The Big Day

Vietnamese weddings bear little resemblance to those in the west.

By Hasham Wali. Photo: Hai Tre on May 06,2016 12:00 AM

The Big Day

Somebody once told me that there are only three reasons why an old Vietnamese friend or acquaintance would get in touch with you out of the blue: they need to borrow money, they want to ask you to engage in a risky business venture, or they are calling to inform you that they are getting married.

While I am yet to have the pleasure of the first two offers, I have plenty of experience with the third. Sudden invitations have popped up from everyone ranging from good friends who have lost contact to former colleagues with whom I shared only a handful of conversations in passing. There is, as with all things in Vietnam, a reason for this protocol, and in this case quite a simple one. If you invited a friend to your wedding then they will more often than not feel obliged to return the favour, even if you have subsequently drifted apart. Similarly, old colleagues will invite nearly everyone they used to work with to the festivities, lest one or two feel people slighted by the lack of invitation leading to whispers of ‘why should she get an invitation but not me?'

For those who have been part of the wedding process in the West and had to carefully trim down the guest list to a manageable size, throwing out a blanket invitation to all your past workmates probably seems like a lunatic idea, especially given the fact that most people in an office barely get on at the best times. However, in this part of the world it suddenly becomes a much more feasible prospect given the nature of a Vietnamese wedding reception. When a normal sized wedding comprises of somewhere in the range of 400-500 guests with no seating plans to worry about, it suddenly becomes a lot easier to put up with the presence of dull or even obnoxious co-workers.

Aside from the size of the celebration, the other major difference is the speed of the event, which usually only lasts an hour or so. People turn up, drop off their gift, sit down, eat, drink, give their best wishes to the bride and groom, who will be making the rounds of the tables, and then leave the premises en-masse, much to the delight of the hordes of taxi drivers camped outside the venue.

Everything is done at breakneck speed - the food, typically boiled chicken, a whole fish, king prawns and sticky rice - is wolfed down. The drinks - rice wine and beer - are consumed in large gulps until the room is awash with a sea of red faces. Goodbyes to the bride and groom are cursory if they take place at all. People that are used to a drawn out affair consisting of long speeches, numerous toasts and lots of socialising are in for something of a shock. Also, rather disappointingly, the customary tradition of a post-dinner disco is rarely observed here, depriving scores of people of the chance to see drunk uncles and aunts awkwardly strut their stuff on the dance floor.

As mentioned, the gift is handed over upon arrival and almost always takes the form of an envelope containing cash; a reasonable custom given that most couples will move in with the family of the groom, rendering boxed gifts superfluous.

Determining the exact amount that a person should give, however, requires a bit of sleuthing. Upon receiving the invitation, the first thing to check is the address of the reception, in order to figure out if it is a restaurant, a wedding hall, a family home or some other location. For example, if the wedding is taking place at a hotel, particularly one of the fancier ones, it will cost considerably more per head for the families involved, so the amount of money given as a gift should go up accordingly.

Given the later age that people are getting married in the West these days, this is one Vietnamese tradition that has been adopted in recent times. Couples are usually settled in their own places before marriage and therefore unlikely to need the household items included in registries of the past. Western weddings haven’t quite got behind the idea of cold, hard cash as a gift, but vouchers and online accounts with department stores have become commonplace.

The mix between West and East can clearly be seen in modern Vietnamese weddings, from the white wedding gown worn by the bride to the inclusion of classical music and Western floral displays at the ceremony. Smaller, bespoke ceremonies are now also gaining popularity and the wedding planning industry has also blossomed over the last few years, growing from just a handful of companies to what is now a very competitive environment. While this fusion of cultures has no doubt enriched the whole practice, there are many aspects of the act of getting married that remain uniquely Vietnamese.

Even before considering the prospect of getting married, a person must check how old they are because, naturally, some years, namely 21, 23, 26 and 28, according to the fortune teller, are unlucky ones for tying the knot. After that comes a series of customs dating back hundreds of years, the first of which is the trip made by the groom’s family to the bride’s home. This is done to ‘receive’ the bride and acts as confirmation that the wedding is going to go ahead as planned. In days gone by, forced marriages led to a lot of runaway brides and the gift of betel nuts is given to symbolise the opening of a dialogue between the households.

On the day of the wedding itself there is a procession made by the groom’s family to the house of the bride. This traditionally excluded the mother of the groom but it is now quite normal for her to be included as part of the parade. Superstition and symbolism abound, as a variety of significant gifts are presented by the groom’s party. These represent wealth and include things such as roasted pig, fabric and jewellery, all delivered on an odd number of trays and covered with red paper or cloth. After several more ceremonies the bride is taken back to the groom’s house and gets shown her new marriage bed. A bride being taken to the place where she will spend her wedding night by her mother-in-law is a tradition that in all probability will never catch on back in the West.

Weddings in this country come in all shapes and sizes and a separate article could be written about how boisterous countryside affairs can get and the differences between ceremonies in the north, the centre and the south, but the truth is that like many other things in Vietnam, weddings are constantly evolving and changing and nobody knows what they will be like in 20 years time. I just keep my fingers crossed that they will include a chubby, drunk relative giving his best rendition of Gangnam Style on the dance floor.

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