Guide to Vietnamese Weddings - Part 4 (Final)
Saigon Shane | June 10, 2009 at 08:00 amby
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Final in a series of short articles documenting one foreigner's first-hand account of current and past Vietnamese Wedding customs and traditions.
Guide to Vietnamese Weddings - Part 1
Guide to Vietnamese Weddings - Part 2
Guide to Vietnamese Weddings - Part 3
I have to preface this article with the explanation that neither myself nor my Vietnamese wife are "conventional" or "conservative" people in either of our cultures. We tend to be pragmatic realists rather than unbending traditionalists. We share a sense of humor that sometimes borders on the bizarre, á la Monty Python.
We had our Vietnamese wedding reception out in my wife's village in Tay Ninh province, a 2 hour drive north-west of Saigon (HCMC). What transpired was something of a cross-cultural comedy that made our Vietnamese wedding a thoroughly enjoyable, fun and memorable occasion. Well, for us at least. It was so unconventional that lots of conservative villagers are still talking about it 4 years later!
Our wedding photos were taken before the wedding, which is the usual procedure. We had our Vietnamese wedding photos done on the Monday of the week prior. The first comedy skit involved my suit. Rather than take the pictures with me wearing the suit I would wear on the day, the photographer proffered a host of chintzy numbers from her props wardrobe.
Photographer: "Try this dark green suit?"
Shane: "With the red tie?"
Photographer: "Of course."
Shane: "I don't think so!"
Photographer: "How about this camel-brown ensemble?"
Shane: "Not with my chimp-like arms you don't!"
Photographer: "You know lots of Vietnamese men wear white suits at their weddings. Want to try this one?"
Shane: "Am I the virgin here? Pass!"
Photographer: "No, but it's very beautiful."
Shane: "You think a white suite will make me look handsome, do you?"
Photographer: "Here. The arms on this sky-blue suit are quite long."
Shane: "You don't learn very quickly, do you? How about I wear my birthday suit?"
Photographer: "Okay. Great! What color is it? Did you bring it with you?"
Credit where it is due though, the quality of the final wedding photographs was technically good and the composition was good too. We were happy with them.
My Bride returned to the village two days before the wedding to get herself prepared. With the final ceremony due to take place in her mother's home at 10am, we'd arranged for two 16-seat vans to pick-up the city guests at 07am on the Saturday. Since this is Vietnam, we finally set off at 08:30am. In Vietnam, it's the Groom's job to be late to his own wedding. Glad I got something right!
Our 11am arrival greeted scenes of mayhem. Without good cellphone coverage out there, Mother-in-law was apoplectic with expectations of the worst. Only now did a stark, harsh fact emerge: the Groom and his entourage had no idea what they are supposed to do! In all the 'pre-match' excitement in the weeks leading up to the event, nobody had thought to tell us about the ceremonial protocols! What followed was a hilarious game of 'wedding charades' as the non-Vietnamese speaking foreigners were coached about their roles.
With genuine rural Vietnamese humor, the final ceremony, where I got to whisk her away from her kith and kin, went off surprisingly well. Thanks to Grandma-in-law's jovial personality and quick, practical assessment of the situation. With lots of gesticulations from the Vietnamese Aunts and Uncles and my woeful interpreting, we each performed our ceremonial duties against a backdrop of bemused giggles and uproarious laughter. Imagine that at a Church Service? I said we were an 'unconventional' couple.
The feast was well underway before the official ceremony finished, again contrary to tradition. As we emerged from Mom's house to make our way next door to Grandpa-in-law's altar, the second course was about to be served. Local custom has it that the first course is only served after the official proceedings have concluded. However, as Grandma-in-law rightly pointed out to her demonstrably frantic daughter, there's no stopping 300+ hungry Vietnamese farmers and villagers who've been waiting to eat for up to 2 hours.
