*Apologies, this post should’ve been written last year in June!*
I was just about to leave work after finishing my evening classes when my boss, Ha, asked me: “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 though 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 my classes could be covered over the busy weekend, I rang Ha to happily accept her invitation. I was intrigued and excited to see what a traditional Vietnamese wedding would be like, and I was also excited to be going north. 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 am I going to wear?! It was the perfect opportunity to wear an ao dai, the traditional Vietnamese dress. Usually it’s made by a tailor to your exact measurements and you can pick from an Aladdin’s cave of colourful fabrics, but I only had a few days so I bought a readymade one in a shop. It was a gorgeous green silk with a bird and flower print and it fit me well enough! Luckily I had a pair of black heels to wear with it already. Trying to buy nice, feminine shoes in a country where the women are so petite was always very tricky! I’d walk into a shop and point and laugh at my abnormally long-toed feet saying “bốn mươi mốt!” meaning “size 41!” to which they’d then offer me a small selection of what was available.
I flew to Tân Hoa on my own as everyone was on the previous flight. I walked through arrivals and Ha and everyone else from Smart Bee were waiting with big smiles and hugs. “Hello, Miss Cliona!” It felt so lovely to be welcomed so warmly by people, some of whom I didn’t even know.We walked outside to the minibus that would be our transport for the rest of the weekend. Ahhhh fresh air. We stopped after thirty minutes at Ha’s brothers restaurant and they knew we were coming as the food came out before we’d properly sat down. Steaming bowls of rice, morning glory, soup, frogs legs, eel, it just kept on coming! The eel was surprisingly tasty and didn’t taste slimy as I’d imagined it to. I was absolutely stuffed and had to insist that 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 and where the wedding was being held. Her mother, a very old and very sweet woman, was in her little bedroom at the back of the house. There must’ve been about seven of us crammed into her room. She didn’t speak a word of English so Ha translated for me, but she had a very warm smile. I wish I could’ve understood the song-like sounds of their language but it felt special just sitting on the floor and observing 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 a song over the guitar and I know the Vietnamese just love a good old sing song regardless of what you sound like but my shyness prevailed. I’ll join in with everyone else but unless I’m fuelled with a few 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 near enough 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 are meant to sip shots and I couldn’t help but laugh with rosy cheeks while I explained that everyone drinks shots straight in my culture. As you can see in the picture below the men were also smoking bongs, just with tobacco as far as I’m aware, and they did this all night long. At elevenish we retired to our hotel which was a few minutes walk across the road. It was a small family run place with wooden throne-like furniture in the lobby. Everyone was grouped together, I presume so that costs were kept 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 actually had to share and squeeze into a small double bed which was quite 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 in the middle, started cuddling me and must’ve mistaken me for his mum! 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 lovely though. Thao and I had many conversations about the differences between our cultures when it comes to marriage and family life.
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 so the couple were already married by this point. Today was the day when the groom and his family join the bride and her family to take her to her new home. Everyone stood outside and welcomed them with a big confetti canon. The mothers, who were dressed in exquisite red and gold embellished gowns, exchanged gifts before giving them to the newlyweds. It proceeded with a mini photo shoot before everyone left to go to the party at the grooms family home. Two parties and it wasn’t even midday! Part of the tradition is that the bride’s mother has to stay at home, to essentially let her daughter go into her new life. It was upsetting to see her stood at the door crying while she said bye to her daughter, it didn’t seem fair that she couldn’t join us.The party and lively mood continued 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 thing and a row of sparklers shot up in the air. We jumped out of our seats thinking we’d get burnt. And of course, this was all followed by another huge banquet of food.Going to Ha’s cousin’s wedding was a very 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?’ As soon as I arrived the whole family made me feel so welcome 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.