Wacky, tacky Christmas in Hanoi
My expectations for Christmas in Hanoi were pretty low, based on my prior experiences of dressing up as a basic, boring witch for Halloween — the only costume I could find was a hat — and spending Thanksgiving in bed with the aforementioned dengue fever. For me, homesickness comes in waves, often without warning, but holidays away from home inevitably bring on the feels. I was lonely, and I just wanted to get Christmas over with.
I was surprised when my office started putting up Christmas decorations a few weeks before the holiday. And I mean, they really went all out: a sizable Christmas tree, a banner, ornaments dangling from the ceiling. For a largely secular country, they were really doing it up big for baby Jesus.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. The footprint of French colonialism can still be seen everywhere throughout the city, from the Old Quarter architecture to the baguettes everyone uses to make bánh mì. But I was still surprised by the level of Christmas cheer throughout the city. I’m sure that businesses want to lure in foreign patrons by decorating for the holidays, but Vietnamese still seem to genuinely enjoy the traditions nonetheless.
I’ve also never seen so many Santas in one holiday season. On my way into work on Christmas Eve, I saw three Vietnamese guys dressed as Santa riding in convertibles as part of a phone company advertisement. Apparently, it’s also commonplace for foreign English teachers to be asked to dress up as Santa for their students. The demand for bearded men in red is so high that the “Rent-a-Santa” business is booming.
According to DTI News, parents have been hiring fake Santas to bring presents to their children for the cost of about VND100,000, or $4.50. And since it’s Hanoi, I’m sure that Santa traded in Rudolph for a Honda Win.
As for the holiday itself, Christmas Eve was more of a spectacle than Christmas Day. My office celebrated with a party, replete with two bûche de Noël cakes, wine and fruit, not to mention an incessant stream of Christmas tunes.
Later that evening, I joined a couple of Vietnamese friends in an attempt to visit the St. Joseph Cathedral in the Old Quarter, where a Christmas program had been organized. Apparently, everyone else in Hanoi had the same idea, and we never made it there due to the insane traffic. The streets were so crowded that motorbike drivers were practically shoulder-to-shoulder. I’m just as much of a nonbeliever as just about everyone else in Vietnam, and I suppose we all flocked to the Old Quarter for the same reason: an excuse to party. And if Christmas spirit isn’t about downing a mug of cold beer at a gay bar, then I don’t know what is.