First impressions of Christmas in Việt Nam

Update: January, 06/2019 - 07:00
Illustration by Trịnh Lập
Viet Nam News

By Paul Kennedy

I met an Australian guy in a bar a few months ago who has been living in Việt Nam for just shy of ten years. I asked him what Christmas was like in Hà Nội?

“What day does it fall on?” he asked.

After a quick check of the calendar and I told him Christmas Day was on a Tuesday.

“It’ll be like a Tuesday then,” was his reply.

I didn’t believe him and I hoped he was wrong. He wasn’t.

The build-up to this year’s Holiday season made me think of those before. Last year, for first time in six Christmas’s past, I was actually at home with my family.

We woke and had Christmas breakfast. Presents were shared, unwrapped and I felt like a kid again. Come opening time I went to the pub with my father and brother-in-law, a tradition that dates back as far as I can remember.

After Christmas dinner and purposely not turning the TV on for the Queen’s speech, I probably fell asleep on the couch watching a James Bond movie I had seen many times before. It was perfect.

New Year’s Eve came and went pretty much the way it is meant to. Family, friends, booze and parties. Hugs and handshakes exchanged on the stroke of midnight and traditions of ‘letting in the new year’ followed as they should be.

This year however wasn’t the same. Why? Because I was in Việt Nam. My first ever Christmas in Asia.

In the build-up I wasn’t (thankfully) bombarded with television adverts telling me what I should be buying as presents for those I care about (if they were there I couldn’t understand them anyway), the office Christmas party was good fun, but the mildest I’ve ever been to in my life and the only real reminder of the time of year was the odd half-hearted Christmas tree in an office foyer and decorations for sale at major supermarkets.

I woke on Christmas morning and went to work. Along with most of expats living in Việt Nam. There were no presents to open, no pub to visit, no turkey to carve and New Year came and went with a similar lack of gusto.

Sure, if I wanted too I could’ve sought out a party and found someone to sing Auld Lang Syne with, and there were plenty of bars offering Christmas dinners with all the trimmings, but I really couldn’t be bothered.

When in Rome do as the Romans do the saying goes. That can easily be adapted for Việt Nam’s capital. When in Hà Nội don’t do as the westerners do.

I no longer live in England. I live in Việt Nam.

Therefore should I really go down the route of introducing a non-Vietnamese tradition into the country I now call home? Should I insist on not working Christmas Day, spend the 25th wearing a ridiculous jumper and seek out a piece of coal to take to my apartment on the first day of the New Year?

Probably not.

But I wonder if I’m alone in thinking I shouldn’t be rocking the boat or upsetting any apple carts in country where Christmas, on the whole, is not celebrated?

Speaking to locals I have learned they have noticed an uprising in recent years of more and more Christmas traditions creeping into Vietnamese life.

I’m not talking about celebrating the birth of his Lord Jesus Christ, savior of all mankind (If that’s what you believe) or using the holiday season to ensure goodwill to all, I’m talking about the real, true modern meaning of Christmas. Shopping.

The more children see images of a fat bloke in a red suit with a white beard the more they will believe in Santa. And the more pressure will be put on parents to buy presents. It may start off as sweets, chocolate and the odd toy or game, but before you know it, it will be tablets, smartphones and designer clothes.

Good thing? I don’t know. Maybe and there’s nothing wrong with the sight of a happy child opening up a present believing the man in red dropped it off the night before.

The world is changing and Việt Nam is changing at a mind-boggling pace. Somethings for the better, others, not so.

Next year Christmas Day falls on a Wednesday and I wonder what it will be like?

Half of me longs for Christmas’s past when I can be with friends and family, going to the pub with my father and watching Moonraker.

But it has to be said there is part of me that hopes beyond hope it will be, well, kinda like a Wednesday. VNS