California Forum

Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh City: Christmas is all the rage in Socialist Republic of Vietnam

Christmas shoppers are welcomed at one of Ho Chi Minh City’s best known commercial complexes. Vietnam may be a communist country, but American-style holiday consumerism is a burgeoning trend.
Christmas shoppers are welcomed at one of Ho Chi Minh City’s best known commercial complexes. Vietnam may be a communist country, but American-style holiday consumerism is a burgeoning trend.

To my friends and denizens in Sacramento, merry Christmas – from Vietnam.

The holiday season has arrived in this communist country, kind of in the same way that Lunar New Year and other Vietnamese customs have made their way to south Sacramento. But there is a big difference in how cultural exchange takes place on each side of the Pacific.

‘On one hand I hate seeing the worst part of American consumerism infecting #Vietnam,’ one of my American friends here tweeted. ‘On the other hand…there are some f---ing sweet deals out there.’

In the United States, we see each new cultural ritual as an addition to the national tapestry; embracing each community, it’s the American way.

But in Vietnam, the ritual (in this case, Christmas) is not about community or identity. It is something that Vietnamese people themselves embrace because they are thirsty for new trends.

Imagine if a white person in Sacramento were to take it upon herself to celebrate Tet or Diwali or Dia de los Muertos. Setting aside the issue of cultural misappropriation, it is also a little weird and not very profound to mark such holidays if you do not spend time with people who find meaning in these dots on the calendar.

Not that I have a problem with Vietnam’s translation of Christmas. The season, to sum it up, is all about friends, fun, and free-market consumerism. It is observed here with the same amount of substance and spirit that Americans invest in Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day.

When I was growing up in Sacramento, at this time of year, my family enjoyed ice skating at the outdoor rink downtown and cooking turkey and potatoes, with a side of eggrolls and fried rice. We watched the Theater of Lights, which brought people to Old Sacramento to see “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” projected onto wooden balconies. We went shopping less and less over the years, choosing instead to make each other gifts.

That’s not what you’d find in Vietnam, or other parts of Asia that have welcomed the holidays, from Indonesia to China.

Here, Christmas is a party.

The night of Dec. 24, Vietnamese will cavort around the parks, riverfronts, pedestrian-only promenades and other public spaces. They meet each other at sidewalk cafes, take selfies with cardboard Santas, listen to Bing Crosby, and – most importantly – shop. For weeks before Thanksgiving, Ho Chi Minh City was already plastered with “Black Friday” ads.

“On one hand I hate seeing the worst part of American consumerism infecting #Vietnam,” one of my American friends here tweeted. “On the other hand…there are some f---ing sweet deals out there.”

Christmas is the best time to witness Vietnam’s unfettered materialism. The fast-growing economy is awash with the disposable income of young Vietnamese who don’t need to pay rent because they live with their parents and want something to do – or buy.

This is also the reason that Halloween and Valentine’s Day are gaining traction here. Marketing executives have seized the occasions as a way to repackage old products in new wrapping paper. Customers have seized on the holidays as a delightful pastime, full of novelty. It is a befitting, almost inevitable change of behavior for Asia’s up-and-coming economies.

Of course, it’s not all spending sprees and painting the town red. Vietnam has the biggest Christian population in Southeast Asia after the Philippines. I have taken in a church concert, complete with Handel’s Messiah and Yuletime carols, in this city that people still call Saigon. And foreigners who miss the trappings of their home countries have brought some Christmas traditions to Vietnam, too.

In that sense, it reminds me of the immigrants in Sacramento who miss their homelands and retain familiar rites, from Afghans fasting on Ramadan, to Russians hosting Yarmarka festivals in the style of 19th-century Slavic fairs.

But when I look around Saigon at the most wonderful time of the year, nothing is quite so visible as the full-throated welcoming of American-style Christmas, in all its commercial glory.

Lien Hoang is a journalist and Sacramento native living in Vietnam, where she writes about Southeast Asia. Contact her at twitter.com/lienh.

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