17, Mai, in her most beautiful traditional dress, went to a spring festival in the neighborhood alone.
At the event, she was ‘pulled’ by Li Mi Sing to his home to officially become his bride.
The couple had fallen in love before and made an arrangement for the ‘pulling wife’ custom to happen at the springtime festival.
Three days later, Sing’s family sent a representative to let Mai’s parents know she was now their son’s wife and their daughter-in-law.
Despite holding a small nuptial ritual at the time, the two families and the couple have yet to throw an official wedding celebration five years later.
Similarly, Vu Mi Tuan and Sung Thi Mai, who reside in Lung Phin Commune in Dong Van District, have given birth to two children, with the eldest now eight years old.
However, their wedding plans remain elusive.
Tuan ‘pulled’ Mai at a springtime market session in Lung Phin Commune around 10 years ago.
It is the norm in Mong culture that couples with children delay holding the wedding until they have enough money.
According to researchers, Mong’s long-standing marriage custom can be finely divided into ‘pulling,’ ‘catching’ and ‘stealing’ wives.
With regard to ‘pulling a wife,’ couples usually date and make an arrangement at crowded places, particularly at spring festivals, for the men to take their women to their home as wives.
‘Wife catchers’ will ask any girl of their choice to become their wives regardless of the girls’ consent, and agree to give exorbitant dowries.
Several young men in northern Vietnam have abused the seemingly harmless tradition, arguing that the ritual grants them the right to make any girl their wife as long as they can successfully bring her home.
‘Wife stealers,’ meanwhile, try to steal or talk the girls who they fall for into eloping with them even though the girls have already become engaged or even married.
Da Di Mua (left), 26, his wife and their two young children pose in front of their home, with their 10-year-old child sent to a boarding school in Meo Vac District. Photo: Tuoi Tre
Only ‘pulling a wife’ lingers in today’s world, while ‘wife catching’ and ‘wife stealing’ practices have been on the decline.
Whatever the form, the bridegrooms’ parents are elated when their sons get married.
Despite their own and their parents’ discontentment, brides are considered ‘their in-laws’ ghosts’ after the in-laws move a cock in a circle three times above the couples’ heads.
(White) Mong residing in Lung Pu Commune, Meo Vac District also choose to flirt with their potential partners in a bottom-tapping fest by patting on their bottom or waist.
If the act is reciprocated by a tap from the girls, the couples will have a matchmaker talk to the parents on both sides, and they will be allowed to wed.
During the event, the youths can also pat their partners’ private parts, an act that will not be considered obscene.
Aside from these customs, Mong bridegrooms’ families typically present hefty conjugal dowries including money, jewelry, cattle, wine and clothes to the brides’, despite the couples being still minors.
Da Di Mua, 26, and his wife Da Thi Dinh are an example of this conjugal dowry tradition.
The young lovebirds already have three children, with the eldest being 10.
“Twelve years ago, when I was only 14, my parents found my wife for me. She was 19 then and was five years older than me. Her family accepted our hefty conjugal dowry,” Mua shared.
The ‘wife pulling’ and ‘nuptial challenge’ practices have also brought about undesired consequences, including child or premature marriages, and a lack of understanding between lovers due to the limited opportunity to get to know each other.
A large number of young Mong women have resorted to chewing ‘la ngon’ (a fatally poisonous leaf) in suicide attempts after a short time living with their in-laws.
Statistics by agencies reveal that in recent times, young women have broken away from their in-laws shortly after their marriage, with the in-laws mobilizing people to bring the ‘runaway brides’ back.
Melancholic songs about local women’s miserable married lives have become a major part of the Mong folk heritage.
Sung Dai Hung, director of the Ha Giang Department of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs and a Mong native in Dong Van District, is strongly supportive of the ‘pulling a wife’ practice, which he still deems humanitarian.
“The substantial conjugal dowries have proven out of reach for poor Mong families. The ‘pulling a wife’ practice thus ensures youths’ freedom to seek love and rich men’s chance to marry the girls of their dreams,” he observed.
“However, underage youngsters, who are only 15 or 16, should not ‘pull’ wives and tie the knot,” he noted.