Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Country Wedding in Ha Tinh

Rice paddies in Ha Tinh

I recently had the opportunity to attend my friend's wedding in a country town just outside of Ha Tinh. It was a grueling overnight journey on a cramped train to get there, but when my group finally arrived, the smiling face of the groom, Giang Tam, was enough to make me forget any troubles we had getting there.  
 The countryside village of Nghèn is quite small.  There are rice paddies as far as the eye can see and in the distance, light green mountains.  The common sights of the area are duck farms, cows, and water buffalo bathing in muddy green pools.  When I asked my friend how many people lived there, his response was, "I don't know, I've never counted."

After our arrival, Giang Tam brought us to his home for lunch where we had the opportunity to start meeting his family; a large endeavor that took a few days as Giang Tam has seven siblings, and almost as many uncles.  The lunch was a fantastic feast of crab, tofu in tomato sauce, pork, and rice served with warm smiles in our friend's childhood home.

One of the interesting features of the Vietnamese language is the many distinctions it makes between people of differing ages.  Within the family group there are different titles for uncles of varying ages and also whether they are on the father's or mother's side.  These same titles are used with people on the street, for example: the younger uncle on my father's side is chú, but I would also use the same term to address someone of a similar age on the street.  As you can imagine, this made conversation and keeping track of people's relationships difficult.
Contrary to our plans of an early night, my party was kidnapped by Giang Tam and two of his nephews at around eight in the evening for the first phase of the wedding.  We were brought back to his household, which, by that time, was packed with family members talking joyously to each other on wooden stools.  Their hands seemed always busy opening sunflower seeds, enjoying fresh tea, or taking a shot of Nghèn's renowned rice brandy.  I was told later on that it's made with sticky rice and, at one stage of the process, formaldehyde.  I was reassured often that it was good for my health and found myself taking many celebratory shots until my cheeks were red.
Giang Tam's father is eighty five years old and sweeter than any man I've met.  His happiness was infectious and I spent a good deal of time conversing with him by whispering in his ear while he patted my knee.  I only know very basic Vietnamese, but I think it was a credit to his family that everyone was willing to talk to me and try and understand what I was saying: I did not feel like an outsider.

After a bit we were transported to the bride's family house seven kilometers away.  Here we met Giang Tam's young and stunning bride for the first time and were welcomed into her home.  The activities of the two households were fairly similar: drinking, card playing, nut cracking, fresh tea, and chit chat.  What struck me was the difference in character of the two households.  
While both were hospitable, the bride's family was noticeably less joyous.  The lighting was darker and they seemed to be more reserved, whereas my friend's family had been boisterous and quick to joke.  Though there are many possible reasons for this difference, one is the age gap.  Giang Tam is the youngest of a large family that has had many wedding celebrations.  In contrast, his wife, Giang, is much younger and the family had not yet given away a daughter.
After a few drinks at the bride's house, we were whisked away once more into the cool night air, surrounded by the sounds of frogs and crickets.  It was a nice replacement to loud traffic of Hanoi and we awoke the next day feeling refreshed.  By half past seven in the morning we were back at my friend's house waiting to go collect the bride.
A number of friends and family from the groom's side were transported by bus to the bride's home.  This proved to have a number of obstacles as these country roads aren't used to large vehicles.  At one point we encountered a large barrier of gravel, which Giang Tam, dressed in his wedding suit, got out and shoveled out of the way while the rest of us pushed the vehicle to freedom.
When we arrived at the bride's home the morning of the wedding the atmosphere was again quite solemn.  One tradition is that two representatives of the families have to agree to the wedding.  Two men, sort of patriarchs of the family, gave speeches.  Afterwards, we were all poured more of the rice brandy and had a toast; everyone exploded with cheers and glittering smiles that mirrored the confetti bombs that burst as we walked outside.
The procession kept getting larger and larger: the bus, the wedding car, and a large swarm of motorbikes carrying family and friends.  The next phase of the ceremony is a private affair at the family shrine, but we went directly to the restaurant.  We were told that the starting and finishing times of the party were very important just as the date was important -a lucky date according to the lunar calendar.
The party at the restaurant was extremely brief.  From the time the plastic wrap was removed from the food to the time everyone, in unison, stood up to leave, only an hour and a half had past.  The time was packed with speeches, karaoke, good food, and of course more brandy.  My friend's brothers and uncles kept coming around to toast us until we were quite drunk.  The bride and groom sat at a head table drinking sparkling juice fortified with some of the town's brandy; they didn't eat a thing.
The final surprise of the meal was the areca nut and betel leaf.  For the last two days I'd seen people with it, but had not yet tried it myself.  It is a traditional narcotic used on the wedding day that consists of a leaf with limestone paste and a nut that is quartered and placed by the leaf.  One rubs the paste and leaf together and then places it with the nut in one's mouth.
There is an interesting legend about the usage of this substance called ăn trầu in Vietnamese.  There were two brothers who loved each other very much and looked identical.  One of them was married to a beautiful woman who one day made the mistake of embracing the wrong brother.  The husband saw the two embracing and was so distraught that he took off running.  He ran until eventually he died from exhaustion and turned into a palm tree that grows areca nuts.
His wife ran after him and upon realizing her husband's death, died of grief and became a betel vine that wrapped around the palm tree.  The twin brother, who was following close behind, stopped near the tree and waited.  He became so bored that he eventually turned into a pile of limestone.  
As one chews, the mixture of the three items turns a bright red and has a similar effect to strong chewing tobacco.  Ones mouth and lips become stained a bright cheery red and ones head buzzes from the toxin.  That last dizzy moment looking at all the red faces and lips of the people who'd accepted me into their home, felt like the first time I was really in Vietnam.