This weekend I was part of something not many westerners will get to experience in their lives; I was invited to participate in a traditional Vietnamese wedding. Now, it may not sound that exciting, right? Wrong! A Vietnamese wedding is nothing like the regular type of wedding we are used to, in fact it is even more intricate and impressive with different ceremonies involving both families.
The actual wedding is a series of extensive ceremonies (asking permission to receive the bride, receiving the bride at her house, and bringing the bride to the groom’s house) taking place within a couple of days, mixed in with a couple other daytime ‘small’ parties to boot. At the end of the ceremonies the wedding reception is held and both families are joined by guests to welcome the newly wed couple.
The Pre Party
Friday evening we were invited out to the bride’s family’s house for a small ‘party’ before the first ceremony took place on Saturday morning. We were told there would be a few people coming by to drink ‘crazy amounts of beer’.
Upon arriving we’re greeted by an extremely hospitable family. Although the parents don’t speak any English, they are more than welcoming and make sure we are comfortable. The smiles on their faces are warming as they have us enter their home to participate in such a personal event. You can tell by the twinkle in their eyes that what they are showing is true and sincere. This level of hospitality to two complete strangers is something that current generations are losing as time goes by.
Oh god, please don’t be me… Please, no.
We sit down and enjoy some tea with some of the family who aren’t frantically getting ready for the festivities about to unravel. After we finish our tea the bride- and groom-to-be take us around the village to view a couple pagodas while the family prepares the preparty dinner. We walked around for half an hour and returned to a table filled with an assortment of vegetarian food; Spring rolls, sauteed mushrooms, two kinds of soup, fried vegetables, and rice. Amazing.
We do our best to devour most of the food on the table and begin to clean up to prepare for guests to arrive. About half an hour later groups of people from around the village arrive and the tables are filled by bodies, beer, and snacks. The night is filled with consuming alcohol and singing karaoke, because if there is one thing Vietnamese love, it’s terrible songs at the highest volume tolerable. Well, my ears beg to differ.
What happened next I couldn’t prepare for. It was something I would have nightmares about, being a very soft-spoken introvert. My friend, the groom, walked up to the front of the stage and began speaking.
“Hello, everyone. I would like to sing a song, dedicated to a very special person here today.”
Oh god, please don’t be me… Please, no.
“He came all the way from Canada and is sitting over there! My friend, this song is for you!”
I can feel the blood rushing to my face as it begins to burn red. I start to squirm in my seat and raise a hand of acknowledgment, so everyone knows who he is talking about. The song cues and as I begin to recognize it he starts walking towards me with his hand out in anticipation. That’s when he sings the first line of the song, it’s Can You Feel The Love Tonight by Elton John. He reaches out for my hand, thinking he wants to sing it to me sitting at the back of the room by the comfort of my own table. I was wrong.
He drags me to the front of the room and onto the stage, all the while singing a love song serenading me as I awkwardly and uncomfortably stumble up the stairs where the next three minutes feel like an eternity. This is where I stand, red-faced and sweating, as I catch a glimpse at my table where they are all laughing and taking pictures. Unfortunately I don’t know all the words so I’m stuck looking down at the the lyrics that are scrolling by on a prompter, softly saying the words under my breath. The end can’t come soon enough and luckily for me the song ends and I return to my seat where I can hide at the back of the room again, sheepishly waiting for the night to end.
Asking Permission To Receive The Bride
The following morning we meet at the groom’s house at 7:00 am, upon arriving we sit at our table, snack on some watermelon seeds and rice cakes and wait for the rest of the guests to pile in around their tables before joining a convoy to the bride’s home.
Today’s ceremony consists of various things such as the mother and father of the groom saying a short speech, then the bride’s side doing the same. I can only assume what was being said here was the asking of permission and the agreement from the bride’s father to hand off his daughter to the groom. They light some sparklers, fill a glass pyramid with a mysterious red spritzer, pretend to cut the wedding cake, and pose for pictures (including one with a large fake gift).
The whole thing feels more in depth and personal compared to a western wedding, where both families are less involved as there’s a sort of unspoken agreement between them.
