When I realised five and a half years ago that Vietnamese weddings were occasions where the bride and groom and their families invited guests in numbers that defied belief, I wanted to find out why. In my first months in Hanoi, two invitations were issued to me by students I'd taught only a handful of times. These were not verbal 'off-the-cuff' acts of kindness but genuine best handwriting on official custom designed invitations.
I wasn't able to accept them at the time, not out of mean-spiritness but due to work commitments in a new job in a new country. As a high percentage of Hanoi's population has its origins in provinces both surrounding and far-flung, accepting a wedding invitation often involves several hours in a car or bus on highways where traffic conditions are atrocious - downright hair-raising, in fact. Time spent at the actual celebration can be as little as half an hour!
While I admit that my lack of Vietnamese wedding cred hardly qualifies me to comment or judge, the insight I've gained through the experience of others over the years has lead me, rightly or wrongly, to be deeply cynical about aspects of nuptials in this country. I'm told that the number of wedding guests - which regularly includes all of the bride's and groom's colleagues and friends, parents' friends, colleagues and business associates, siblings friends as well as relatives close and distant - multiplied by the custom of 'money in the envelope' gifts not only assists in paying the wedding expenses, helping the newlyweds get a bit of a start but - in some circumstances - is also used as a pork barrelling instrument. Keeping tabs on who gave what is important when payback time comes.
When I questioned my Vietnamese friends about why I, a distant acquaintance at best, would be invited to the wedding of a student or a friend's friend, knowing glances were exchanged. Apparently, for some families, a foreigner's attendance at a wedding adds a certain status. Teachers, in addition, are still viewed to a certain degree as pillars of the community in this country.
In my growing quest to get a handle on the situation first hand and, hopefully, to dispel some of my cynicism, I recently accepted an invitation. A friend of five years, nearing thirty years of age, was taking up one of the remaining auspicious wedding days in the year of the pig to marry his girlfriend. Both from rural provinces outside of Hanoi, they were not entertaining an additional Hanoi celebration - a trend considered by some as a grab for further cash. A wedding 120 kilometres away, involving at least six hours on the road on a bitterly cold day, ensures family and close friends only, said the groom. One female friend of the groom who was supposed to travel with us pulled out at the last minute, citing "too cold" as the excuse for not being present at her friend's wedding!
First priority on the journey was actually finding the way. Rule of thumb for drivers in Vietnam is head in the general direction of the destination and consider the details later. A convoluted roadtrip, firstly to the bride's family home, involved not only half a dozen stops to ask fruit vendors and motorbike taxi drivers the way but also at least 10 phone calls to the groom himself to explain the "second banana tree on the left" intracacies. Maps of these rural areas are yet to be devised.
Now this is all quite normal and not a reason for alarm, even when all of the proceedings were being held up to allow our presence!
As we pulled up, the local kids both telegraphed our arrival and escorted us along the remaining few metres of village path. An archway of tinsel, the blaring karaoke machine across the barren winter ricefields and a whole village assembled before us made it clear we were in the right place.
The proud groom attired in a smart dark suit greeted us before the collective gaze of the congregation, clad mostly in beanies and coats. A band of teenage boys were providing a form of entertainment by dancing in a circle, one screeching at a karaoke mike. Unfortunately, they became shy once we arrived and - in a sense - became the entertainment.
Thankfully, not for long though.
Within twenty minutes, we were on the road to round two. A couple were getting married, which does tend to get lost - at least from a western perspective - amongst all the cultural variation, an example of which was the groom's mother travelling in the bridal car!!!
Later at the groom's, a destination reached through the use of the same navigation system as before, we did get a chance to fully ogle the bride, which I guess is a universal custom. With spray-on sparkle and orchids adorning her hair, she was in western white - no traditional ao dai, even in the provinces. Speeches were in progress as we were ushered to seats in a tarpaulined alley that leads to the groom's family home. Little plates of watermelon seeds (much hassle for little reward getting those bastards open!), candy that even the kids weren't eating and tiny cups of green tea sustained us while an MC with a reverberating microphone, which was rocking the inside of my head, spoke forth appropraite platitudes and introduced a number of speakers. Grandma spoke, thanking friends and family who'd come from far and wide.
After the words, the bride and groom provided a guard of honour for guests departing early, offering single Vinatabas as parting gifts.
Then we ate.
I suppose the culinary experience is what the focus of this post should have been given that this is a food blog and I do apologise for the fact that it's mutated into social commentary. I'm off my topic!
Relocated to the living room, the wedding reception took place. My friend the groom, who interestingly was not on the speech roster, made visits to all four tables and was congratulated, toasted and gifted. In a brief but enlightening conversation with him, he quietly stated his preference for a small but meaningful celebration.
Plateloads of steamed chicken, sizzling beef, boiled greens, steamed freshwater prawns, crab mince encased in their shell, steamed squid, sticky rice and bamboo and duck broth got stacked on the tiny rented tables. Bia Hanoi, Fanta and ricewine was poured into retro-glassware. A mad quiz show was on the television. Many of the guests were watching it.
Within the hour, back in the car, we were dodging oncoming vehicles on our return to Hanoi. It was all over, red rover. Done. They were hitched. I hope it was meaningful for them.
So...I went to a wedding, in Thai Binh, on a lucky wedding day in January and I'm still trying to process much of it, including the experience of slotting the meat from the dish photographed below into my eating orifice!