The Wedding Shoe Shuffle

Posted on January 20, 2011

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After all the effort of booking flights and hotels, acquiring visas and catching a taxi at 6am to get to the wedding, I missed the main event. And probably ruined the private family ceremony, my blunders captured for eternity by the official photographer and the official videographer.

I spent all day waiting around, chasing an overly-energetic Miss M and trying to deal with a cascade of wardrobe malfunctions. And wrestling with my shoes.

Vietnamese weddings are very different to Western weddings. There are a series of ceremonies that I have only the vaguest of ideas about. There are gifts that must be exchanged and tea that must be drunk. The final event is the big wedding party. I’ve been to several wedding parties and they all follow a very strict formula. After two hours, the checklist is complete and the wedding venue staff start packing up the tables, no matter whether the guests have finished their meals or not.

Darling Man was obliged to attend this particular wedding, after committing the dire filial sin of missing the last family wedding because he was sitting beside my hospital bed in Australia, squeezing my hand and waiting for our daughter to be born. His other married brother eloped so Darling Man had never actually been involved in the family ceremony part of a wedding — a point he didn’t get around to making until it was too late.

The day before the wedding was tiring — leaving our house in Singapore mid-morning and arriving at his brother’s house in Ho Chi Minh City mid-evening (via my old hairdresser who laughed at my ridiculously bad Singaporean cut and colour then kindly fixed it). We spent hours in a taxi that night to attend a friend’s birthday party, getting home after 11pm. Then, on the big day, we were woken at 5am. Neither Darling Man or I had given much thought to how we would prepare ourselves and the baby — and the baby’s bottles — in the dark while dopey and sleepy. But somehow we stumbled through. I climbed into the taxi, fully made up in my silk wrap dress, holding a tousle-headed sleeping baby, still in her pjyamas. For the baby, we had a change of clothes, milk powder, boiled water, sterilized bottles, shoes, a comb, sunscreen, mosquito repellent, nappies and wipes. At the last minute I threw a tube of lipstick in her bag. If only I’d thrown in a change of clothes AND SHOES for myself the day would have been so much more enjoyable.

I had no idea what would happen once we finally got to Darling Man’s parents’ house, about two hours drive from Ho Chi Minh City. The logistics of getting there were so complicated I didn’t spare a thought to the events of the day. I knew there’d be food and lots of drunk uncles proposing toasts. I suspected there’d be karaoke, as there was at Darling Man’s cousin’s wedding a few years ago. That time I’d arrived in shorts and was paraded past all the wedding guests in my crumpled traveling clothes to get changed into my party dress. I was about eight weeks pregnant and the dress was tight in strange places. I wasn’t going to let that happen again, and that’s why I traveled in my silk wrap dress to Darling Man’s brother’s wedding.

Ahh, the dress. Standing in front of the mirror it looked fine. A bit tighter, perhaps, than last time I wore it, pre-pregnancy. But totally fine. Bend down to pick up a baby and the silk slips and slides and the whole thing gapes where it should drape. A baby that wriggles and grips makes things worse. All in front of conservative female family members who tut-tutted and their husbands who ogled and smirked and pretended they were looking at the baby.

“Your dress,” Darling Man said, helpfully, pointing to the newly plunging neckline, which exposed my very unglamorous beige sports bra, as I bent down AGAIN to assist the baby down the steps AGAIN. Each exciting foray up and down the two little steps required me to put my shoes on for the outward journey and take them off for the inward attempt. They were strappy high heels. It was ungainly. It was hot.  It was a bit hard to stay serene.

Meanwhile, all about me people milled about looking purposeful. I had no idea what was going on. Old ladies were disappearing into the back room to iron ao dais (the graceful Vietnamese long tunic and pants combination). Men were back there too, wrestling with ties and jackets. Younger female relatives were going in and out. A gaggle of uncles were drinking beer and eating biscuits in Darling Man’s parents’ restaurant, which was set up as an entertainment area. Children were running around screaming and holding mock kung fu fights in the courtyard between the house and the restaurant. After a lot of negotiating, someone found me a safety-pin, which pulled a thread in the front of my lovely silk dress.

As well as the stairs, Miss M was fascinated with the fish pond. And with generally standing in the way of anyone who needed to move. By 10am I was exhausted. At 11am I was cranky. And sunburnt. At 11.30 the bride whisked past and disappeared into the back room with the old ironing ladies. The groom bustled by, looking tired and stressed. It seemed like something was about to happen.

At one point I looked up from my baby chasing duties to see Darling Man’s parents lighting incense at their ancestors’ altar.

I looked up again and the bride and groom were lighting incense, under the flash and glare of the photographer’s and videographer’s equipment. Kids were still running around, an assortment of suited men were drinking in the restaurant and Darling Man was having a very loud conversation about fish. I asked him what was going on. “Just the family ceremony,” he said, switching to English. “Shouldn’t you be quiet?” I asked.

“Oh yeah,” he said, then loudly told everyone around him to pipe down.

