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.


  1. Awesome!
    I'm betting the Vina Tourism Board is plotting to get a hold of footages from that VTC clip to use in their next "Charming Vietnam" campaign right now. Get your wedding photos copyrighted asap!
    Chúc các bạn trăm năm hạnh phúc.

  2. I guffawed at the "murmuring", but the last line of the video had me bellowing, shrieking and crying with laughter.

    Bless your clumsy ways!

  3. a) OMG you bought those glitter bombs? How did this go unnoticed. How much? Where? You must bring some for Jan. I will set them off for you!

    b) At Subsonic there was a guy pushing his kid in a wheelbarrow. I was at Eveleigh markets on the weekend and a guy was pulling his kid in a cart. Suck on that.

    c) THAT VIDEO WAS AWESOME. You are a personality.

  4. Yes indeed, the last line: "It would be more fun to have children to travel with, wouldn't it?" So the pressure's on kids. It's been on TV now, so it must be true!

    I wish I could have been there to share the fun, but Nathan's boss Richard has far better Vietnamese language skills than anything I could muster, so just as well he took on the job.

    One hundred years of happiness sounds like a perfect blessing. I'll second that!

  5. Awesome guys, would have loved to have been there!


  6. Robert: Haha thanks! I've been giving Nathan grief for his "Vietnam is so beautiful" comment. Straight from the script of a tourism campaign, that one.

    Karen: Isn't it awesome? I kind of like the sinister note it strikes too. There were many, many, many mentions of our future children at the wedding. Many.

    Jodeska: How did you not notice the SIX exploding glitter bombs at the wedding?! And I don't think you'd be able to cycle them in to Australia. Or get them in any other way either.

    Buster: It's actually the Ambassador who has the Vietnamese skills, to give credit where it's due. Richard has excellent wife jokes though. And I'm sure you can brush up on a few Vietnamese words for our Australian wedding, right?

    Simon: Yes, we're having two weddings and you're missing both of them. You guys totally suck.

  7. Fantastic. Love the video.

    You could have proposed this as your ayad assignment - great outcomes and the monthly stipdend would have just covered your costs ;)

  8. This is awesome!
    And you got on TV with all your lovely nervousness!
    It's seriously the best wedding EVER. Suck on that Kate Middleton!


  9. Lani: True! I think this experience was a better cultural exchange than any AYAD assignment!

    Martin: Thank you! Yes, our lovely nervousness! And I'm also a huge fan of Ashton's comment about how "special" we are, as Nathan demonstrates exactly that it in the background (2:06 or so).

    I think what summed it up for me in the video was "nathan's way of thinking is sometimes more Vietnamese than the Vietnamese!" :)
    Michael P

  11. Yes, I think that pretty much represents Nathan's proudest moment in life! He's totally gone native.

  12. Murmuring is definitely the key to happy marriage.

    Love it. All of it.



  13. I too love the way the presenter managed to slip in the old "have a baby soon" message. When Brendon and I left Vietnam we took home dozens of cards and messages from his old KOTO students, almost all of them ending with something along the lines of "I wish you will quickly have baby". Awesome.

  14. PS Tabitha you looked beautiful :)

  15. Vickie: Excellent, because I sure do love murmuring!

    Emeline: My heart goes out to any couples in Vietnam who don't want or can't have children. So much pressure! And thank you! As the video says, I was "hot and beautiful". Rad.

  16. super impressed..
    you guys ;)

  17. Oh congratulations!! Your wedding looked brilliant! And I LOVE the reporter's take on the day- so poetic! The way you 'murmur' to each other, the 'lovely nervousness' of it all.
    Plus the random techno soundtrack- that was ace.
    Hope the Australian wedding goes as well. Love to you both xx

  18. As always, you capture moments eloquently and hilariously! I hope, had we still been there, that we would have been counted as part of the lucky 150 who got to sit on those little bia hoi chairs! Cam and I are super thrilled for you both! Sonia (formerly of Tran Phu)

  19. You had the Ambassador at your wedding! Nice one.

  20. Thanks Aladar. We aim to please.

    Christy: I think one of the reasons a Vietnamese wedding is over so quickly is everyone's escaping the techno. Good luck with your wedding preparations (it's not in a barn, is it?)!

