Christmas in Vietnam is a different to what it might be back home but for many foreigners this makes it special in its own way.
As she’s in the middle of a Vietnamese language course, Gabriella Angelini won’t return to her native Italy for the Christmas holidays this year. But she doesn’t feel lonely. Instead, she’s looking forward to preparing some Italian food for a Christmas party at a Vietnamese friend’s home. Many foreigners will join Gabriella in having a new Christmas experience in Vietnam.
She wasn’t expecting Christmas to be much in Vietnam, given its small Christian community, so she was surprised to see such a lively atmosphere around town as the day approaches. “Many shops, buildings and shopping centers in Hanoi have Christmas decorations, like twinkling lights, Christmas trees, and images of Santa Claus. It’s like the city has changed into a colorful new dress,” she said.
She also found the different ways her local friends decorate their house to be quite interesting. “In Italy people buy things and decorate the tree together, but here everything can be done at the shop, you just order what you want and they decorate the tree and bring it to your house,” she smiled.
Not only decoration shops but also gift shops are busy these days, with many non-religious people following the Christmas spirit and buying presents for their friends and family. “It’s very interesting for me, as a student of language and culture, to see how local people have adopted a Western custom in their own way,” Gabriella said.
He’s no student of language and culture, but Jake Simpson, an English teacher from the US, also found it exciting to have a new Christmas experience in Vietnam. Though he only has two days off over the holiday he feels lucky compared to some of his colleagues, who have to work over the break, as it’s still not a main holiday in the country.
He accepted an invitation from Vietnamese friends for dinner last Christmas Eve and was surprised to be taken to a restaurant. Back home all shops and restaurants close at this time of year and people get together with their family for Christmas dinner at home. In Vietnam he found all shops and restaurants still open and crowded and noisy. “Instead of traditional food, such as roast turkey or Christmas ham, I had a hot pot for Christmas for the first time,” he smiled. “I see that not many Vietnamese people organize a party at home but usually go out, and they seem to love hot pot, especially at special events. Christmas here seems more for friends to gather and party than for the family.”
The party spirit of Vietnamese at Christmas is more easily seen after dinner. While Christians might go to the church, plenty of non-Christians also gather around churches to see the Mass. Others head to the city center, where there are a lot of Christmas decorations for taking pictures, or they walk around or sit somewhere with a drink and enjoy the atmosphere. “It’s like a street party - so animated,” Jake said. “And totally opposite to back home.”
It’s not only a Christmas street party for foreign newbies in Vietnam. After midnight Jake followed his Vietnamese friends and saw many local people and foreigners continuing to celebrate Christmas with drinks and dancing at bars and clubs. “I don’t really understand why Vietnamese celebrate Christmas this way but it’s great for people who like crowds and parties,” he said.
There are normally not that many places to go out, even in big cities, so most people just go to a café, the cinema, or maybe music or fashion shows. “So days like National Day, Mid-Autumn Festival, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve are an excuse for people to get together, hang out, and have fun,” said Le Minh, a website designer.
In Vietnam Christmas is celebrated on December 24, similar to Europe, rather than on the 25th, as in English-speaking countries. After a boisterous night on the 24th the next day is back to normality, which can be a shock for some foreigners who missed the parties on the night before.
Not only single expats but also those who live with their family in Vietnam also have a new Christmas experience, with many taking the opportunity to travel to discover more of the country.
Last Christmas Jerome Burdin, a teacher from France, took his wife and three kids to Ho Chi Minh City and Nha Trang for the holiday. It was the first time his family had enjoyed sun instead of snow at Christmas, he said. “In the south the weather is perfect for a Christmas holiday and there are so many destinations to choose from, with beaches, lakes, rivers, forests, and even the city. It’s a great time to travel and have some unforgettable Christmas memories.”
This year Jerome plans to visit Ho Chi Minh City again and also the nearby beach town of Vung Tau. “I like the weather in Ho Chi Minh City and its lively atmosphere,” he said. “Last year it was funny to see so many Santa Clauses out the front of shops, as well as pretty young women in red shorts, and cute kids in Santa Claus outfits. In France there’s only adult Santa Clauses who give gifts to children.”
It’s different, but foreigners in Vietnam are happy to welcome in a Christmas season that’s a little out of the ordinary.