Mỹ  & Tuấn

Basics of Vietnamese Wedding for Non-Vietnamese

Phần này để giải thích đám cưới Việt Nam cho quý vị không phải người Việt. Vì vậy, dưới đây chỉ tiếng Anh thôi.

Like most Vietnamese weddings in the US, ours will have both Western and Vietnamese elements. For the benefit of our non-Vietnamese guests, here are some descriptions and explanations about Vietnamese wedding customs.

What is the home ceremony?

The home ceremony goes a long way in tradition, and is found in just about every Vietnamese wedding, be it Buddhist, Christian, or non-religious. In the old country, it may occur on a different day than the church ceremony. In the US, however, it usually takes place before the church ceremony.

On the morning of wedding day, the groom, his family, and the wedding party on his side would bring a variety of gifts, symbolic and real, to the bride's family: wine, tea, fruit baskets, sweet rice, a roasted pig. There would be a makeshift "gate" in front of the house, decorated with the words "Vu Quy" - a literary term deriving from the Chinese language that means "bridal wedding day." (You'd find this term on our print invitation.) People on the bride's side would be in the living room in their Vietnamese and Western best, with the exception of the bride and her accompanier - a matronly figure other than her mother, such as her godmother, aunt, or older sister.

There would be a representative for each side, and they formally introduce people in each entourage to the other. (The parents of the bride and groom might have met one another already, but there remain their siblings, plus any aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and cousins that could come.) The matron then brings out with the bride, who is dressed in a decorative "ao dai" - the Vietnamese national long dress for women. More speeches are made, this time by the parents, who may pass on good wishes and wisdom to the newlyweds. Typically, the groom's mother would put on earrings or necklace on her new daughter-in-law as a symbol of welcoming her into the groom's family. (In case the mother has passed away, a matronly figure from the groom side would fill this role - yes, gender roles are a pretty significant in ceremonies such as this one.) The couple then serves wine or tea to their parents, grandparents, and the likes. (In the old days, they might also kowtow to the elders.) Members of each family would step forward and present the couple with personal gifts - usually monetary in nature but sometimes also valuables such as jewelry. If Christian, both sides would join together in prayers.

A little informal luncheon follows the ceremony. The roasted pig and sweet rice would be served, along dishes prepared by the bride's family. (Again, another symbolism of union from both sides.) Afterwards, they head to the religious ceremony at church or the Buddhist temple.

The addition of the home ceremony to the usual church/reception combo makes it a pretty long day for the couple and their families. But because of its potent symbolism, it is indispensable for most Vietnamese weddings, ours included.

What to expect at our wedding mass

What to expect at our wedding mass

In the Vietnamese-American immigrant community, most church weddings are in Vietnamese. But because of possible attendance of many of our non-Vietnamese friends, we plan to have also English in readings, prayers, and music.

The nuptial mass follows the Roman Rite, and our Catholic friends would have no problem following the proceedings. But there are a few variations that may require a little explanation.

For our Western guests, perhaps the most visible difference is that attendance at a Vietnamese wedding mass is less than attendance at the reception. People that are invited to the reception are invited to the mass as well, and Vietnamese receptions tend to be big - rarely less than 150, and commonly between 200 and 400. (We have heard of receptions of 600 people!) But Vietnamese that come to the wedding mass tend to be the families of the couple, plus some of their closest friends. This is a contrast to Western weddings, where attendance at the church ceremony is the same or even larger than at the reception.

This, we think, is a historical result of the the status of Christianity as a minority religion in Vietnam. Possibly because non-Christians would feel uneasy at a church ceremony, this ceremony has been considered to have a more "private" character - that is, confined to the families - than it is in the West. Indeed, it seems true of all religious nuptial ceremony too, including the Buddhist ceremony where few people outside the families of the couple would attend the wedding ceremony at a temple. In any event, if our Western guests come to both events, do anticipate this contrast about attendance between church and restaurant. The low attendance of Vietnamese guests at church doesn't mean a lack of respect for the couple and their families, but reflects the different emphasis Vietnamese place on the concept of ceremonial witness and such.

During the mass itself, it is common to see the bride and groom kneel in front of the altar instead of sitting. Not always, but often enough. Most of the time, the couple also read the first and second readings. (This, of course, may occur at a Western wedding as well.) Besides the professional photographers, there is usually a video guy recording as well. Of course, video-taping occurs at many Western weddings as well. Historically, however, there is an immigrant-related reason for the ubiquity of video-taping at Vietnamese weddings nowadays. Because people in Vietnam couldn't come to the wedding, copies of the video would be sent to the old country so relatives and family members could see. (The reverse - videos of family weddings in Vietnam sent to the US - is of course also true.)

