Here’s a situation that may or may not sound familiar: your friend or coworker has pressured you into attending a wedding — theirs, or their uncle’s or maybe the man who neutered their cat. The venue is located somewhere in the vast urban sprawl surrounding your city on a street Google Maps has never heard of, and as you arrive you feel a sinking feeling in your stomach. You have no idea what to do.
That’s okay! A Vietnamese wedding can be a tricky proposition. If you play your cards right, it can be a beautiful celebration of love and family. If you act the part of Bumbling Foreign Fool, it can be three hours of awkward, boring purgatory. I want to help you, dear reader, to avoid this fate, so I have composed a short list of suggestions to help keep you from making a fool out of yourself at any weddings you may have to attend in the future. If you keep these rules in mind, hopefully you won’t end up sleeping in the bushes or sitting at the kid’s table, wishing you were at home watching HBO. Walk with me.
Don’t Flake Out
Upon receiving the wedding invitation and replying in the affirmative, it is important to recognise that you are definitely going to attend and plan accordingly. I made this mistake some time ago. A female coworker invited me to her wedding, which was to take place at some ungodly hour on a Saturday morning. When the time came I elected to stay in bed instead of following through on my promise.
For the next eight months she never said a word to me again even though I sat two cubicles away from her for more than 20 hours a week. If you are invited and aren’t sure if you’ll be able to make it, say so — because once you say you’re going, you’re locked in.
Starve Yourself a Little
It looks weird if you’re not eating anything. People will think you’re not having a good time, so it’s a good idea to skip breakfast the day of. Eating seconds is good form. You will probably eat thirds because the food at weddings is always on point.
There will be a box near the entrance for storing the envelopes of money brought by guests. Even if you’ve never met the bride or groom, the envelope with your name on it needs to have at least VND500,000 inside if it’s a city wedding (at country weddings, you can get away with stuffing in VND200,000, though you run the risk of being thought of as the cheap foreigner). It goes up from there — if you’re going to a wedding in a five-star hotel, a minimum of VND1 million is safe. Try the same if you’re going to the wedding of a close friend, a coworker or a family member.
If you feel like showing off, put your money in one of the complimentary envelopes assembled by the entrance. The conspicuous delivery of your gift will likely be rewarded with a curt nod of approval from at least one of the salty old aunts standing around.
Water It Down
Here’s your mantra: 75 percent ice, 25 percent beer, and only drink the rice wine if you can’t get out of it without looking like a wuss. Your beer should be the colour of a well-hydrated marathon runner’s urine. If you notice your chunk of ice dissolving, grab the tongs and get another one in your glass swiftly. If you ignore this advice you will probably be in sorry condition by hour three.
Try all the food provided. At countryside weddings, especially, you might be asked to try some unfamiliar things — congealed duck’s blood, frog, pig fat, guts. It doesn’t really matter, because you should eat whatever’s put in front of you. To decline proffered food is an awkward refusal of hospitality — and it’s not like you’re going to look back from your deathbed and wish you had experienced fewer things.
When you go back to wherever you’re from, and the girl you had a crush on in high school asks you what totally crazy foods you tried in Vietnam, you can be like, “I ate a duck butt and it was actually good!” It will be impressive to her because she has three kids and limited time to go to one of your hometown’s three ethnic restaurants.
Bring a Friend
Especially if it’s a huge blowout wedding (you can tell by the invitation — if it has gold leaf on it, it qualifies). It’s probably even cool to bring a friend or two — it’s not like there’s not going to be enough food or drink. You might want to notify the hosts in advance, though.
Not that going by yourself is a bad idea — if you fly solo, you might actually end up having a better time because wedding guests are super friendly, but you run the risk of flying too close to the sun with the rice wine. Remember, if it’s a small countryside-type wedding, you’ll probably be the only foreigner in the room, so literally everybody and their uncle will want to meet you — and offer you a drink. This is where the danger comes in.
Nam Muoi-Nam Muoi
Say you’ll drink 50 percent, but actually drink 25 percent. If you’re not acquainted with the custom of tram phan tram, you soon will be. This is Vietnamese for ‘100 percent’ — and when you hear it and vocalise your agreement, it means you have to finish your beer even if you’re already having trouble keeping your head off the table.
A good idea is to counter the offer of tram phan tram! with nam muoi-nam muoi, offering to drink 50 percent of the beer instead of the whole thing. Then only drink 25 percent, and hope the drunk uncles don’t call you out on your cowardice.
Choose Your Table Wisely
Sit with people who will be fun to hang out with for a few hours. It’s bad form to dip out before everybody else, and if you are sitting at the kid’s table or a table full of very elderly women three hours can feel like a very long time. Conversely, if you sit down at a table of college-aged dudes, you’ll be forced to drink at least a dozen beers. Sitting at a table with a nice-looking family is a happy medium.
Most importantly, don’t sit at the table of grizzled-looking middle-aged men. In addition to the communal shots (mot-hai-ba-vo! — rinse, repeat for five hours), you will be asked to drink shots with each and every man sitting at the table.
One time, at a wedding in a small town near Dalat, I tried to put a tally on my hand for every shot I took. I awoke some hours later in a coffee field behind the outhouse, with about a dozen marks on my hand and a large infinity symbol drawn in what appeared to be lipstick.
If you only sit at your table and talk with your friends, people will think you’re a snob. Even if you don’t speak Vietnamese, hang out with the grannies a little bit and let the host show you off to their relatives. Practise English with the kids a little bit. You’ll come off as a friendly and polite cultural ambassador, and meet some cool people in the bargain. Remember to thoroughly ice your beer before you begin to make the rounds.
Plan Your Exit
Ask the location of the bathroom from a reliable source. One time I got tricked into walking into the bridal party’s dressing room in front of 500 people. Needless to say, I got some cold stares. Don’t make the same mistake.
Take a Taxi Home
Drunk driving is somewhere between a necessary evil and a national sport in Vietnam, but the truth is that you will probably be wasted and there’s no need to get killed on the way back from the party. Of course, you might be in the countryside, without easy access to a taxi, in which case you could always try to hitch a ride back to your hotel with one of the more sober guests. In any case, it will make your life easier if you arrange transportation beforehand.