Simon Stanley unwraps the tropical festive spirit, of a very Vietnamese Christmas. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Despite being home to a relatively small Catholic community, with the majority of the remainder of the population being either Buddhist or atheist, Vietnam is once again poised to embrace the spirit of Christmas in a big way. With a thirst for Western culture and always up for a party, the Vietnamese people have transformed the holiday into much more than a religious occasion.
What does Christmas mean to you?
“The modern Christmas came to Vietnam maybe 15 years ago,” says 19-year-old student Do Tri Thinh, “so we don’t have many memories attached to it. We just know that it is a happy event and a special occasion.”
With Buddhist parents and no religious beliefs of his own, I ask if he still celebrates in some way.
“Yeah, sure!” he replies. “Of course.”
Marketing analyst Nguyen Lan Anh believes that it’s all part of the Vietnamese love for international culture. “I don’t think a lot of us understand the meaning of Christmas like Western people,” she says, “but it is just so beautiful and so colourful… we just want to be part of it. I think in Ho Chi Minh City it’s more about young people. They love American and European events, just like Halloween.”
For 29-year-old teaching assistant Nguyen Ngoc Anh, Christmas is a more traditional affair. “I am a Catholic so it has a special meaning for me,” she says. “Christmas is when Jesus was born so it’s when forgive each other’s sins. It’s a new beginning.”
Asked how she feels about the revival of Christmas as a more secular celebration, her response is positive.
“It has become much more for everybody,” she says, “but it’s nice. More people will come to my church on Christmas Eve so that’s really good.”
“I bought a tiny fake tree. I took it home and prepared some gifts for my parents. They didn’t know what I was doing.”
Anh’s friend and colleague Tran Khanh Hoang, 26, first introduced her Buddhist family to Christmas after learning about it at school.
“I was maybe nine or 10 years old,” she recalls. “I bought a tiny fake tree. I took it home and prepared some gifts for my parents. They didn’t know what I was doing. They didn’t really care about Christmas but I really liked it – the trees, the decorations, the cakes too, the ones shaped like Santa Claus. The next day my mum went out and bought a small cake just for me. I was so happy!”
How Do You Celebrate?
December represents one of the cooler months in Saigon. The rainy season is (we hope) a distant memory and night-time temperatures can even necessitate a woolen garment of some kind. Elsewhere in the world December may be the time to hibernate, but in Vietnam it’s the month to get outside and party.
Come sunset from December 1st onwards, the people of Saigon will be putting on their finest clothes, taking to their bikes and flocking to the glittering Christmas displays that pop up all over town. From malls and department stores to churches and residential streets, each location becomes one in a series of meeting points and hangouts for the crowds to gather. It’s a time to have fun, socialise with friends and take photos… lots and lots of photos.
For some, however, the crowds descending on the displays can become too much, especially on Christmas Eve when certain parts of D1 are shutdown to traffic to make room for the festivities. “I’m not really interested in going out,” says Anh. “It’s too crowded.”
Thinh agrees, saying he prefers to watch the Christmas lights on the TV at home.”
What Happens on The Big Day?
Like certain European countries, Vietnam’s celebrations are centred around Christmas Eve. Unless it’s a weekend though, it will be business as usual. No public holidays here. Outside office hours though, many people, Catholic or not, will make the most of their free time and celebrate in one way or another. Christmas Eve in Vietnam is an excuse for a feast.
“We don’t have traditional food like the West,” says Anh.
“No turkeys right?” says Thinh.
No ovens either, I point out.
“No,” says Anh, “instead we have chicken. Not because it looks like turkey, but because it is the most popular. It’s a common dish at a party.”
“And we make lots of things with it,” adds Hoang. “Chicken curry, chicken soup, chicken salad…”
While certain Vietnamese delicacies are only ever served at Tet, nothing in particular is saved for Christmas – apart from Hoang’s favourite Santa cakes, that is.
“We’ll buy some nice food, maybe some wine,” says Thinh. “We just make something special, something different. My parents are old fashioned, so it is always Vietnamese food.”
Eating and drinking out is also popular on Christmas Eve (and throughout all of December). For Sofia Nguyen, owner of Saigon’s Select House wine shop and bar, Christmas means more customers, but also less time to celebrate privately. “I am in the entertainment industry,” she says, “so I have to work at Christmas. Many other Vietnamese people will go out to restaurants, often to family places where they can order a lot of food. Couples might go somewhere classy or more romantic.”
After dinner, Catholics like Anh will attend midnight mass, although the church is also becoming a popular destination for non-Christians as people gather to hear carols and soak up the atmosphere.
Do You Exchange Gifts?