    Sonia: Thanks Son! There would definitely have been a chair with your name on it! And I'm pretty sure Emilio would have been up on the stage busting a move with the other kids. Hope you guys are all well!

    Datakid: That's how we roll. Diplomatically.

  21. We may be getting married in a barn.... :) No hay though!

  22. I love your wedding! And I love you two, from afar, without even knowing you.

    That reporter did a lovely job. A few of my favourite lines have already been mentioned - the murmuring, the fact that it would be nicer having children travel too, wouldn't it? - but I also liked how he called you both clumsy for the way you cut the cake and poured the champagne fountain...

    What a grand day! I hope your Australian wedding (when will it be?) proves as memorable.

    How did you pose the question of giving a speech at your wedding to the ambassador?

    And will you snaffle the Vietnamese ambassador to Australia to talk when you marry here?


  23. Christy: Hahahahaha... whoopsies! :)

    Sam: Awww shucks! Our Australian wedding is going to be at the end of January in Newtown. Maybe it will inspire me to revive Nosey in Newtown for one post only. And as for getting the Vietnamese Ambassador to speak - THAT IS AN AMAZING IDEA! I'll get Nathan on to it immediately.

  24. Oh my gosh! You guys were totally stunning and awesome! Big congratulations!

    As a Vietnamese, I don't even understand where the pressure of "having a baby soon" comes from. The only reason I can come up with is because in Vietnam, having a child is like successfully completing you marriage life. In fact, you can hardly see a Vietnamese childless family. To dig deeper, this is quite a big difference between Tay culture and Vietnamese culture. I know that in the former, having babies means raising them to be independent grownups. But here in a interdependent Vietnamese culture, when you have kids, you sorta expect them to pay their gratitude by taking care of you when you get old, just like how you take care of them when they were infants and children. That caring shows their duty and love for families as grownups. Isn't that sweet?

  25. Amazing wedding Tabitha! Congratulations - love the colours and the champagne tower x

  26. Dear Tabitha, I am a newcomer to your very entertaining and interesting blog, and I'm now reading my way right through it, in reverse order. I am now committed to trying to persuade my husband that after 34 years of marriage, we should totally head for Hanoi and do the wedding all over again!!!!


  27. Chi: Thanks for your comment! I find the different attitude to children here so interesting, and I constantly waver between thinking it's better or worse than the typical Western attitude. I'm glad that I don't have that pressure to procreate, though! My ovaries would immediately shrivel up in fear.

    Arti: Thank you! Still, nothing beats an Indian wedding for colour and excitement, does it?

    Jenny: Great idea! Isn't the traditional anniversary gift for 34 years of marriage a polystyrene cake? I believe it is. Thanks for commenting, and I'm glad you're enjoying the blog!

  28. I would dare to say none of the sides (Viet or Tay) is better or worse. It's just the matter of difference. Difference in background leads to difference in attitude. Not in terms of any research conducted, I have a feeling Vietnamese parents (as well as Asian parents in general)have more difficulties bringing up their children, compared to Western parents. Asian countries are much less developed. If you ever read any articles about to what extent Vietnamese parents would do to overcome poverty to get their kids to universities, you would be moved to tears!

  29. I'm loving reading these blog posts. Sooo fun. Keep up the good work Tabitha.

  30. I somehow missed this up until now. which makes me wonder how I've managed for the last 4 months! great post, but very, very, very special video. did the video miss the special wedding dance, though?

    1. Julie-Anne, you'll be saddened to hear there was no traditional Vietnamese wedding dance. Although there was lots of very bad, champagne-fuelled dancing later.

  31. Vietnam's culture is so rich I think I want to witness a real wedding there. I've seen Long Island weddings and they're as lovely as this one.


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