Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Vietnam's Embarrassment Exclusion Zone

 This post was originally published in AsiaLIFE HCMC

I have written before in these pages about the comedic stylings of the Vietnamese, and their favourite subject (me). Vietnamese people seem to find me quite hilarious when I do pretty much anything (say, for example, some crazy activity like buying bananas from the market! ROFL!), but sometimes I find myself in a position where even I am prepared to admit that I must look totally ludicrous.

For example, while cycling through the city the other afternoon I decided that I absolutely had to have a helium-filled balloon shaped like a zebra with multi-coloured stripes. As I tethered that disco zebra to my handlebars, I looked right into his eyes and said, “Wait till they get a load of you.”

A foreigner, on a bicycle, with a balloon! Surely that’s worth pointing and laughing at, right? God knows, if I took that zebra on a spin through the streets of Sydney we’d get a few laughs. 

But did I get so much as a double take? No. As far as everyone around me was concerned, this long-nosed, zebra-toting cyclist was the most normal thing in the world, warranting no special attention whatsoever. I felt strangely miffed. “Laugh at me!!” I wanted to scream. “Why won’t you laugh at me NOW?!!”

Then I realised that for the two years I’ve been living in Vietnam I’ve failed to fully exploit this country’s Embarrassment Exclusion Zone.

I’ve dwelled so much on why it’s apparently so ridiculously hilarious when I try to carry out an everyday task like buying bananas, that I’ve neglected to take advantage of the reverse phenomenon: the ridiculous will actually go unnoticed.

Why on earth aren’t I wearing my pyjamas in the street? Why aren’t I hanging out with the old ladies in the park performing provocative pelvic exercises and slapping myself in the face right now? This is the one time in my life when I can grind my groin into the side of a park bench and not be arrested for indecent behaviour, so why am I still here writing this column?

If you’re a man, you should go, right now, and buy yourself a bright pink motorbike helmet decorated with cartoon unicorns and the words “sweet dreamtime for my special pony”, because this is perfectly acceptable headwear for a man in Vietnam. You can finally express your inner special pony without fear of mockery. This is your time.

If you’re a lady, you should also head to the shops. When you’re there, buy yourself a completely sheer, 100 percent see-through blouse. You won’t have any trouble finding one. And then wear a black bra underneath it, and nothing else. Oh, except for tiny little denim shorts. No-one will bat an eyelid. You could re-enact scenes from “Pretty Woman” with wild abandon and even then no-one would ask you for your hourly rate.

Don’t lift up your transparent blouse to expose your belly though. That’s just for men, silly.

And we should all be singing in public. Loudly. All the time. In taxis, while queuing at the supermarket, in the office, and especially in a café where the waitresses are all singing too. Go on, harmonise with them!

I tested out the Vietnamese indifference to public singing after the zebra incident. I cycled down the street while singing “Rock Lobster” by The B-52’s at the top of my lungs. Nothing. Not a single reaction. Not even when I did the bit about the catfish.

After this you should be fitting right into Vietnam. Locals will praise you for your assimilation and you’ll never be laughed at again. Until you try to buy bananas.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Merry Christmas from Hanoi

Once again it's the time of year when our landlord hangs a Christmas wreath from our front door. This year we'd beat him to it with some decorations of our own, but he was undeterred:
Such is the Vietnamese dedication to Christmas decorations. And they certainly wouldn't let a little thing like not even celebrating Christmas stand in the way of their polystyrene snowmen and saxophonist Santas. 

I've written about the Vietnamese take on Christmas for Crikey, and since 'tis the season for slacking off, I'm going to grant myself a blogging holiday and just point you in the direction of that post: Christmas without the tradition and religion? Welcome to Vietnam

Thanks to everyone who read the blog this year, and especially to those who left comments, which are like little blogging presents under the Christmas tree. Merry Christmas to you all!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

How to get married in Vietnam

Now that we've gotten the boring old photos out of the way, we can move on to the real business: the party. 

Nathan and I have been mildly obsessed with Vietnamese weddings ever since we went to this one a couple of years ago. As we sat there, agog, in our Monday lunch hour, with the miniature bride and groom dancing before us, and the fireworks, and the champagne pyramid, and the exploding balloons, and the golden glitter shower, we knew, as certainly as we've known anything, that when it comes to wedding receptions, the Vietnamese have run away with the game.

