Despite being a mixed Viet Kieu, Czech wedding, when Maia and Marek got married in Hanoi, they kept with tradition. Words and photos by Jesse Meadows
I met Maia and Marek when I first got to Hanoi. Maia is Vietnamese, but grew up in the Czech Republic. She met Marek, originally from Brno, in university, and they had since moved to Hanoi together to work as architects. In a globalised world, geographic boundaries are quickly becoming obsolete, and love is no exception to this rule.
Around 4 million Vietnamese live overseas, and many are returning to the home front with a foreign partner. Maia and Marek asked me to photograph their wedding, because they had seen the cheesy stuff, and they didn’t want that. They just wanted documentation. So what happens when you combine two cultures that have vastly different marriage customs?
The Vietnamese Part
On the day, I arrived too early, so Maia’s family took turns posing with me in front of a massive purple-and-white flower arrangement while I waited for the flustered bride to arrive. “I’m so sorry,” she apologised as she rushed us upstairs to start the make-up process. She was fielding phone calls left and right, organising bridesmaid meet-ups in the Old Quarter while the make-up artist painted her face.
Maia had planned the whole thing herself, even down to the tiny dried flowers she had found at the late night market and attached to her invitations. Someone brought up boiled chicken and fried rice and we sat around on the floor shovelling the food into our mouths. Soon the room filled with a flurry of family members, and Mai’s bridesmaids arrived in bright red ao dais.
Lee, her South African best friend, burst into the room in a ball of energy, laughing as she recounted a dangerous mishap on the way there involving the tail of her dress and a motorbike wheel. She could tell Mai was stressing, so she assumed her bridesmaid responsibilities by confiscating her phone and putting a shot of rice wine in her hand.
It was time for everyone to take their places. The maids in red lined up outside the house, waiting to receive offerings from their male counterparts in blue.
The wedding procession, led by Marek’s parents, came around the corner carrying mountains of red and gold gifts. They met the maids-in-waiting and together carried the offerings inside to an altar, around which Maia’s family were sat with tea. Marek went around shaking everyone’s hands, throwing his huge, infectious smile around the room, before ascending the stairs to fetch his bride. We all stood around in the living room, waiting as they prayed together upstairs, cheering as they descended arm-in-arm. One by one, the family bestowed gifts on the couple, in between speeches narrated both in Vietnamese and Czech. Then as soon as it began, it was over, and I jumped on my motorbike to follow the newlyweds’ decked-out Mercedes to the next venue.
Contemporary vs. Tradition
The sun was low when we pulled into the spot, a gorgeous event hall in a sprawling garden, with a hazy view of Hanoi’s skyline across the river. Maia chose this venue for its architectural integrity (she hunted for this location for weeks, the architect in her unsatisfied with the structure of typical wedding halls.) The building’s modern, sleek lines and rustic palm-frond roof were emblematic of the marriage between new and old, contemporary and traditional, that this day represented. Friends and family slowly filtered in, chattering around the cake table. I chugged a beer for my sanity (shooting these events is hard work) and it was time for the wedding, round two.
Maia and Marek walked up the aisle together to applause, and took their places at the front of the crowd with their parents on either side. This time the speeches were in English; the crowd a colourful mix of international friends. The light turned from orange to purple while the new couple placed rings on each other’s fingers, then sliced up their decadent cake hand-over-hand. With a ceremonial toast (the first of many), the formalities were interrupted for dinner.
At this point, I was starving, having photographed two entire weddings in the span of eight hours. I watched hungrily as all my friends sat around eating fried fish and banana flower salad, and I chased the bride and groom around every table for mass toasts, the clinking of glasses in solidarity.
After dinner, we were treated to a show, as Maia’s brother sat down at the piano with Marek’s brother accompanying on violin. We swayed along to covers of The Beatles and Coldplay, with the wine I’d been sneaking in between photographs quickly catching up with me. Luckily, the night was winding down, and most of the attendees had trickled out at this point. The few of us who were left met downstairs in a field behind the banquet hall for the wedding’s intimate grand finale. Maia produced two paper lanterns, with “I love you” scrawled across the front in curly script. With the help of friends, the couple lit fires inside the lanterns, filling them with heat that carried them into the darkness. We watched as they faded from view over the skyline, bright symbols of a love that brings cultures together.