Editor's note:The story is written by Ray Kuschert, an Australian who has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for nine years. He married his Vietnamese wife last year.
Your first sight of a bride at the wedding is often a breathtaking moment in any country. In fact, the cultures and customs of weddings across the world vary in so many ways and Vietnam is no exception. But what can you expect from your first Vietnamese wedding?
As I sat in the corner listening to 'Beautiful in White' for the seventh time, I looked around the room and realized what a spectacle of culture the Vietnamese wedding really is for an expat.
There are two styles of wedding that you might find yourself being part of when you live in this country. The first is the professional wedding reception venue, where you are part of a systematic and well-prepared event. The other is the countryside wedding, which is my favorite, where a tent is set up in the street and people hold the event at the home of the bride or groom. However, it is how a wedding comes together that makes it so special.
Well before the bride appears in that special white dress, and later a red dress, the legal aspects of the wedding happen with no fanfare at all. When the couple decide to marry, they must apply for a marriage license at the local government office. The signing of the official license is completed at the desk in the same office that processes land sales, business licenses and a host of other functions, and all around 100 strangers who are there doing business.
Next comes the other part that few foreigners get to see. Whether it is religious or traditional, the wedding day starts with a home ceremony. However, only family and the very closest of friends are invited. The traditional process is held at the home of the bride where the groom and his family bring gifts and the couple are brought together as husband and wife. This is followed by the families offering special gifts to the couple, usually money or gold jewelry.
The final aspect of the Vietnamese wedding is the part most expats see. The country is littered with wedding reception venues and sometimes large restaurants and hotels that double as a wedding venue.
Most wedding invitations are handed out by the bride or groom a week or two before the event. When you read it, look carefully at the invitation. Whatever the start time is on the invitation will be wrong. For example, if the wedding says “5:00 pm” don’t expect it to start any time before 6:30 pm. Plan to arrive about an hour after the stated time.
When you arrive at the venue, the bride and groom will be standing at the front of the hall with the photographers. This may be on the ground floor or upper floors if it’s a multi-story venue. You are expected to welcome the couple and take an 'official' photo at the same time.
|A photo shows a delegation from the groom's side bringing wedding presents to the bride's house as part of their wedding's ceremony in southern Vietnam. Photo: Ray Kuschert|
On a table near the bride and groom will be a box being minded by someone. This is for the wedding gift. Invitations are designed to double as envelopes for money. Normally money is expected as a gift in Vietnam. Unlike many Western countries, bought gifts are not part of the customs of this country.
The biggest question is how much you give? The minimum is VND500,000 if it is just a casual acquaintance. If you are attending with a partner, and it is a reasonably good friend or close work associate, VND1 million is a good gift. If you are very close to the bride or groom, then the amount to offer can go up to VND5 million or more, depending on your relationship and consideration. (US$1 = VND22,850)
After an eternal wait, mainly for the latecomers, the bride and groom are introduced with their respective parents. A small ceremony takes place, which usually lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. Here, the people are introduced, congratulated, and toasted. Then they cut the wedding cake and pour champagne into a pyramid of wine glasses filled with a chemical to make them smoke up as the wine cascades through the glasses. Before you know it, the loud music is on and it's all over.
With the bridal party barely off the stage, the food is brought out by the young waitstaff. Whilst the food types do vary slightly, the basic delivery is very common across all weddings. There will be a number of courses. You will start with small entree type dishes, or maybe soup. Then you will move onto something similar to BBQ food with chicken, shrimp or pork being the most popular, and you may get more than one of these during the meal.
After a succession of dishes where you barely get a chance to finish one before the next appears, the traditional Vietnamese hotpot is placed on the table. You will know when the night is winding up when the hotpot arrives at the table. This will always be the last dish offered for the night. There will be a small dessert item but that will often come out with, or just after the hotpot.
This is where the surprises really start to happen. The karaoke goes quiet, the beer stops being delivered, you look over your shoulder to find half the room empty. The wedding that takes almost two hours to get going is over in the blink of an eye. It really is unbelievable.
So the wedding that starts at 5:00 pm on the invitation actually starts closer to 7:00 pm and you need to get there about 6:30 pm for a 5:00 pm start. Once going, there is 15 minutes of ceremony then 90 minutes of frantic drinking and eating. Then, just two hours after you arrive, you are on your way home. That is the tradition of the Vietnamese wedding.
No matter the surprises, drinking beers, eating the same food or the same songs at every wedding, sitting in a wedding venue, for me, is a feeling that constantly makes me smile. It’s a sign of acceptance, a sign of friendship and a sign that you are appreciated as an expat living in this mazing country.
'Beautiful in White' rolls through my mind again and again, but it doesn’t make me angry. Like a chant from a Buddhist monk it gives me peace and happiness that says, for two hours, I am part of a group of good people and I am accepted as one of them. It’s a special feeling.
If you haven’t experienced a Vietnamese wedding yet, when you finally get the opportunity make sure you sit back and watch the culture in its raw beauty. Listen to the songs and feel the happiness of people together. Take photos and share them but most of all, appreciate that you have been invited to experience a cultural event that brings people together in happiness. And yes, the bride does look beautiful in white.