Just Married! – There’s nothing just about it

Waiting for the Vietnamese wedding to start
We got married, twice, in March: once in Hà Nội, Việt Nam, on March 10, and another time in Jyväskylä, Finland, on March 29. Both ceremonies are happy memories for us, as we get on with the rest of our lives together. This post, however, is the first in a series about the details of actually having a legal and culturally respected marriage between two different countries.

My wife is, in Western style, called Hang (not pronounced like the English word). Officially, in Việt Nam, she is Nguyễn Thị Thu Hằng, and in Finland, she is Thi Thu Hang Nguyen. She was born in Hà Nội, Việt Nam, and is a Vietnamese citizen.

I was born in Jyväskylä, Finland, and am a Finnish citizen.

Waiting for the Vietnamese wedding to start
Now, as I understand it, wedding customs in Vietnam are quite formal, derived from arranged marriages. There are three major meetings of the bride’s and the groom’s families: once to allow the couple to meet each other, once for the formal betrothal, and once for the actual marriage. Nobody asks the couple anything: all talking is done by the parents. In addition, there are introductions to make across families and prayers (and chickens) to offer to dead ancestors. We asked for a simple ceremony, but it ballooned into something reasonably big, about 150 guests in the main event, so that our marriage looked respectable in the local custom.

After the Jyväskylä wedding, at Maistraatti
In Finland, in contrast, we were in charge ourselves and could choose something simple. We arranged for ourselves a small ceremony in the state registry office in town, maistraatti, followed by a very classy fine dining meal at the best restaurant in town. We entertained only ten guests. This happened a couple of weeks after the Vietnamese ceremony.

However, celebrating marriage does not make it official. In the Vietnamese custom, the state does not enter into weddings – the marriage is registered officially usually weeks, sometimes years, before or after the wedding. Similarly, our Vietnamese wedding did not have any official status recognized by the state. However, we did need to make ours official, and that required paperwork.

We first had to decide whether to create the official marriage in Vietnam or in Finland. In the end, we would need to register it in both, but the first country would be recorded as the place of marriage in both countries, and the date of the first official act would be the official date in both countries. In the end, it seemed simpler for us, as we both live in Finland, to do the official here.

So, paperwork. To get officially married in Finland we first needed to have our eligibility to marry to be officially determined. The key question is whether we both were unmarried. For me the answer was easily obtained, as it is recorded in the state population database. However, even though Hang is registered in the database, her marital status was not. Hence, we needed a document from Vietnamese officials. Being naive, I thought she could get one from the embassy in Helsinki. Turns out, the document she got from there only stated she had not married anyone while in Finland, as far as the embassy’s records showed; it said nothing about her time in Vietnam. So, we sent her father a power of attorney to get another paper from Vietnam itself.

Now, there are two main ways for a country to authenticate its official papers for use in official process in another country. If both countries are parties to the Apostille Convention, certain officials of the originating country can, on request, grant an apostille that certifies the signature of the paper, and the receiving country will accept that certification. Unfortunately, while Finland is a party, Vietnam is not.

The other possibility is grand legalization. Usually, the foreign ministry of the originating country certifies the signature of the paper, and the embassy of the receiving country will then certify the foreign ministry’s certification. In addition, there is often a required step of official translation from a language to another.

Thus: Hang’s father got her single certificate. Then it was given to an official translator to be translated into English. Then, both the certificate and its translations were brought into Vietnam’s foreign ministry, which certified both the certificate and its translation. Finally, both the certificate and the translation were brought into Finland’s embassy in Hanoi, where the foreign ministry’s certifications were certified. Complicated, no?

Eventually, we had two properly certified papers for Hang, saying that she had never married in Vietnam or Finland. We then went to the state registry office, who received our request for certification of marriage eligibility. They told us that we would hear from them if there was a problem, but we would get no confirmation of success until marriage day. A couple of months later, we got a bit nervous and sent email to ask; they confirmed all was good.

Another thing is surname. It is the Finnish custom for a couple to settle on a common surname, usually the husband’s, though the law recognizes the right of both spouses to keep their name, or for one to adopt a double-barreled name containing both spouse’s surnames, and many couples end up choosing one of these options. The Vietnamese custom is for both spouses to retain their names. We chose to respect the Vietnamese custom, and neither of us changed our official names.

A collage from the Jyväskylä ceremony, compiled by Hang.
The official ceremony in Finland did not quite go as planned. We forgot to bring one of our identity cards, so I had to make a quick drive to home to fetch it. Fortunately, we had rented a very nice car and we did not live very far, so it took me only about half an hour to make the trip. Still, that half an hour meant that we changed from being early to being very late. Fortunately, although we used a bit of the next couple’s time, the officials were understanding and allowed us to complete our ceremony and do some photography as well.

Later, I will write more about our Vietnam trip and our Vietnamese wedding, as well as the process of getting our Finnish official marriage recognized at the Vietnam embassy in Helsinki. For now, I will just say that we are very happy together, and look forward to the many decades to come.

[Edits May 7, 2018, to clarify the order of events.]

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