This was Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City.
There was even a nativity scene at a downtown KFC — alright, not as big a holiday absurdity as the reservations-required KFC Christmas Chicken in Japan, which has been marketed to the point that many Japanese believe westerners eat chicken on Christmas, rather than turkey or ham. But still it’s enough to make anyone pause at this strange collision of church and plate.
Of course, Vietnam isn’t the only place with unique Christmas traditions. In Caracas, Venezuela, the streets are closed to cars on Christmas morning, so locals roller skate to church, some shooting fireworks and yelling, “Jesus is born!” In the US, people ice skate around an 80-foot tall Christmas tree, while the loudspeakers blare It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
All celebrations have their eccentricities, but the key seems to be in the ritual, symbols of life and renewal found in evergreens bathed in snow and a warm living room, a fire in the hearth. The only thing out of place in this city is that these rituals seem to be growing up around the shops.
Black Friday, an American start-of-the-Christmas-shopping-spree gunshot familiar to readers of funny internet links, made an appearance here this year. It was a curious move.
For starters, the American holiday that precedes it, Thanksgiving, isn’t much of a thing in Vietnam. For the venues catering to expats, tourists and Uncle Sam-yearning Viet kieu, there are the yearly dinners and doses of turkey with all the trimmings. But without that Thursday off as a national holiday (Thanksgiving always falls on a Thursday) there isn’t a reason to give the next day any special treatment. Yet in Vietnam, even Black Friday was celebrated — another commercial celebration to add to the likes of Valentine’s Day, Halloween and Christmas.
Vietnam in the modern era is pulling in influences from almost everywhere, without quite knowing what to do with them. Christmas can conveniently be lumped in with Tet, the blue-and-white lighting scheme that lit up central Saigon an unconscious nod to Hannukah. There will be a gap and then a makeover, but the decorations will be up for most of the period running through to Lunar New Year, making it hard to draw a line from one celebration to the next. Falling in the middle of Tet this year, even Valentine’s Day will get squeezed into the holiday block.
Electric for the People
Hitachi supplies a wall of photo props in front of the Saigon Center, ornaments and pinecones blown up to larger-than-life proportions, outgrowing whatever practical meanings they may have once had. Snowmen pose for photos with Vietnamese teens, hands raised in sweetly ironic peace signs on this day of ‘Peace on earth’. Little girls perch on slow motorbikes between snow-blind parents, dressed in tiny angel wings, their eyes filled with wonder.
It’s not Christmas we’re celebrating here, it’s the image of Christmas, the Christmas of Coca-Cola commercials and stock photos. (Santa Claus himself used to don a green and white outfit until Coca-Cola took over — his familiar red and white is thanks to the drinks giant’s marketing campaigns of yesteryear.) Family isn’t the draw of Christmas in Saigon, it’s the lights and store windows that people flock to see. As people walk around in a photo-snapping daze, hawkers with balloons and pinwheels stalk the sparkly intersection of Le Duan and Pham Ngoc Thach, hoping the ritual will extend to them.
Driving down Dong Khoi, you’re likely to get drawn into the festive mood. But these glimmering trees aren’t evergreens. As you pass from the dolled-up downtown to the business-as-usual surroundings, it seems the ritual here is confined to a single photo-op.