In a matter of months I will turn 21. Not only does this mark 21 years of me wallowing in loneliness, but it also marks three years since what I like to call ‘The Vietnam Incident’. And no, that’s not a Sherlock Holmes book.
Some people look at their lives as sitcoms, with themselves playing the main character and their close friends as series regulars. I look at mine a tad differently. If every minute of my life had been caught on film (okay, perhaps not every minute), then I would look at it as some sort of gonzo journalism documentary- just without the journalism. Ever since I approached a somewhat well-known vicar with a tree branch at my brother’s christening and threatened to “knock his block off”, my life has been filled with unusual and ridiculously stupid events. These range from fainting in the middle of an Australian rainforest whilst holding a candle and singing spiritual songs about gnomes, to when I almost fell off a cliff whilst skiing, or the time I accidentally went swimming in a crocodile infested river. But the most extraordinary incident to occur to me is ‘The Vietnam Incident’.
Unlike Las Vegas, there is no unwritten rule that whatever happens in Vietnam must stay there, so I will now tell the story of the time I almost got married.
It was 2014, I was 18 and in my final year of high school in Sydney, Australia. For our final school trip, my class of 10 people decided we wanted to travel to Vietnam for four weeks to do charity work. This may sound like an altruistic thing to do, however we were really just inspired by the Top Gear Vietnam Special, during which James May swims to the finish point with a statue in hand. The plan was to travel from Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in the south to Hanoi in the north. Along the way we would help a group of nuns take care of disabled orphans, help out at a monkey and turtle conservation site, and build two classrooms for local students at a rural town.
I managed the first two fine, besides a small incident involving a machete (at the conservation site- not the orphanage), however when it came to the construction work, things got a bit strange.
The small village, a few hours away from the city of Huế, was centred around a large church run by a Catholic priest named Father Phu, whose house we stayed in during our three night stay. During the day we did construction work with some local men- none of whom spoke any English. Then, at night, we would eat dinner with Father Phu, and another priest called Father Xu, and then sleep on mats on the floor (next to a large jar, which I later discovered contained a dead bird preserved in methylated spirits).
On the final day, when the construction work was finished, we watched the children flood into the newly-built classrooms with smiles on their faces. Even years later I still haven’t been able to match how happy I felt seeing that.
In the evening, the locals threw us a big party. The night started off with a group performance of ‘You Raise Me Up’ by Westlife, which was sung by a group of 17 and 18-year-old students. It was a weird song choice, I thought, however by the end of the evening it was hardly memorable considering the other odd events that took place.
After dinner I approached our Vietnamese translator, a man named Tan, who was sitting with Fathers Phu and Xu, as well as my school teachers. I told him that I loved Vietnam and wanted to stay, and then joked that I was going to marry someone so I could do so. “Just in case I need it, how do you say ‘will you marry me?’ in Vietnamese?” I asked him.
Phu jumped out of his seat and pulled out a microphone from what I can only assume was his back pocket. He came over to me, smiling, and said “Pick a girl!”. This was when I knew I made a mistake. I looked around for help, but my teachers were filming and laughing at me. I was on my own.
I assured him I was joking and didn’t really having my heart set on marrying a Vietnamese girl I had only just met, but this only encouraged him more. As I refused to answer his question, he put his lips to the microphone and his arm around me. Now everyone was looking. He said something in Vietnamese, which was later translated as: “Who wants to marry this boy?”. Two hands shot up. I was actually quite surprised. But I knew I was in too deep. I suddenly visioned my future, living in a hut in the Vietnamese rice fields, raising three children with a wife that didn’t even speak the same language as me.
Phu chose one of the girls and she came and stood beside me. Her English was extremely good, and she later told me that this was because she was studying to become tour guide. I was given the microphone and told to propose in Vietnamese. Of course, I did so. She said yes, because apparently ladies love sunburned men wearing Hawaiian shirts. Then, the took the microphone and stood to the side. Everyone started cheering.
If I learned one thing about Vietnamese people during my time in Vietnam, it’s that they love karaoke. They really love karaoke. We once cycled through the countryside to the soundtrack of people in several different houses singing karaoke, loudly. So now, in true Vietnamese fashion, this girl was going to sing a song for me. She chose Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Because of You’. It’s not my favourite song but it was fine.
After she finished singing, we all clapped, but then Phu handed the microphone to me. “Now it’s your turn!” He said. Oh fantastic. Tan reiterated that, now the girl had sung to me, I needed to woo her by singing a song in return. It seems that Vietnamese marriage proposals work by reenacting Disney films. But, considering my lack of embarrassment when it comes to singing to complete strangers, I agreed.
This wasn’t exactly an X Factor audition. I didn’t have time to prepare a song before hand, so I had to quickly think of one on the spot. For some reason, the first song that came into my mind was ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell. It was filled with high notes and I forgot the words a couple of times, but I got a standing ovation at the end. Also a video of my cover has been immortalised on Facebook and I imagine one day I’ll make it into the iTunes charts.
When my performance was over, the girl came up to me and asked me how old I was. I told her I was 18 and she replied that she was “too old” for me, as she was 25. Never fear, however, because she had found a replacement wife in the form of a 17-year-old girl named Yến. Now I was feeling extremely uncomfortable. My friends and I managed to spend some time and take photos with Yến and her friends, despite none of us knowing Vietnamese and none of them knowing English.
When the party had finished, we said goodbye. The next morning we packed our stuff onto the bus and left the parish, never to return. After a few hours of driving and joking about the previous night’s events, we arrived at our hotel. I logged on to a computer and checked Facebook. A notification popped up. ‘Yến has added you as a friend!’.
Dear Deidre, there may not have been a ring, but I popped the question in front of two priests. Does this mean I'm actually engaged?