There are many beautiful, traditional elements of a Vietnamese wedding which you can read about here. They involve rituals of receiving the bride and groom at their respective family homes over several days, and exchanging elaborate gifts. Now, not being Vietnamese, and not having a Vietnamese family, we're unable to partake in, or truly understand, these traditions. So we cut to the glittery, sparkly chase with our Vietnamese wedding plans and just had the reception. Champagne pyramid, here we come.

The first step was choosing a date. In Vietnamese culture the bride and groom attend a fortune teller to learn the most fortuitous date to hold their wedding, which is how you can end up with your wedding on a Monday lunch-time. Being Tays, who love advance planning, and scheduling, and weekends, we decided to set our own lucky date on the most fortuitous Saturday that happened to most fortuitously fit in best with our schedules. November 26: sounds lucky to you, right?

Next step, the invitations. As with everything else in Hanoi, wedding invitations are all sold on the one street - Hàng Gà - in the Old Quarter. In a similar vein to choosing a wedding dress most like a Long Island iced tea, we wanted to find the invitation that had the most stuff on it, therefore offering the best value for money. 

Behold, the winner:
Check out the ROI on that sucker. These invites, with printing inside included, cost 15,000 VND (72c) each. That's 36 cents per duck. Put that in your business case and smoke it.

Then we bought the other most important things: the heart-shaped moneybox, and the glitter cannons:
Did I kind of want to get into a traffic accident just for the resultant glitter explosion? I would be lying if I said no.

At this point in our Vietnamese wedding planning we realised that planning a Vietnamese wedding was almost as hard as planning an Australian wedding. Only all in Vietnamese. So we turned to professional help. Funnily enough, the Vietnamese wedding planners, WedinStyle, told us they'd never organised the kind of reception we were after - a typical Vietnamese one. They noted that their middle-class Vietnamese clientele usually want a Western-style wedding reception, and yet here we were, Westerners, wanting a Vietnamese one. It's a funny old world, isn't it?

We were then presented with a list of wedding elements from which we could pick and choose. It became apparent to me that the organisers of that first wedding we'd been to had waved their hands at that list and said "We'll take the lot".

The first element we chose was an enormous blue tent, to block the entire street. Having been the victim of large street-blocking blue tents many times over the past couple of years, it filled me with pride that I could now look out the window and sigh, "Right there, that's our enormous blue tent blocking the entire street":
If you remember the post on What I See From Our Window, you'll recognise its placement:
Damn straight. That bin has a special place in our hearts, and we wouldn't want our wedding anywhere else than right there.

And if you remember the post on the cockfighting festival that happens on our street, you'll recognise this view from our other window:
It just so happened that the local pagoda's bi-annual cockfighting tournament was also on November 26. And that, my friends, is why you should go to a fortune teller to choose your wedding date. Because if you don't, they'll use their magic powers on you in the way you least expect.

Cockfighting wasn't one of the things we picked from the list of wedding options, but it added a certain je ne sais quoi to the day. And it made those hipsters who have weddings in rustic barns, sitting on bales of straw, look like total pussies. Bet those bales of straw aren't covered in chicken blood. Nope, didn't think so.

For some reason, the tent was constructed the night before the wedding and we had to pay Dung, the security guy from Simon and Sarah's old building, to guard it, and the balloon arch, all night. The sound of balloons spontaneously popping intermittently throughout the entire night will forever remind me - and no doubt Dung - of the precious joy of marriage. We also had to pay the security guard from the cockfighting festival to stop punters weeing on our tent. You really have to watch out for those hidden costs when it comes to weddings. I immediately added "wee-prevention guy" to the budget for our Australian wedding.

Back to the balloon arch, which was the next thing we chose from the wedding inventory. No matter where your wedding reception is being held in Vietnam, the balloon arch is compulsory.

Also compulsory, your name in polystyrene letters:
We actually got to choose that backdrop design from a number of options. It was the melon that won us over.

You'll see there the stereo system, which we needed to have because extremely loud nineties techno is, in all seriousness, the traditional soundtrack to wedding receptions in Vietnam. I don't know why this is, but it is. Who doesn't love a bit of 2 Unlimited at 10:30am?

Obviously the champagne pyramid was also a must-have for us:
There is actually a whole separate guy just in charge of the champagne pyramid. He arrived direct from another wedding where he'd been working his champagne pyramid magic. We got to keep his dry ice in our freezer, which was actually pretty exciting.

The caterers then arrived:
And somehow prepared food for 150 people in our laundry, which was amazing.

Then they crammed the tent with plastic stools and tables. No, incorrect. First, they crammed our laundry with plastic stools and tables:
Then they crammed the tent:
Does that not look awesome?

