Tis the season to be jolly… even during a pandemic!

By Samantha Coomber   December 22, 2020 | 04:00 pm PT
Stranded in Vietnam for Christmas far from home, I still intend to make the best of ‘the most wonderful time of year.’
Samantha Coomber

Samantha Coomber

Thanks to the unprecedented events of 2020, like many foreigners, I’ll be spending Christmas in Vietnam, far from friends, family and any home country celebrations. With Covid-19 restrictions worldwide, I’m unable to jet-off off to some Asian island for an alternative festive break, let alone, fly home.

For various reasons over the years, however, I've spent a handful of Christmases in both HCMC and Hanoi. Apart from missing loved one's company, it's actually not so bad, in fact, I enjoyed one of my most memorable Christmases ever in Hanoi! Let’s not forget Christmas isn’t just a foreign religious celebration, as approximately 7 percent of the Vietnamese population is Christian, with the most widespread denomination, Catholic.

And here in HCMC, even during a global pandemic, there are still many interesting Christmas-related festivities I can see and do, even more appreciated knowing I'm not constrained by strict Covid-19 measures as currently experienced in Europe. I'm generally free to go where I want and do as I choose, from mingling amongst big crowds to dining out indoors (wearing my face mask, of course).

With exception of the Christian population, decades ago, Christmas was hardly celebrated or acknowledged as a mainstream festival in Vietnam. However, with increased global influences and other factors, the urban Vietnamese have steadily embraced Christmas as an annual celebration, albeit Christmas day itself, December 25, isn't a public holiday. Nowadays, on the run-up to Christmas, typically stretching back to late November, glittering Christmas decorations and festive cheer – from front door garlands to snow-dusted Christmas trees – are very much evident in town.

Even years ago, I used to come into town just to marvel at the mass of twinkly Christmas streetlights dangling above Dong Khoi and other downtown boulevards, some of the most gorgeous I'd ever laid eyes on.

In recent years, the downtown streetlights seem less prominent, saved instead for Tet (Lunar New Year), but no matter. Without fail, by early December, you can rely on the city's five-star hotels to display outrageously pretty Christmas lights and trees for their exquisitely decorated exteriors and lobbies. Some even host nostalgic Christmas carols and children's choir performances for their guests.

And lavish malls and department stores have evolved as the city’s leading supplier of New York-style winter wonderlands and festive extravaganzas, not surprisingly, a big hit with Saigonese families, who flock to Santa's grotto playground to pose for selfies.

Of course, each year, most foreign-related businesses and services religiously set-up a bauble-laden Christmas tree with gift-wrapped presents piled underneath and snowy yuletide images stenciled on their windows. But what surprises me is the countless local businesses who also get into the festive spirit, from the young sales staff wearing those obligatory reindeer antlers and giant gingerbread men lurking in the bushes outside Vietnamese state banks, to office Christmas office parties.

Even in my local neighborhood, the seafood restaurants and private homes come decked out with a flurry of neon-lit flashing stars and fairy lights, while pavements reveal an increasing glut of makeshift nativity scenes.

If I need to purchase any last-minute tinsel or tasteless musical Santa statuettes, there are plenty of pop-up stores dedicated to cheap and gaudy Christmas paraphernalia. There's even a grotto-like store that magically appears each December in the hallowed compound of the 19th century Tan Dinh catholic church.

And should I still need to be reminded that Christmas is a-coming, I only have to go shopping in supermarkets or malls to hear piped Christmas carols like "Jingle Bells" or seasonal-appropriate music (the Vietnamese speeded-up versions don't translate so well, literally and are especially annoying).

One could argue all this rings of a commercial, as opposed to spiritual, nature, especially true in HCMC, the nation's financial epicenter. However, it’s all in good spirits, brings a smile to countless children’s faces and for Christian foreigners, a familiar and comforting sight – albeit simultaneously making us homesick.

A decoration of Santa Claus taking a selfie at a shopping mall in HCMC. Photo by Samantha Coomber.

Santa Claus taking a selfie is a 2020 Christmas decoration at a shopping mall in HCMC. Photo by Samantha Coomber.

If I'm in town, my favorite yuletide festivities are long-running traditions on Christmas Eve. On the evening of December 24, it seems the city's entire population makes an appearance on their motorbikes, cruising the downtown boulevards with their families, eager to soak-up all the Christmas excitement. Children are invariably attired in adorable red and white mini-Santa outfits, hoping to spot ‘Saint Nick’ himself. The traffic inevitably comes to a grinding halt and it’s complete mayhem walking around the center, but the atmosphere is vibrant, infectiously fun and good-natured.

I sometimes wonder how many folk understand the true significance of Christmas. Perhaps for many, it’s all about the glitz and run-up to Christmas Eve, rather than the actual sacred day itself, which for Christians is of major religious significance. For me, it’s the French colonial Notre-Dame Cathedral Basilica of Saigon, majestic at the heart of downtown and all the other many churches across the city, that best represent the true spirit of Christmas and this season of goodwill.

Which is why, on Christmas Eve, I follow another well-worn ritual: along with many other locals and tourists, gather in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral like moths drawn to a light, to marvel at the nativity scenes of biblical proportions in the front courtyard. Only the lucky few get to attend the Cathedral’s fabled Midnight Mass, a hugely sought-after service for which I’ve always wanted to attend, but so far, failed miserably obtaining any tickets. But I can still stand outside and listen.

Like everything else in 2020, Christmas promises to be different and we’ll just have to adapt.

Christmas Day greetings for family and friends will be over Skype calls. Due to the lack of income during this pandemic, certain excesses will be curtailed including the culinary variety. No more of those indulgent festive lunches as previously enjoyed at upscale hotels, or treating myself to a bottle of bubbly.

On Christmas Eve, I’ll once again stroll the downtown streets admiring this year’s stunning festive displays and join-in with the convivial melee. Perhaps I'll find Santa Claus, albeit a rather skinny version, as he dishes out treats to over-eager children.

Given the seasonal sultry hot climes, I could just relax by a hotel pool, a novel way to celebrate Christmas Day. If I had the cash, I could always fly north to Sa Pa or Da Lat, where the cooler climes resemble traditional northern hemisphere Christmases. Unlike many other nations, domestic travel hasn't been affected in Vietnam and we're able to easily move around the country. With the lack of international visitors, prices are much cheaper than usual.

And most important, taking advantage of fewer foreigners around, I’ll try and attend a Christmas Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral, albeit the English-language Christmas Day morning service (I‘ve lost hope on the Midnight Mass).

So yes, despite the circumstances, I still intend to have myself a "very merry little Christmas" in Vietnam – wearing my face mask, of course.

I sincerely hope you do too!

*Samantha Coomber is a British freelance travel and lifestyle writer based in HCMC, who has lived in Vietnam for over 12 years and written about the country for 22 years. She has contributed to several Vietnam travel guidebooks and is the author of two Insight Guides on Hanoi and HCMC.

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