Other brides would be extremely busy planning for the perfect reception, trying the perfect dress, or choosing the perfect hairdo.
For Thuong, the most pressing bridal issues before her wedding day were picking her groom and making sure he would uphold his contract.
It was one of those summer days in Saigon when things were moving too fast.
The 23-year-old from the Mekong Delta city of Can Tho, five months pregnant, was waiting outside a private clinic.
Her mother was inside talking with a doctor about a potential abortion. That could not be discussed at state-run hospitals, where Thuong would likely be advised, legally, to carry her healthy fetus to full term.
She and her boyfriend split soon after he learned about the pregnancy. Thuong wanted to have the baby. Her mother, having experienced a lot of public shaming as a single mother in a country still dominated by Confucian social mores, wanted options for the daughter.
“I was surfing the web while I was waiting for my mom. And I came across this ‘grooms for hire’ ad,” Thuong said.
“I immediately called the hotline.”
A leaflet advertises a VND98 million ($4,300) package for the fake wedding service.
Nguyen Van Thien was manning that hotline, all the way in Hanoi. The director of a bridal service company said he could offer women like Thuong something other wedding planners could not: a groom.
He suggested a VIP package of VND98 million ($4,300), including a husband and extras who would play his relatives at the wedding party.
Thuong’s mother believed this was just a cruel scam, even after the man insisted that he had rented out grooms to around 1,000 women over the last decade.
Just to prove that he’s honest, the man threw Thuong a wedding party, free of charge. Everything went well, he said, adding that the mother later called him to thank him for “saving her grandson.”
It’s apparently a niche market, but Thien claimed his company is doing well.
It now has a branch in Ho Chi Minh City. His 1,000 employees, including the “bridegrooms,” can deliver up to 15 weddings a month.
The bride and her ‘groom’ pose for a fake wedding photo.
It’s a service full of paradox.
It may give people like Thuong some sort of relief from social stigma and attacks, even a way out of a dilemma, but at the same time reinforce all the prejudices and harsh notions in modern Vietnam against women, premarital pregnancy and abortion.
It also plays into the idea of marriage as a revered institution in Vietnam, but simultaneously appears to exploit and make fun of it – the so-called VIP package comes with a five-year plan that includes a script for the actors.
Thien, however, takes his business seriously. He said he has planned these weddings for customers across the country, but mostly in northern provinces where traditional social norms still run deep.
Most of the clients only wished to avoid the social stigma of having a child out of wedlock, he said. In some cases, it’s the woman who wanted an abortion but her family wanted to stage a wedding and forced her to play along.
A teenager seeks abortion consultation at a state-run clinic in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by VnExpress/Thien Chuong
Modern Vietnam is a place where traditional concepts regarding sex, marriage and gender roles still rule.
In many families, daughters are not expected to have premarital sex. Most don’t talk about sex with their parents. Then in cases of unplanned pregnancy, it’s likely the girl or the woman who is to blame.
Vietnam’s abortion rate ranks fifth globally and is the highest in Asia, with around 300,000 cases reported every year, official figures show. The country’s Institute for Family and Gender showed that 20-30 percent of women seeking abortion are not married while most of the rest are students, some as young as 12 years old.
Social pressure creates business opportunities for some. In big cities, private clinics providing undocumented, often risky, abortion services thrive.
And now come the grooms for hire.
Thien’s wedding service is in fact not unique. He’s only more open about it than others.
Around Asia, there have been similar stories of people playing pretend in fake weddings just for the purpose of saving face.
There are legal concerns, but lawyers said the just-for-show service does not violate marriage law as it does not involve any official certificates.
Kieu Anh Vu from Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association said a wedding party is a social event not bound by laws.
Thien has not been bothered by these legal talks. He seems to be proud of his service, but argues that it’s not purely commercial.
The scripted weddings, to some extent, gave his clients a happy ending, Thien said.
He even shared a story about a client who ended up falling in love with her groom actor.
“The whole family loves the guy,” he said. “A fake wedding, but real love eventually.”