28 Dec

A Travellers Christmas: Sherry From Ottsworld

Some travellers love Christmas
 and lament that they can’t be home. Others enjoy the escape from the consumerism and endless carolling (put me in that camp!) and some look for the quirky that happens when other cultures interpret Christmas in their own land. I asked some traveller friends to share how they see and spend Christmas on the road; it’s like a peek into Christmas Around The World.

You can see all the ‘A Travellers Christmas’ posts here.

One of the most usual sites I’ve witnessed in my travels was experiencing Christmas in Asia. I had been living in Ho Chi Minh City Vietnam for 3 months when December 25th rolled around. In this country with no real religion, and no westernized consumerism (yet), Vietnam surprised me with their Christmas spirit.

Christmas in the western world seems to be more economic consumption than religion these days, so why should that be any different in Vietnam? The strange thing is that in Vietnam it seems to be about neither. There’s very little reference to anything religious about Christmas and there is really no one out shopping for gifts except for expats. So why do the Vietnamese care about Christmas? I don’t really know, but my first guess is that they like any reason to drive their motorbikes around the city and get out of their homes! I may never understand the Vietnamese fascination with Christmas, but in the meantime, here’s what I was able to observe.

Merry Merry Christmas
Vietnamese refer to Christmas as “Merry Christmas”. For example, I frequently get asked, “Teacher, what are you going to do for Merry Christmas?” I find it kind of charming; it always reminds me that it is a merry holiday. And no matter how depressed I may be about being on my own for Christmas, at least I can be doubly reminded that I should be merry.

Decking the Halls
On December 23rd I walked by a crew working at constructing yet another Christmas light display in District 1. In the US, the decorations start going up on November 1st, here they go up on December 21st! As I see the people frantically working to put their fake snowmen together and the reindeer carefully placed near the door, I wonder if they are going to all of this work to simply take it down again in a week. I’m assuming not. Why would anyone go to 2 weeks of work to set something up to simply tear it down again right away? Then again, nothing surprises me in Asia.

When you think of Christmas, you think of Heineken
In the center of HCMC near the market exists the pinnacle of all of Christmas displays; I call it the Heineken Snow Globe. No, it’s not an actual snow globe, just a large light display shaped like a dome. I pass this monument to holiday beer (oops, I mean holiday cheer), every day on my way to work. I’ve watched it go up piece by piece over the last 3 weeks. Men dangling from the scaffolding, a giant disco ball being erected, and carefully placed ‘snow drifts’. Then I finally saw it – the familiar green and white logo – a Heineken sign on the Christmas tree. There are Christmas light displays like this all over the city and many of them are sponsored by Heineken for some reason. I even saw a Christmas tree made of Heineken beer cans!

The Festive Smell of Pollution
I think that the Heineken snow globe is rather impressive…or tacky….I can’t quite decide. This probably means that I’ve been in Asia too long. However, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s impressive, the other 7, 999,999 residents of HCMC also think it’s impressive. I believe this because the viewing of the snow globe is a family affair. Instead of hopping in the minivan, the Vietnamese put their family of 4 on a motorbike and take off to go view the holiday lights in District 1. There are lights hanging everywhere in the main part of the city. Displays of elves, reindeer, snowmen, Santa, and even a Winnie the Poo Santa litter the sidewalks. I supposed these lavish displays are in the same vein as window displays in NYC, but no one has a store front that big to put their Holiday light extravaganza in so it spills out into the streets; like most of life in HCMC.

The traffic is unbelievable. I’ve never seen such a massive sea of motorbikes. They just slowly circle around and around looking at the light displays. I walked through the heart of Heineken Christmas Village to capture the absolute chaos and culture of this holiday. After an hour of walking around taking pictures of the traffic, families, kids dressed in Santa suits, and the street vendors; I realized that I couldn’t take it any longer. The pollution from the motorbikes was literally going to kill me.

Eat Papa, Eat!
At the snow globe, there weren’t only lights strung from all of the trees, and vendors selling little Santa, lollipops, and devil horns (not sure that those have to do with Christmas…but it is an interesting take on it!), but there was also St. Nick himself. Actually, there were about seven St. Nicks. They were all dressed up in their Santa outfits, shaking the kids hands and taking pictures with them. Of course in true Asian style there was no queue, that would be silly; there were just masses of people pushing and shoving to get to jolly old St. Nick.

My ChristmAsia was eye opening, just as every day is living in HCMC. Merry Merry Christmas to all, and let the lights and Heineken shine on!


Sherry Ott is a refugee from corporate IT who is now a long term traveler, blogger, and photographer. She’s a co-founder of Meet, Plan, Go!, a website and national event offering career break or sabbatical travel inspiration and advice. She also runs an around the world travel blog writing about her travel and expat experiences at Ottsworld .