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Buddhists, dog meat and Santa Claus in Vietnam
How Christmas traditions have been embraced in small-town Phan Thiet, Vietnam, with a few notable twists
After the Vietnam War, Christmas celebrations and other public forms of Christian religious expression, viewed by authorities as a relic of America’s occupation, were more than a little frowned upon. However, in conjunction with Vietnam’s Doi Moi or “Renovation” economic reforms (begun in 1986,) religious freedoms increased, cultural connections with the outside world were re-established and holiday traditions were not only revived but have since assumed a place in the nation’s popular culture.
No snowmen in Phan Thiet
In the small town of Phan Thiet, 200km east from Ho Chi Minh City, Catholic fishing communities celebrate the holiday jubilantly with webs of shimmering lights and festive decorations that envelop their entire neighborhoods. The Vietnamese have incorporated many of the popular holiday symbols, including Christmas trees (Casuarina or Australian pine is the primary candidate as it grows natively,) reindeer and Santa Claus. Snowmen haven’t entirely caught on yet for obvious reasons.
A few traditions do depart from the Western norm. Christmas in small-town Vietnam has not adopted the intense commercialism that dominates the holiday in the West. Christmas gifts are still a novelty in most homes and may not even be given out at all.
Dog meat delicacy
While a juicy ham, turkey or goose might be the centerpiece of a holiday dinner in Western homes, many Catholic families in Phan Thiet have developed an unusual preference for dog. Normally a delicacy of the far north, dog meat (locally called 'thit cay' or 'thit cho') is thought to warm the body during the chillier weeks surrounding Christmas and the New Year.
Buddhists enticed by Christmas
Buddhist neighbors have been enticed by the holiday, perhaps because of similarities with Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year). Red is a traditional color of both Christmas and Tet, as well as a favorite color of the communist party. The giant Bethlehem stars hung from every home closely resemble traditional Tet decorations. Further, brightly-colored Christmas lights are so popular that many now remain on display through the New Year (this year Tet falls on 14 February.)
Christmas Eve as a grand finale
About a week before Christmas is when Catholic neighborhoods like Phan Thiet’s Phu Thuy Ward undergo a massive transformation, with every avenue and alley lit by colored lanterns and canopies of twinkling lights. Walkways terminate into life-size, hand-crafted nativity scenes, some with inventive animatronics. Cafes and canteens that would normally close by 10pm stay open until after midnight to accommodate the crowds of families that stroll the lanes to view the displays.
Christmas Eve is the grand finale, when Catholic and Protestant churches swing open their doors, sing Vietnamese carols and put on elaborate pageants retelling the birth of Jesus. The entire city comes out to see the spectacle, motor-biking from church to church. Astonishingly, even the government now gets involved, with police directing church traffic and party officials in attendance at church services.
The journey from Ho Chi Minh City to Phan Thiet along Highway 1 takes approximately 5hrs by bus, and is slightly faster by train. Tickets range between US$4 and $6 (the train is cheaper than the bus). The best bus companies serving Phan Thiet are Phuong Trang (Phan Thiet: 062 374-3113; HCMC: 08 3837-5570) and Tam Hanh (Phan Thiet: 062 384-7560; HCMC: 08 3920-5653), with several departures throughout the day.
Popular accommodation in nearby Mui Ne Beach (22km further east) must be booked well in advance of the holidays. Hotels in downtown Phan Thiet are more likely to accept walk-ins around Christmas, though don’t typically receive as many foreign guests. Try these three high-rise hotels downtown:
- Binh Minh Hotel, Le Loi Street, Phan Thiet, tel: + 84 (0) 62 382 3344 Starting around US$13 a night, Binh Minh Hotel is a nice beachfront hotel near the Ocean Dunes Golf Course and walking distance from downtown Phan Thiet.
- Ca Ty Hotel, 40 Phan Boi Chau Street, Phan Thiet, tel: + 84 (0) 62 381 5900 Starting around US$15, is a reasonable hotel overlooking the Ca Ty River and the central market in the heart of the city.
- Doi Duong Hotel, 403 Le Loi Street, Phan Thiet, Tel: + 84 (0) 062 382 1579 Starting around US$23, Doi Duong Hotel is a state owned giant sitting next to the Binh Minh Hotel on Doi Duong Beach.