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.


What I learned from Travelling in Vietnam

What I learned from Travelling in Vietnam:

1. Culture shock is real, even if you only stay in a country for ten days.

2. Ten days is not nearly enough time to appreciate all that Vietnam has to offer.

3. Vietnam is diverse. The south is hot and humid, much like Bangkok. Yet the North feels cleaner, calmer, and crisper. It certainly was colder! I never left the hotel without a sweater, a jacket, and two scarves. But then again I’m used to the 80 degree (F) winter in Bangkok 🙂

4. The landscape is incredibly diverse as well. The south is full of dense, tropical forests and muddy river deltas. The center boasts pristine mountain peaks with some truly exquisite views, and more coffee plantations than I have ever laid eyes on in my life!

Some of the many hills lined with coffee plants.

5. The capital, Hanoi, has a “petit Paris” feel (due to a century of French colonialism), but the abundance of motorbikes and confusing street names will not let you forget that you are, indeed, in Southeast Asia.

Getting a chuckle out of linguistic diversity.

6. Vietnam is industrial, noisy, hectic and yet somehow still charming in an unintentional sort of way. I think most of the charm, at least what attracted me, came from the fact that a lot of people live exactly as they always have before opening up to the West, and so you don’t feel the insane effects of commercialization that you get in Bangkok. Most locals seemed to have little regard for regulations or standards and simply went about their business as they pleased. Charming, and yet frustrating, especially if you are the one trying to do business with someone.

7. Things are authentically inauthentic, like the little “Italian” restaurant where I ate my Christmas eve dinner. The food was questionable, and I’ve never had a caprese salad with olives in it before, but still I loved it for its unintentional charm. The old, gray haired Vietnamese man carried the little wine glasses with such pride, and the old maps and Etruscan pictures on the walls relayed a true passion for all things Italiano…even if he didn’t actually serve the promised gelato.

Enjoying a new recipe for caprese salad.

8. Christmas is not Christmas like I had ever experienced it. To most people in Vietnam, Christmas is just an excuse to party, kind of like Americans do on New Years eve, Halloween, St. Patty’s Day and virtually all non-religiously mandated holidays.

9. Foreigners are almost always charged twice the normal price, because everyone assumes that you are rich, even if you are not. Still, according to Vietnamese standards, you probably are.

10. I have never been anywhere like Vietnam. Even Cambodia and Thailand, its close neighbors, differ so much in spirit, charm, history and life-force. I’m not sure if I’ll ever make it back. But I am really glad I went.

Hanoi, the capital city.

With love,

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