Near the end of the mass, the couple would place a bouquet of flowers at the statue of Mary. This custom reflects traditional Marian devotion among Vietnamese Catholics. (You can kind of see that in some of the pictures in the "Photos" section.) After the mass, they don't necessarily greet guests outside the church and be congratulated, as commonly observed at a Western wedding. More often, the couple would pose with the priests and their families in front of the altar for photos (as seen in the accompanying photo at the wedding of Mỹ's niece Thanh earlier this year.) This seems to be a habit from the old days, when attendants at the wedding mass were mostly family members. In addition, it is probably assumed that the reception is where guests are formally greeted and have a photo taken with the newlyweds.

We'll try our best to greet you personally after mass. But in case something else takes over, we hope you'll understand and look forward to see greet you at the reception.

PLEASE NOTE: Unlike Western weddings, in which the reception usually follows the church ceremony (or begins an hour or so later), there could be quite a gap of time in Vietnamese weddings. Almost invariably, the church ceremony takes place in the morning or (as in our case) early afternoon. The reception, however, usually doesn't begin until the early evening.

We suspect that this gap is the result of two very different things. First is the requirements from churches to have the wedding ceremony over by 4PM. (Indeed, the 2:00 PM mass as in our case is the latest wedding time possible at St. Columban Parish.) Second is the long-standing preference of Vietnamese Americans to have an evening rather than mid-afternoon dinner. It is, you could say, the result of two cultural forces crossing or kind of canceling out each other. Indeed, this gap may contribute to the aforementioned discrepancy between the number of guests at church and the number at the reception.

More to the point, we'd like to alert our non-Vietnamese guests that plan to be at the church ceremony to be aware of these hours at your disposal. In Tuan's experience, Vietnamese guests from afar tend to go back to the hotel after the church ceremony to take a nap, ha! But there are plenty of other options, such as driving to Newport Beach for a walk, or to Disney Downtown or The Block for a drink.

What to expect at our reception

What to expect at our reception

PLACE: Because of the importance of food in their ethnic celebrations, it is common to see Vietnamese having wedding receptions at a Chinese restaurant. As Vietnamese become more well-off and/or more open or knowledgeable of other options, the site of the reception has changed in recent times, with more receptions at hotels, resorts, church halls, and outdoors. By and large, however, the wedding reception tends to occur at a restaurant, which is the case with our wedding.

Because of the nature of the site and the large number of attendants, space could be a bit tight for guests that are used to large reception areas. Because the site that we've booked is currently being built, we don't know for sure about space. But we think there will be enough room for you and us to boogie. :)

TIME: For reasons still not clear, Vietnamese are notorious for being late to wedding receptions. In recent years, this has improved somewhat, especially in cold-climate areas, like Minnesota where Tuan's family is. In warm SoCal, however, the old habit dies hard and it isn't uncommon to see the party commence a good couple of hours later than indicated in the invitation. Which is probably why there's so much food at the dinner - another hour and people will be starved to death!

We are kidding, of course, but it's true that the formal program and dinner tends to begin late. We'll see if the colder weather of January will prompt our Vietnamese guests come earlier. In any event, we'd advise our Western guests come an hour later. Of course, come on time if you so desire, since the bride and groom would love to chat with you.

PHOTOGRAPHY: It is pretty common at Vietnamese weddings to see guests line up and take a photo with the newlyweds before entering the banquet area. This is a new custom created in the US, and is meant to be an expression of "thank you" for the guests. Indeed, once the ceremony starts, the negatives would be rushed out, get developed and printed, and brought back to the reception, voila, to be passed to the guests before they leave.

It's a well-intended custom and, as you can see from some of the wedding photos on this website, it is pretty nice to see a studio-like photo of oneself with the newlyweds. But it may get old for frequent flyers, and the couple might get exhausted from posing for an hour or two with their guests in front of two bright studio headlights! Besides, we'd rather spend our time to chat with our dear invited guests. So Mỹ and Tuan have decided not to have this proceeding at our reception. (There are, after all, other ways to express our thanks.) ;) In any event, the photographers will be buzzing around and we'd love to take a more spontaneous snapshot with you before the party formally begins.

FOOD/DRINKS/COGNAG: Adopted from the Chinese, the Vietnamese wedding banquet typically has six to nine courses, at least half of which are seafood. (Tuan's friends from l'Arche days would know that he wouldn't want anything less than a multi-course meal.) But in contrast to your typical outing to Chinese restaurants, there wouldn't be any rice until almost the end of the meal. The reason, we surmise, is to let the delicacies work tastebuds, rather than having your appetite overwhelmed by the rice at the start.

