Saturday, March 31, 2012

We Have a Winner!

I just picked up a light purple silk scarf for the winner of my recent contest. The winning guess came from a fellow student of Myo Sim karate and was $145, only $7 under the real price of $152. If you missed the original post, that $152 paid for two long-sleeved cotton dress shirts tailored to the husband's measurements and for me, three long-sleeved tailored linen shirts, two pairs of tailored linen slacks, one tailored linen pencil skirt, and one tailored loose, flowing silk skirt. The most expensive single item was the silk skirt, which was $22. On the trip to get the winner's scarf, we each ordered two pairs of casual linen pants, which for me will replace the two pairs of years-old cargo pants I brought along for daily bopping around here. If you ever get the chance to come to Hue, let me know, and I'll point you in the direction of what I still call the silk store around the corner (because that's where it is in relation to the hotel in which we lived three years ago).

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Wedding Singer, Vietnamese Style

Today has been one of those days that help put everything into perspective. Some days are just stranger than others, and the possibility for stranger yet days is always present. How strange was today? Well, there were elements of a Las Vegas revue, Ninja Warrior, karaoke night, and one of the happiest days of your life, all rolled into a two-hour lunch. In short, we went to a wedding. All that was missing, according to the husband, was an Elvis impersonator ... or two.

We got a taste of the big deal a wedding can be here last week, when one was held at our hotel. The huge, main spiral staircase that leads up to the convention-style ballroom was bedecked with red and green ribbons one day. When I asked the receptionists (you get on very good terms with them since you leave your key with them when you leave the hotel and pick it up when you return) the reason, they said there would be a wedding the next day. The next day, heart-shaped pink balloons were tied along the handrails and there was a pink and red arch set up at the base of the staircase. Later in the day, a large photo of the happy couple was placed on an easel at the foot of the stairs.

Disclaimer note up front about the photos that follow. I took my very tiny point-and-shoot Pentax to the wedding, not being sure what the etiquette was in terms of photography. I turned off the flash, so all the photos you see were handheld, some in not-so-great lighting. There will be times when I will mention something and not include a photo. This means that I judged the photo(s) I had to be too blurry to use.

Compared to our own wedding, today's affair was quite a huge one. It was held on the scond floor of a convention and wedding center. There were ten people at each table, and we estimated the number of tables at somewhere around 40. To the best we could see, we were the only Westerners in attendance. Both the bride and groom are teachers at Hue University; I think the groom's field is engineering. The whole group of staff and teaching assistants from the Advanced Physics Program was invited to the wedding, and that included the husband and me. (I was actually named on the invitation and not just the "plus one.") We did a little research (think Wikipedia and an email to a Vietnamese colleague of the husband) and learned that the traditional wedding present is cash, so we were set there. I creatively crafted an artsy envelope for it only to learn that there was evidently a "special" envelope one was supposed to use for the gift. Imagine my surprise when this "special" envelope turned out to be a standard air mail postage envelope. You deposited your envelope in a large, heart-shaped box before going upstairs to the ballroom. In case it wasn't clear who was getting married, there were signs.
Some of the Vietnamese students had encouraged me to wear my ao dai to the wedding, but I decided against it for several reasons. It would have needed pressing, it would have been quite hot, it might have made riding on a scooter difficult, and I'm a Westerner and figured I should go looking like one. As it turned out, we took a cab to the wedding, and in retrospect the ao dai would have worked more easily on a scooter than the skirt I wore would have. The ballroom was a sea of tables. Here's ours. We were sitting with the husband's teaching assistant (who served pretty much as our guide through the event as well as taker of some of the photographs such as this one) and science professors from Hue University. There was a box of beer for each table; more was added as needed. I was the only one not drinking beer at our table, having learned three years ago that whatever you have put in your glass at the start of the event will be added to your glass whenever the level in your glass drops below half. I do not need that much beer, especially not at lunch.

But back to the wedding. There was a stage, and balloons, which we were told would come into play later. There was a slideshow going of the couple's engagement and wedding photographs. (There's evidently no superstition here about the groom seeing the bride's gown before the ceremony.) If you look closely at the left front of the stage photo, to the right under the heart, what looks somewhat like a wedding cake is actually a pyramid of champagne glasses.

