tip off
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I cock-a-doodle-do

Introducing a new regular Back in a Bit author, an Aussie expat living in Hanoi… 

Tabitha Carvan writes: This, my first post for Crikey comes at a particularly significant time for me in my two-year stint in Hanoi, being as it is only months away from my wedding.

My partner Nathan and I are both Australian and are getting married in Sydney, but since we’ve actually spent more time as a couple here in Vietnam than we have in Australia, we wanted to have some kind of celebration in Hanoi as well.

Not only would this allow our Vietnamese friends to be involved in the wedding shenanigans, it would also honour the fact that Vietnam is kind of the third member in our relationship, and possibly the only thing keeping us together (let’s hope not, eh?).

We wanted to have a traditional Vietnamese wedding party, which consists of the following essential components:

  • One enormous tarpaulin tent blocking your entire street
  • A pink and white balloon arch
  • A backdrop spelling out the bride and groom’s names in glittery letters
  • Plastic stools and tables laden with cold boiled chicken, gelatinous red rice, and pomelo pieces packaged with a double happiness sticker
  • A towering polystyrene cake
  • A dry-ice champagne pyramid for use with red Vietnamese “champagne”
  • Nineties techno music blaring from 11am.

This vision was on track to fulfilment when two days before the Big Day, our landlord, whose name is Mr Chien and who has an awesomely hairy lucky mole, knocked on our door with some news. His delivery tends to be exclamatory, which is quite catching:

Mr Chien: Your wedding party is on Saturday!
Me: Yes, indeed it is!
Mr Chien: The big festival is also on Saturday!
Me: Oh, really! What big festival do you mean!
Mr Chien: The big pagoda festival! Twice a year!

Now, you might be thinking, how fortuitous! A festival at the local pagoda on the same day as our wedding! There will be monks and chanting and flowers and gongs and lanterns and incense and other romantic clichés of Asian exotica! Well, you’re thinking wrong.

I knew exactly what this “big pagoda festival” meant.

Me: How interesting! Is that the “big pagoda festival” where our entire street is turned into a three-day cockfighting tournament!
Mr Chien: Yes! Roosters! Where your wedding is!

There are many aspects of living in Vietnam which you call “challenging”. The reason you’d call them “challenging” is because you’re being culturally sensitive and respectful of this great nation which has welcomed you to its bosom, and granted you many visa extensions.

What you’d actually like to call them is “shitballs”.

For example, having your neighbours steal your dog then eat it is challenging; being greeted every day with the expression “you look fat today” is challenging; sharing your Special Day with pecking, featherless roosters and several hundred drunken, roaring punters baying for their blood is challenging.

They are all also, coincidentally, shitballs.

And this is the problem when the third member of your relationship is another country: you’re just going to have to get along. This means doing whatever it takes to make it work – compromising, holding your tongue, or just being unfailingly cheery — and keeping your shitballs to yourself.

No matter what “challenges” your host nation throws at you, you learn to meet them with a fixed smile. “Sure, Vietnam! Whatever you want! This is, after all, your country and you are more than welcome to combine your cockfighting tournament with my wedding. In fact, I would be honoured.”

So this was the view of our fine wedding tent, as seen from our lounge-room window:

And metres away, as seen from our kitchen window, here is the view of the fine cockfighting tournament:

A few hundred-thousand dong was slipped to the tournament’s security guard to blow his whistle at any cock-loving punter who tried to use our tent as a urinal.  He earned it: that whistle barely stopped over the next two days.

The chicken poo, the piles of dirt, the feathers, the blood, the crowing, the hollering, the spitting, the weeing … We couldn’t deny that it added to the ambience of the day.

And you know what? When I asked a Vietnamese friend what she thought of the unsavoury proximity of barbaric animal cruelty to our nuptials she said, to my surprise, that the cockfighting was just lovely. I thought that while most Vietnamese people tolerated it, only the real rough-as-guts part of the population actually enjoyed it. But no, this mid-twenties professional woman said it was romantic, and made her nostalgic for the traditional village life of yesteryear. Perfect, in fact, for a wedding.

It turns out Vietnam was looking out for us after all. Sometimes we just don’t know what’s good for us.

Tabitha Carvan writes the blog The City That Never Sleeps In about the lighter side of living in Hanoi. She contributes to a number of publications and is a regular columnist for AsiaLife magazine and Vietnam’s largest news site Dân Trí. You can follow her on Twitter here. Keep an eye out for her becoming a regular in these parts…

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  • 1
    paddy
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

    Dear Tabitha, congratulations on (both) your weddings.
    Lots of chuckles and downright belly laughs from your description of the Hanoi festivities.
    I only hope that Sydney can come close to equalling the colour (but perhaps not the smells) of Hanoi.
    However, I doubt *anything* could match that dry-ice champagne pyramid. :-)

  • 2
    Bill Williams
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Tabitha,

    I wonder how your Vietnamese friends would feel about you if they knew that this was the “picture” of Vietnam you chose to send home to Australia? I can’t quite put my finger on why I find your essay embarrassing as an Australian. It could be the implied cultural high ground from which you think you view Vietnamese street life and culture. It might be that you seem to be somehow taking advantage of the welcome extended to you by the Vietnamese and then repaying that privelege with a kind of cultural mockery….posing as travel writing. Either way, I think you may need to live in Vietnam for more than 2 years to learn the Vietnamese version of humanity! Crikey readers might benefit more from an ethnographic perspective of Hanoian street culture than your “Kath and Kim” take. I think fair karma for you would be to have your essay translated into Vietnamese and posted on the New Hanoian, or perhaps Tuoi Tre?

