Friday, 23 April 2010

The story of our wedding

The garden of the guesthouse is lush and beautiful. I am surrounded by high grass, palm trees and numerous tropical plants in different shades of green. A tree is in bloom, majestically red. Blue and lilac and violet flowers are scattered around, huge lilies fill the pond. Expressionist extravagance, and a paradise for the many birds, bumblebees and butterflies that are as colourful as the flowers they enjoy. Intensely sweet fragrances fill the warm air. A small bird with red-brownish feathers and a blue beak as big as its head visits me. His beak is impressive, but not as strikingly blue as the fluorescent tails of the thin lizards that are sunbathing on the rocks, near the laundry, which dries very quickly in this weather. A single frog starts a song, but he is not accompanied by the others, who are too busy sleeping. They will wake up and sing tonight, a concert loud and proud. Right now, the sounds are more subtle: the singing of birds, a breeze through the leaves, a faraway buffalo or motorbike, playing children.

It is noon, a Tuesday in April, a perfect day for laziness. No need to hurry or worry, not yet, not here. The sky is picture-perfect blue, the cotton clouds still white and kind, but rain will fall later this afternoon. We are near the equator, after all, where water moves rapidly up and down, from sky to earth and back. I am in the garden of a small but friendly family hotel called Pia's Poppies, near the town of Rantepao, in the land of the Toraja. It is a land of mesmerising landscapes and intriguing cultures, warm and welcoming. It is located on the island of Sulawesi, a geographical, ecological and cultural borderland, strange and intriguing, diverse and unique. This is the land where my grandparents chose to live, more than sixty years ago, and where, consequently, my mother was born. I visited it once before, a year and a couple of months ago, and instantly fell in love with it. I knew I would come back some time, but I did not know it would be so soon. I was alone, at the time.

A lot has happened since. I left Indonesia to continue my journey, I returned to the northern hemisphere. First to Cambodia, odd mixture of grand beauty and dark ugliness, where I did not want to stay. Then to Vietnam, proud and busy marketplace, rich in traditions, rapidly changing and reinventing itself. I did not intend to stay very long in Vietnam either, as I thought I was on my way to some other East Asian country, further north. But when I came to tiny tourist town Hoi An, I fell in love again: with the smell of rice paddies, with the beautiful beaches, and with the young woman whose path crossed mine. I abandoned my plans, not very difficult as they were not fixed anyway, and adopted new ones. I stayed with her. With Nhung.

Everything changed. We were together, we were serious, we believed. We travelled around. We learned about and from each other. We enjoyed the natural beauty, the motorbike rides, the seafood, the talks, the discoveries. We visited my country, some other countries, then went back to hers. We fled the gossip of the small town and moved to anonymous Hanoi, the capital city, where we found new jobs. We fought the bureaucracy, we prayed to the gods and the Buddhas, we made new plans for the future. We celebrated our birthdays, Christmas, Vietnamese New Year, and our first anniversary. And on April 10th 2010, the 26th day of the second lunar month in the year of the tiger, we got married. Two weeks ago.

We went back to Hoi An, a couple of days before the wedding. I stayed in lovely and friendly Hoang Trinh Hotel, next to the Confucian temple, with my parents, sister, uncle and friend. My brother and his girlfriend joined us a few days later. The days were filled with various preparations, so there was little time to relax. Nevertheless, I could not help but get a pleasant holiday feeling as I enjoyed the sunny weather, the delicious seafood, and the company of family and friends. We all had new suits and dresses made, cheap and pretty. With my father, uncle and friend, I celebrated what must have been the smallest bachelor party in history. No strippers, dirty jokes or large quantities of alcohol involved - just cake, cigars, some whiskey and talks about politics. I enjoyed it tremendously.

The wedding was on a sunny Saturday. We had to get up very early, in good Vietnamese fashion, as we had been told by an astrologist to have the official ceremony at 7.45 am. Needless to say, astrologists’ advices ought to be followed – so I got up at 5.30, we had breakfast at six, and we got together at seven in the lobby of the hotel. As we had chosen to have a wedding ceremony in traditional Vietnamese style, my family had to walk in procession to Nhung’s parents' house, carrying official gifts for her family: a wedding cake, candles, jewellery, wine and tea, nem cha rice cake, and betel nuts. The gifts were carried by Jinko, my brother; Anoek, his girlfriend; Annekyra, my sister; Jan, my friend and best man; Katsuo, a Japanese friend from Tokyo; and Dung, a Vietnamese friend from Hanoi. They were followed by Fred, my uncle who was to act as minister during the ceremony; Wim, my father; Gerrie, my mother; and, finally, me. Hien, another Vietnamese friend from Hanoi, was filming. I wore ao dai (traditional Vietnamese dress); and so did my mother and sister.

When we arrived at Nhung's family's house, we were greeted by her parents, sisters, brothers-in-law and other family members. Five representatives of each family entered the small living room, while other friends and relatives stayed in the garden. The gifts were placed on the ancestral altar, the candles lit. Both fathers gave a short speech, asking for each other's permission for the wedding. Nhung's friend Ly Na helped us a lot by acting as interpreter. Then, I was invited to go to the bride's room, knock on her door, give her flowers, and ask her to come. I happily did so, and sang her a song both of us know quite well. Nobody else could hear it.

