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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