After the Vietnam War, Christmas celebrations and other public forms of Christian religious expression were viewed by authorities as a relic of America’s occupation and frowned upon.
However, in conjunction with the nation’s Doi Moi or ‘Renovation’ the names given to economic reforms that began in 1986, religious freedoms have since taken root and cultural connections with the outside world blossomed.
Holiday traditions have not only been caught on but have since assumed a place of distinct prominence in the nation’s popular culture.
No snowmen in Phan Thiet
In the small town of Phan Thiet, 200km east of Ho Chi Minh City, Catholic fishing communities celebrate the holiday jubilantly with webs of shimmering lights and festive decorations that envelop their entire neighbourhoods.
Vietnamese have now incorporated many of the popular holiday symbols such as Christmas trees, reindeer and Santa Claus. Snowmen haven’t entirely caught on yet for obvious reasons.
However, many traditions depart significantly from the Western norm. Christmas in small-town Vietnam has also not adopted the intense commercialism that dominates the holiday in the West.
Notably, Christmas gifts are still a novelty in most homes and may not even be given out at all.
No turkey or goose delicacies
While a juicy ham, turkey or goose is commonly the centrepiece of a holiday dinner in Western homes, many Catholic families in Phan Thiet have not developed the usual preference and have substituted other meats, fish and poultry for them.
Buddhists enticed by Christmas
Buddhist neighbours have been enticed by the holiday, perhaps because of similarities with Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year). Red is a traditional colour of both Christmas and Tet.
Giant Bethlehem stars hang from every home and brightly-coloured Christmas lights are also so popular with both Christmas and TET that many will likely remain on display through the New Year Tet holiday in February.
Christmas Eve as a grand finale
About a week before Christmas is when Catholic neighbourhoods like Phan Thiet’s Phu Thuy Ward undergo a massive transformation, with every avenue and alley lit by coloured 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 their doors open wide, 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. Amazingly, 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 US$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.
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