With the ongoing covid-19 pandemic continuing to cause travel disruptions, many ex-pats will be forced to spend Christmas in Vietnam this year. But what’s not to love about spending a warm Winter in Vietnam? As a leading destination for tourists around the world, how does it fare when it comes to Christmas? Let’s find out.
Does Vietnam celebrate Christmas?
It may surprise readers to discover that, as the home of over 7 million Christians – the 5th largest Christian population in Asia -, Vietnam does celebrate Christmas.
And, whilst we can’t make up for the loved ones you might not see this festive season, we can help you celebrate Christmas ‘Vietnamese-style’ – just read on!
History And Significance Of Christmas In Vietnam
Missionaries from Portugal, Spain and France first introduced Christianity into Vietnam in the 16th century. Contrary to more insular and hostile countries like Japan and China, the Christian missionaries initially impressed the ruling Trinh clan, and they were allowed to build missions in Hanoi, Hoi An and Danang.
Later, the Trinh decided Catholocism represented a threat to their power, and they outlawed Christianity in Vietnam. Despite this ban, the clandestine evangelical organisation, Societe des Mission Etrangeres, kept the faith alive and continued to convert believers throughout Indochina.
Catholocism’s uneasy relationship with Vietnamese rulers worsened under Minh Mang, the early 19th-century ruler, who viewed Catholocism – and any foreign influence, for that matter -as direct threats to his rigid and conservative Confucianist rule. At this time, there were many thousands of Catholics in Vietnam, but they met persecution and even execution if they refused to denounce their faith.
Using the persecution of Catholics as a guise for an intervention, France invaded Vietnam, which became part of the French empire after an 8-year struggle. Colonisation allowed Catholics to flourish so much so that they became the educated elite of Vietnam, often living better quality lives than their non-Catholic Vietnamese counterparts.
When the communists came to power in 1975, initially their atheistic stance was at odds with the Catholic faith. But since the introduction Doi Moi economic reforms and the embrace of Western influences in the late 1980s, government controls on religious freedoms have gradually relaxed, and open worship and practising of the Catholic faith is somewhat permitted.
Catholics, Christians and Christmas In Vietnam Today
Today, an estimated 7-10% of Vietnam’s 97 million people are either Christian or Catholic. And, unlike China, North Korea or Laos, the 3 other communist governments in Asia, Vietnam now maintains semi-formal relations with the Vatican. Currently, the Holy See has a non-resident Special Envoy to Vietnam, and there are plans for closer diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Vietnam, and eventually a papal nuncio. A papal visit, however, is still some time way off.
After Tet, Mid Autumn Festival and the Budha’s Birthday, Christmas is one of the most important festivals in Vietnam – if not for its religious significance, then for its attraction as a commercial, fun and colourful event for all to enjoy.
How Does Vietnam Celebrate Christmas?
Officially, no. Christmas day is not an official public holiday, making it just another day. People go to work and businesses open as usual, but the elaborate Christmas decorations and Christmas carols tell a different story.
For many Vietnamese, Christmas may be a novelty, rather than a religious holiday, and many locals and especially young people enjoy taking pictures with Christmas celebrations and going shopping.
How Do You Say Merry Christmas In Vietnamese?
Chúc Giáng Sinh An Lanh, pronounced ‘Chup young-sin-an-lan’. Practice makes perfect!
Vietnamese Christmas Traditions
Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve
In Vietnam, Christmas Eve is celebrated more than Christmas Day. Midnight mass services on Christmas Eve are common across Catholic parishes in Vietnam, and many Christians and non-Christians attend.
If that surprises you, just consider the Vietnamese affinity with karaoke, then you won’t be shocked when you see how many Christmas carols some locals know. Alongside the raucous Christmas celebrations and carols, you may also see children from Christian and Catholic families recreating the nativity play.
Christmas Decorations and Dressing Up
Christmas trees and decorations cover shopping malls and department stores in the city centre, giving you a little flavour of the Christmas season you may be missing. Vietnamese people often gather in popular public areas, such as Nguyen Hue Walking Street in Ho Chi Minh City, where the whole street is decorated with everything – from tinsel to confetti.
And, like in the Western world, more religious communities also decorate their own Christmas trees with Santa Claus, bells, lights and other ornaments. Many Catholic churches and houses also feature a big nativity crib scene, complete with life-sized statues of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus and the three wise kings.
