The annual dilemma. How to spend Christmas Day?? If anything, my Christmases have certainly been diverse and eclectic over the last five years..
The first year, we (my kids and I) basked in the LA sunshine, cosseted by the warmth of our extended Indian side of the family. Fun was the order of the day, laughter de rigueur. In India I nursed the one and only bout of gastroenteritis I succumbed to in a whole year there. Really, on Christmas Day?? But it summed up my feelings and luckily I was roused from the comfort of my bed just in time to witness the multi-cultural Christmas parade passing through the main street of the hamlet of Neyyattinkara. For my third Christmas, I made it back to the UK relishing in a traditional English Christmas with my family. Christmas crackers, board games and the opulence of too much delicious food. Last year, the fourth Christmas morning, I lounged in the luxury of white crisp sheets in a plush hotel in Shanghai, before joining the band of singletons in Starbucks… So what would Vietnam have in store??
Just like China purged religion with landownership and privilege during the Great Cultural Revolution, Uncle Ho* (or those who were of an equal disposition) banished faith and worship to the periphery of Vietnamese life whilst reforming the country according to the same communist principles. The legacy of being the winners of the Vietnam War. Contrary to widespread belief, there are plenty of Christians in Vietnam. In actual fact, although the country is predominantly Buddhist, about 7% of its citizens are Catholic and Vietnam has the fifth largest Catholic population in Asia, after the Philippines, India, China and Indonesia.
But celebrating religious festivals is very much a private matter, and as in China, Christmas is definitely not a national holiday. Schools are open and employees report for work. Business as usual. Local supermarkets and small independent shops have cottoned on though, as some Western customs and festivals are slowly gaining in popularity. In the run up to the big day, vivid rainbows of tinsel and garlands showered the shops; vibrantly coloured baubles, deep-red Christmas stockings and artificial spruces in all shapes, sizes and shades of green festooned their ceilings and doorways. A token of progress and development, of fitting in with rest of the world. Vietnam on the cusp of a new and unstoppable revolution.
Thoroughly modern Vietnamese Father Christmases no longer rely on Rudolph and sleigh for transport, but crisscross town on motorbikes to deliver presents in broad daylight to those lucky children whose parents can afford to pay for such extravagance. At the language centre where I work, children feasted on biscuits and crisps whilst being initiated into the secular language associated with the ‘birth of Jesus’ – Jesus played no part in it. The closest I came to conveying a Christmas message was showing a Sainsbury advert from a few years back: Mog’s Christmas Calamity. At least it was humorous and contained a suitable moral, ‘Christmas is for sharing’… But whilst the teachers and office staff at my centre indulged in a Christmas Eve dinner hosted by our ‘boss’, the Christian populace of the town gathered in the town’s churches. Not unnerved by the sight of Santa towering over the entrance, mass was eagerly attended and the churches’ naves rejoiced with exultant Christmas carols.
Christmas Day itself turned out equally exultant indeed. In the absence of family, we gelled together as friends. After a late night – for some lasting into the wee hours – we got up early, very early, long before dawn, and piled into the waiting taxi on our way to Da Nang… A three hour drive. Having breakfast on the go, we explored the caves and pagodas of the Marble Mountains and took selfies with the tallest Lady Buddha in Vietnam (Linh Ung Pagoda).
I cannot honestly say I was riveted by the thought of a KFC Christmas Dinner, but after several months of being deprived of proper Western food, it was a real treat… And it comprised all the essentials of the authentic British festive meal! What better Christmas Dinner than savouring mouth-watering, succulent popcorn chicken bites, soft chicken meat that I did not need to prise from the bone with my teeth (turkey…) accompanied by crisp, hot French fries (roast potatoes)… And a choice of chicken gravy and ketchup. Delectable. So there were no Brussels sprouts, but who misses those anyway… ?
Instead of hearty after-dinner walks in the countryside, or slouching on a sofa to watch Christmas specials, we spent our afternoon and evening riding the thrilling rides, rolling the corkscrew roller coasters and circling the giant eye of Asia Park, Da Nang’s amusement park… And as Christmas was just a normal day for most of Vietnam, there were no queues… We lost count of the number of times we were shaken, jolted, plunged, catapulted and swung…
A roller coaster Christmas. Bring it on.
*Uncle Ho: affectionate Vietnamese soubriquet for Ho Chi Minh, the driving force behind Vietnam’s struggle against French colonial rule.