Cultural Differences: The Vietnamese Wedding Reception

Please forgive me.                       English: A wedding in Annam (Middle of Vietnam...

While getting a pedicure the other day I found out I have made a grave mistake.

About fifteen years ago my family was honored to be invited to our neighbor’s daughter’s wedding and reception. Our Vietnamese neighbors were quiet, and neighborly but we did not really get to be close friends until our children were in their teens.  Their children were a little older than ours, which when your child is a toddler and their child is in grade school seems a lot more than a little older.

I like to be neighborly – you know – take a casserole over when someone is sick, etc. But I decided early in the relationship that no one could “outnice” the Nguyens. I would offer a solution to a garden pest problem, I would get cookies, I would take cake, I would get chocolates (the kind filled with liquor, YUM!) and so on. One Chinese New Year I received a banana wrapped steamed rice dish (a Vietnamese specialty that takes a lot of work to make) for no other reason than sheer niceness.

The Nguyens were simply wonderful neighbors. We went through sickness and health and several joyous times together. Especially memorable was being invited to their daughter’s wedding.

The Nguyens were Buddhists. Their daughter converted to Catholicism and married in the Catholic church. We went to the wedding and sat on the bride’s “side”. Besides her immediate family and a few other neighbors, we were practically the only ones sitting on that side of the church. The groom’s “side” was full. We were sad for her.

We went to the reception which was held at a large Vietnamese restaurant downtown. When we walked into the banquet room I was astounded. It was huge. there were probably fifty round table all set for eight. There was a stage, and lights, and no people. The Nguyens were there, a few neighbors, the groom’s parents, the band, and no one else.

Now we were really sad for them.

Wow, throw a big party and no one comes. The small group of us from the neighborhood quickly gathered at one table and sat awkwardly staring at each other.

For two hours.

Exactly two hours later someone must have yelled “go!” because the doors opened and people flooded in. Apparently, we hadn’t read that invitation very well. There was a time printed clear as clear that the reception began at 7 P.M. The wedding had been at 4. Needless to say, we were starved. As our children were young we were used to eating early. (We still do – only now we call it the AARP eating schedule.)

Soon the music started and so did the arrival 0f the food. Course after course. I’ll never forget the lobster dish with the giant “lobster” made of vegetables sitting in the center. So much food. So many people. A DJ and entertainment. It was a grand party. And we ate like royalty.

I was relating this story to the Vietnamese man who was working on my toes.

I don’t recall how we got on the subject. I was with my mother. She loves getting a pedicure so I take her every four or five weeks for one. It does not fail that she asks each person what country they are from. I want to slip under the big massage chair, because my generation assumes that a lot of young Asians are second or third generation American, but I just concentrated on the suds around my ankles.They didn’t get offended. I’m always amazed that they don’t get offended. I think because my mother looks so old and sweet.

So on this day the conversation got around to Vietnamese food – We could smell wonderful things cooking at the noodle house next door – of course we’re going to talk about food. I remembered the delightful show and flavor of the nine-course meal at the wedding reception so many years earlier.

The conversation turned to how much such a thing would cost and the pedicurist said, “you helped pay for it.”

“I don’t think so. How could I?”

“You put money in bucket. It was passed to your table.”

“Bucket? No, I don’t remember a bucket.”



“You were supposed to put money in bucket. That is how the reception is afforded. If you only an acquaintance you put fifty dollar. If you good friend, you put two hundred or so in bucket.”

“What!??” I’m horrified. “I didn’t know.”

Why doesn’t anyone tell about these things. I remember early on the day of the wedding the procession of costumed bride and groom marching from the end of the street to the Nguyen’s house. They told us it was a custom to formally introduce the bride to her in-laws. No one said anything about contributing toward the wedding reception, that it was a cultural thing. Vietnamese wedding receptions are always elaborate – just to different degrees, and the one we were at was big-deal-elaborate. I’m sick. I asked the pedicurist what should I do? and he said that it would be embarrassing to bring it up now.

So I ask you.

After all these years what do I do? Any suggestions? I have not lived near the my former neighbors for about ten years but am still in contact.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Differences: The Vietnamese Wedding Reception”

  1. Hi Rebecca –

    I came across your blog while searching for Vietnamese wording on our wedding invitations since we have to do both English and Vietnamese. I’m not even sure if you still keep up to date with this blog or if you will even read this commet, but I hope you don’t mind me saying that I found your situation quite humorous and I hope 4 years later, this doesn’t bother you anymore. I am sure the families were quite understanding that you had no idea that tradition was that you, as a guest, pay for your own meal basically by gifting the bride and groom with a red envelope with money. It’s not something that is done in American weddings and as a second generation Vietnamese, I actually find it a bit tacky, but I digress.

    Although, if this situation still nags at you from time to time – I do have a suggestion to kind of alleviate that little guilt that we are all, well, guilty of! I’m sure you know about Lunar New Year and our lucky red envelopes. If you still live next to the Nguyens, you could always give them a red envelope with some lucky money (usually new bills). It’s a very big holiday in our culture and I’m sure they would love that you are participating!

    Anyway, I hope this comment finds you and the Nguyens well. If only all neighbors were as kind as you and the Nguyens.


    1. Thank you for your kind words. I don’t live there anymore, and unfortunately have no idea where they are. You’re very sweet. I wish you all the best for your upcoming nuptials!!


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