Afterwards the food begins to come out. Usually containing anywhere from 4-7 different courses. The first was a plate of pickled veggies, with one unidentifiable semi-clear thing I dared not to eat from fear of it being an animal of sorts. I eat 3-4 vegetables before waves of nausea come over me and all I can think is how the vinegar isn’t sitting well in my stomach or whether some of the things I ate last night were in fact not vegetarian. The second course comes out and it’s a plate of various sea creatures on a bed full of shredded vegetables. Everything is then mixed together and I sit there picking at a bowl of crackers while the ladies across from me insist I join them.
The look on their faces said it all. There were no more vegetable dishes coming and I was left eating cooked rice with soy sauce for the remainder of the morning. If you’re a vegetarian, I would suggest making other plans for meals if you attend a Vietnamese wedding. Your only salvation is having a large breakfast beforehand to prevent from going hangry mid-way through the morning.
Before the ceremony started my friend informed me there would be other guests from Europe attending as well. We were well into the morning and everyone had shown up, and let me tell you, we were the only two white people there. Normally this wouldn’t bother me, but the staring and pointing from the other guests made it difficult to go about my own business before I began to feel uncomfortable to the point I almost didn’t want to look up from my plate of rice.
After all the food had been served my friend came by and insisted we make the rounds with him, visiting every table along the way as he showcased us to all his friends and family giving cheers and slamming beer with every single person sitting around the tables. I felt special, like a show pony being trot around, stopping at every table, as the token foreigners attending the wedding, to toast and drink more beer.
Receiving The Bride and Bring Her To The Groom’s House
This ceremony requires the whole groom’s party to go to the bride’s house, along with the equivalent to a priest, with offerings and gifts to the bride’s family made out of Betel leaf and areca nut. The officiator heads the ceremony and begins the process of receiving the bride and bringing her to the groom’s house. Candles are lit, representing the joining of the bride and groom, the father’s both drank an offering shot of vodka poured by the other one, followed by the burning of incense at an altar asking the permission from ancestor’s for her hand in marriage.
The immediate family members line up behind the bride and groom, carrying two gold bands and an envelope with a gift. They hand the envelope to the couple and place a ring on each one’s hand. The parents will give some advice regarding the pending marriage and even more gifts will switch hands, such as jewellery, fruit, and cakes.
The whole thing took approximately 2 hours and we were on our way back to the groom’s house where they asked the groom’s ancestors for permission, ate more snacks, and drank tea before going to the restaurant where we would take part in the reception that finalized the union of these two families.
I swear he’s happy, just a little stressed
The restaurant was a beautiful and large venue to host the reception with a massive stage at the front of the room, decorated to the nines with lights, streamers, balloons, and a huge screen with wedding pictures of the couple. We sat at the front waiting for people to arrive and things to get underway. While waiting we were surrounded by a group of children who were extremely excited to practice their English with two native English speakers; we were more that happy to entertain the children in the mean time. Most of their questions were asking our names, where we’re from, how old we are, and our favourite foods. This is where we garnered the nickname ‘ăn chay’ which was the running joke amongst the kids for the remainder of the day.
The reception began with a performance put on by local teens dancing on stage in some traditional outfits.
A couple of minutes later we’re presented with a plate of rice noodles and soy sauce. The vegetarian option of the day, but at this point anything will do and frankly all I can do is laugh, what with the amount of terrible karaoke taking place on stage and the endless plates of meat.
My friend gets up on stage and grabs the microphone. It’s time for him to serenade his wife with his rendition of You Look So Beautiful In White. It was cute and by the end of the song he had a group of his family up on the stage singing, dancing, and throwing roses around with him as he poured his heart out in those lyrics. Upon finishing everyone in the room witnessed their first kiss (ever?), which was only partially awkward to watch, signalling the finale of the reception and the wedding as a whole.
If ever you are propositioned with attending a Vietnamese wedding I suggest you jump on the opportunity without even thinking twice. The amount of community and culture that you experience is more than enough to compensate for the ringing you’ll have in your ears for the days to come from the red-lining, karaoke singing family. Along with all the beer you could possibly drink, the Vietnamese aren’t shy when it comes to food and if you don’t eat enough at the table, there’s definitely enough to fill a bag and take home with you.
PS There was never any actual eating of cake!
Have you ever been to a different culture’s wedding? And most importantly… did it have cake?
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