You'll see here the sign which was specially stuck up for the cockfighting festival:

Then the beer arrived:
Yay for our chairs!

Then everyone arrived, including us:
That is Ashton and Huong, who were our awesome MCs for the day. Huong also gave us critical input into how the event should be run. She said we needed a representative from our families to give a toast, but we explained this wouldn't be possible:

Us: We don't have family here.
Huong: I see. What is the job of the Australian Ambassador?
Us: Umm, he represents Australia?
Huong: Does he represent everyone in Australia?
Us: Umm, yes?
Huong: Are your parents in Australia?
Us: Umm.... yes?
Huong: Well, there you go. He can give the toast for your parents.

And so he did. In Vietnamese, pretty much outclassing our parents. Nathan's boss Richard and colleague Ms Ha also gave speeches, which were suitably embarrassing to Nathan, and therefore extremely enjoyable for me.

Then we cut the cake!
Which is easier said than done, because as you'll see from this "after" photo:
...the cake is actually mostly polystyrene.

And then, the champagne pyramid with simultaneous glitter bombs!
And then eating and drinking!
And then it was all over!
The next day, the only evidence that it even happened at all, was this:
An unfortunate balloon cock and balls.

One of the many reasons that a Vietnamese wedding reception is better than a typical Australian one in my book is this intensity. Every year when I'm watching the New Year's Eve fireworks, I can't help but think how much better it would be if they just let them all off at once. A Vietnamese wedding reception does just that. It's exciting, it's loud, it's colourful, it's frenetic. At no point do you think, "Geez, this is really dragging on a bit". It's also a neighbourhood event that centres around your home and involves the community, as any event with an enormous tent which blocks the entire street tends to. Our neighbours were stopping us to say, simply, "Happy!" for days afterwards.

Many of our Vietnamese guests commented that our wedding party was "old style", as receptions are increasingly held in large function centres or restaurants. I guess our preference for the older, street style is just another example of the Stuff White People Like phenomenon of Westerners looking backwards (barns, anyone?) while the Vietnamese look ever onwards and upwards. To me, there's real spirit in having everyone in such close confines, and all mustered right outside your very house. I would do the exact same thing for our Australian wedding if we could, but the council permits alone just don't bear thinking about.

The novelty of a couple of Tays hosting a traditional Vietnamese event did not pass unnoticed. I was interviewed about it for VTC on their English-language show "Sharing Vietnam", and the lovely Giap did a piece about it, also for VTC, which in three minutes conveys the ambiance of the day much better than all these words:

Thank you to everyone who came, and who helped with organising, and also James and Monica for most of the photos in this post. And special thanks to Tamara and Mags for hosting the after-party. We called in so many favours to make this happen that we'll have to stay in Vietnam another two years to pay them back.

Looking out our window today, you'd never think this was the site of one of the most fun days of our life:
Now all that's left is, as the Vietnamese say, one hundred years of happiness.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Our Vietnamese wedding photos

Last weekend, Nathan and I held a Vietnamese pre-wedding celebration on our street. It was unspeakably awesome, and you'll hear all about it in good time, but to keep things chronological, you'll have to hear about our wedding photos first. 

That's right, wedding photos first. Here in Vietnam, couples get the business of photos out of the way several weeks before the actual wedding takes place. It's a genius move which means you don't have that weird, disruptive gap in the wedding day where the bride and groom disappear with the photographer, and it also means you can display the wedding photos and wedding album to your guests on the day. What better place to show your wedding photos than at your wedding.

Vietnam is a nuptials-loving nation, with more wedding-dress shops per capita than any other country (probably). What I didn't know until I went into one of these shops myself is that they're not actually wedding-dress shops, they're Bride Factories. You don't go in there to buy a wedding dress, you go in there to come out a perfectly-packaged bride. The dresses are only the piped, meringue icing on the enormous multi-tiered cake. 

For example, I was a Golden Package II bride. This was the second-to-cheapest bride I could be, which we figured was like the tried-and-tested method of ordering the second-to-cheapest wine on the menu. For Golden Package II we paid $193 and got:

- Two photo sessions in the studio
- One outdoor photo session at one of Hanoi's second-most-romantic locations
- Three dresses 
- Two suits
- Two hair-dos
- Make-up
- One 25 x 25 photo album with 45 photos
- Two huge block-mounted prints
- 2 DVD slideshows of all our photos set to the accompaniment of Westlife's second-most-romantic songs
- The journey of a lifetime. 

