The days are getting shorter, the weather has turned cool, and giant, green cones have started appearing in the front of shopping malls. This can only mean one thing: the Christmas season is upon us once again.
While not traditionally a big holiday in Hanoi, its importance has been growing in recent years. Shops in Hang Ma Street have been stocking all manner of baubles and decorations since early November, turning it into a sight to behold during the final months of the year. This has led to several perplexed backpackers and newbies asking me why the Old Quarter has a ‘Christmas Street’ and whether or not it’s a permanent fixture. They are always disappointed when I break it to them that Christmas Street turns into Tet Street as soon as the former is over. However, the decorations that adorn shops, cafés and offices seem to stay forever. When I moved into my current house in May, it was still decorated with Christmas stickers and trinkets. After several years of dealing with this, it didn’t even register as remotely odd that, during the height of summer, I had to fight my way through tinsel in order to open the fridge.
There isn’t as much of a Christian presence in Hanoi as there is in the south, but two places that are always packed for the big day are St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Nha Tho and the church on Ham Long. Services are held at both, with extra seating on the street required to accommodate the crowds that flock to hear the annual sermons.
For the less religiously inclined, this is more the season of eating, drinking and being merry than anything else. This city makes it very easy to do all these things year-round but it is especially true at Christmas time. Those looking for their turkey fix but suffering from a chronic lack of bird and/or oven are not left short of options, as most Western restaurants offer a traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. The best places can get pretty crowded near the actual day so booking ahead, something of an alien concept in Hanoi, becomes essential. The other option, for expats looking to splurge a little, is going for a Christmas buffet at one of the top hotels. The Metropole is, as ever, a cut above in terms of both the quality of food and variety of entertainment, although the offerings at venues such as the Intercontinental and Meliá are nothing to be sniffed at either. In many ways, foreigners have it fairly easy getting the Christmas comfort food they crave in Hanoi. They should be thankful they don’t live in Japan, where, due to a heavy marketing campaign in the 1970s, KFC of all things has become the traditional meal, with the fast food outlet taking reservations months in advance.
Drinking and Hanoi go together like spring rolls and fish sauce, but during the festive period a lot of bars really step up their game. The cold weather, which get down in the single digits but feels as though it’s in the sub-zeros on a motorbike, is perfect for seasonal classics like mulled wine and hot toddies, which can be found at several bars and restaurants in both the Old Quarter and up around West Lake.
No matter how frosty it gets, beer never goes out of fashion and the bia hoi (draught beer) establishments around the city are perhaps even busier and more raucous than usual. Even though Christmas is not an official public holiday for Vietnamese, most people employed by foreign companies or schools will get at least a few days off, which makes it a prime occasion for a pub crawl around the city. Last year, a friend’s football team followed this line of thought and decided to engage in what they termed the ‘12 Bia Hois of Christmas’. This involved a group of more than 20 burly foreigners, all dressed as Santa, descending on a series of very local, very Vietnamese watering holes to drink, sing and be generally boisterous. It must have made quite the scene, as countless locals came over to have their photos taken with the group of, at least in their eyes, slightly insane Westerners.
Putting on the red and white and strapping a fake beard to your face is by no means an activity restricted to foreigners. In fact, Vietnamese Santas are a pretty common sight all throughout the month of December. Sadly, the male Vietnamese frame is not suited to playing the role of the rather well-proportioned gift giver, resulting in some rather emaciated looking Santas promoting various events. If you are really lucky you might even see an entire pack of these skinny Santas travelling on the back of the closest thing Hanoi has to a reindeer-drawn sled - a Honda Wave. When this situation arises, try to stifle your laughter long enough to take a quick photo as it truly is a special moment.
As enjoyable as Christmas in Hanoi is, there is still something slightly off about celebrating a Western holiday in an Eastern country. The lack of family here is the obvious main difference but it goes beyond that. There isn’t the same bombardment of adverts and jingles that come at you through every type of media imaginable. Eating far too much and falling into a food coma in a hotel restaurant isn’t the same as collapsing in a comfy armchair next to a real fire. There are far too few tacky Christmas sweaters being worn for my liking and not nearly enough mince pies being eaten.
White Christmases are generally few and far between, even back home, but at least there’s the hope it might snow. However, even that is cruelly snatched away from you in a city that has never felt the touch of a snowflake. Having said that, all hope is not lost, as last January a town 300 kilometres south of Hanoi, in the province of Nghe An, saw the first ever recorded snowfall in its history. But even if Hanoi was covered in a blanket of snow, Christmas here still wouldn’t be quite the same as a Western Christmas. All things considered, it’s a small price to pay for all the wonderful things this country offers expats so I guess I’ll continue to suffer through the holidays with my five-star hotel meal and two-dollar hot toddies. Woe is me indeed.