Christmas In Vietnam

Typical motorbike traffic in Ho Chi Minh City.
Photo credit:Noemi Agagianian

I’m really sucking at Christmas this year.

Most people in my neighborhood have already finished their Christmas shopping, sent cards and letters, hosted parties, strung lights and cozied up by the fire place at least thrice. I, on the other hand, bought a handful a presents last week that I forgot to wrap, haven’t written a single Christmas card and have forgotten that Christmas lights are a “thing.” But it’s not my fault, I swear.

Last year, I spent Christmas in Vietnam.

While most folks at home were baking pies and watching Christmas specials, I was buying plane tickets and booking hostels, reading up on sites to see and haggling for discounted bus tickets. 

View from the former South Vietnam’s HQ.

After a twelve hour overnight bus from Siem Riep to Bangkok , I flew again from Bangkok to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly known as Saigon. And yes, I refrained from singing “One Night in Bangkok” the whole time!) on December 22, 2014. We arrived late at night and took a taxi-van to our hostel. I had already noted the few Catholic churches in my guidebook, because I like to go to Church on Christmas eve. We passed a few on our way downtown, brightly decorated with blue Christmas lights and little nativity scenes. Maybe Ho Chi Minh city would be a nice place to spend Christmas, after all, I thought!

We spent the next two days touring the city, visiting the War Museum (formerly, and aptly, called the “Museum of American War Crimes”), the former president of South Vietnam’s headquarters, a densely packed textile market, the Cu Chi war tunnels, a few islands in the Mekong Delta, and quite a few coffee shops. Ho Chi Minh city is bustling and couture mix of French architecture, sundry shops, restaurants, opera houses, and markets, all sandwiched in between thousands of motor bikes whizzing around pedestrians and traffic stops.

Typical traffic outside the Cathedral
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

On Christmas Eve day, we wandered around the city, drank coffee and took lots of pictures. Like most cities I’ve visited, we ended up walking in circles for several hours until it finally got dark and we got hungry. I was craving Western food, perhaps because of a timely longing for home, so we found a cute little “Italian” shop (though it was Vietnamese owned) that sold everything from curry to pizza to gelato. I ordered a caprese salad, which turned out to be cheddar cheese, basil, sliced tomato and olives, and a pasta dish. My friends ordered curry and a burger. Ho Chi Minh is cosmopolitan that way!

With my capricious caprese salad (forgive the pun..)

After eating our fill, we headed down to the Church for the Christmas Eve service. But we didn’t get far before we started pressing ourselves against the crowds of local residents gathered in the Church courtyard. They weren’t really concerned that a service was happening inside; a sea of red and white Santa costumes in sweaty bodies swam and danced around. Young people laughed, took selfies, and sprayed each other with snow-in-a-can. Snow-in-a-can. It was a big shock. Yet as shocking as all the Santa costumes and snow-in-a-can were to me, I still imagine the sight of three tall American girls was even more shocking to everyone else. People screamed, laughed, took pictures, and sprayed us with lots of fake snow.

One of many little boys out for Christmas Eve
Photo credit: Noemi Agagianian

I was surprised at how many families were out so late at night. In my mind, Christmas means spending time with family in the home, cozied up on the couch, braving the winter weather. Obviously, you don’t need to brave winter weather in a tropical country. Babies, little boys and girls, moms and dads all posed for “groupies” by their motorbikes, laughed, chatted, celebrated.

That Christmas Eve was certainly memorable. I lost my friends, found the Chapel, and got covered in lots of wet foam. But I learned something important: Christmas, and every other American holiday, is not the same anywhere else. In my home in Memphis, Christmas is a big deal. In my family, Christmas has religious significance; it celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But somehow, that message has gotten lost in translation. The message of Christmas that managed to make it to Vietnam was not so much the birth of Jesus Christ or the quiet peace of “Silent Night,” but the red and white costumes, the snow, the jingle bells, and Santa Claus. It was difficult for me to spend my Christmas in a part of that whirlwind; those things were never part of my Christmas. 