It’s hard to resist dressing up as Santa – or any of his merry elves and reindeer, for that matter – and the same goes in Vietnam. At any huge event or grand party around this period, you’re bound to see Santa Claus outfits. Vietnamese people dressed as Santa Claus also make appearances in shopping malls or at orphanages and charities to bring yuletide spirit and Christmas presents to children. So, get used to Vietnamese Santa on his sleigh (motorbike) – you’ll be seeing him around a lot.
Recommended: A vetted list of charities in Ho Chi Minh City that you can donate to and support.
Traditions For Children
Vietnamese children, in particular, feel the magic of Christmas. Much like the tradition of hanging stockings in the Western world, Vietnamese children leave their shoes outside their homes on Christmas eve, expecting shoes stuffed with goodies from Santa’s bulging sack come Christmas day.
Upon seeing a Christmas tree, Santa will also put Christmas presents underneath – usually toys and sweets. In recent years, it’s also become very popular for children to dress up in mini Santa outfits and to make Christmas cards for family and friends.
Food At Christmas
Like all major festivals in Vietnam, food plays a big role. Usually, after midnight mass, Christians return home to enjoy a Christmas meal. And whilst food usually varies according to family, the Christmas dinner usually features chicken soup or turkey, along with a mix of local foods such as dumplings, Banh Xeo, and bao buns.
A popular gift in Christian homes is bûche de noël, a log-shaped chocolate cake, which is sometimes eaten with Christmas pudding. As well as food, Christian homes embrace the yuletide spirit of Christmas, often giving out Christmas cards and presents to friends and family.
Christmas Gifts And Symbols
Traditionally, only Christians observed gift-giving, but this has become more popular in the past 15 years. As well as Santa’s bulging sack, gifts come from friends and family. Often small – and by no means obligatory – they are well-received and a chance for people to express love and happiness.
Tea or a local sweet treat would go down well, and even something like milk tea would be a great Christmas gesture to your Vietnamese friends. Here are some more ideas for you.
Aside from gifts, Christmas trees and Santa Claus, there are many other symbols of Christmas in Vietnam, especially for religious communities. So, don’t be surprised to see wreaths, stars and mistletoe or hear bells ring out from Churches in celebration of Christmas. And, if you’re attending mass in churches, Jesus Christ and the colour red will be common, for obvious reasons.
Along with Black Friday, Christmas is one of the best times to bag yourself a bargain. Many department stores and shops have sales on at this time, so don’t be afraid to tap your card a few times. If you’re savvy, you could even get your Tet gifts in early, too!
- Recommended: Top 10 Vietnam Online Shopping Sites
Where to celebrate Christmas in Vietnam?
Ho Chi Minh City
The Christmas area tends to be around Notre Dame Cathedral and Diamon Plaza mall, as well as main streets like Nam Ky Khoi Nghia and Le Duan. Thousands of Vietnamese come here to enjoy the festive spirit and take photos of the decorations and lights, which are some of the best in Southern Vietnam.
Other areas worth visiting include district 8, which is home to a large Christian population, as well as Tan Dinh Church, crescent mall and Ban Nguyet lake in District 7, which are beautifully decorated.
As the oldest Catholic site in Hanoi, St Joseph’s Cathedral is perhaps the best place to experience Christmas in Hanoi. When coupled with the cooler temperatures of North Vietnam, its decorations and Christmas tree might even make you feel like you’re in a European city.
Christmas 2021 falls on the weekend, giving you the perfect chance to walk the vehicle-free streets in and around the Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem lake. For the most sparkling of streets, head to Hang Ma (lantern) street which will be lit up with festive Christmas decorations.
- Recommended: Guide to Hanoi
If the thought of Christmas on Danang’s pristine beaches isn’t enough already, then head to Ba Na hills, where you can enjoy some cooler climes. The exhilarating rides and beautiful French architecture of this former French hill resort will be sure to get you into the holiday season.
Alternatively, get yourself over to Danang cathedral on Tran Phu Street or Vincom Center, where you can enjoy the best Christmas lights and decorations in the city.
- Head to our Danang guide for more things to do
A Vietnamese Christmas: Same Same, But Different
If it’s your first Christmas in Vietnam, it promises to be different. Get involved with the Vietnamese Christmas traditions, and you’ll soon find yourself enjoying the holiday season. Merry Christmas!