The wedding industry in Vietnam is booming. Owen Salisbury delves into the costs of putting on that dream wedding. He comes out the other end in a sweat
You’ve seen them: ranks of uniformed young Vietnamese men, flanking red carpets alongside a phalanx of young Vietnamese women in prom gowns. A white building towers behind them, columned and bearing a glittering gold sign.
Yet another Vietnamese wedding, another link in an exploding multimillion-dollar industry that is all gleaming dreams in front, all sweat and duct tape in back.
Inside, count the half-dozen photographers, the videographer, event staff, venue staff. Watch bridesmaids practice their dance routine. Watch people stuff envelopes into a mirror-fronted box that could hide a mastiff.
Most expats have been to at least one Vietnamese wedding. You’ve probably wondered at some of the details — the dancing bridesmaids, the red sparkling wine, the terrible karaoke, the brevity of the event. Yet as a countrywide industry, planned weddings arranged by professionals like Royal Swans or Bliss Wedding Planners are only a couple of decades old.
For most of the country — outside the middle and upper classes and the aspirational not-quite-poor — weddings are still put on by extended family because most workers, at an average annual salary of around VND40 million, cannot afford a planned one.
As the country grows in prosperity, of course, that will change — to the joy of the wedding industry professionals.
At a Cost
I sat down with Nguyen Thi My Dung, who, after years as an event planner, founded Royal Swans, Ltd., to talk about weddings. Full disclosure: she’s also my long-time girlfriend.
The following breakdown is based on her years of experience, corroborated by other sources. Read prices as including “... and up” because, we all know, there’s always someone who wants diamonds instead of cut glass.
In Dung’s experience, planned weddings cost from VND200 million up to VND1 billion, all in. Costs vary according to food, decorations, photography and videography, and much more.
The list of costs associated with weddings is long, which is why Vietnamese couples, like their counterparts around the world, may begin planning 12 months before the happy event.
Bear in mind, these prices are for average clients. Like everywhere else, celebrity weddings and the weddings of the stratospheric class are in a different price universe altogether.
Let’s start with that white-columned temple to romance. Interestingly, the venue itself is often free, as venues make their profit from food; the hotpot, beer and chicken with sticky rice served at nearly every wedding. Costs might be per guest or per table, but VND3 million to VND6 million per table is fairly standard. Reception lines (PGs or P-Boys in industry slang) may be free, or cost VND100,000 to VND200,000 per head.
Drinks come in two forms: two hours of free-flowing beer and soft drinks cost about VND100,000 to VND300,000 per person. If your guests don’t drink much, or you plan on kicking them out before they get drunk, arrange per-drink charges — venues charge as little as VND15,000 per beer or soda.
Oh, and those bottles of wine poured into the pyramid of champagne coupes? A gift from the venue, typically red (or reddish) to wish the couple luck. Don’t expect Dom Perignon — it’s usually cheap Hungarian sparkling rosé.
The real expenses come elsewhere. Want nice wedding photographs? Vietnamese wedding photographs come in two varieties. First, the pre-wedding; the couple doing cute things around the city (or world), which runs anywhere from VND10 million to VND25 million, depending on the reputation of the photographer or studio. Second, the ‘journalistic’ photos, taken at the event itself, which cost from VND3 million to VND20 million. Again, reputation determines price. The upper echelon of wedding photographers costs up to VND100 million.
What about nice wedding videos? The same conditions apply as with photographers — there’s the pre-wedding video, and the guy dodging drunken guests and trying not to trip over children at the event itself. There again, for the pre-wedding version, the cost might run from VND10 million to 25 million, with videography at the event costing about the same.
Decor can cost VND10 million to VND200 million, with a rough average of VND50 million.
From here it gets even more complicated — do you want music? The venue can provide, or you can hire a DJ (VND5 million) or a band (VND10 million, perhaps double if they provide dancers.)
Does the bride want two, three or four dresses? That’s VND7 million each to buy, and VND1 million to VND6 million to hire. Hair and makeup? Anywhere from VND800,000 for an unknown artist using cheap cosmetics to as much as VND10 million for a famous artiste applying Chanel.
And the groom? His suits are cheaper, costing around VND3 million. But he must spring for rings — VND2.5 million to VND20 million. Each.
Vestiges of Tradition
None of this includes the traditional ceremony, which costs an average of VND3 million (and which has a specialised sub-section of the wedding industry devoted to it) and can rise to as much as VND50 million. These ceremonies are interesting in themselves; people always bring strictly ritualized, predetermined gifts in groups of five, six or nine to conform to Feng Shui principles (five for born together, six for get old together, nine for dying together, avoiding the ill-luck of the getting sick part of the cycle.) If a couple lacks enough friends or family to carry the gifts from the bride’s parents’ house to the groom’s parents’ house, PGs and P-Boys can be hired.
This is perhaps the most authentic part of Vietnamese wedding tradition left; most of the modern craze for planned weddings seems to be a cultural import, albeit with a Vietnamese twist.
Guest lists vary widely, but over 300 isn’t unusual, sometimes up to 1,200. Guests bring lucky money to help the couple get a start in life, and the average amount per guest goes from VND500,000 upwards.
Apparently, somewhere between 80 and 90 percent of couples marrying expect to make a profit from the wedding. That’s not their sole or even main reason for tying the knot, of course, meaning merely that they’ve budgeted less than the lucky money they hope to receive. Like in the West —traditionally, anyway — parents pay for weddings, but expect to be at least partly paid back via lucky money.
What’s with lucky money, anyway? What happened to a nice old-fashioned punch bowl, blender, or gravy boat?
Lucky money is a relatively recent innovation that probably took hold around the same time the modern wedding industry took off. In former, less prosperous times, gifts made more sense. People donated time to prepare the wedding, and bought gifts to help the new couple prepare a new household.
What changed? Partly convenience, and partly the costs of a planned wedding. What good is a gravy boat to a couple that’s just spent VND200 million on a wedding? Also, lacking wedding registries, newlyweds could end up with six or seven punch bowls, and who needs that?
Everybody, however, needs cash.
That’s one bit to remember; everyone involved has a financial stake. Planners, photographers, dressmakers, even the blushing bride and grinning groom. So let’s not forget the romance, the toasts of happiness, the vows of joy ... but let’s remember that we’re examining an industry, and an expensive one at that.
Photos courtesy of Bliss Wedding Planners. For more information on Bliss, click on blissvn.com/en.