Looking back, I see now that spending Christmas in Vietnam taught me to cherish what I hold to be true about Christmas: Christ was born to save the world. Family matters. Peace on Earth cannot be lip service. I understand not everyone feels that way, and that’s fine with me, because as Ani DiFranco said, “I know there is strength in the differences between us.” There is strength in difference, and there is value in celebrations. We become stronger when we can celebrate our own holidays differently. It means we accept that there is more to a day then the presents, or the food, or the way we hold our services.

Merry Christmas, everyone, and Happy Holidays. May you and yours be blessed and joyful, wherever you are in the world and however you decide to celebrate.


Off-Topic: I’m Going to Be Published!!

A while ago I submitted a short piece to the Philadelphia Inquirer about spending Christmas in Bethlehem. I realize it’s a bit preemptive to announce this, because I haven’t submitted the release forms yet but I’m so excited, I can’t wait.  I am going to be a published author! Jo March would be so proud 🙂

Click here to read my original, much longer post from two years ago. It’s funny how one’s story-telling changes over time. I remember writing this for the first time, the event still felt so new and precious. It still is precious, but it’s imprinted itself on psyche a little bit more now.

Note: I won’t publish the new piece on here until three days after it comes out in the Inquirer. I have a lot to learn about free lancing and contracts. If you live in the Philly area, be on the lookout for my article in December!


Christmas in Bethlehem

My laundry is still in the washing machine, so I can’t take a shower, and even if I did, I would have no clean, dry clothes with which to dress so that I could leave the house and go work on a paper…

SO, I will blog! It’s been a while since I’ve done this. I just moved out of the dorms yesterday (woooohoooo! They were not nice.) and am staying at a friend’s apartment in a different neighborhood close to campus (she’s away in Turkey. Cool, huh?!) For the FIRST time since I’ve been in Israel, I woke up this morning with the very real sensation that I am living in another country. I look out of the bedroom window and I see uniform concrete buildings in the background; smaller, flat roofed concrete houses are in the foreground along with some blue construction tarps, a few small cars, garbage dumps in the parking lot, a few palm trees and one giant tree, whose variety escapes me. There’s also a few electrical towers, TONS of sand, and a big, big, blue sky enveloping everything.  This, my friends, is Be’er Sheva in a nutshell. And it’s been my home for almost half a year now.

There’s no way I can write a blog post about “my time in Israel”; it’s way too dense for that. Instead, I want to share my Christmas experience, which I believe was the best Christmas I’ve had. And it’s strange, because this is the first Christmas I spent away from my family. You would think it would be extremely difficult. But being in the Holy Land helped, as did sharing my Christmas with my friends. I’ll recap:

I decided to go to Jerusalem. This wasn’t as hyped up as it sounds. I think Jerusalem gets really crowded on Easter (obviously) but it was pretty empty on Monday afternoon, December 24, when I arrived via bus. First thing I did was go to the Old City with my friend Kurt, to see if we could get tickets to a Christmas service that night at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer. Did I mention that the service was in German?

This was the first interesting thing I did. I had originally planned to attend a “unitarian” service of sorts at some big church somewhere near the Old City, because it had the subtitle “multilingual,” which to me equaled English! No Orthodox services were held on the 25th, because every Orthodox church in Israel is Old Calendar, so there would be no “Thy Nativity, Oh Christ our God…” for me. BUT wait until I tell you the rest.

Kurt and I weren’t sure if we would be let into Church of the Redeemer. They had stopped giving tickets and we were told that if we came back in a few hours we might be able to find some standing room in the back. Okay, no harm done. We both wanted to be at  service. Kurt told me that in Germany he sometimes goes to four services on Christmas day, just to hear the carols. Cool, huh?

So, we had a few hours to spare in Jerusalem. What does one do in the Old City for a few hours? Pray and shop and go up on the roofs of old buildings. Seriously. We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre (erected by Sts. Constantine and Helen in the 300s) and–it was so quiet! The last time I had been to the Church, it was Saturday, in the middle of the day, and it was miserably crowded. But because it was the evening, and on a Monday, there was scarcely anyone inside. So what did I do? I walked quickly toward the tomb to go inside and venerate the stone. I made it, but not before an angry monk started shouting at me to keep moving. Needless to say it was not the spiritual experience one expects when venerating such sacred objects, but I knew that, because last time at the Church I felt similarly…like a stuffed sardine waiting to be healed! But then when I feel like this I always think of Zachaeus and how he climbed a tree just to see Jesus above the crowds. Where’s a good, sturdy tree when you need one?

