Accidental guests at Vietnamese wedding

One of the perks of a homestay experience is the privilege to join in the homestay family’s activities so while my sisters and I were at Sun Homestay in Hoi An recently (Sister Act at Hoi An, NST 30 July 2015), we became accidental guests at a Vietnamese wedding.

The groom's mother fastening gold ear-rings onto the bride's
ear after she presented her with a gold necklace
We are in the lobby waiting for our room to be ready, sipping tea and getting to know Thi To Phuong, their daughter who is the receptionist.  Her mother, Hoi, who doubles up as the housekeeper, join us later and is delighted to learn that we are three sisters.  

When we discover that To Phuong will be getting married on Thursday, they let us admire her album of pre-wedding photos.  When Hoi gives us the wedding invitation and insists that we join the bridal party to go to the bridegroom’s hometown for the wedding banquet, we are stunned!

Speaking halting English with a heavy Vietnamese accent, mother and daughter explain that on Thursday morning, the groom’s family and entourage will come here for the wedding ceremony and the bridal party will return to the groom’s home some 40km away in Quang Nam province.  A wedding ceremony on the groom’s side will be held there before the banquet.  After the meal, we will leave To Phuong with her new family while we return to Hoi An.

Every day during our stay, Hoi and her daughter will serve us our set breakfast and they tell us that because of the wedding, there will be changes for Thursday morning.  They say that instead of the usual leisurely meal served in the front courtyard, breakfast will be sent to our room so that we can eat quickly and join the guests for the wedding ceremony.

At the Bride’s Home

To Phuong and her fiancée, Nguyen Viet Hung, are both working with the homestay but on the wedding eve, Viet Hung is noticeably absent as he’s back home to prepare for their big day.  My sisters and I are having breakfast in the courtyard and discussing what to wear for the wedding because we only packed holiday clothes.  I’m sure our hosts will not mind if we look casual but we agreed to do our best to dress in outfits passable for a wedding.

A wedding archway adorns the entrance to the homestay
Our discussion is interrupted by a commotion outside and we see some wedding decorations being unloaded from a truck.  We swallow our meal quickly to clear the courtyard and let them decorate the space for the special event tomorrow.  When we head out for our walkabout in Hoi An Ancient Town, our agenda that day includes shopping for a suitable gift as a memento from us to To Phuong.

On our return to the homestay, we see the entrance decorated with a wedding archway and banquet tables set out in the lobby and courtyard.  The next morning as arranged, breakfast is sent to our room and we are eating a quick meal while dressing.  When I peek out the window, I can see the bridegroom and his entourage arriving and a hum of activity is happening downstairs. The wedding ceremony is starting earlier!

The homestay lobby is transformed into an event hall with a cloth backdrop against the rear wall, decorated by names of the bride and groom and the ubiquitous heart shape with a Chinese character within that I know means “double happiness.”  Red candles, like the traditional type used for Chinese ceremonies, are lighted on the sideboard and a table in front is laden with a tall basket of fruits, a two-tier wedding cake decorated with the couple’s names and the one above topped by a tiny plastic wedding couple, other gifts elaborately decorated in red as well as a red tray covered by traditional a red basin.

The lobby is transformed into an event hall with two
rows of tables for guests
Guests are seated at two rows of tables in the lobby so we are ushered to sit at a table in the front courtyard where tea is served in elegant cups and saucers.  We are invited to help ourselves to the pastries that look like small chicken pies but I’m distracted by the chorus of clicking sounds as guests crack and chew small red melon seeds or kwa chee, with much dexterity!

The bride, wearing a bright red gown embossed with gold embroidery, is standing next to the groom while an elderly gentleman is speaking.  Even though we don’t know the language, I guess he must be the wedding celebrant, officiating the event with the fathers of the couple as witnesses.  After what I suppose is his pronouncement, the groom lifts the veil that covers the bride’s face but as it’s not their tradition to do so, he did not kiss her!

Hoi’s sister, who’s put in charge of us, is trying to explain in her smattering of English that the gift of gold is a very important aspect of Vietnamese weddings.  All eyes are on the groom’s parents who are presenting the bride with a solid gold hoop-like necklace and the groom’s mother is putting it on her along with a pair of gold ear-rings.  With the ceremony over, the newly-weds and the bridal party are piling into several vans and Hoi’s sister marshals us with, “You come with me!” and we are on our way in a scenic drive to the groom’s home.

At the Groom’s Home

The bride receiving a gift of gold from the groom's relatives
It must be an auspicious date on the Vietnamese calendar because we counted at least fifteen wedding celebrations, marked by colourful tents, along the route.  Driving in a convoy for about 50 minutes, we pass paddy fields and small villages until the van stops by a road.  

