I’m about to enjoy my third and final Christmas in Vietnam. Out of the last 10 years, I’ve only been home in the USA for two Christmases, much to the despair of my family back home. But such is the life of an expat, and my Christmases here in Saigon have been some of my best expat Christmases. I can’t guarantee where I’ll be next Christmas, but I do know that it won’t be here, and with departure sneaking up faster than I thought it would (didn’t we JUST bail on Argentina and come back to Saigon?) these are my thoughts on the holidays here. Of course, like most expats, I have a love/hate relationship with Christmas in Vietnam.
So, what are the things I love about Christmas in Vietnam?
It’s not cold.
It’s no secret that I don’t handle low temperatures well, which is a problem that’s been extremely exacerbated by so many years living first in a Meditarranean climate, and now in a full-on tropical one. We’re in the middle of a “cold spell” in Saigon with the temperature dipping to around 21 C (70 F) in the dead of the night, and the other morning after my 6:30 a.m. gusty drive to work on my little Honda Wave, I found myself firmly planted on the side of my Vietnamese colleagues in complaining about the “chilly” weather, and need for a cardigan. Thankfully for me, the average high in Saigon during the holidays is about 30 C (86 F) and it’s the dry season, so we’re getting sunshine nearly every day. After Christmas brunch I just may head to the pool for a refreshing mojito and a quick swim. Jealous?
My cash goes further.
Prior to life in Vietnam, I stayed in budget hostels, and would have been happy with some bread and Manchego cheese for my Christmas dinner. Actually, I would still be happy on my old wine, cheese, and olives Spanish-Survival-Diet, but one of the best things about Vietnam is the low cost of living which allows me to save lots of money each month. I can later spend it on traveling or treating myself to things like a 5 star Christmas meal. For the third year in a row my Saigon Family will saunter into the New World Hotel on Christmas day to eat ourselves into a buttons-undone state. This is the kind of place we probably wouldn’t have the money to set foot it were it located back home. The annual discussion and disagreement over strategies has already taken place (some will starve themselves until the meal, others swear by pigging out the night before to stretch out their stomachs) but what is not in question is that Wednesday we will be gobbling up every conventional Christmas food imaginable plus fried rice and sushi for good measure. Bonus for the fact that we don’t have to cook or clean up any of it. This year we almost chose to abandon our comfort zone and book another hotel’s buffet for our feast, but found out that none of the alternative hotels offer the drink selection that the New World does, for the price. You’ve got to have priorities in life.
I can warp the minds of unwitting children
Judging from the fact that several of my students came to our dedicated “Christmas Celebration Day” wearing devils horn headbands with a piece of holly stuck to them, they’re not really clear on their Western holiday traditions. It’s understandably confusing considering we JUST celebrated Halloween. Despite the uncertainty Christmas is becoming more and more known and celebrated here in Vietnam, and the children are hyped up on sugar and Christmas trees and flashing lights, albeit a little mystified about the customs. This means that if I want to tell my kiddos that Santa can see through walls and shoot laser beams from space when they’re mean to each other, I can. So far, nobody’s called my bluff.
I have an awesome Expat Family
Spoiler: This is going to get sappy. Expats gravitate towards other expats. It’s a simple truth of the lifestyle. This doesn’t mean I don’t value my Vietnamese friends and colleagues, but when you live and work abroad, you need people from home, or at least from a similar culture, to help you navigate the frustrations and joys of living in your adopted country, as well as to mark culture-specific holidays like Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, and of course Christmas. I have been incredibly fortunate to have had an amazing group of expat friends, my Saigon family, from the very beginning. Some have gone already, and we miss them dearly, and others will be leaving soon, but the friendships you make abroad are intense ones, due to the fact that you’re all either floating or sinking in the same boat, hundreds or thousands of miles from your home, family, and friends, and I know that although this Christmas is our last in Saigon, the friendships will last much longer. There, sappiness over.
And the things that I hate?
It’s not cold.
I know I know…I listed that as the first thing I love. Like I said above, I typically don’t enjoy cold temperatures. And by that I mean anything below 20 C and I’m freezing. However, on Christmas, there is something strangely disconcerting about putting on sunscreen or sweating through your t-shirt while going out to look at the Christmas lights. At this time of year, there is something very very deep down inside me that desires nothing more than a fluffy sweater, a cup of hot cocoa, and the soft sofa in front of my childhood fireplace. Marshmallows would also be nice. And my cat.
The Insane Traffic
I’m sure you’ve seen videos of the unbelievable amount of motorbikes zooming around the streets of Saigon, but you cannot even begin to imagine how bad this gets during the holiday season. The reason? The enormous quantity of decorations downtown. At the moment, not only have all of the city’s businesses put up blindingly bright Christmas lights and trees, but the local government has also installed its annual Lunar New Year (Tet) decorations. This means that all 8 million people in the area are trying to get down to the center to take photos of all the shiny sparkly things. Until you crash into somebody because they stop without signaling directly in front of you to look at the Christmas tree, or you get stuck in a traffic circle because there are motorbikes PARKED AROUND THE MIDDLE OF IT 5 bikes deep, you haven’t known frustration.
Christmas music is even worse in Vietnam than back home. In the last two weeks music-enthusiasts in Saigon have put up with more than anyone should ever be expected to endure. In addition to the Christmas pop songs imported from the West, Asia also has its own domestic variety. If you’re brave, you can watch this video for a bitter taste of it. I recommend muting your volume if you’re just interested in watching the sexy girl prance around.
This coupled with the fact that Tet is a mere month away, means I also have to hear Abba’s Happy New Year every time I set foot in a convenience store. Get some new holiday songs, Vietnam!
Being away from Home
Of course, the thing that most expats can’t stand about Christmas in our foreign homes is that our families are not anywhere near us. These are the holidays and we’re supposed to be snug in our warm homes, looking out at the snow (or more likely where I’m from, the rain) and contemplating how lucky we are to be surrounded by our loved ones. In my case, home is 7,000 miles away. Yes, I realize this is my fault. My life-path has taken me very, very far from Oregon, but on the great majority of days I don’t regret the decisions that have led me to this point. There’s something about Christmas though that makes me wish that I’d been happy sticking closer to home.
Maybe someday I’ll win the jackpot and be able to jet home every Christmas. In the meantime though, there is a massive Christmas meal to be eaten, and a Saigon Family to enjoy it with. I’d say I’m still pretty lucky.
Expats, what do you love/hate about your chosen home during the holidays?