Anyway, after a bit of shopping (that’s another perk of not being home for Christmas–you have so much more time to buy presents!) we ended up at a bar with some friends, toasting on Christmas Eve. This was also strange for me. I’m used to fasting and (trying to) nap on Christmas Eve…but we gathered at a table around an outdoor heater, I drank hot mulled wine (!!!) and somehow, it felt good.

After this, Kurt and I went back to the Church to see about getting into the service. Did I mention that Kurt is German? He totally played the “we’re both from the same country” card and got us inside, but there were plenty of open pews even after the service started.

Creche Scene in the Lutheran Church of The Redeemer, Jerusalem

About the service: the program was in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic. This was singularly incredible. From the entrance to the building, we descended a set of stairs, passed an open courtyard, and crossed through a doorway into a massive white chapel with high vaulted ceilings, dimly lit and incredibly beautiful. Candles lined the rows of pews, a Christmas tree was set up on stage, and a beautiful creche scene was off to the side, pictured at left (it’s blurry, I apologize..)

Then the service began with an angelic choir singing very familiar Christmas carols! The choir and congregation sang in German, but I happily joined in in English. At one point during one carol, we ALL sang the same thing: Glooooooooooooria! In Excelcius Deo.
See, not only did I learn Hebrew, but I speak German now too 🙂

It was a beautiful service; the shortest Christmas service I had ever been to, and there was a lot of sitting, but it was lovely and restful. In retrospect, I’m glad we sat for so long, because here’s what we did next:

Stopping to sing a (German) Christmas carol en route to Bethlehem

Ever wondered how long it takes one to walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem? No? That’s okay, I’ll tell you anyway: two and a half hours, plus stops for singing.

Yep! Me, Kurt, Krystoff, and Paul joined a group of about 100 from the service on a midnight walk to the place of His birth…I really can’t believe this. I will try to describe the experience without sounding like a Hallmark card or the 700 club, but please forgive me if I cheese out a bit….

It was cold and the walk was long. I felt neither of these sensations. I was warm and giddy. Really giddy. It was CHRISTMAS! I had never felt so excited in my whole life. Everything about this day felt special, unlike all the rest of the days, which it is.

Stuck in the security pass crossing Jerusalem into Bethlehem.

The walk itself is not a beautiful one, and we were honked at several times by onlookers thinking all sorts of crazy things (I was surprised how used to this I felt…I remembered the Boston days of traipsing through the street at 2 am with giant candles…thanks Mama and Papa for raising me crazy, it came in handy.)

Our  walk continued into Manger Square, where everything was warm and fuzzy.
 Manger Square, Bethlehem.

 Manger Square, Bethlehem
Venerating the place where Christ was born.

The best is till yet to come, though I apologize that this post is turning out to be so long. We went into the Church of the Nativity, mostly to get warm, but ended up staying there for quiet some time (it was about 3 am at this point…). I walked down into the Grotto where the star is placed over the spot of his birth. It looks like this, pictured at left.

When I climbed down into the grotto, I was astonished (though thinking back on it, it makes sense) to see SO many people down there, even at 3 am! There was a Catholic service being conducted, and people were gathered around this humble little star, kneeling and praying. I was in awe. I couldn’t really move and just stared at this star, picturing a tiny little baby curled up and sleeping inside. What Kings and Shepherds felt that day, here I was  standing in their footprints.

It was surreal. Remembering it now, I feel very funny inside…that’s all I can say. I probably shouldn’t try and describe it because I can’t.

But needless to say, this was the best Christmas of my life. No family, no presents, no warm Christmas morning, but WHAT a day I had!

Wishing you all a peaceful and blessed 2013.

With love,
Melanie 🙂

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