I spot colourful buntings billowing on a tent with a decorated archway, typical of wedding celebrations here and recognise the faces in a large portrait of the couple set up on an easel near the entrance.  As I follow the entourage entering the archway, I realise that the tent is like a porch to the open doorway of a shophouse.

From the familiar logo, my sisters and I safely conclude that the groom’s family has a business as a Yamaha dealer.  Hoi’s sister (I forget her name!) ushers us to a table next to the main table where elderly folks are seated.  There are cups of tea and plates of melon seeds on the table and once again, I see the guests cracking red melon seeds and nibbling on kwa chee.

A tent festooned with colourful frills, is our banquet hall
The celebrant, standing with the couple in front of the main table, said a few words of introduction and the presentation of gifts follows.  The couple starts by presenting what appears to be a cake in a box, to his parents.  Then the groom’s relatives each take their turn to present a gift of gold and helps the bride to wear it.  After Hoi’s sister comes back from presenting her gift of gold to the bride, she tells us with a laugh that very soon, the bride’s ten fingers will be covered in gold rings because most people will give her a gold ring!

When all the relatives have given their gifts, the celebrant together with the couple’s parents, goes upstairs for the newly-weds to pay their respects at the groom’s family ancestral altar.  Then Hoi’s sister is ushering us out and when I see others getting into vehicles, I realise that we are going to the wedding banquet at another site.

The Banquet

The appetizer platter
A short drive brings us to a community hall but the banquet is set up in a nearby tent festooned in colourful frills designed to hang from the ceiling in the shape of hearts.  

At least 60 tables are set up under the tent and most are already occupied but we are ushered right to the front and made to sit at the centre table.  I’m feeling rather self-conscious as the front central table is traditionally reserved for the bridal couple and their immediate families but I soon learn that it’s not the practice in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese wedding has many similarities with Chinese weddings especially in the use of red as an auspicious colour to the abundant servings of melon seeds which is a symbol of fertility.  The stage in front is decorated with a backdrop designed with a giant poster of the couple and a montage of their wedding photos.  

Sparkling pyrotechnics from spinning wheels accompanied
the pouring of red wine into a ring of glasses
A Master of Ceremony is speaking loudly into a microphone while a keyboardist is playing music on a portable keyboard which is rigged up to a karaoke system.  I just nodded when Hoi’s sister says she will be singing a few numbers later.

A printed menu is on the table and while Hoi’s sister is doing her best to translate the items for me, the first dish is served.  This platter of a variety of items like shrimps, banana flower salad, meat that looks like otak-otak wrapped in banana leaves, skewers of pork and a side of crispy crackers, is reminiscent of our cold dish appetiser.

Delicious stir-fried pork slices
Other guests at our table are reaching for the food and we helped ourselves too but are appalled to see that it is acceptable here to carelessly dump prawn shells, bones and the skewers on the ground.  Unable to do the same, my sister finds a small plastic bag and we collect our food waste in it.

Then it’s time for the cake-cutting ceremony and wedding toasts.  When the newly-weds cut their cake, I’m startled by sprays of fireworks shooting up from several tubes arranged in front of the stage.  When they pour red wine into a ring of glasses for the toast, it is accompanied by sparkling pyrotechnics from spinning wheels.  And as they raise their glasses for the toast, fireworks come showering down from the ceiling!

This is the way to tear the whole chicken
apart - with gloved hands!  
We recover sufficiently from the sparkling show to eat the next dish of delicious stir-fried sliced pork.  When a whole chicken wrapped in foil is served, we watch with amazement as one of the guests pulled on a pair of plastic gloves (that comes with the dish), unwrapped the chicken and started to tear the bird apart with his hands.  He deftly rearranged the chicken parts on the plate, careful to replace the leafy garnishing and graciously invited us to help ourselves.

The next two dishes – whole squids and sliced beef – are served on metal plates over flames to keep them simmering – until the squid is ready-to-eat and the beef is medium-well – to savour wrapped in salad leaves.  My favourite must be the rich beef stew served with loaves of baguettes, a Vietnamese version of this popular European fare.

Just as in Chinese wedding banquets, the bridal couple also goes from table to table to have a toast with their guests and we are delighted that To Phuong and Viet Hung, and her parents came to raise their glasses with us.  The celebrant tries to speak to us but he’s saying a few French phrases that are quite indistinct probably because he had too many drinks!

The newly-weds and the bride's parents came to our table for a toast to the couple!

The banquet ended with fresh fruits for dessert and a great deal of karaoke singing.  Hoi’s sister kept her word to belt out two songs and we respond by politely applauding her performance.  Besides the interesting food, my sisters and I have much to digest on our return to Hoi An.  
A version of this was published in The New Straits Times, Life & Times on 17 Sept 2015

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