The journey of a lifetime started at 8:30am on a Saturday, with our long-suffering friend Huong (who took almost all of these photos), and about three bazillion other couples:
While waiting to begin our transformation from Normal People into Bride and Groom, we practiced some of the romantic poses we'd seen in the sample photo albums, like Fingers of Love:
And The Sniff, where you appear to lovingly smell your odorous partner:
Looking at that photo, you might think we needed more work than Golden Package II could provide. How could we ever compete with this, for example:
Aww! Maybe they were one of the couples who, judging by this schedule, had arrived at five o'clock in the morning:
The next stage of the journey for me - and three bazillion other brides - was make-up:
This guy was an absolute artiste. He didn't even charge extra for the foundation required to spack-fill my schnoz which is approximately twenty-eight times the size of a Vietnamese nose:
Next step, the dress:
Continuing the alcohol-shopping theme, I decided to run with the same method I employ when choosing cocktails: value for money. I was looking for the Long Island iced tea of wedding dresses, and I found it:
It had a three-metre train. Hells yeah:
Nathan then found the perfect suit to match:
 Next step, hair (but sadly, not for Nathan):
These women were scarily good at their job. They were turning out approximately one perfectly-coiffed bride per seven minutes:
Hands came out of nowhere to sprinkle me with accessories and then, I was ready to cross the most important threshold of my life. I was ready to be spat out of the Bride Factory as... 
A Bride:
For our "on location" shoot we chose the Metropole, which was excellent value as it included the little park next to the hotel and Hoan Kiem Lake nearby.

Something told me that we weren't the only couple to have made this decision:
There was actually a poor beleaguered security guard stationed near the hotel's entrance, trying to shoo the brides away like pigeons:
That couple sitting at the hotel's cafe there had obviously paid extra for the privilege. Maybe that came with Golden Package III.

It turns out that a white dress with a three-metre train isn't a very practical fashion choice for Hanoi. As we moved from photo-op to photo-op, my dress dragged along the ground, collecting more and more of Hanoi with it along the way. At one point it had accumulated - along with a not inconsiderable amount of dirt - an old lottery ticket, some chicken feathers and the plastic wrapper from a straw. I half expected to turn around and see I was dragging along a family having hotpot.
The state of the dress wasn't helped by the fact the photographer's assistant actually submerged it in the fountain to hold it in place for the first photo:
And then he and Nathan trampled all over it, like I was some kind of human picnic blanket:
Now, what's that you can see there? Is that maybe Nathan wearing the sexiest shoes you have ever seen? Only five sizes too small? Let's have a closer look:
Get me to the conjugal bed immediately!

With shoes like that, we were obviously going to attract a bit of attention:
This poor old guy was just sitting by the lake, eating his sandwich, when we turned up:
Nathan and I, and Sandwich Guy, are in there somewhere:
The strain of being beautiful and famous was taking its toll, so we paused for a break at this point. Just like they say on Next Top Model, modeling is really hard, you know? 

Here are some of the fruits of our labours from this part of the day:
I'll have you know that some Vietnamese friends who saw these photos said I looked "very Korean", which, you'll recall, is the highest compliment a bride could receive.

After our break came our first costume change. Right there. Beside the lake. A special lady from the wedding shop turned up to Make This Happen, and even though I was one of those girls in high school who could get changed for PE without revealing any part of my body, she took this skill to a whole new level:
And then, job done, she vanished, presumably to assist another bride in a state of undress elsewhere. Let me tell you, if you need to put a bra on without removing your clothes, this woman is your man. 

Our next look was traditional Vietnamese bride and groom, the outfits for which we had tailor-made for the wedding:
The onlookers went mental for it, with Vietnamese teenage girls literally queuing up to shove me aside and have their photo taken with Nathan. Who can blame them? It's quite rare to see a guy - even a Vietnamese guy - in the man version of the ao dai these days, whereas I just looked like the Vietnamese Airlines cardboard cut-out lady who lurks around travel agents and airports all over Vietnam:
At one point a young Vietnamese man came up to us and said "Wow! You look... you look... I don't know what to say!" which completely sums up the whole experience of being a Tay in an ao dai. People love it in the way that they love seeing a monkey wearing a waistcoat and little pants.
See that photo there where I'm holding my ear? This was a pose which was requested by the photographer repeatedly:
I reckon The Ear Tug is the new Heart of Fingers. You read it here first.