I was trying to watch the ceremony from near the fish pond, while keeping hold of Miss M. I couldn’t quite see what was going on. Then Darling Man’s Dad called me over. And Miss M. She was tired and hot and right at that instant she didn’t want to be picked up. She was pushing me away and complaining as I was summoned to the middle of the room. I couldn’t even begin to decipher the Vietnamese that flowed around me. Darling Man was standing next to me. He took his new sister-in-law’s hand and said something. He took his brother’s hand. I tried to stop the baby falling head-first onto the tiles.

“Speak English,” Darling Man’s father suddenly ordered me, as the videographer stuck his camera in my face.

The bride, resplendent in a white wedding gown and upswept hair, smiled at me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.” She looked worried. Shit. This had to be bad luck, a foreigner bumbling into a wedding ceremony. Someone was ordered to rush into the back room and get another *something*. I missed the word. Maybe ring. The bride had about eight wedding bands jammed onto her ring finger.

“Good luck and congratulations and … you look beautiful,” I said to the bride and clumsily shook the groom’s hand. The baby lunged backward, putting extra strain on the safety pin holding the top part of my dress together. I realised I was still wearing my high heels, making me a full head and shoulders taller than everyone else in the room. With the very real possibility my grungy beige sports bra would be presented to the happy couple, right at eye level, I exited, stage right, down the steps and into the courtyard.

Darling Man resumed his loud conversation about the fish. I elbowed him. “Why didn’t you tell me what to do?” I hissed, not caring if his fish-conversation partner could understand. “I don’t know what to do,” he said. “I’ve never been to a wedding ceremony before.” No time to argue, the baby was off again, heading towards the parked motorbikes.

The bride bustled past. The seated beer and biscuit drinkers became animated. Family members were moving, purposeful once again.

“To the restaurant,” Darling Man’s father announced, leading a pack of revelers towards the door.

Darling Man yawned loudly and told me he was tired and was going to have a nap. I could have slapped him. “Your Dad said we have to go to the restaurant,” I said. So off we set, walking out into the dusty outdoors, past roadworks and to the reception venue.

But the party wasn’t ready to start. We milled about. Pictures were snapped. We were served drinks. I chased the baby. Darling Man chased the baby. Drunk uncles chased the baby. She fussed and we took her back to the house to try to get her to drink milk. She cheered up, we took her back to the restaurant. She fussed, we took her back to the house again. She finally drank milk but refused to sleep. So we took her back to the restaurant again. (Are we hopeless or what?) By now, the party had started. Someone had taken our seats, the restaurant was full and a band was playing at an incredible volume. I told Darling Man we’d have to sit at the back, away from the speakers. His father told us to pull up some extra chairs and jam ourselves into an already-crowded table. The music was so loud it was making me nauseous. Yet all around me, people were eating and talking and laughing. I told Darling Man it was too loud for the baby and asked if he could bring some food back to the house for me.

And so I missed all the highlights of a Vietnamese wedding. The chef’s speech, the parent’s speeches, the toasts, the spectacular smoking pyramid of dry ice and pink champagne, the flashy indoor fireworks, the beef, beans and bread dish that’s a wedding party staple and the regular mot-hai-ba-YO toasts of the rowdier guests.

Darling Man came to fetch us when the music finished. But by then the waiters were packing up the tables and sweeping prawn shells, discarded napkins and beer cans into giant mounds. An old lady wandered into the venue and asked the bride if she could collect the cans for recycling. Soon she was rummaging through the already-stinky piles of wedding party trash.

The ever-gracious bride told me the waiters would serve the bride and groom and their parents some food. These special guests usually spend the entire party mingling and personally thanking each guest for coming. They eat after everyone’s left.

But the waiters’ priority was the cleanup. Eventually a few dishes were delivered to our table.

After only a few mouthfuls of this elegantly-presented chicken, a drunk uncle tried to round us up. There was more food back at the house, he said. “Let’s go!” he said. Off we set, along the dusty highway again.

Someone had set up a long table in Darling Man’s parents’ restaurant. Someone had prepared dishes of prawn, beef, all kinds of food. At one end of the table a group of male relatives drank beer and giggled over their tall stories. Darling Man took the baby into the house so I could eat. It was well after 2pm, our scheduled departure time. Everyone looked like they were settling in for a few more hours.

A drunk uncle called for Darling Man. Dutifully, I went back to the house to relay the message. I always get the Vietnamese respect-your-elders thing wrong. This time I was really trying. Darling Man and one of his brothers were sprawled out on a thin mattress that took up most of the second bedroom. I have no idea where the bed went. The baby was crawling around, laughing. Her two much older cousins were wrestling. Then the baby was bumped and she started to wail. All day long she’d been on the go, refusing to eat or drink. She’d hit the wall.

The cousins were ordered out. The brother was ordered out. I heaved a huge sigh of relief and flopped down on the mattress. We all fell asleep. I was vaguely aware the sliding door was opened a few times, possibly by relatives who wanted to play with the baby. I hoped my grungy beige undies weren’t showing. Or the matching grungy bra.

Eventually, someone woke us up and announced it was time to leave. It was several more hours before we actually got into the taxi. Vietnamese people don’t like to be bound too tightly to schedules. That’s something it took me years to learn. What this wedding taught us was that babies don’t stick to schedules either. I just wish my Vietnamese was good enough so I really could be part of this family that has accepted me, grungy beige bra and all.

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Posted in: Love, Vietnam