When the Vietnamese celebrate Christmas they must understandably get confused. I personally don’t blame them. On paper, HCMC has everything for the ‘perfect’ Christmas, similar to what you see in Hollywood movies. With it’s marriage to anything tacky or eighties, in particular the city’s passionate love affair with neon-lighting, it is a fertile ground for the festive spirit to manifest itself. I wouldn’t be surprised if, before he was reincarnated as Santa, Mr. Claus was a Vietnamese Viet Cong guerilla in the entertainment division with a catchphrase like Ho Ho Ho.
Yet, as is often the case here, all is not what it seems. For starters, artificial snow is never convincing when it’s 30 degrees in the shade. And then there is the native population’s bizarre obsession with Disney fantasies. (They also LOVE Tom and Jerry and Mr Bean - I know…I nearly booked my return flight when I discovered this curiosity.) If you walk through the main tourist thoroughfare, the Dong Khoi/Le Loi area, you begin to feel like you are in some python skit…so far I’ve seen one rotating Pinocchio and a real-sized Cinderella carriage filled with Christmas presents. This in itself, while ridiculous, is
not that unusual for a country that probably counts karaoke as a national Olympic sport. It’s the fact that these monstrosities are located outside Louis Vuitton and Prada designer boutiques…Equally disturbing is that a Vietnamese person’s idea of a fun (and probably rare) day off is to take millions of pictures of them ‘meeting’ these plastic snowmen, reindeer and elves. It’s an added bonus if you have a child under ten as they are too young to resist being dressed up like Santas/Christmas trees for the cloyingly sentimentalised photos.
The start of December saw the end of one of my adult intermediate classes, who in typical Vietnamese fashion, escorted me to a lovely restaurant above my school where we had traditional Chinese food - hotpots of pork and fish. I had thought I was doing rather well with those chopsticks but such a delusion was quickly shattered when my students discreetly asked the waiter for a knife and fork for their silly English teacher. At one point the conversation got quite heated (I wasn’t sure what about - it was in Vietnamese - and quite frankly, I was more concerned that there may have been dog in the rich
broth my new friends kept placing in my bowl…). I asked Chi, a twenty-something year old who wants to be a diplomat, what they were arguing about. With some embarrassment she mumbled something about religion, which I was told on my first day in Vietnam was a completely taboo subject, along with History, Politics and Voting. Then one of my most memorable students (he stalks me by email), Thanh turned to me and asked “Miss Kate, you are from Ireland…are you a Catholic?” I explained I was raised Christian but I had no religious leanings or preference, which I thought was the most diplomatic thing I’d ever said to anyone. Unsatisfied, the students’ argument continued, with Chi translating sections of it, until Thanh once again adopted a very serious tone and asked me, “Miss Kate, do you really believe the Virgin Mary was a Virgin?” At which point I tactfully choked on a meatball.
Christmas started early for me, on the 14th, when ILA took all its staff to the James Bond Theme Xmas party at the five star Caravelle Hotel. This may be the only hotel in the tourist area that doesn’t risk exploding due to excess
neon lighting plugs in one socket. They have tasteful, restrained decorations although I’m sure there were many bitter disputes amongst management in achieving this result. (It’s a bit like finding ‘designer shoes’ here for monkey nuts except there is just one detail too much - bling or bows usually). Anyway the Christmas spirit really kicked in once I discovered the free bar, complete with cocktails. Ordering that first martini along with about 400 other Bond wannabes really set the mood. The night was a bit of a blur due to excessive jigging and too much good food on offer, although I do recall talking for a long period of time to a real life martini (see photographs)…
The Christmas period has also meant numerous roof-top parties (most of the houses here have a great open terrace at the top for barbeques and pirate parties!) all over HCMC with ILA colleagues. They say a picture tells a thousand words so I won’t provide any commentary - I know that you all have vivid imaginations as to why I’m dressed as Mother Theresa/Princess Leia from Star Wars in one of them…my favourite roof-top, however, has to be Saigon Saigon in the
Caravelle. It has fantastic mojito cocktails, plays brilliant sixties music (I should have been a teenager then) and has amazing views of the city. At present it is the best place for a view of a resplendent, neon-lit Notre Dame Church which in any other country would be considered blasphemous! Then again, without this wonderful holiday illumination, people would never notice it amongst all the other beacons of gaudiness.
One of my December goals was to stop being sick. Having failed this spectacularly, on Christmas day I decided I was feeling suicidal enough to achieve my second target of the month: driving a motorbike in HCMC! So, after gentle prodding from my housemate Vera, were descended to the basement where Ben, an ILA friend, had far-too-trustingly left his bike while he returned home to the UK for Christmas. Vera accompanied me bravely but I have a sneaking suspicion that she was simply bored without her long lost boyfriend David around and wished to see some messy destruction of innocent life.(Hey, she’s Italian - need I prove her secret-but-deadly nature any more?!) My only other experience of motorbikes so far has been clinging onto them for dear life (first with
Dylan and more recently with the xeoms). No wait, that’s a lie; about a week ago one of my friends from work allowed me to drive his automatic down an alley after one or two gin and tonics but I don’t really count that because (a) It was a very short alley and I had a lot of moral support from numerous drunken teachers and bemused Vietnamese pedestrians that gathered to watch the silly Irish leprechaun and (b) James’s bike was a simple automatic - Ben’s bike was a manual one with gears!!
After cautiously testing the brakes and gears around the basement car park in our apartment (a big Thank You to the security man who informed me about changing gears every so often!), I drove up the ramp, passed my usual xeom drivers (one was severely annoyed at me driving - I was a source of his income and he didn’t like this exhibition of independence), Vera jumped on the back, we nearly fell over, then we wobbled down the road, stalled, a xeom driver helped us, we got back on the road and we DROVE!! It’s a great feeling driving yourself with the breeze full blast
in your face. That is until you have to stop at lights or at an intersection and 5 motorbikes are coming at you. Then you lose balance, especially on the manual bikes. It’s amazing though how the horn quickly becomes more valuable than the brakes. So many Vietnamese drive head long into the traffic on the wrong side of the road you can’t stop for them all so you just blast them with the horn, they realise you are some ridiculous expat with a motorbike and miraculously get out of the way. Even the Vietnamese have some inbuilt sense of safety and an Irish and Italian girl singing the Fields of Athenry indicates there are crazier people than themselves out there…We drove all over the city for a few hours, getting soaked in rain and oil and returned exhausted but deliriously exhilarated either from our Saigon Saigon cocktails or simply from being still alive. And that’s when I decided an automatic is for the best!
I’m returning to work tomorrow after an unexpectedly extended Christmas break but it’s only for one day - then I’m off for ten days!! Heading up North to Danang, Hoi An and Hue so
expect more blogging! I’m looking forward to the break immensely; I think the city can get a bit claustrophobic after a bit…you start going native and thinking you can drive motorbikes like the Vietnamese! If I don’t get out now I’ll be trying to haggle like them next. Even as I write I am listening to about 50 people in neighbouring apartments shout like lunatics at the Vietnamese football team playing Thailand (on Christmas eve they won some big match and the city went mental!). Added to this, there has been somebody playing an instrument that sounds like a dead cat being blown like a trumpet upstairs for about 4 days now. I’ve heard they do this when there is a funeral but to me and my sensitive ears, it sounds as though they are sacrificing sheep to some obscure deity. It may not be as spiritual as I thought though. The Vietnamese Mot, Hai, Ba, YO! (“1,2,3, Yo!”) chant interspersed between football cheers and instrument playing indicates they are all pissed as coots…
Chuc mung nam moi to you all!
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