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!