Posted by: sharemore1 | January 9, 2011

A Lot Like Christmas

Christmas at the Daewoo

It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas in tropical Viet Nam.  In early December, a silver Christmas tree with stacks of presents graced the entrance of the Daewoo, the grand hotel near our Hanoi apartment.  A fat Styrofoam snowman beckoned diners to enter a local restaurant, where a mechanized Santa swiveled his hips as he played the saxophone.

Snowman and Swinging Santa

It was getting to be “cold” in the city, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s, sometimes dipping into the 50s at night.  Everyone brought out their hats and warm jackets and I saw a women bundled in fur as she sat on a tiny plastic stool at a sidewalk restaurant.

Fur Coat Weather

The Christian/capitalist celebration is becoming increasingly popular in this atheist/communist nation.  Although the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism are an integral part Vietnamese culture, 80% of the population consider themselves atheists.  Less that 10% are practicing Buddhists and about 7% are Catholics.

Catholic missionaries first came to Viet Nam in the 16th century and the religion flourished when the country was a French colony.  Many of the Christmas practices are French Catholic, with affluent families serving turkey and the traditional yule log, or Buche de Noel, for dessert.  Catholic children often put their shoes outside the door to be filled with treats.

Catholics observed the holiday quietly when the government discouraged all religions after the communist takeover.  With economic liberalization came greater tolerance of public displays of religion.  Yet the festivities we saw owed more to capitalism than to Christianity and were celebrated by more than the minority Catholic population.

Tree on a Motorbike

There were no crèches for the baby Jesus or wise men following a star, just lots of decorated trees, snowmen and Santas.  Merchants promoted Christmas as a shopping opportunity and restaurateurs offered their facilities for parties.  Unlike Tet, the Vietnamese New Year celebrated at home with the family, Christmas is a time to party in public, especially for young people.

On December 23, we happened upon such a party while enjoying a seafood dinner at the Buffet Viet.  The decorations in the restaurant were familiar:  a tree adorned with ornaments and brightly wrapped presents, while Santa Claus greeted guests as they entered.  As we piled our plates with clams, crab and oysters, we were entertained by Christmas carols over the sound system.  But here the similarity to our celebrations ended.

A closer look at the tree revealed it was artificial and Jolly St. Nicholas was a thin Asian man in a fake white beard.  After passing out presents to the excited children, he led diners in several rounds of karaoke.  Partygoers followed prompts on the screen to dream of a white Christmas and praise the King of Israel, all in balmy Hanoi.

When the party was over, everyone squeezed onto motorbikes.  As only the Vietnamese could, they found room for three or four family members and their gifts as well.  Clutching their presents, they wove through the traffic with balloon bouquets bobbing from the back of their bikes.

Feliz Navidad, Hanoi Style


  1. Good to know Christmas celebrations go on even in Hanoi. Your blog captures the magic of this season that began as a religious event and can still have meaning in an atheist culture. Whatever, who can resist Santa, gift-giving and festive holiday music. Love the image of the tree carried along on a motorbike!

  2. Love this post. A great glimpse of Christmas, Hanoi style.

  3. So true! This was exactly what we saw as well – every place we visited in Vietnam.

  4. This was so cool. How interesting how cultural elements are borrowed and adapted. Loved the Santas on motorbikes!

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