Unique dowry tradition among the Gie community in central Vietnam could soon be a thing of the past
A Bien, a local Gie man in Kon Tum Province, measures the firewood "˜mountain' his wife's family brought over to propose marriage recently. Photo by Pham Anh
If one were asked to assign a sex to the axe, it would end up being a masculine noun, inevitably.
Who has ever heard of a female woodcutter?
A Gie woman would find this question puzzling. It would make more sense to her if it was asked about a male woodcutter.
For a long time, Gie women in the Dak Glei District of Kon Tum Province in the Central Highlands have been fetching logs they chop down in the jungle and neatly piling them up in front of their homes, waiting for a good day to carry them to the house of the man they want to marry.
The logs are called "engagement firewood" by the Gie people, a small community of around 51,000 people in Vietnam, more than 60 percent of whom live in Kon Tum. The others are scattered around the central region.
A local elder is chosen by the girl's family to inform the man's family of the wood delivery so that the latter can prepare a welcome party; and the elder will also perform marriage rituals that last several days.
During a recent visit, the lane into the village had turned muddy enough after the first monsoon showers to require one to leave his motorbike and walk.
Many women were coming home from the fields at dusk, chatting about engagement firewood from a wedding that happened a couple of days ago.
The frame of a wedding tent was still standing next to a firewood pile made of 400 packs, each a full log made of chestnut trunks a meter long and around 0.3 meters in diameter split into four or six pieces.
After marriage, the woman stays with the husband's family and they use the firewood together, said A Diem, a young man.
A Diem said that the firewood piles seen around the village tell different stories.
"If there are just several dozen logs remaining in the pile, it means the couple has been married for several years. Hundreds of logs mean the wedding happened within a year."
A Bien, who married recently, said he had received 300 packs of firewood.
"It took her family one week to find all that wood."
Bien said they did not fell any trees, but chose dead trees that have gone dry. He said logging trees was dangerous because they could be "caught for deforestation."
Ideally, engagement firewood needs to be straight and taken from that part of the tree trunk that has no branches. Each log has to be smooth and neat at either end. The women try to make the logs look as good as possible to show off their skill and their keenness for the marriage.
Any outsider who wants to marry a Gie man in the province also needs to follow the tradition, but there have been modern adjustments.
Some families now allow for the delivery of a few dozen wood packs as a symbolic gesture for the proposal. Locals now help each other find the wood, and electronic saws have been used to reduce the time and labor involved in gathering the firewood.
And there are households in the province who have started to rethink the tradition, which they say costs too much time, effort and money.
Y May, a mother in the Dak Glei District's capital town, which is also named Dak Glei, said it cost her family more than VND15 million (US$707) to find, collect and deliver firewood when her daughter got married last February.
"So many people in my family and in the neighborhood spent four days to collect 100 beautiful logs.
"And we had to prepare three meals a day, plus wine, for the helpers."
It used to be part of the tradition that among the engagement firewood are some packs of xa nu, a kind of fragrant wood that burns longer and more strongly than the other kinds of wood.
But this wood is getting rare and has to be bought.
"We bought 30 logs for VND300,000 ($14) each," May said.
She said the ritual also costs the groom's family money, because they have to butcher animals for the feast.
Some grooms' families now help the bride's families to pay wood collectors and deliverers to share the burden, she said.
"I have told my son to marry a woman outside the province."
Several such marriages with outsiders have already happened and are challenging the tradition as well.
A Nhay, a commune official, said that recently, a local girl's family had brought wood all the way to her husband's family who happened to belong to the Kinh, the main ethnic group in Vietnam.
The latter did not take it and they had to bring the wood back.
With relief evident in his voice, A Nhay said: "My daughter has also married a Kinh man recently, and we did not have to collect and deliver the firewood."
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