17. Christmas in Vietnam

Although its Christian population is relatively small, Vietnam is all about wishing you a merry Christmas.

Santa tramples the blossoms in the Da Lat Flower Garden. (JGA photo)

He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake.

No, I’m not talking about the Vietnamese government. I’m talking about Santa Claus. It seems everywhere I look this days, I see some version of the jolly old soul, with or without reindeer, inviting the people of this Southeast Asian country to join in the Christmas spirit.

Never mind that fewer than 10% of Vietnam’s people are Christian. I suspect that not many people here associate the holiday with the birth of Jesus. But that doesn’t stop the masses from singing non-sectarian seasonal songs (“Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart” is a favorite), spending small fortunes to decorate their Christmas trees, or visiting with Santa himself in urban department stores.

A child at Saigon Centre hopes Santa gets her letter. (JGA photo)

Holiday spirit

Chúc Giáng Sinh (“Merry Christmas”)! As a resident Westerner, I do find a hint of home in the banners draped across hotels and restaurants that depend upon expatriate business. I’ve been listening to holiday music since mid-November.

But unlike the West, there’s no halt in day-to-day activities during the Christmas period. Some commercial offices, especially those that employ foreigners, may find time for holiday parties, but there are no days off. Business continues as usual. Ditto public schools, where students are preparing for end-of-the-calendar-year examinations.

As far as most of Vietnam is concerned, the new year begins not on January 1, but with the Lunar New Year, which in 2021 falls on February 12. That’s when everyday life comes to a complete halt for a week, when urbanites return to their “hometowns” to visit family and friends.

A holiday sign at the Cha Tam church in Saigon’s Cholon district (JGA photo)

Catholic legacy

Of Vietnam’s 9 million Christians, a majority live in the southern part of the country, near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). About 80% of them are Roman Catholic, a legacy of Jesuits and other missionaries — French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish — who began visiting in the 16th century. The written Vietnamese language (with its diacritical marks) owes its very existence to these emissaries of the Pope.

During the “American” War of 1954-75, a great many Vietnamese Catholics fled persecution in Marxist North Vietnam for the shelter of South Vietnam, where archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc just happened to be the brother of republican president Ngo Dinh Diem. Today, there’s a great deal more religious freedom. In fact, Vietnam’s government has semi-normalized its ties with the Vatican, unlike China and other communist countries of Asia.

Nativity grotto at Dalat Cathedral (JGA photo)

The churches, of course, celebrate the birth of Christ with choral events, Christmas Eve masses and other activities. In Vietnam, they also invariably build grottos in the form of mangers. Blankets, aluminum foil, perhaps papier mâché and other materials, are used to fashion these crude constuctions both indoors and out, with nativity scenes carefully constructed within them. They remind me of the Stations of the Cross — without the stations.

Ho ho ho! (not a selfie)

And yes, this Santa is yours truly in disguise. Please allow me to wish all of my friends, family and dedicated followers around the world the very best for the holiday season. It’s a new year in 2021, and for all the changes that 2020 has wrought, we can be excited about positive changes in the months ahead.

Next: A visit to Da Lat


Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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