*Apologies, this post should’ve been written last year in June!*
I was just about to leave work after teaching my evening classes when my boss, Ha, chased me and said: “Cliona, do you want to come to my cousin’s wedding this weekend? I’d love you to join us! You need to let me know soon because it’s in Tân Hoa and I need to book your flight.” Of course I wanted to go, it was an opportunity not to be missed! After checking that another teacher could cover my classes over the busy weekend I rang Ha and happily accepted her invitation. I was intrigued and excited to experience what a traditional Vietnamese wedding is like. I was also excited to see more of the beautiful country I now called home. By this point I’d not been further than Mui Ne in the south.
Like a typical girl the first thing I thought was what on Earth am I going to wear?! It was the perfect opportunity to wear an ao dai, the traditional dress of Vietnam. It’s typically made by a tailor who asks you to pick from an Aladdin’s cave of colourful fabrics which is then stitched to fit the precise measurements of your body. As I only had a few days notice I bought a readymade ao dai in a shop but it fit me nicely. It was a gorgeous green silk printed with birds and flowers. Getting shoes should’ve been the tricky part but luckily I had a pair of black heels to wear already. Trying to buy nice, feminine shoes in a country where you feel like the BFG standing next to such petite women was never an easy task! I’d walk into a shop and point at my abnormally long-toed size 8 feet saying “bốn mươi mốt!” (size 8 in Vietnamese) to which they would laugh and offer a small and often unattractive selection of available shoes.
I flew to Tân Hoa on my own as everyone else went on the previous flight. As I walked through arrivals Ha and everyone else from Smart Bee shouted “Hello, Miss Cliona!” with big smiles and hugs. It felt so lovely to be welcomed so warmly by people, some of whom I’d never even met.We walked outside to the minibus that would be our transport for the rest of the weekend. Ahhhh, the air was so fresh compared to Ho Chi Minh! We stopped after thirty minutes at Ha’s brothers restaurant and before we’d even sat down huge plates of food were piling up on the table. Steaming bowls of rice, morning glory, soup, frogs legs, eel, it just kept on coming! The eel was surprisingly tasty and didn’t taste as slimy as I’d imagined. I was absolutely stuffed and had to insist I’d had enough. If there’s one thing the Vietnamese love doing it’s feeding people!
After lunch we drove a short distance to Ha’s family home where her mother lives. Her mother, a very old and wrinkled lady with a white bun and smiling eyes was in her bedroom at the back of the house. There must’ve been about seven of us crammed onto the floor. Ha translated for me as she didn’t speak a word of English, but she had a very warm smile. I wish I could understand the song-like sounds of Vietnamese but it felt special just sitting on the floor and watching the family chatting away.
The house was all dressed up and adorned with sparkly drapes and flowers ready for the party the next day. There was a meal that evening for the bride’s family which again was in delicious abundance. Ha desperately tried to get me to sing along to the guitar and I know the Vietnamese love a good old sing song regardless of how bad you sound but my shyness prevailed. Unless I’m fuelled with a few large glasses of Dutch courage you won’t find me at the front of the karaoke queue doing a solo! There was a fair few bottles of Hanoi vodka floating around, mainly being enjoyed by the men. I was asked if I wanted a shot while a shot was basically hoisted into my hand, and, like the only way I know, I knocked it straight back. As you do. “Cliona! Quickly, have some water!” Apparently women sip shots and I couldn’t help but laugh with rosy cheeks while I explained that in my culture everyone drinks shots straight. As you can see in the picture below the men were also smoking from wooden bongs all night, just with tobacco as far as I’m aware. At elevenish we retired to our hotel which was a few minutes walk across the road. It was a small family hotel with wooden throne-like furniture in the lobby. Everyone was grouped in rooms together to keep costs down, which meant I was put into a room with Ha’s friend Thao and her nine year old son Bon. Not only were we sharing a room but the three of us had to squeeze into a small double bed which was slightly awkward at first. They didn’t really think anything of it and I quickly saw the funny side and just went with it. During the night Bon, who was sleeping in the middle, must’ve mistaken me for his mum as he started cuddling me! Despite the size of the bed I tried to move as close to the edge as possible, or at least to non-cuddling distance. We ended up sharing for the rest of the weekend and coincidently got to know each other quite well. They were both lovely and Thao and I had many conversations about marriage and family life and how they differ in our cultures.
The wedding celebrations began very early the next day and we were up, dressed and at the house for 9am. Before everyone arrived there was a whirlwind of photos being taken of all the relatives, young and old. I was asked to stand in one of the family shots and I almost look like part of the family!A Vietnamese wedding is traditionally celebrated over several days and the couple were already married by this point. Today was the day when the groom and his family join the bride and her family and then take her to her new home. Everyone stood outside and welcomed the groom and his family with a big confetti canon. The mothers, who were dressed in exquisite red and gold embellished ao dais exchanged gifts before giving them to the newlyweds. It proceeded with another quick photo shoot before everyone left to go to the party at the grooms family home. We’d been at two parties and it wasn’t even midday! Part of the tradition when everybody leaves is for the bride’s mother to stay at home and wave her daughter off into her new life. She was stood outside balling her eyes out, I just wanted to give her a hug! .The party continued and celebrations livened up at the groom’s home. The head table where the couple sat was extravagantly dressed with pink frills and cake on a decorative bicycle frame. In stark contrast to the pretty frills, there was intermittent bursts of thumping Vietnamese dance music. Even the old people were bopping away! The couple stood while a long line of relatives presented them with gifts of money and gold rings and by the end of it each of their fingers had at least three or four rings on it. The cherry on the cake was when the couple poured champagne into a fancy glass waterfall and a row of sparklers shot up in the air. We jumped out of our seats as the sparklers narrowly missed us . And need I say, this was all followed by another huge banquet of food.Going to Ha’s cousin’s wedding was such a memorable experience. I’ll never forget the funny things that happened to me in this tiny town and the many curious but friendly looks I received of ‘what is she doing here?’. The entire family made me feel so welcome all weekend and although I didn’t understand a word of what was being said 99.8% of the time, it was so easy to feel the atmosphere.