My latest column for The Word is proof, if you hadn’t realised it already, that being married to a strong Vietnamese woman gives you plenty of material to write.
My wife suggests I buy an Air Blade. A friend of hers has one.
“You could put your shopping under the seat.”
I don’t do any shopping. I’m not trusted to do shopping. I’d apparently only pay too much.
I put my foot down. If we’re talking automatics I definitely don’t want a Honda SH. They’re universally driven by morons. The Honda asSHole: for people with an SUV attitude but not quite the money to back it up. The Honda SHithead. I could go on.
Read it in full here. Click the pic of the Word to download the full magazine.
My wife’s taste for chicken feet is, more often than not, something she indulges when I’m not around.
She knows not only can’t I stomach the things, I cringe just watching her eat them. With some Vietnamese food I feel the challenge of actually finding protein between skin, gristle and bone is more the point than actually filling your belly or even enjoying the taste.
Occasionally when chicken feet are craved, but I’m in the house, the concession is I get to ring for a pizza. The implied deal is she won’t mention the fact that it’s both expensive and unhealthy. Then we both silently stuff ourselves with our mutually-repulsive food.
One of my wife’s closest friends lives a few alleys down and she too is married to a Brit. Recently, when he was not around, they met, chatted and munched chicken feet without anyone to disapprove.
She came back with a tale of another Anglo Vietnamese union where the pair had moved to the UK. After several months the wife craved chicken feet so much she overcame her shyness and asked her local butcher if he could supply them.
“The butcher said she could have as many chicken feet as she liked,” she tells me, “for free!”
Truly a promised land.
Earlier this week, The Cart specials popped up on my Twitter feed and I was happy to see, for the first time, Irish stew among the items on offer. It prompted the post below and the explanation of how it has come to mean more to me than the sum of its potatoes, carrots etc.
As a foreigner, before you can marry a Vietnamese national, you have to go through the kind of interview best known for its dramatisation in the movie Green Card.
Basically they want to check it’s not just a marriage of convenience.
Having seen the movie, I filled my head with lots of useless facts about her family and her favourite food, cosmetics, TV shows etc. In reality the interview was actually a lot more friendly than I’d imagined.
After a general chat they suddenly hit me with: “When did you realise that you had fallen in love with your wife to be?”
Had I prepared an answer then I may have come up with something that made me look a little less bad. Then again any other answer would have been a lie.
“When she made me Irish stew,” I said.
I’m not proud of it but there was some sentiment behind it rather than just my-wife-as-personal-chef. Honestly we both cook as much as each other.
You see I’d just spent a lonely year in rural Cameroon. A year which in many ways I had chosen to do after the break up of a pretty disastrous relationship.
In my new apartment in Hanoi I was still marvelling that hot water came out of the tap every single time I turned it on. I’d stand there grinning and shaking my head in wonder as the steam rose.
I had just met my now wife and I had cooked for her first. Some days later she told me that she would return the favour but wouldn’t tell me what she was making. I’m pretty good with Vietnamese food but feared it might be something I’d struggle with. Either way I was working down the other end of the studio flat as these amazing smells wafted by.
I kept asking what it was and she’d tell me it was a surprise.
Finally she relented and said: “It’s Irish stew”.
Still bruised from a previous relationship, still grateful for home comforts after Africa, I nearly burst into tears on the spot. Making me food was one thing, going to the effort of researching how to cook something so foreign moved me beyond words.
Now, just over a year into the marriage, I teasingly sometimes refer to the Irish stew moment as being “back then” when she’d do anything for me (and I for her).
“That was my trap”, she says, with a mock evil glint in her eye.
I returned home yesterday to find the front door open.
That’s something I can get stroppy about as the mosquitoes tend to collect in the porch area but by this time, I guess, they were all in the house.
Anyway, my wife was there, talking to the landlady as if they were old friends. They laughed and joked and didn’t break conversational stride as I entered.
Every so often they’d look in my general direction as if I’d just been mentioned. I know now that it’s not worth asking what they were saying nor feeling paranoid that it might not be all good.
I know what they were talking about. Men.
Men are a burden.
They were comparing burdens.
This sisterhood is endlessly fascinating to me. The way Vietnamese females can make instant friends with another woman. A genuine bond beyond the usual smile and introduction.
Scared of being culturally insensitive or being guilty of expat gruffness I tend to be very accepting of service in restaurants and hotels. My wife is far more aggressive when it comes to getting what she thinks she is entitled too.
Yet, there are also times when I catch that look between her and the waitress. A look that says something isn’t quite right but let’s not make a big deal about it.
The waitress smiles grateful that a fuss hasn’t been made and she quietly fixes the issue.
