I’ve had a few questions about what it’s like to spend Christmas in Asia, so I thought I would give you my perspective as well as a photographic tour through HCMC Christmas Festivities.
For for photo journey of HCMC lights – click here!
I must admit that Ho Chi Minh City has surprised me with their Christmas spirit – in fact, it has actually ‘floored me’. In a country where Budhism is the main religion, I was surprised to find so many Christmas festivities and decorations. Sure, we all know that Christmas in the western world seems to be more economic consumption than religion these days – so why should that be any different here? The strange thing is that in Vietnam it seems to be about neither. There’s very little reference to anything religious about Christmas and there is really no one out shopping for gifts except for expats. So why do the Vietnamese care about Christmas? Sorry, but I can’t really answer that – I need another year here I think to figure that out. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve observed so far.
Merry Merry Christmas
First off, they refer to Christmas as Merry Christmas here. For example, I frequently get asked, “Teacher, what are you going to do for Merry Christmas?” I find it actually kind of charming…it always reminds me that it is a merry holiday; or no matter how depressed I may be about being on my own for Christmas…at least I can be doubly reminded that I should be merry.
Decking the Halls
It’s Dec. 23rd and I walked by a crew working at constructing yet another Christmas light display in front of a hotel/shop. In the US, the decorations start going up on Nov. 1st, here they go up on Dec. 21st! As I see the people frantically working to put their fake snowmen together and the reindeer carefully placed near the door, I wonder if they are going to all of this work to simply take it down again in a week. I’m assuming not. Why would anyone go to 2 weeks of work to set something up to simply tear it down again right away? Then again, nothing surprises me here.
When you think of Christmas, you think of Heineken
In the center of HCMC near the market there is the pinnacle of all of the Christmas displays…I call it the Heineken Snow Globe. No, it’s not an actually snow globe, just a large light display shaped like a dome. I pass this monument to holiday beer, oops, I mean holiday cheer, every day on my way to work. I’ve watched it go up piece by piece over the last 3 weeks. Men dangling from the scaffolding, a giant disco ball being erected, and carefully placed snow drifts. Then I finally saw it – the familiar green and white logo – the Heineken sign on the Christmas tree. There are Christmas light displays like this all over the city and many of them are sponsored by Heineken for some reason. I even saw a Christmas tree made of Heineken beer cans the other day (hmmm – I wonder if they were full or empty?)! There are lights hanging everywhere in the main part of the city. Displays of elves, reindeer, snowmen, Santa, and even a Winnie the Poo Santa line the sidewalks. I supposed these lavish displays are in the same vein as window displays in NYC, but no one has a store front that big to put their Holiday light extravaganza in so it spills out into the streets; like most of life in HCMC in general.
The Festive Smell of Pollution
I think that the Heineken snow globe is rather impressive…or tacky….I can’t quite decide. This probably means that I’ve been in Asia too long. However, I’m not the only one that thinks it’s impressive, the other 7, 999,999 residents of HCMC also think it’s impressive! I believe this because the viewing of the snow globe is a family affair. Instead of hopping in the minivan, the Vietnamese put their family of 4 on a motorbike and take off to go view the holiday lights in District 1. The traffic is unbelievable. I’ve never seen such a massive sea of motorbikes. They just slowly circle around and around looking at the light displays. I walked home last week through the heart of Heineken Christmas Village with my camera just to try to capture the absolute chaos and culture of this holiday. After an hour of walking around taking pictures of the traffic, the families, the kids dressed in Santa suits, and the street vendors; I realized that I couldn’t take it any longer. The pollution from the motorbikes was literally going to kill me. I stumbled away in a petrol fume haze with a headache and burning eyes. See what I do in the name of photography?!
Eat Papa, Eat!
At the snow globe, there weren’t only lights strung from all of the trees, and vendors selling little Santa, lollipops, and devil horns (not sure that those have to do with Christmas…but it is an interesting take on it!), but there was also St. Nick himself! Actually, there were about seven St. Nicks (or maybe I was seeing double due to the pollution). They were all dressed up in their Santa outfits, shaking the kids hands and taking pictures with them. Of course in true Asian style there was no queue…that would be silly…just masses of people pushing and shoving to get to jolly old St. Nick – Asia style! However I was a bit distraught when his belly didn’t jiggle like a bowl full of jelly – instead, the belly was non-existent! After all, a Vietnamese Santa is not a fat Santa! In fact, I believe that I weighed more than most of them, as I do with most of the Vietnamese men here!
My first ChristmAsia has been challenging on my own, but it has also been pleasantly surprising. I never expected it to be so well celebrated, lit up, or sponsored! This Christmas Eve, I will kick back with my Heineken, and admire my ‘bowl full of jelly’ belly as I eat fried noodles and spring rolls!
Merry Merry Christmas to all – Let the lights shine on!