With our outdoor shoot finished, we headed back to the wedding shop for the studio photos. This meant another costume change, but disappointingly in a change-room this time. For my studio photo outfits I decided to focus on this part of the wedding shop:
Which led me, naturally, to this:
I swear I had a Barbie with an almost identical dress. And as Barbie has long hair, so must I:
The studio has a number of backdrops and romantically-themed props:
Our first set-up was a classic school formal backdrop with a touch of flora and fauna:
You know why I'm smiling like that? Because that's how someone wearing a tiny little crown smiles. Fact.

And then, having nailed the Ice Skating Beauty Queen Barbie look, we moved right on to the next transformation, which meant another visit to the change room:
One of my concerns before doing these photos was that the shop wouldn't have any dresses that fit a Tay-sized bride. Thankfully almost all of the dresses lace up at the back so you can simply force your back-fat inside. And surprisingly, these dresses are actually really large. Much too large for most of the Vietnamese brides, who are wearing them with folds of fabric pinned and sewn to hold them into place. They also accommodate an enormous bust - much larger than mine, and certainly much larger than the average Vietnamese boobies - which explains the piles of these seen throughout the shop:
There's also a lot of smoke-and-mirrors going on with the hair-dos. This is the front of my third hairstyle, which I like to call The Southern Belle:
And this is the back, which I like to call The Rat King:
 But what does that matter when you've got a set like this:
For this shoot we had a different photographer to the one who did our outdoor photos, yet he asked us to do an almost identical pose to this one, where we pretend look at the amazing photos Nathan has pretended to take: 
Except it makes less sense when the camera you're pretending to look at is a pretend old-fashioned movie camera:
We pretended we had been sent back in time to share knowledge of the digital age. 

Probably because we were such good actors, we got an extra few shots with a new, uber-romantical backdrop:
For our final photo of the day, we gave it everything we've got, and sniffed like our lives depended on it:
My, how far we'd come:
In only... 8.5 hours.

And while we were now ready to leave the Bride Factory, the work was far from done. Scores of youths would spend hours Photoshopping us to perfection:
Bleaching our skin porcelain white, copying the gaps between our teeth to make them all perfectly symmetrical, and even going so far as to make our irises completely identical. The photos you've seen here are all the pre-Photoshop versions, as we only have the finished products in our album and on our DVD slideshow, so you'll just have trust me on this one.
Then the photos are all laid out in the album. It is a masterpiece in itself, featuring some pretty choice romantic quotes:
This page is my favourite:
Is it by accident or design that it says "Tay In Love" instead of "Stay in Love"? We'll never know, so let's just assume it was custom-made for us Tays.

And what led the designer to print on this page - very faintly in the middle there - the lyrics to the song "Baby I Love You" by J. Lo, featuring that King of Romance himself, R. Kelly:
The lyrics in question read as follows: 

Blessed and cursed on the same day
The day that I first felt the power of you inside of me
Such a strong feeling
There comes a time in everyone's life
When you know that everyone around you knows
That everything has changed, you're not the same.


Finally, you pick up your block-mounted prints and voila, you're all set for your wedding day:
But more on that later.

If you live in Vietnam, I strongly recommend taking this Journey of a Lifetime. It is guaranteed to be the most fun you can have for $193. I so much prefer these photos to the western style of wedding photos, which are super staged and super generic, but trying to pretend they're not. Vietnamese wedding photos are super staged and super generic and totally owning it. And sure, the style is sometimes camp, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to act out your fairytale fantasies. Are you going to go low-key with that? Hell, no!

The no-nonsense way in which everything was carried out made a mockery of the pseudo-specialness with which the western wedding industry imbues all wedding-related matters, just so they can charge you more. When I call it a Bride Factory, it's not meant to be denigrating, quite the opposite: the whole process hums along like a beautifully-oiled machine, and everyone involved is a total pro. You know when we were given the photos back? The next day. Amazing.

You don't have to be getting married, or even be in a relationship, to do a photo shoot as there are plenty of non-wedding dresses, and a bunch of girls would probably have more fun than with guys anyway. The guys get pretty gypped actually, with fewer costume changes and none of the hair and make-up fun. Instead, they spend a lot of time doing this:
But you'll definitely need to have a long-suffering Vietnamese-speaker with you for the whole day, to whom, after 8.5 hours of "Look at the camera. Look at the flowers. Look at each other. Hold your ear", you will be eternally indebted:
Along with three bazillion other brides, we used the services of Moza at 212 Ba Trieu.

Happy sniffing and snapping!