Yes and no. It’s not part of the Vietnamese tradition but things are changing. Certainly for children from wealthier families, it is becoming increasingly common for them to receive a gift from their parents or close relatives. And yes, Santa does indeed visit Vietnam. Some families might even arrange for him to make a special appearance on Christmas Eve – I’m told that instead of crawling through your AC ducting, he prefers to simply knock on the door.
“We have a Santa Service,” says Anh. “That just happened recently. You pay a company and someone will dress up like Santa and arrive at your house with presents for your kids.”
While the majority of adults don’t appear to be giving gifts on a regular basis, some feel that any opportunity to treat someone special is one worth taking. “If we love someone,” says Sofia, “it’s a chance to give them a gift, otherwise I have to wait until their birthday.”
Christmas or Tet?
With the biggest Vietnamese celebration of the year just a few weeks later, Christmas is indeed dwarfed in comparison. That said, having to spend several days at home with the family during Tet is not everyone’s idea of a good time. For the younger generations especially, Christmas represents a welcome chance to celebrate with friends instead. Born and bred in HCMC, a city which becomes eerily deserted during the Tet holiday, it is understandable why Anh might prefer the buzz and excitement of Christmas.
“Tet is so boring!” she says. “It is more for the family.”
Sofia disagrees. “I prefer Tet actually. Saigon is much less crowded, much quieter, and much cleaner too.”
Hey Big Spender
In 2014, the average spend by a British household on Christmas was put at £821 (around VND 26million), with approximately 75 percent of that figure being spent on gifts. Some feel it’s gone too far, with many in the UK complaining about the over-commercialisation of Christmas and a resulting dilution of its true meaning. So is the same happening here?
Michael Sieburg, Associate Partner in the Ho Chi Minh City office of Solidiance, a management consultancy firm headquartered in Singapore, has seen a definite rise in the popularity of Christmas. “I don’t recall the madness that you see here now,” he says. “When I was here 10 years ago, just a couple of shops and banks would have a little display where people would take photos. It has been escalating every year.”
But is it a trend led by supply or demand? Steve Sung, marketing manager at Diamond Plaza Department Store, believes it is definitely the latter. As the man in charge of the store’s annual Christmas display he’s always surprised by the turnout. “Even when I organise small events at Christmas, the response is very positive,” he says. “Last year I arranged for a man to dress up as Santa Claus and hand out candy and balloons in the store. There were so many people gathered around him!”
So is this rise in popularity equating to a rise in consumer spending? Although the exchanging of gifts is not the tradition, Christmas is still a popular time for retail therapy.
“At Christmas, it’s clothes,” says Sieburg’s colleague Lan Anh. “There are a lot of events and parties. People are going out more and so they like to dress up.”
Of course, more parties means more drinking. “A lot of the beer companies have marketing programmes going on at Christmas,” says Sieburg. “Last year at the Vincom Center, for example, there was a giant Sapporo Christmas tree.”
Sieburg feels that being so close to the Lunar New Year, the concept of Christmas as a marketing opportunity will always struggle to take off in Vietnam. “Everyone’s so focused on Tet,” he says. “Christmas might give a little bump in sales, but for many companies Tet’s the biggest part of the year.”
For Diamond Plaza, however, it’s jingle-all-the-way once December arrives. “For department stores like us,” says Sung, “Christmas is bigger. At Tet people will often purchase food to give as gifts but of course we do not sell food products. Also, we are located in the centre of the city so during Tet it is very quiet here.”
It’s difficult to imagine the Vietnamese Christmas becoming as commercially driven as its Western counterparts anytime soon, but Sung has seen first-hand what the future may hold. “Around seven years ago,” he says, “at about 6pm on Christmas Eve, we had to suddenly close the doors of the store. There were too many customers inside. We had to consider people’s safety.”
Vietnamese Christmas facts
1 While you may call him Santa Claus, Father Christmas or Old Saint Nick, in Vietnam he’s known as Ong Gia Noel – literally ‘Old Man Christmas’, although ‘The Christmas Saint’ is a more accurate translation.
2 Similar to many European countries, children who believe in Ong Gia Noel might leave their shoes by the front door or on a windowsill before going to bed on Christmas Eve, hoping that they’ll be filled with gifts by morning. We’re not sure if it works with flip-flops however.
3 Looking for a white Vietnamese Christmas? Head to Mount Phang Xi Pang. The 3,143m peak (the highest in Indochina) is often topped with snow in winter.
4 In 2014, an artificial Christmas tree in Nghe An Province was recognised as the tallest in Vietnam at 41 metres, beating 2013’s record (set in Hanoi) by almost 10 metres.
Published December 2015 – AsiaLIFE Magazine