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.

1 comment:

Va said...

Marvelous description - your commentaries are what make the pictures come to life!

So, no one is "giving away" a bride - complete with parade down the aisle! Now, one can surmise that the French introduced western style bridal gowns to Viet Nam. Those gowns were prevalent for photo shoots in Hongkong and Taiwan due to British influence , but a traditional Chinese ceremony in the traditional red outfit preceded or followed that activity!