By Kim Megson
(VNS) Christmas is now less than a week away, and festive fever is taking over Ha Noi.
|Shopping spree: Streets crowded with people visiting souvenirs shops before Christmas. — VNA/VNS Photo Nhat Anh
This December I find myself in a new situation. Although I have lived in Viet Nam for a while now, due to work commitments this will be my first Christmas away from England. Although things are set to be very different from what I am used to, I am looking forward to seeing what a Ha Noi Christmas has in store.
This has always been a special time of year for me. Although I am not religious, I love the excitement of Christmas; the opportunity for nostalgia, the ample excuse to watch lots of TV and films and to eat and drink too much.
But I am not getting to downbeat about missing an English Christmas, as I have realised that it is perfectly possible to do several all this in Viet Nam! In fact, the food is better and the beer is cheaper.
The build-up to the 25th is likely to be fairly similar. I am sure that even here, thousands of miles away from home, my familiar traditions will still fall into place. Fairytale of New York by the Pogues will be played on repeat, I will find a copy of some of my favourite Christmas films and I will enjoy bringing out my much-worn winter wear should Ha Noi temperatures begin to plummet. For me, it is these little traditions that make Christmas special and comforting, and they needn't be restricted to a particular location. So, I fully intend to leave my cynicism at the door and enjoy the occasion, despite being so far away from home.
Not that Viet Nam will be short of its own festive cheer this December. My Vietnamese friends are crazy for Christmas. They have told me that to most people the festival is something like a second Valentine's Day – another opportunity for couples to buy gifts for each other and plan romantic gestures. Few people are fully aware of the origins of Christmas, and why it is celebrated, as most of their Christmas knowledge comes from Home Alone. Everyone has heard of Santa Claus though, and throughout December bizarre sightings of fleets of Santas on motorbikes or shopping in the Old Quarter have been reported.
Some schools even accommodate visits by Santa, although this practice can be controversial following a case last year where one such Santa only gave gifts to the children whose parents had paid him to do so, rather missing the spirit of the season.
Kitsch and glitter are an irresistible combination for many Vietnamese people, and Christmas creates the perfect opportunity to indulge. Add in the prospect of alcohol and you are on to a sure fire winner. Christmas trees, decorations and banners all appear, and then stay resolutely in place for months while street vendors often try to attract customers by blaring out atonal Christmas medleys – a trick that they sometimes try to continue into the middle of summer.
It seems that large hotels have particularly embraced the Christmas phenomenon and the growing excitement local people have for the event, and are often decked out with Yuletide decorations. Companies too are getting in on the act, with Heineken (one of the country's most popular beers) famous in Viet Nam for publicly displaying large pyramids of their green bottles to represent Christmas trees. Shopping centres have also welcomed Christmas with open arms, recognising its vast earning potential.
It is a little ironic that a mostly secular, socialist country has so embraced this festival, which is often criticised at home for becoming too consumerist and commercial. In some ways it is a fascinating indicator of the way Viet Nam is developing and which parts of other cultures it has acquired, and how these have changed along the way.
If the local approach to Christmas isn't enough for people far from home, fellow foreigners here can be trusted to bring their own Christmas cheer to Viet Nam. Chances are there will be a house party being organised somewhere near you, with the one person lucky enough to own an oven being mercilessly persuaded to offer its services for a day. Try to take advantage of Christmas spirit and get yourself an invitation!
As for me, I think I will celebrate Christmas in my own way. I will happily return to my old habits, but not without forgetting about where I am, and how lucky I am to be here. So, I already have plans to watch A Muppet Christmas Carol with a glass of warm tra chanh [tea with lime], and to put on an old Christmas compilation playlist while cooking some my xao [stir-fried noodle]. Come Christmas Day I will probably do some last minute shopping for gifts at my local market before taking a xe om to the nearest Christmas party.
But wherever you are, and however you choose to celebrate – I hope you have a very happy Christmas! Chuc mung Giang sinh! — VNS