Thursday, July 27, 2006

Southern styled weddings

Family and friends who come over for a wedding in Vietnam might be surprised by what happens on the happy day in Ho Chi Minh City, reckons Teddy de Burca Jnr.

Nothing is what it seems. You feel a bit otherworldly, perhaps because of the stag’s night drinks the night before, or perhaps you’re not used to being dressed in a suit on a hot summer’s day in Saigon.

You even wonder if you’ve arrived at the right spot as there appears to be three weddings in three restaurants in a row. A bride stands alone next door gazing hopefully at each car pulling up – the sooner everyone arrives, the sooner she can go in and sit down.

Proof you’re on the right track may or may not be Exhibit A: the photograph sitting on a stand outside. It is a portrait of the happy couple. One on which a studio, through the powers of photo shop and camera gimmickry, has turned two people you know into two people you can barely recognise. The demure bride has been turned into a vamped up vixen, while the characteristically laid back groom comes across as an ambitious corporate tiger.

On the whiteboard you check the names and, confirming it’s the right place, step inside, and sign your name in the large white book in which everyone else has left illegible squiggles. You resist the urge to scribble a treble clef rather than your name.

You’re ushered upstairs and try to find a group to eat with. After everyone else has turned up and found a seat the well groomed compere takes to the stage with the slick ease of a seasoned chat show host. Another day, another wedding.

Crackers pop, tinsel flies through the air and lands on the shoulders of the compere who’s now screaming about happiness, luck and success for the bride and groom.

At your table nobody has eaten all morning. Beers are poured. After one slug waiters appear opening more.

Eventually food is plonked on the table and the master of ceremonies steps off stage (probably to the wedding downstairs) and just as conversation threatens to begin music is pumped out of the speakers and eight dancers take to the stage. Though it’s more prancing than dancing. The young boys grin madly as they pirouette; while the girls look positively bored. Your shrimp salad is finished. No one has said a word at your table.

Next, in the vein of Milli Vanilli two performers begin to mime Endless Love. The boy is not much more than five foot above sea level, and a skinny-ma-link to boot, but he leans back and gives it soul as he pretends to be Lionel Ritchie. The girl looks like she’s effortlessly impersonating Diana Ross though she drops her microphone as Ross’ voice still warbles over the last few notes of every line.

Steamed Prawns in Coconut juice arrive as the dancers remerge, this time in Chinese garb – (Ni hao!). The ice is melting in your glass and the tiger beer is now two toned. When the large baked fish arrives you are treated to two comedians. Despite your best efforts the humour is lost on you. A huge burst of applause and uproarious laughter breaks out. You think the comedian’s hit the mark but it’s the table of giddy teenagers where the boys with spools of gel in their hair and girls with bubble-gum coloured clothes are tram phan tram-ing glasses of Sprite much to their own amusement.

The bride and groom stroll around from table to table. A camera man rolls along with them while a photographer snaps their every move – every clink chimes with a click and a flash. The red alcohol in their glasses stays at the same level as they toast with the guests. Despite a rousing finish to their set nobody claps as the comedians exit stage left.

The Chicken Rice arrives. More beers are opened though no one has drunk much. The bottles are left ambiguously in between other bottles. The restaurant’s profits, you presume. After yet another international dance routine (hello Korea!) next up on stage is a mask-wearing magician-mime artist.

He dons a chef’s hat, pulls out a rubber chicken and also a never-ending long piece of string from his mouth. He manages to grab some attention by inviting a foreign man to join him on stage and spinning plates on his bald head.

The hot pot arrives. Judging by people’s faces at your table everyone has lost their appetite. Then finally the music stops. The compere says one more round of thank yous, bows and bounds off stage (possibly straight into the wedding downstairs to say farewell there).

People lean back, cigarettes are lit and smoke is puffed into the air. Then the guests shift to the exits, hop into taxis which quickly disappear into the Saigon afternoon traffic. Another day, another wedding.

As you turn back to see who’s left you spot the groom sitting with his baffled-looking friends who travelled from abroad, no doubt anticipating a traditional Vietnamese wedding. You wonder is he trying to explain what just happened.

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