Illustration by Trịnh Lập
by Nguyễn Mỹ Hà
Has Christmas truly become a holiday in Việt Nam or is the “spirit” found only in the commercialised fanfare seen in big cities and inside large shopping malls?
No, and yes. No, it’s not a holiday, as not even close to everyone has the day off. Offices are still open, but Western companies, NGOs, international schools, and embassies all close their doors for at least a day or two.
Vietnamese Christians celebrate the holiday season within their own community. A manger has been set up in front of Hà Nội’s St Joseph’s Cathedral; its bright lights welcoming the season and 2021.
A look back over turbulent 2020 reveals more sad news than good. Most people overseas are aware of at least one person who has contracted the virus then recovered from the resulting disease or died.
Just prior to this new holiday season of hope, there were new social distancing rules announced around Europe. In Việt Nam, attempts to contain the virus within the treatable zone of doctors and nurses and with a strict 14-day quarantine period for all imported cases have proven effective.
As of December 15, Việt Nam had recorded 1,405 positive cases, of which 1,252 were cured and 35 died. There are still 18,597 people in quarantine camps, while 208 people are being quarantined in hospitals, 15,688 in other certified camps, and 3,061 at home.
Việt Nam has now gone 14 days without any community transmission, after a bit of a scare in HCM City.
Unlike other years, now is not the time for crowded parties or games. It’s time to turn towards your inner circle of family and close friends, and look inward and redefine what’s most important, what’s critical to your well-being and state of happiness.
It’s a time of home workouts, with yoga and meditation joining jogging in large, open public spaces, and of home cooking, to ensure a balanced diet and good nutrition. To save some money, try to make some things yourself, like birthday cards, gift cakes for birthdays (celebrated at home, of course), or even your own beef stock for some home-made phở.
During this difficult time, people tend to be more creative in saving money and cutting down on leisure spending. But is it necessary to cut down on positive thinking and energy?
The answer is a resounding no, but it’s hard to stay positive at times. And for Vietnamese, who tend to spend a lot of time outdoors, it can be hard to confine activities to the four walls of your home.
The community spirit in Việt Nam has always been strong, not only among those in villages but also in urban areas. People love to hang out with the neighbours, and one saying has it that “Neighbours are there for you, turning on the light when it’s dark outside”, meaning they are always first to come to your assistance when you need it.
So, it really is quite hard for your average Vietnamese to be cooped up at home for any extended period. Most people start getting a little crazy.
Sometimes a household runs a little better without the presence of men, so they use this as an excuse to head to a bia hơi pub and not come home too early. But when social distancing was introduced, the men handled it as well as anyone.
No one thought it possible, but the country as a whole did what it had to do.
A couple of days ago, when I was shopping in Hà Nội’s Old Quarter, it was almost shocking to see that souvenir shops along Đinh Liệt, Hàng Gai and Hàng Trống streets were closed. The type of stuff readily bought any other time, like lacquerware picture frames, handicrafts, cards, and chopstick boxes, were suddenly hard to track down.
Tourists have been behind the boom in these little shops since the 1990s. Now, with no tourists and borders closing, so are the shops. Handicraft villages have also been hit, with a major customer source staying in their own home far far away.
Even on these cold winter nights, villagers from near Hà Nội come to the city to find odd jobs and sleep on the street whenever they can before looking for work once more the next morning.
At a seafood shop in the Old Quarter, an elderly man from the Middle East was busy parking motorbikes, cleaning tables, and handing out wet towels to customers. He has been stuck in Hà Nội because of COVID-19 and found this job to make ends meet. He was courteous and focused, and the shop-owner said she was happy to give him a job with two meals a day.
Even in times of despair, the spirit of hope that accompanies Christmas still shines over people who need it most.
Việt Nam has a small community of some 6 million Christians, and Christmas has never been celebrated as widely as it is now. It’s consumerism, I hear you say, and you’d be right. But the positive side of the season spreading hope and kindness, charity and altruism, have also left a mark, with people being more tolerant towards all things.
On a much smaller scale, in my family, I love baking, and this is the only time of year I can make gingerbread houses for my kids and others, filled with the fragrance of cinnamon and orange peel. The dream of all kids growing up was to receive an edible little house decorated with marshmallows and candy sticks.
A small house may cost somewhere between two bowls of phở noodle, but the joy you bring to your children is enormous and they will cherish such memories when they grow up.
“Why do you celebrate Christmas, mum?” my teenager asked in all seriousness, “We’re not even Christians.” She did, of course, love her gingerbread houses when she was growing up.
“Because it’s a happy time of year, when you get lots of presents,” her younger sister quickly answered. “Hey mum, can my best friend come over and make gingerbread houses with us?”
You know my answer! VNS