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Christmas in Vietnam: Next best thing to snow

Monday, December 23, 2019, 10:22 GMT+7
Christmas in Vietnam: Next best thing to snow
The Christmas spirit in Vietnam. Photo: Mai Thuong / Tuoi Tre

As a foreigner from a cold country, Christmas to me has always meant long trips to see my family, festive events, great food, and (YIKES) snow! In Canada, we can’t avoid the snow nor defeat it, so we cope with it until it melts away in spring.

Since I’m living half a world away, I can reveal my mixed sentiments about the whole winter ordeal without having to suffer negative repercussions. Much of it is truly a pain in the neck from start to finish, so I’m glad to be away from it: snow tires, winter clothes, throat-drying central heat at home, blocked roads, colds and flu, dry skin, snow boots -- the list goes on and on.

If you can survive all that with sanity and humour intact, then comes the string of rituals and traditions that drive most people nuts, although few actually admit it: we eat too much, some of it we don’t even enjoy and certainly don’t need, haul out the decorations for the house and Christmas tree only to put them back a couple of weeks later, and shop for gifts for people who have too much already, and all the general holiday mayhem that conspires to wear everyone out.

Christmas in Vietnam, on the other hand, hits just the right note -- enjoyable without going overboard on fuss and hassle.

Da Lat doesn’t have the snow, which is just great, but it gets pretty darned chilly this time of year -- locals all bundled up with hats, parkas, scarves, boots, and gloves as if there is a blizzard just around the corner. That cool weather spawns a feeling of Christmas, good times, and coziness, so it’s the next best thing to a snowy winter.

There are a few nights each year when the temperature drops below 10 degrees Celsius, so maybe we’ll get a crazy cold snap and a few flakes one of these years. If we ever do get snow, everyone will be ready except for the driving part, which would probably degenerate into a carnival bumper car scenario in two seconds flat.

Take this tip from a seasoned veteran of winter driving: if it snows, whatever you do, don’t go down any hills because you’ll never get back up them, obviously a showstopper in hilly Da Lat. The entire population would end up stuck in the low area around Xuan Huong Lake wondering how to get home, you can just imagine the scene.

Even without snow, the Christmas spirit is alive and well in the city. Visitors from other areas start showing up mid-December to glean a bit of that holiday buzz, huddling in coffee shops over warm drinks and at street stalls enjoying steaming hot bowls of soup.

Beautiful stone-lined walls, pathways, and narrow alleys leading up and down the many hills create an enchanting atmosphere, a little touch of Europe right here in Vietnam.

Aura of romance and peace

Aura of romance and peace

Christmas here is a minor adjunct to the end of the calendar year, overshadowed by the annual Flower Festival which takes place just prior to Christmas, so the place is packed to the rafters. Everybody loves flowers -- well, actually it’s mostly women who love them, and we men gallantly play along with it all. 

People are hyped, decorations are out, stores are busy, and kids are excited about the presents they’ll get. Vietnamese people love to whoop it up and have a good time, so basically any excuse for a celebration will do. 

Festivities kick off mid-month when exams conclude for university students, many of whom head straight for the hills to whoop it up and let off some steam. You can always hear them before you see them because they travel in large gaggles, all hollering at the top of their lungs simultaneously, so there is no way on earth they can understand each other.

There are several terms used to denote Christmas in Vietnamese, including “Giang Sinh” (which either I’ve never heard anyone say, or I missed it as I do most of what’s going on), Noël (borrowed from French), and my own personal favourite “le No-en," a hybrid which allows locals to circumvent trying to pronounce that tricky “l” at the end of Noël.

We’re certainly not running short of forests nor “bûches de Noël” (French for “fir trees” or “cay thong” in Vietnamese) in this part of the country, so Christmas trees are quite common. 

This beauty looked really promising until I discovered that the bottles were empty:

Empty, darn it!

Empty, darn it!

I scouted around and found the ideal tree, it’s just a bit on the tall side, otherwise perfect: 

How to get this baby home?

How to get this baby home?

The neighbourhood tots got very wound up the other day when Santa (the electric model that plays the saxophone, which appears to be the overwhelming favourite in Vietnam) was installed in the hotel lobby.

I was getting concerned that Christmas in Vietnam may be going overly commercial, especially after seeing (horror of all horrors) advertisements for “Black Friday” sales in the big city shops in Ho Chi Minh City televised on the news. 

I thought best to conduct some field research to get my arms around this situation, so I headed for the “Big C” mall (TTTM is the Vietnamese acronym for such structures, standing for “Trung Tam Thuong Mai” -- shopping complex), the ideal place to take the commercial pulse of the city. 

The mall is built into a hill beside Xuan Huong Lake, which provides a lovely backdrop and the perfect disguise, so you don’t know it’s a shopping center until you’re inside it. Actually, that right there is the big issue with Big C: how the hell do you get inside? Took me forever to figure it out the first time I went, because the entrances are built into the hill and so discreet you could walk right by them and not know it.

Having a mall built into nature like that so we can’t see it is nearly as good as not having one at all, so as confusing as the design is, it works for me. The only drawback is that huge in-your-face giant avocado statue sticking out of the hill which looks quite bizarre. 

I poked around inside the mall and was elated to see the Christmas buzz was somewhat low-keyed. There were a few displays of ornaments, fake trees (some realistic models were going for close to VND1 million each!), the odd shop employee elf wearing a Santa hat, Saxophone Santa, and some promotional displays with gifts, but it was all rather staid.

Sax Santa

Sax Santa

In the west, Christmas has degenerated to the point where it’s a shopping frenzy with a good chunk of the population not having a clue what’s really behind it all, so it’s refreshing to see the locals here take it in stride without going bonkers.

Using a scale of 1 to 10 to gauge the degree of holiday insanity, with shoppers bopping each other over the head to get at products on sale being “10” -- the worst -- I’d put the scene here at a laid back “3." 

Some of this civilized behaviour relates to Tet (Lunar New Year, which will take place on January 25) being just around the corner as well, so people are busy closing off the calendar business year and getting prepared for all the Tet running around.

If a miracle occurs and we do get a few snowflakes, don’t go down any hills, and above all, remember the old Canadian sign-off:

Don’t eat the yellow snow!

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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