  • 3
    Tabitha
    Posted November 30, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Paddy. I am unfortunately 100% certain that our Sydney wedding won’t be able to match up to our Vietnamese one on so many levels. I really think the Vietnamese have got it right when it comes to celebrating!

    Bill: Not quite sure if you have a problem with us adopting the Vietnamese style of wedding, or just the way I wrote about it? In any case, there were many Vietnamese people at the wedding, all my Vietnamese Facebook friends would have seen this post, I have been interviewed by VTC10 about the event, and I will do a translated version of this post for Dan Tri, so there will be plenty of opportunities for Vietnamese people to tell me exactly what they think.

    And the “cultural high-ground” or “mockery” you’ve inferred, well, that’s not the spirit in which this piece was written, and I’m sorry if it’s come off that way. I sincerely think Vietnamese weddings are superior to Australian weddings in almost every single way, which is one of the reasons we wanted to have one! Many of our Vietnamese guests commented that our wedding was more an “old style” wedding – with more and more middle-class Vietnamese choosing hotel or restaurant venues instead these days – and thanked us for trying to revive an appreciation of what you call “Vietnamese street life and culture”.

  • 4
    Wellwellwell
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    Bill, you seem to put “offending” people above doing the right thing. Making a negative comment about animal cruelty is a bad thing? I suppose you also think that taking a dim view of animal cruelty in Australia is to be avoided just in case we offend the people taking part in it.

    I understand your point of view – it is a common one – don’t criticise other people’s cultures. But you miss the whole point of being nice – and that is to make things better for everyone/thing, not just to make some people in one country feel comfortable about themselves. I suppose you wouldn’t condemn the Taliban for bulldozing walls onto gay people? You wouldn’t condemn America for torturing people? You wouldn’t condemn Spain for bullfighting? You wouldn’t condemn organised religion from repression of women’s rights? Just so you don’t offend anyone. I got it, now I know where your values lie. For some reason or other, you think a political boundary is a good enough reason to not comment on something. On your priority list you have “making people feel nice about themselves” above “preventing cruelty for spectator sport”.

    The reason you find the article embarrassing is because you can’t believe that someone else would dare cross your boundary of criticising (gee – and hardly) another culture. More a reflection of your desire to not rock the boat (mustn’t offend) rather than provide an honest comment on a cruel sport. God, imagine what those people on Tuoi Tre must think of this? Oh well, better not say anything then.

  • 5
    Berman Annarosa
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    I doubt that the cocks found the fighting all that romantic and nostalgic. I would hate to get married while animals were being forced to fight each other to death in the background.

  • 6
    Nguyen Siren
    Posted December 4, 2011 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    First congratulations on your wedding. But I must admit that I agree with Bill. I feel rather insulted when reading your superficial description of Vietnamese wedding. There are far more than just an enormous tent with a balloon arch. A wedding is not the business between the couple but an engagement of two families. Its not just picking up a day putting up a tent and say lets get married. Although myself I dont understand much of the meaning of all the ceremonies involved in a Vietnamese wedding, in my opinion, wedding is the highest expression of one culture where you can get a most accurate glimpse of their mindset. Its worth having a deeper look in how a Vietnamese wedding is prepared from picking the day to receiving the bride. The way you turned it into whole joke made me feel rather sad. Anyhow, it’s just me. I have probably become too sensitive after years of hearing how primitive and rude my people are from my partner, and how shitty the country is from some Australians and some Vietnamese in here who think they are better.
    Congratulations again.

  • 7
    Tabitha Carvan
    Posted December 5, 2011 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    Hi Siren. You’re exactly right about the many important, symbolic elements of a Vietnamese wedding which we didn’t take part in; this is why we specifically positioned the event as a “wedding party”, like a reception. While our Vietnamese friends were egging us on to include other traditional aspects of a Vietnamese wedding, such as visiting a fortune teller to set the date, and having a tea ceremony, we really felt, like you, that these are a sacred part of Vietnamese culture, and not our domain.

    Not being Vietnamese and not having Vietnamese family, our wedding party was very much Vietnamese in style rather than in substance. We figured this was a similar approach to the many Vietnamese couples who choose Western wedding styles and traditions for their wedding receptions.

    As for the negative comments about Vietnam and the Vietnamese from your partner and others, there’s only one thing I would say to them: shitballs.

  • 8
    Mack the Knife
    Posted December 6, 2011 at 6:52 am | Permalink

    Tabitha, you have injected some life into this pedestrian blog as well as entertaining and informing us.

    Visiting Viet Nam is on my bucket list and I look forward to more of your stories

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