The event started off with dancers.
They eventually worked their way down the center aisle leading to the stage. There was an emcee
who spoke so rapidly and with such inflection that I was reminded of watching episodes of Ninja Warrior that had English subtitles but the original Japanese narration. First, he introduced the groom's parents and the bride's mother and uncle. Then he introduced the bride and groom, who entered together along with what I assume were their attendants. The emcee talked for a while. Two special presents were presented; these may have been from each family to the happy couple, but that's just a guess. These gifts were not opened, though photos were taken.
The bride and groom together cut the top one of a tier of separate wedding cakes. Each cake looked to be the size of what we would call a standard two-layer cake. They just sliced the cake; no slice was extracted, and there was no pushing it in each other's faces and eating it. After the cake cutting, the couple moved to the other side of the stage and together poured a red liquid into a large funnel. The liquid eventually started to fill the glasses in the champagne-glass mountain. There must have been more than just the liquid because it was fizzing as if there were dry ice involved somewhere. At one point, there was a small explosion, and foil glitter filled the air. The husband thought that had the wedding been outdoors, this would have been fireworks.
The couple then went back to the center of the stage and what we think might have been the wedding ceremony itself took place. The couple offered to each set of parental figures, glasses of the red liquid before taking glasses for themselves. After this, the balloons began to pop, and the ceremony part was apparently over. When we turned around, food was being added to each table. And what food it was! Some of it was even cooked right at the table. This is the squid course; the squid is cooking on the burner, in beer added by one of the gentlemen at the table. the bride, groom, and parental parties circulated from table to table with many toasts. Sometimes the inhabitants of one table visited another en masse for toasts. Here, our table is visiting one full of mostly physicists. As all of this was going on, indeed, from the moment the newly wed couple left the stage, it was karaoke time. We had been shown, when we sat down, little slips of paper on each table. If you wanted to sing, you submitted one of these listing the song you'd like to perform. Enough people did that there was a steady stream of performers throughout the rest of the event. At one point there was a special song for the couple, shown here with some of their friends including one of the physics students, the woman shown to the left of the bride. There was no formal ending to the affair, no tossing of the bouquet or waiting for the bride and groom to leave before the guests could go. People just started leaving, and then it all seemed to be over. As we were waiting for the taxi to take us back to the university, I enjoyed seeing how some women combined dressing to the nines for the wedding with riding on scooters. Yes, the woman to the rear is riding side-saddle. Before you dismiss this, consider the angle that these scooters can reach. As you can see, this is not for the faint-of-heart which was why I ended up quite happy with the teaching assistant's suggestion that we take a taxi.

As we were walking back into the university to reclaim the husband's briefcase, I asked the TA whether the couple would be going on a honeymoon or wedding trip or whether they would be back at work tomorrow. He said they might go somewhere in Hue tonight but that there would be no wedding trip. In many ways, the wedding was for us a strange trip. As we walked back to the hotel, the husband and I wondered how two Vietnamese might have viewed our own wedding, with the serious ceremony in one place and the reception in another, the bridal procession rather than the bride and groom entering together, the formality that seemed replaced by fun in today's events. Yes, some things are stranger than others, but everything is strange to someone. It's a wonder we all get along as well as we do in this wacky world, but travel and days such as today help put it all in perspective.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Matters of the Cloth

The ao dai (pronounced roughly "ow yie") is traditional Vietnamese women's attire. I had one made for me three years ago, and decided to get another one made now. Here it is, modeled in the store, last night. After the husband took this shot, I realized that the black daypack against the black slacks was probably not a good thing, but since I think I look fat in the photo sans daypack, this one will have to do. (The other photo is online, and if you can find it you can see it and how fat I look.)

This ao dai has embroidery on the front of flowers representing the four seasons. At the top is the current season, spring. Beneath that is a flower representing summer. Next down is autumn, followed by winter. The silk of the ao dai is a greenish blue, and the blue is what shows up in the embroidery closeups. The green tone is truer in the whole-body shot. It is a good thing I ordered this ao dai when I did because the university came in yesterday and ordered all the rest of the silk in that color for pants to be worn under white ao dais by some of the women at an upcoming celebration of the school's 55th anniversary.

And speaking of the whole-body shot, I was informed in no uncertain terms by the ladies in the silk shop that I need to get a "real" bra that will lift my breasts to the proper level if I want the cut of the ao dai to look as it should. I didn't want to get into a discussion of why my sports bras don't count as "real." I guess I'll add "find real bra" to my list of things to do when I get home, though it may not happen until an occasion on which to wear this arises.

While at the silk shop to pick up the ao dai last night, the husband ordered two tailored cotton dress shirts. From some catalog pages (sorry, J. Jill, but it's cheaper to get your look here than at home), I ordered three linen shirts ("big shirts" in catalog jargon), two pairs of linen slacks, one linen pencil skirt, and one loosely flowing silk skirt, all tailored to me as I measured last night. I'll offer a contest here in the fine print to people who have read all the way to the end. Guess in the comments to this blog or in an email or Facebook message to me what you think the above items all together cost (excluding the ao dai, which was $70). Closest guess without going over will get a silk scarf in the color of their choice. Entries close at 4:00 a.m. Hue time on Friday, which is 5:00 p.m. Thursday in Virginia. Include the color scarf you want with your guess, and I'll pick one up for the winner when I pick up the clothes on Friday. (We'll be going in tomorrow for interim fittings.) Scarf to be given in person or mailed as appropriate either on my way home (an Aussie could win this) or when I get home.

