Christmas in Vietnam through the eyes of expats
“When I first came to Ho Chi Minh City in 2014, I saw a lot of Vietnamese who weren’t Christian but were still celebrating Christmas and hanging out on the day,” said Brandon, an American who has been in Vietnam for eight years lives.
Snow blankets the streets of Brandon’s hometown these days. Meanwhile, there is no winter in HCMC.
“The difference in weather is interesting,” he said. “For us foreigners, Christmas is like the lunar new year (tet) Holiday to Vietnamese as we all want to be with our family. Now I’m far from home and even though the weather is warm, I still need to feel the warmth of my family.”
Brandon spent his first Christmas in Vietnam by going to an American BBQ restaurant alone to feel at home.
During the next Christmas holidays he still went to this restaurant alone, but after he finished his meal he stopped going home and instead joined the crowds on the street. He asked the Vietnamese how they celebrate Christmas and what they knew about the meaning of the holiday.
“A lot of young people went out at Christmas, but they couldn’t remember exactly when Christmas begins and ends,” he said.
Brandon said there are similarities between Christmas in Vietnam and in the US. Streets and families prepare for the occasion a month before the actual holiday, and markets are filled with red decorations. Parents and children across the US watch films about the origin of Christmas and stories related to the holiday.
“Children in the United States look forward to their presents, just like children here look forward to their lucky money tet‘ said Brandon.
For Christmas of that year, Brandon married a Vietnamese woman. He decided to fly back to America with his wife and reunite with his family for the holidays.
Brandon Hurley (L) speaks to a woman at the HCMC for Christmas 2020. Photo by Brandon Hurley
Fernando Ruiz Bonilla, a 44-year-old Colombian who has lived in Vietnam for seven years, chose a different way to celebrate Christmas. It’s been three years since he first took to the streets at Christmas in HCMC. This year he will celebrate the holiday here with disabled cats and dogs.
“Lights and music are everywhere,” Bonilla said. “The atmosphere here is similar to my hometown. But I still miss home.”
What he found strange was 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 go to the mall with their children, which is no different from Christmas in his hometown.
A month before Christmas, families in Colombia decorate their homes inside and out. The primary colors are green, red and yellow. People will gather around December 16-25. Every day his family brought food to other houses for meetings.
Before the meal everyone prays and tells the story of how Jesus Christ was born. At the end of the evening they sing Christmas carols together and celebrate. This happens every day until the end of Christmas.
Fernando Ruiz Bonilla and his wife Anh Thu with disabled dogs during the 2021 Christmas season. Photo by Fernando Ruiz Bonilla
In Vietnam, Fernando often celebrated Christmas alone until 2019, when he married Anh Thu, a doctor with a big heart for pets. The two started a small business that makes carriages and prosthetic legs and supports abandoned, abused and disabled cats and dogs.
Since 2019, a month before Christmas, Thu has been helping her husband prepare gifts such as Christmas clothes and wheelchairs for dogs and cats. “
“Every Christmas, we give away about 20 wheelchairs worth VND 60 million (US$2,537),” Thu said.
At Christmas this year, Thu was ill, so she and her husband stayed at home, but they still held on to the annual pet gifts. 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 carols and the dogs and cats wag their tails. The evening is the time when the couple calls their loved ones to wish them health and blessings.
“I haven’t celebrated Christmas with my family for the last five years,” Fernando said. “I wish I had enough time to buy a ticket to go home, hug my parents and give them a surprise.”
For Nathan Padayachee, a South African of Indian descent who has lived in Vietnam for the past seven years, Christmas is an occasion to gather with his compatriots far from home to celebrate the festival. On the evening of December 24 each year, nearly a dozen people, including Nathan, gather to cook traditional Indian dishes such as curry, naan and samosas.
With Christmas hats and a small fir tree on the table, they listen to the New Year’s music. This is how these young people, who are far from home, find warmth during the Christmas season.
Nathan lived in Thanh Hoa for more than three years before moving to Hanoi. He noticed the difference between the two places when it came to celebrating Christmas. In Thanh Hoa province, where there are many Christians, families gather at church to pray. In the capital Hanoi, people celebrate at home and then go to malls and crowded places to enjoy the holiday celebrations.
Nathan Padayachee (L) and his friends celebrate Christmas in 2021. Photo by Nathan
“Christmas in Hanoi is more beautiful and modern than in our country,” he said. “In the capital there are big parties, flashing lights and sophisticated decorations.”
At Nathan’s home in South Africa, his family often gets together to pray at church on this occasion. For them, the family dinner at Christmas is very important. After the meal, the family members give each other presents.
“Choosing to live in another country means you have to adjust to differences,” Nathan said. “I can’t expect a complete Christmas experience like in South Africa.”
Like Hurley and Bonilla, Nathan hopes his large family back home and small family in Vietnam can get together on Christmas Day. When that happens, it will be the most peaceful and happiest vacation for him, whether it is in Vietnam or South Africa.