It’s me again. I’m the burden.
They can both imagine the fuss that a man might make if he spotted the problem.
We have two en suites in our house, both of them with showers. We’ve long talked about replacing one with a bath. Spending money on a rental house makes little sense but with buying out of the question then sometimes you’ll invest if you plan to stay long term.
A bath needs a much larger water tank so that’s not cheap never mind the cost of the tub itself and the price of installing it. Who pays?
Beyond the failings of men, that’s what the wider conversation was about between my wife and the landlady. Quiet negotiations aimed at reaching the quickest, most amicable solution.
It was sorted in seconds.
Vietnamese women deny it but they absolutely run this country.
Opportunities are opening up for them in such a way now that I sometimes struggle to work out what roles will be left for men in just a few years time.
This sisterhood is unstoppable.
Grooms should be given the same advice as football players at a cup final – take time to enjoy the day or it’ll pass in a haze.
Even now, just over a week on, it seems like it happened to someone else. A Vietnamese blue marquee event in the morning with a cast of hundreds. A smattering of my extended Vietnamese family and assorted must-invitees from “their countryside”.
Then later a lakeside reception with a smaller more international crowd.
It started the night before which became an impromptu stag do with friends that had arrived from home. It wasn’t meant to be that way. Two beers with a mate fresh off the plane, followed by two more at dinner. Parents headed back to the house while friends promised just a couple more. Then they switched allegiances, twisting my arm to stay for a further three then four.
But I needed it. I was dead on my feet that week. Work pressures, worry and stress. I needed those friends from home just as I needed the night out.
The next morning. A headachey start. A beautiful day. Undoubtedly the most beautiful of the year.
Our minibus to the bride’s home is repeatedly stuck in traffic due to Asean motorcades. The bride is kept waiting at the altar. She calls. Friends giggle at the earbashing they imagine I’m receiving.
Then, by this time sweating, I climb the stairs again. Now with both bride and father in law. We approach the altar at the top of the house – dedicated to family ancestors. We burn incense.
We are married.
A short walk to the marquee – greeting people outside as they arrive and again, individually at tables. Both sets of parents joining us as we go table to table shaking hands and clinking glasses.
Soon I’m taking my wife home. In the evening she is to swap her traditional ao dai for a western white wedding dress. That means we can’t set off for the reception together – I want to be surprised by that dress too. I get there early to do the greeting – she is to arrive later for a big entrance.
Her “Here Comes the Bride” music is the Local Hero theme. We both love the film but it’s also a private joke for me and friends from Newcastle. Local Hero is the music my team run out to. I meet her at the gate and we pose like a red carpet couple – flash photography surrounds us. She looks heart stoppingly beautiful.
I am aware of my lip wobbling and my eyes watering.
And we do what you do. We mingle – often apart. Trying to spend time with each guest. Trying to introduce those on their own to others. We intend to not get involved in the running of the event but we have to sort out music and the timing and after we’ve eaten – the speech.
My father in law spoke at the lunch time event so now it’s our turn. My Father thanks everyone and, in the absence of a best man, I make a longer speech.
My notes soon go out the window. I tell how we met. I tell them how I had to fight myself not to ask Loan to marry me after only two weeks. I thank my parents for their ongoing support and their understanding. I thank my friends for making the long long trip to Hanoi.
Incredibly, without those notes I almost forgot to thank my inlaws. To do so would be unthinkable. I remember in the nick of time. Just before the toast.
Glasses are raised: “To the bride!”
Glitter cannons go off. We’re in a whirl of smiles now. We fill a pyramid of champagne glasses. Already undrinkable Russian champagne made literally poisonous by a “dry ice” chemical in the glasses.
And then the first dance. Grow Old With Me. The Glen Campbell version.
And these are the moments. Whole minutes perhaps. Speeches, glitter, smiling friends, dancing with my girl, other couples joining in.
And the look on Loan’s face is as it should be. Like she too thought she would never enjoy such a moment. A moment not just worth the stress, hassle and expense of a wedding but also a lifetime wait.
Grow old along with me. The best is yet to come.
Then dancing and drinking. Good times. The group slowly diminishing and then, with the music off, stragglers sit around to talk a while.
Before long Taxis come and soon it’s just us again.
Being Vietnamese, my wife asks for the buffet leftovers as takeaway.
It being Hanoi we drive the short distance home by scooter. The five foot sober bride drives in her wedding dress. The six foot, worse-for-wear groom is on the back, carrying armfuls of presents.
Most of the day is already a haze. Most but not all.
A life together starts here.
Grow old along with me
Two branches of one tree
Face the setting sun
When the day is done