Having to seek a deceased person's blessing for our marriage wasn't so strange for me. Vietnamese people have very real and close spiritual relationships with their deceased ancestors, even one's they've never met. Every Vietnamese home has an altar to at least one deceased parent or grandparent. These people are remembered every day and included as 'silent witnesses' to births, birthdays and other events. They even have their own posthumous death anniversary parties every year. We have an altar for my deceased Father in our home and treat him with the same respect. I'm not sure what he would think about that, but I have a been & a cigarette with him anyway.
That said, I was not expecting to pay homage to Ho Chi Minh as part of a wedding ceremony, and in full public view of ex-communist soldiers and guerrillas. While I disagree with his politics and many of his methods, I do admire the man for his service to his country and people. Upon reflection, I should not have been surprised at the gesture of respect for 'Uncle Ho'. Grandpa and Grandma-in-law had both sacrificed their youth and young adult life in the service of first the Viet Minh and later the National Liberation Front (Viet Cong). But that's a story for later.
With the ceremony over, we started circling the tables to thank the guests at about 12pm. While the toasts during the official ceremony were conducted with rice-wine moonshine, thankfully, the poison of preference among the guests was beer. Beer is normally too expensive for these peasant folk, so the opportunity to drink some for free is always too tempting to pass up - even for those who can't stomach it! As a beer drinker, I was eternally thankful. Imagine toasting 30+ tables with at least 1 shot glass per table of rice-wine moonshine, in the midday heat & without breakfast? A one-way ticket to vomitville!
After about four tables of "Một, hai, ba YO!", it was time for my new bride to change gowns. A little secret here. The new husband usually has no idea how many gowns his new bride will parade before the populace. After three or four more tables, she disappeared again. A few tables later, she swishes away once more. We were only just over half-way through and that was the third ... or was it the fourth gown? The toasts were beginning to affect my numeracy skills. For the record, it was a total of six different gowns, shoes and accessories.
For the hawk-eyed menu matrons, the more courses the better. We had a middle-of-the-road seven courses. Some of these matrons were even so brazen as to pass comment. When catching a snippet of some throw-away line about "a foreigner and only seven courses", Grandma-in-law smilingly inquired "Did you count the 40 beers your husband and his uninvited buddy just demolished?". I love my Grandma-in-law!
As we eventually finished thanking the guests, the final course was wrapping up. People were beginning to look antsy to leave in search of a nap. We are not 'cosmic twins', my wife and I, but it occurred to both of us simultaneously that neither had eaten since breakfast. Much to Grandma-in-law's delight, and her daughter's chagrin, we decided to prolong the guest's agony and eat our first meal together in public. Nobody would be so disrespectful as to leave whilst we were eating our first meal as a couple, would they?
Of course they would, naps were in the offing! We gave up after interruptions became too numerous and cajoled a couple of young cousins to carry our plates out the front for the compulsory farewell photos with guests unknown. Snatching a morsel of sustenance between photos, to soak up the alcohol, and trying to smile with one's mouth full isn't an easy task.
The last guests finally departed about 1pm. My Vietnamese wedding was over. Sort of! While my new wife could now relax somewhat and climb out of straight-jacket gown #6 and Mother-in-law could finally regain some composure, there was one last ritual for me.
The Uncles initiated me into the 'family's secret men's business'. While the women were fussing over the newest member of the family's married women's club, I was led next door without frill or fanfare. The Uncles who had so ruthlessly interrogated me during the pre-nuptial negotiations now gave me their own induction into the family. The three of them, seated on low stools around rice-wine moonshine in the presence of their deceased father, explained my rights, roles and responsibilities as their new brother. It may have been the alcohol. It may have been the fact that I understood what was happening. It may have been the poignancy of the moment, but I choked up a little.
By 2pm it was all over. I was married into a Vietnamese family. It hasn't been all plain sailing in the years since that memorable day, but I have always been treated as family. We all have our little disagreements and misunderstandings, but nowhere has there ever been any essence of me being anything other than a member of the family. Unlike the normal Vietnamese tradition, where the new wife joins the husband's family, I now live within the sphere of influence of my wife's family ... and couldn't be happier!
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