Monday, March 26, 2012

From One Extreme to the Other

Three years ago, we toured the Citadels and the Imperial City on one of the hottest days of our stay. This year, we went on the second day of what may turn out to be an incredible cool spell. The ten-day forecast I checked earlier this morning had no daytime high over 78 degrees Fahrenheit. All the lows overnight were in the 60s. And for one day, 1 April, the forecast high and low temperatures were 69 and 65 degrees. These are totally unexpected temperatures for this time of year. The husband actually expressed gratitude for our post-Hue trip to Australia without which, he said, he probably would not have even brought along a jacket.

The area outside the Citadel as a paid attraction is usually teeming with activity on weekends, and yesterday was no exception. Football can be played almost anyplace, especially with bicycles to use to define the goal areas.
With Hue Festival looming on the horizon, much of the Citadel and Imperial City no longer lends itself to "postcard photography." Between temporary lighting rigs and stadium seating, they also appear to be adding some large stages. The shot above was taken from the top of the Ngo Mon (Noon) Gate, looking outside toward the flag tower. The Ngo Mon Gate is 190 feet wide and was once reserved for the sole use of the emperor. Once inside the gate, the Trung Dao Bridge leads to the Esplanade of Great Salutations and the Thai Hoa Palace (Palace of Supreme Harmony). During court ceremonies, the mandarins would stand in ranks of nine, civil mandarins to the left and military mandarins to the right as they faced the emperor. No photography is permitted inside the palace, a posted rule that I followed unlike several folks who seemed to think the posted signs did not include phonotography (cell phone-photography). Behind the Thai Hoa Palace once stood the Can Chanh Palace which contained a second throne room in which the emperor conducted daily business. The golden dragon statue in the center of the above photo is pretty incredible up close. The Mandarin Halls to the left and tight of where the Can Chanh Palace once stood still exist. The hall to the right displays works from the Hue Museum of Royal Fine Arts as well as contains a small art gallery. This painting was a particular favorite of mine there. The Left Mandarin Hall now houses a tacky (my opinion) concession in which tourists can don mandarin attire and pose for photos with a replica carriage and throne. Suffice to say, we spent no real time there.

Behind the Right Mandarin Hall is the Royal Theatre. They offer four 30-minute shows of imperial music and dance here each day, but we had arrived just after the morning shows and well before the afternoon shows. Still, we heard music and, when a gentleman at the door indicated we could enter but to do so quietly, we did. We think that what we happened on was a rehearsal for something that will be part of Hue Festival. There was one gentleman who was obviously directing things, getting things set up in between acts. There was also someone filming who, afterwards, also conducted an interview with one of the performers. We entered during a fan dance, and since other people were filming or photographing, I jumped right in.
The second act was a performance by an instrumental musical group. The director set this up complete with sound checks.

Though the instruments for this number were all wind and percussion, there were stringed instruments played for the one final act. And in between numbers, there was even the ubiquitous cell phone played. The final number we saw was a vocal and dance performance that was nothing short of extraordinary. The costumes were incredible,
and the flowers the performers were carrying turned out also to be lights.

Even the leggings are stunning.
And everything built to a big finale. Behind the theater is the Reading Pavilion, which is undergoing some extensive renovations. It's the scaffolded building to the right of the lake. Three years ago, we found a tennis court near the back of the Citadel, behind where the Forbidden Purple City stood. We jokingly called it the imperial tennis court and when we asked a guide about it were told that it probably had been built as part of a boondoggle by city officials. It turns out that we were more correct than he was, at least according to the sign that is there now. As this shot shows, very few complete buildings actually remain as part of the Imperial City. Yes, some were destroyed during the American (what we call the Vietnam) War. Probably just as many, though, and perhaps even more were destroyed in the 1940s when the Vietnamese fought against French colonial rule. In lieu of photos of non-existent buildings, here's a smattering of detail shots that attracted me. This grating is from a wall near the Right Mandarin Palace. This is from outside the theater. This lantern hangs in a hallway connecting two buildings that are no longer there. This dragon sits in a wall that still remains. This and the detailed shots that follow are from a wall panel.
In the same section of the hallway is this ceiling. Unfortunately, this sign is nowhere hear this graffiti. There are some incredible gates with details that would be even more incredible with some restoration.

In terms of restoration, we saw signs citing Poland, Korea, and Thailand as having provided support for restoration efforts. Near the end of our trek, we visited the Nine Dynastic Urns, four of which are shown here. These urns were cast between 1835 and 1837 and were intended to help celebrate the country's beauty and dynastic stability. The scenes depicted on them celebrate Vietnamese culture. Each urn is dedicated to one of the Nguyen emperors. Each urn also shows the effects of the various conflicts that have been waged around them.
The husband thought the large hole above was probably from a 50-caliber shell, but don't quote him on that.

Three years ago, we rounded a corner within the Citadel and came face to trunk with one of two elephants. They're still there and, unfortunately, don't look too happy, particularly the guy in the bottom photo.
They are apparently a for-profit tourist attraction, one that, needless to say, we did not use.

Finally, in an effort at humo(u)r after the elephant sad face, we tried to catch a ride on the Tardis, but were unable to find the Doctor.