Christmas is back in Vietnam but for many it is all about buying
In Vietnam, everyone works on Christmas, and students go to school. Employees in state enterprises and government offices are encouraged to be especially productive on this day to mark the founding of the People’s Army of Vietnam (22 December).
Since the country’s economy opened up, Western influence has grown. This has allowed Christmas to make a comeback as a time for giving and receiving gifts.
In the days before the 25 December, people throng the streets—Lương Văn Can, Hàng Cân, Hàng Lược, Hàng Mã in Hanoi, and Lê Lợi, Lê Thánh Tôn, Hai Bà Trưng, Võ Thị Sáu in Ho Chi Minh City—and visit big department stores or small craft shops to buy gifts for their children, or those of their bosses.
An army of tens of thousands of young people dressed up like Santa Claus deliver gifts between 7 and 12 pm. In order to get their cargo before midnight, these Ông Già Noel (Old Man Christmas in Vietnamese) have to plan carefully how to negotiate big city traffic.
It is not rare to see tens of such gift bearers standing in line in front of the homes of officials, “much loved and admired” by their subordinates.
These attempts to curry favour with bosses (or even bribe them) can cost employees at least US$ 50, the equivalent of an average monthly wage. In some cases, the gift might even include family tickets for Christmas Eve dinners at international hotels, with a price tag of US$ 80 per adult and US$ 65 per children.
For Christians, Christmas celebrations are instead low key and more meaningful.
In the days before Christmas, choirs sing in churches.
Midnight Mass is typically celebrated no later than 9 pm for security reasons but also because people have to work the next day.
After Mass, the faithful go home to share a Christmas dinner. In rural areas, where many people are poor, Christmas dinner is organised by local parishes.
Across the country, dioceses help the disadvantaged. In Ho Chi Minh City, the diocese holds a special Christmas Mass for people with physical disabilities. This Christmas, Card Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man handed out gifts. A similar initiative for disabled children was held on 19 December.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Fr Joseph Le Quang Uy set up a group of young volunteers called the Disciples of Jesus to roam the streets of the city in search of the homeless to give them small gifts like rice, biscuits, detergent, and small amounts of cash . . . and thus show them the true meaning of Christmas.
In Hue, central Vietnam, starting the first Sunday of Advent the sisters of the Lovers of the Holy Cross, opened the doors of their convent to the poor, the elderly and the disabled to offer them a meal and a chance to see their crèche.
In the north, Mgr Joseph Nguyen Chi Linh, bishop of Thanh Hoa, led a group of about a hundred priests, religious and faithful to the Cam Thuy Leprosarium as a show of solidarity with the patients and bring them help and gifts. The next day, the prelate brought Christmas gifts to Hmong children.
In the north and the central plateaus, celebrating Christmas is still an uphill struggle in many villages. With local authorities refusing to admit that their communities have Christian members, the latter have to meet secretly. Schools officials are especially keen on making sure that students are not absent on Christmas Day.
However, there are some positive signs as well. After showing hostility towards the archdiocese of Hue, provincial authorities have made some token gesture. The deputy chairman of Thua Thyen province (which includes Hue), Ngo Hoa, signed a decree ordering school principals not to hold exams on Christmas. Unfortunately, this applies only to his province. Elsewhere, it is still customary to hold important exams on Christmas.