Reflections and stories on six months of life, culture, food and friendship in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

The Delta Wedding

Sometimes I get so caught up in what has become my routine life here that I start to wonder if I have anything left to write. Then suddenly I will find myself in the middle of something and the narrator starts up in my head. Then I know I've happened upon something blogworthy. Yesterday I experienced just such a "clearing".

The occasion was a colleague's wedding in her Delta village 40 kms. away. I didn't really expect it to be particularly interesting based on my previous experience at a Vietnamese wedding - fun but nothing to write at length about.

I almost didn't go. Generally the entire workplace is invited to weddings, though you are not really obliged to attend. The day before my other colleagues had been non-commital and I was also hesitant to ride out there. 40 kms may not seem much by North American standards, but is taxing with a moto on dusty and chaotic country roads. It took us just over an hour. I seem to have graduated to moto competency so I was asked to give a ride to one of my colleagues. The road out was full of life, which is not always a good thing when you are driving. Once we got beyond the city limits so many sights conspired to distract my attention from the road: wagons drawn by horses and oxen, ancient looking pagoda complexes tucked away along village streets, roadside bamboo factories, joss sticks laid out on the road to dry, impossibly stacked motobikes, etc.

We arrived at about 9:30am. We could spot the wedding house by the big blue tent outside framed by balloons, disco music pulsing within. We were seated in the courtyard of the bride's family home, for potent green tea and plates of pumpkin and watermelon seeds. These seeds are a perennial favourite in cafes, but apparently require a lifetime of experience (or Vietnamese genes) to split open properly with your teeth and pluck out the kernel. I spent much of the wedding practicing on the more brittle pumpkin seeds. I wouldn't dare humiliate myself on the watermelon variety which appear to be shellacked and hardened. Everyone make it look so easy. So much work for such a little crumb of a seed. Addictive though.

When I wasn't busy gnashing my teeth on bits of nothing I found myself entertaining the bride's family and friends. I was the only foreigner at the wedding and probably the first one to be spotted down the village side-streets in eons. I think my presence was appreciated - I'm not sure if my being there was novelty, honour or simply freak-show entertainment. The kids seemed especially fascinated. A shy four year old boy asked his father to come tell me that he had been to Australia!

When it was time for lunch (at 10am!) we went a few doors down to another house where the tables were laid with eight different dishes of dog meat. I don't even want to think about how many kennels were emptied out for this feast. Sometimes I feel guilty harping on such things because they play into the exotic and distorted image Vietnam has abroad, when in fact sometimes eating things like dog meat (or frog stomach, another recent culinary adventure) just seems pedestrian in its native context. There is a kind of truth in naivety and the experience of things as novel; at the same time this way of seeing is not true to the experience in its real world context.

To be honest though dog meat is distasteful even to some Vietnamese. My colleague next to me wouldn't touch it. This was my second time eating dog (see "Cellphones, Gyms and Dog Meat"), and I must admit that I enjoyed it much more this time. The meat was less fatty and grisly and instead of the usual mam tom (lethal shrimp sauce) there was a greyish dip, which looked like bean dip but turned out to be made of unspecified dog organs cooked with herbs. I know what you are thinking, but I should confess. I actually liked it. It had a nice lemongrassy taste. I also enjoyed the little ribs which had been braised until the meat slipped off the bone. Melt in your mouth doggie. I just wish the dishes had not been cold (instead - shall I say it? - hot dog). Well, I think that's enough for now. No need to go into the details of each of the eight canine concoctions.

I don't know why but people just seemed to nibble at the food. I was however famished after the ride, even at this premature hour of 10am, and chowed down. The sight of a foreigner digging into dog was of course of great amusement to the table. Once they got over it, they started on the usual foreigner interrogation. The questions are usually predictable and they run their course pretty quickly before they get bored of my very pat and rehearsed responses. This time they just couldn't get past my advanced age and unmarried status. Not even my witty redeployment of a Ho Chi Minh quote, "There is nothing more precious than independence and freedom!" would throw them off. I became the centre of what appeared to be a big debate: am I "on the shelf" or not? I think this is a colloquialism, a bit uncanny when applied to a librarian, for anyone who is terminally unhitchable, (aka. an old maid). On the plus side, I was told I definitely do NOT look 36. It went on and on.

This was all very hilarious, but these conversations sometimes make me wonder if I could ever come back here for my next sabbatical in seven years when I am an even riper 43! The older you get, the more of a puzzle you become and the more intense the questioning. It can be exhausting. Some days I think I would be better off just making up some story of a girl back home. It gives me an appreciation for the pressure that my gay Vietnamese friends have to endure. I only have to keep up this charade for a few months, not a lifetime. I think this partially explains why there are so few visible gay men over the age of about 32. As you mature, your options seems to be: moving to HCMC, studying abroad, or marriage. (Actually there is another more tragic option I'd rather not go into but which two of my close friends recently considered, one of them quite seriously.)

You would think given the importance of marriage here, there would be a big lead up and complicated ceremony to it all. It's hard for me to generalize, having only been to two weddings, but it seems that weddings are more about getting people together and eating than about pomp, ceremony and endless speeches. After the meal the groom's procession arrived (he was at his family home just a few village streets over), pictures were taken, and that was that. No declaration, no speeches, no I dos. It's actually hard to say at what moment the deed actually occurs. And the best part, no interminable goodbyes. When you are done, you just get up and go.

Occasionally I look around and find myself caught up in some little remarkable corner of Vietnamese life and I marvel at how I got there. It's not just the thrill of witnessing something, but of finding myself a part of things. This was one of those moments when I felt welcomed and embraced by this world. I may not be able to participate in all the banter, and I'm always a curiosity, but there is sometimes a warm sense of comradery that seems to bridge all divides.

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Blogger Virtual-Doug said...

I'm happy to be able to comment, Mark. No - the block is not off, but I am in Singapore, so I can happily go to your blog.

I too cannot split the watermelon seeds! And I have really treid.

Good comments on the dog meat. If you write about it, everythinks Viet Nam is just too wierd for words. But - that is the exception, not the rule.

Your thoughts about "How old are You?" and "Are you married" sound familiar. That happens to my young friend here everytime she meets someone for the first time.

Cheers -

7:19 AM

Blogger Khoi Gallub-Ho said...

Wedding, it is a time for everyone else in the family except the actual people who are getting married. This is the experience that I have with my limited number of Vietnamese weddings. I think your observation with the actual speeches is dead on. They seem to go on and on forever.

11:56 PM


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