Coming from the countryside in the USA, most recently from Maine (near Canada), Christmas to me means cold weather and snow; short days and long nights lit by colorful twinkling lights; a pine tree inside covered with sparkling decorations filling the room with its fresh, evergreen scent; holiday baking; making Christmas cards to send to friends; having a glass of wine and chatting with my parents next to a roaring fireplace with a cat on my lap; and driving to my brother's house on a quiet Christmas morning to enjoy an overly indulgent dinner with my family.
That is what I miss when I am in Hanoi.
There is no way to duplicate that here, especially being so far away from my family, but Christmas in Hanoi is a completely different experience, and quite enjoyable in many ways.
First of all, I don't really miss the snow. Although it is very aesthetically pleasing, shovelling and driving through the stuff is very hard work I am happy to forego over here in Vietnam. I also don't miss the ice, which makes driving positively treacherous and causes me to fall and break. In Hanoi, I only have to worry about crossing the street safely and dodging motorbikes on the sidewalks. I think it is a fair trade.
Christmas in Vietnam has no religious significance, as it originally had in the West; however, this has not stopped the Vietnamese from adopting the holiday on a certain level. Although there are a significant number of Catholics in Vietnam, the general feeling seems to be "any excuse for a party" and they have embraced and enjoy the seasonal festivities, which serve as a sort of preliminary to the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday that follows a month or so later.
I still have the familiar year's end anticipation of Christmas here as the weather grows colder and shops start decorating their windows with Christmas motifs, but some of the holiday manifestations can be quite peculiar. I am struck by the incongruity of fake snow from a spray can, or in the form of cotton wool, decorating windows or outdoor displays in an attempt to generate the spirit of a foreign holiday in what is, technically, a tropical climate.
I find the snowmen (artificial, of course!) to be the most amusing. The concept of snowmen (or, indeed, snow) is very foreign here and it is quite bizarre to see them in Hanoi. The one I find most memorable was about four meters tall, standing outside a shopping mall smiling happily with an open compartment in his belly containing a case of beer. I think he was having a very merry Christmas! In reality, it was not cold enough for him to exist.
In the US, frantic holiday shopping officially begins about a month before Christmas. Few people besides Western foreigners buy Christmas presents in Hanoi so the consumer frenzy is not so obvious, but the Vietnamese start stocking up for Tet around this time, so there are some similarities.
The shops are loaded with bright tins of biscuits, colourful bags of candy and expensive bottles of booze. Restaurants are full of boisterous groups revelling in year end parties, and techno versions of Christmas songs blare from speakers all over the city. You haven't lived until you've heard an electronic mash-up of Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, and The First Noel thumping to a disco beat at ear splitting volume from speakers in front of an electronics store in Southeast Asia decorated with fake snow, plastic pine boughs and glittering Christmas tree ornaments!
The US is known for ostentatious, over the top, displays of Christmas lights on private residences, but the light displays in Hanoi are still pretty impressive. Hanoians are great fans of outdoor lights on trees and buildings all year round, which make every night seem rather festive, but even more appear around this time of year, adding to the celebratory atmosphere.
The Ham Long church not far from my house is particularly noteworthy, if you manage to pass by when it is lit up. Tonight it was shining in all its glory with a crowd gathered out front listening to some sort of unidentifiable, yet easily recognizable as Christmas, music as a balloon vendor strolled along the street hoping to sell his inflatable wares. Balloons always seem to be a part of any major celebration in Hanoi.
It is also quite common to see little Vietnamese kids dressed up in Santa-esque costumes. It is a bit bizarre to see them being carried by their parents or running around, depending on their age, but they always seem to be quite happy and certainly go along with the holiday spirit.
Yes, Christmas in Hanoi is very different from what I am used to and, after living here for four years I get quite homesick during the holiday season, but Hanoians have embraced much of the true joy and spirit of Christmas and their enthusiasm can be infectious.
As I said, "any excuse for a party," so live it up and have a very Merry Christmas in Hanoi!
By Perri Black