In comparison to the plurality of food, drinks at these banquets are considerably less. Indeed, drinks don't seem to be a strong feature at these affairs. But there should be a couple of soft drinks. And of course water. Then on each table, there is also a bottle of... cognac.

Yes, cognac! Its presence on the banquet table may seem somewhat odd to people not familiar with Vietnamese weddings, and indeed we cannot think of any logical connection between Chinese food and cognac. The best alcoholic drink with Chinese food is obviously beer. Or, for wine drinkers, a glass of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, or Gewurztraminer. But not normally with Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin, or another brand of this well-regarded French product. But there it is, speaking of the French, we think that the presence of a cognac bottle on the banquet table has something to do with the value that Vietnamese attributed to certain aspects of the colonial culture way back when. Unlike the Chinese and Scots, Vietnamese are not inventors but adapters instead. While they hated colonial rule as it was, they were also impressed and influenced by many things that came along with colonialism. Cognac, it seems, was one of those things.

Such is a guess, anyway. More importantly, the cognac is there to be opened and consumed during the dinner: straight up, on the rock, or with some of the accompanying Perrier, which is also on the table.

MUSIC: It is pretty common to see a fancy karaoke system or, more often, a live band at a Vietnamese wedding reception. Typically, this band has three or four instrumentalists, plus two or three singers. Indeed, until a few years ago, Mỹ's brother Thái used to play bass in one such band that provided live music at all of the Nguyen family weddings between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s.

After the introduction led by the MC, the waiters would bring out the food and the band would begin to play. It stops, however, when the newlyweds go around and greet the guests table-by-table. Live music resumes after cake-cutting, and of course for dancing.

As seen in the accompanying photo at the wedding of Mỹ's friend Cassandra "Chi", guests are most welcomed to come up and do a number with the band - in Vietnamese, English, Chinese, French, or another language. We would love it if any of our guests like to do so. Let us know ahead of time which songs you like to sing, and we'll arrange it so that the band would have practiced the instrumentation ahead. Or just come up and see if the band knows the song. Whichever it is, we are sure to love it.

DANCING: The band usually plays when the guests are served the first couple of course, and there is little or no dancing at this time. Everyone is starved, remember? ;) But get up and dance anytime you wish, and maybe the bride and groom will join you, hehe. While there is the first dance - a custom clearly adopted from our adopted country - there isn't yet the custom of the second dance being of that between the bride and her father. Generally, the older folks tend not to do much party dancing. But on the other hand, there could be some terrific ballroom dancers among the guests that may take to the floor for a rhumba or tango number. (Ballroom dancing is another legacy of French colonialism; check out, for example, this scene from the French movie Indochine, starred Catherine Deneuve some years ago.)

FORMAL GREETING: During the meal, the newlyweds would change into traditional Vietnamese clothes - long dresses and all - and go around and greet each table. Well, not often the groom, but the bride changes, usually into the "long dress" that she'd worn in the morning for the home ceremony. (Check out the "Photos" section for one or more photos of this.) The band would stop playing at this point, and each table would designate a representative to give congratulations and good wishes. Toasts would be made to the couple, guests would present them with gift envelops, and abound are kisses and smiles. (Click on the section "Registries" for an explanation.) After table greeting, the bride usually changes back to her wedding gown or into another gown, usually in red - this could be a little fashion show. Along with her beau she returns to cut the cake.

We'd like to end this segment by saying that Vietnamese wedding customs are never static but evolve over time. Which is the case even for first- and 1.5 generations of Vietnamese Americans, who tend to be more culturally conservative when it comes to these sorts of things. Interactions with American-born people - along with interracial and inter-ethnic marriages - have also contributed to the evolution of these customs. For example, at the home ceremony of one of our cousins, the groom's side (which is non-Vietnamese) had the usual gifts of tea, wine, fruits, and the roasted pig. But they also brought boxes of macadamia nuts candies, plus cans of home-made jam. What terrific ideas, we thought! Indeed, we may twig a few things on our own big day. :) But the above is basically what you can expect to see at a Vietnamese wedding.

Anything else to add? One thing you may note at a Vietnamese wedding is the absence of toasts from the best man and the maid of honor. A few Vietnamese receptions feature them. But most aren't, and we wouldn't want to put the extra pressure on our BM and MOH on something they may not be familiar with. Of course, toasts are made at individual tables during the "tables walk" by the bride and groom. In any event, we hope that you'll get a kick watching and participating, since after all it is you rather than anything that we love to see on our wedding day.