Christmas in Vietnam through the eyes of expats

By Nga Tam   December 24, 2022 | 12:51 am PT
For Brandon Hurley, the most surprising thing for him is that many Vietnamese go out to celebrate Christmas but they don’t even know the exact date.

"When I first came to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014, I saw many Vietnamese who were not Christians but still celebrated Christmas and hung out on the day," said Brandon, an American who has been living in Vietnam for eight years.

These days, in Brandon’s hometown snow covers the streets. Meanwhile, there’s no winter in HCMC.

"The difference in weather is interesting," he said. "Christmas to us foreigners is like the Lunar New Year (Tet) holiday to Vietnamese, as we all want to be with our family. Now I’m far away from home and even though the weather is warm, I still need to feel the warmth from my family."

Brandon spent his first Christmas in Vietnam by going alone to an American style BBQ restaurant just to feel at home.

During the next Christmas holidays, he still went alone to that restaurant, but after finishing his meal, instead of going back home, he joined the crowds on the street. He asked Vietnamese about how they celebrated Christmas and what they knew about the meaning of the holiday.

"Many young people went out on Christmas, but they didn’t remember exactly when Christmas starts and ends," he said.

Brandon said there are similarities between Christmas in Vietnam and in the U.S. Streets and families prepare for the occasion a month before the actual holiday, and the markets are filled with the red tint of decorations. Parents and children in the U.S. watch movies about the origin of Christmas and stories related to the holiday.

"Children in the U.S. look forward to receiving their gifts just like how the children here are excited to receive their lucky money in Tet," Brandon said.

By Christmas this year, Brandon got married to a Vietnamese woman. He decided to fly back to the America with his wife and reunite with his family for the holiday.

Brandon Hurley (L) interviews a woman in HCMC during Christmas in 2020. Photo by Brandon Hurley

Brandon Hurley (L) talks with a woman in HCMC during Christmas in 2020. Photo by Brandon Hurley

Fernando Ruiz Bonilla, a 44-year-old Colombian who has been living in Vietnam for seven years, chose a different way to celebrate Christmas. It has been three years since he first hit the streets in HCMC for Christmas. This year, he will celebrate the holiday with disabled cats and dogs here.

"Lights and music are everywhere," Bonilla said. "The atmosphere here is similar to my hometown. But I still miss home."

What he found strange is that in Vietnam, many families are not Christian but they still got people to dress up as Santa Claus to come and give presents to the children. Some families take their kids to the mall, which is no different from Christmas in his hometown.

A month before Christmas, families in Colombia will decorate their houses inside and out. The primary colors are green, red and yellow. People will gather around December 16-25. On each day, his family would bring food to other houses for gatherings.

Before the meal, everyone prays and tells the story of how Jesus Christ was born. At the end of the night, they sing Christmas songs together and party. This occurs every day until the end of Christmas.

Fernando Ruiz Bonilla and his wife Anh Thu with disabled dogs during Christmas in 2021. Photo by Fernando Ruiz Bonilla

Fernando Ruiz Bonilla and his wife Anh Thu with disabled dogs during Christmas in 2021. Photo by Fernando Ruiz Bonilla

In Vietnam, Fernando often celebrated Christmas alone until 2019, when he married Anh Thu, a doctor who has a big heart for pets. The two opened a small business that makes carriages and artificial legs and that supports cats and dogs that have been abandoned, abused, and disabled.

Since 2019, one month before Christmas, Thu helps her husband prepare gifts such as Christmas clothes and wheelchairs for dogs and cats. "

"Every Christmas, we give away about 20 wheelchairs worth VND60 million ($2,537)," Thu said.

Christmas this year, Thu was sick so she and her husband stayed at home, but they still maintained the annual gift giving for pets. While his wife prepares the gifts, Fernando goes to the kitchen to cook a hearty meal. As they both work, they sway to the rhythm of Christmas songs and the dogs and cats wag their tails. Evening is the time when the couple calls their loved ones to wish them good health and blessings.

"In the past five years, I haven’t celebrated Christmas with my family," Fernando said. "I wish I had enough time to buy a ticket to go home, hug my parents and give them a surprise."

Christmas is an occasion for Nathan Padayachee, a South African of Indian descent who has lived in Vietnam for seven years, to gather with his compatriots far from home to celebrate the holiday. On the evening of December 24 every year, nearly a dozen people, including Nathan, gather to cook traditional Indian dishes such as curry, naan and samosas.

Wearing Christmas hats and with a tiny pine tree on the table, they listen to New Year's music. This is how these young people who are far from home find warmth during the festive season.

Nathan lived for more than three years in Thanh Hoa, before moving to Hanoi. He noticed the difference between the two localities when it comes to celebrating Christmas. In Thanh Hoa Province, where there are many Christians, families gather at the church to pray. As for the capital of Hanoi, people celebrate at home and then go out to malls and crowded places to enjoy the holiday festivities.

Nathan Padayachee (L) and his friends celebrate Christmas in 2021. Photo by Nathan Padayachee

Nathan Padayachee (L) and his friends celebrate Christmas in 2021. Photo by Nathan

"Christmas in Hanoi is more gorgeous and modern than in our country," he said. "There are big parties, flashing lights and sophisticated decorations in the capital."

At Nathan’s home in South Africa, his family often gathers to pray at church on this occasion. For them, the family meal on Christmas is very important. After the meal, the family members will give each other presents.

"Choosing to live in another country means you have to adapt to differences," Nathan said. "I can't expect a full Christmas experience like in South Africa."

Like Hurley and Bonilla, Nathan hopes his big family back home and his small family in Vietnam can gather together on Christmas Day. When that happens, it will be the most peaceful and happy holiday for him, whether it’s in Vietnam or South Africa.

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