It’s the most wonderful time of the year
It’s the hap-hapiest season of all.
There’s definitely something magical about Christmas. You know how November rain and January blizzards give you chill and depression? Well, the closer it gets to Christmas, the warmer December winter gets. You know how people often wear dark colors in winter? Well, forget it ‘cause Christmas is all about red, white, and green. And you know how you just want to stay in and sleep through winter like a polar bear? Well, you just simply can’t resist the colorful Christmas light shows. Right? Right!
I’ve always loved winter. Partly because I was born in January; but mostly because of Christmas and all its vibes. I’ve been lucky enough to celebrate Christmas in many different places, but Christmas in Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City – my hometown) and Seattle, WA are exceptionally emotional and significant, which, as a result, makes me love the holiday even more. Long story short, I miss wandering downtown Seattle alone and feeling the festivity in the air. I mean, it was so fun that I didn’t feel lonely though I was on my own that year.
My memory of celebrating Christmas in Vietnam has always been about family parties and decorating Christmas trees. I mean, after spending most Christmases alone and away from home, the idea of celebrating it with other people seems rather bizarre to me. This year, similarly, I’ll get to enjoy Christmas in Vietnam, but still, no parents (they’re visiting my grandma elsewhere) and no friends (I’ve just started my job a few weeks now and frankly speaking, I’m always too tired and busy to get to know my coworkers). It has got to a point when I feel like I don’t need other people to feel the joy of Christmas (though I still sometimes ponder the meaning of celebrating Christmas at all if it was not with friends and family. Oh well…) But then, again, the idea of being alone has never really bothered me.
(Have I told you that I tend to contradict myself a lot?)
Well, anyways, I had a day off from work last Monday, and since I figured the streets would be crowded on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I decided to celebrate early. By wandering downtown Saigon. And oh my God how I was amazed and hypnotized by the lights. The light shows in Saigon are, perhaps, the most magnificent I’ve ever seen. Ever since I returned to Vietnam, I’ve had doubts about my decision. There are times when I feel like I should be back in the US instead; but as I drove around the city looking at the lights and the people, I thought, for the first time, that I was exactly where I should be. And so all was good
These lights are here, just for one reason: celebrating the best time of the year
The streets of Saigon (a.k.a. Ho Chi Minh City) have always been crowded, especially at the downtown area. I’ve spent hours watching people getting stuck in traffic. I’ve seen the exhausting look on their face, and I also know the desire to get out of the endless sea of unfamiliar faces to get home to the loved ones. Last Monday, I was downtown again, but there was something about the atmosphere that felt different. The traffic was crazy as usual, but no one seemed to be in any hurry. In fact, they didn’t even want to get out of traffic! If it had been a casual day, you would have heard noisy honks and people screaming. If it had been a casual day, you would have hated, literally, everyone for driving oh so slowly. But at Christmas time, people tend to slow down to enjoy the lights and the moment; and the unfamiliar people kind of become dear. Christmas, my friend, is magical indeed.
People hanging out on motorbikes (the most popular means of transport in Vietnam) – The tall “building” in the back is the main entrance of Ben Thanh Market – one of the biggest local market in town
Now, for those who plan to travel to Ho Chi Minh City during the holiday season, here are a few things you should know
1. Most Vietnamese don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. So as soon as Haloween ends, they start to decorate for Christmas, which is why you can see lights and Christmas trees and snowflakes making their appearance as early as mid-November. Yes, we celebrate by the holiday season, not exactly by each specific event. This brings up another important point: it’s very hard to find turkey in supermarkets; so if you’d like to have a Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner, you can either have buffets at 4 (or 5)-star hotels, or order in advanced and have them delivered to you. I’m not so sure about the buffet, but if you order, it’ll cost you about VND 2,000,000 (about $100), and it comes with a turkey (serves 5-6), traditional stuffing, mashed potatoes/sweet potatoes, gravy, cranberry sauce, and perhaps 1-2 more side dishes. Some hotels/restaurants that serve Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner includes Sheraton, Majestic, Renaissance, New World, Le Meridien, etc. So in short, you’ll have plenty of choices
2. Sightseeing-wise, your best shot would be the downtown area. Nguyen Hue Boulevard and the surrounding area, to be exact. That’s where the lights are brightest and the crowd is biggest. As a local, I recommend seeing the lights a few days, or even a week, before Christmas, because it will be crazy on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. If you can’t stand being skin-to-skin with strangers, then these two days are a definitely no-no. If your budget allows, book your stay in luxurious hotels in downtown and you can just celebrate Christmas at the comfort of your hotel room If you want to go to the church on Christmas Eve, Saigon Notre-Dame Basilica in district 1 is a must-go place. It’s the biggest and most famous church in Southern Vietnam, and it’s also right downtown. People gather there to pray almost every night for about a week before Christmas, so mark it down and you won’t regret it.
A small part of the crowd in front of a shopping mall
Oh, and besides district 1, you can also visit the Cresent Mall area in Phu My Hung in district 7, where they also put on lights and hold important Christmas and year-end events. It will also be crowded, and the lights are, in my opinion, not as cool, but still it’s a great place to visit. While you in district 7, spend some time driving around Phu My Hung. That’s like Beverly Hills of Vietnam where celebrities and rich people live. Some of them go nuts on Christmas decorations, so you’ll get some good shots as well
Catholicities would make fantastic spots to visit. While district 1 and 7 are famous for the majestic light shows, catholicities are the to-go places for magnificent nativity scenes. Most of them are pretty far away from downtown, but for your convenience, I’d recommend Pham The Hien street in district 8 and the ones in Go Vap and Tan Binh districts. I’ve never been there myself since they’re pretty far away from where I live, but from the photos I found on Google, they seem to be as hypnotizing as the light shows.
Wherever you go, though, watch your belongings. The last thing you want is to enjoy the festivity and, in return, lose all your money, devices, and important documents. If you don’t feel comfortable staying at any place then just don’t. After all, Christmas is all about spending time with your loved ones. It’s not the lights, nor the fun and the cheers, it’s the people and the feeling that matter.
Have a peaceful and warm Christmas!
These words (in red) mean “Happy New Year!”