We went back to the living room, where we prayed to the ancestors. Next, my uncle Fred gave a short but beautiful speech in English, which was followed by our wedding promise and by giving each other the wedding rings. He then proclaimed us husband and wife. Afterwards, we received gifts from our relatives, one by one, while posing for the photographer.

The families drank tea and ate cake, while the couple had to pose for more pictures at the front gate of the house. After an hour or so, we went back to the hotel, with members of both families. The hotel owner had kindly arranged a table for us, and served coffee, while the two of us went to our room - our symbolic first time together. We only had five minutes, however, before the photographer came to register this moment. No time for procreating yet, although later that day Nhung's sisters happily made references to their young sister's supposed introduction to some of life's secrets.

We went to the restaurant of our brother-in-law, Van Hanh Restaurant, where the lunch party would take place. It was a small wedding party, to Vietnamese standards - there were 'only' about one hundred guests, while five hundred is more common, but we wanted to keep it small. We greeted our guests, we cheered, we posed for pictures. We symbolically poured champagne nobody would drink into a pyramid of glasses already filled with cold tea, while somebody lit fireworks. Our fathers gave speeches, and seemed proud. Next, we changed from the traditional ao dai dresses we had been wearing all morning to Western clothes. We cheered again, we posed again. Unfortunately, there was little time for us to sit down, eat and talk to our guests. But we were happy to hear that they enjoyed the lunch very much – our brother-in-law and his employees had made a delicious meal.

It was, in sum, a beautiful morning, a successful mix of East and West, of tradition and innovation, of ritual and spontaneity. It was a dream come true.

But by the time we had said goodbye to our guests (and, for that matter, to the photographer), we were exhausted. Fortunately, we had some time to take a rest at the hotel. Around 4.30, we went to La Plage, a nice, small restaurant on An Bang Beach, owned by a friendly French-American couple. We had invited about thirty friends, colleagues and close relatives to enjoy a second party, less official and more relaxed than the lunch party. La Plage has a beautiful and peaceful location, and everybody sat back and enjoyed the nice views, the lovely weather and the good company. We had a great dinner of grilled fish, chicken and a number of vegetarian dishes. After dinner, my family and friends surprised us with a slideshow of old pictures, a song, and a quiz. Around nine, we started dancing. My friend Jan had made a perfect playlist, and we danced on a wonderfully idiosyncratic mix of classic pop songs, salsa, rock ‘n roll, Arab pop songs, disco, love songs, and dance music from the 90s. I had not had so much fun in a long time.

Around 11, the party ended. We were sad we had to say goodbye to some of our friends, but happy and grateful they had come to celebrate this special day with us. Their presence was the greatest gift of all.

The next day, we visited the Cham sanctuary of My Son with my family. We prayed to the gods of the mountains, old and powerful. We admired the remaining structures. We played and built stone statues in the creek. We collected wild chamomile, as I always do when I visit My Son. We played quiz games in the car.

Then, on Monday, it was time to say goodbye to Hoi An, and to Nhung’s family, who had done so much for us, and without whose help we could not have organised the wedding. We also said goodbye to Fred and Jan. Partir, c’est mourir un peu – especially after a week so intense, so full of joy. But we left. We went to the land of the Toraja.

The story of our wedding has come to an end. But the story of our life together has only just begun.

To be continued.


P.S. If you want to see pictures of the wedding: some of my friends have posted pictures on facebook, so you can have a look at my profile. Of course I will also post some more pictures on Rotsblog - within the next couple of days, hopefully.

P.P.S. Thank you all very much for all your great emails, wall posts, messages, letters and presents! They mean a lot to us. I am sorry I have not had time yet to reply to most of you - it has been a busy period - but I promise I will do so soon.

P.P.P.S. As some of you know, we intend to organise another wedding party later this year, in the Netherlands. For visa reasons, we may not be able to do it this summer, so we are now thinking about the end of December. We'll keep you posted!


  1. Gefeliciteerd Aike! En dank voor de mooie beschrijving :)

  2. Dream come true wedding!!! Omedetou again ;)
    I was crying while watching you two at the ceremony, to be honest! I hope I will be able to have such a great day like yours in the future!
    Looking forward to your happy life story ;)

  3. Gefeliciteerd! Echt een prachtige bescrijving...fantastisch! :) Eind december zou wel leuk zijn... :)

  4. Lieve Aike & Nhung,

    Prachtige afsluiting (en begin!) van jullie verhaal over ontmoeting, samen reizen en leren kennen. Dank daarvoor. Van harte gefeliciteerd!

    Liefs, Ike

  5. Congratulations, the story of the wedding sounds lovely. I wish you all the happiness together!!

  6. Man, wat kan jij machtig mooi schrijven. Ik werd er serieus emotioneel van. Maar goed, ik had tussendoor ook "Het Land van de Voorouders" gelezen, dus ik had al vochtige ogen..
    Enorm gefeliciteerd met jullie gelukkig samenzijn.