HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, December 20, 2010

'Tis the Season

Christmas is fast approaching, and for those of you wondering if Vietnam celebrates the holiday, the answer is a resounding "yes". Christmas decorations are literally everywhere, and the major downtown streets are lined with canopies of lights. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures of these streets because the lights have yet to be turned on, as I found out, along with one of my roommates, on a nerve-racking drive last night. We decided to check out the lights before going to dinner, only to find that the lights were still off and that traffic was absolutely insane. It seemed like every single person in the country was out on a motorbike. A trip downtown and back usually takes about 15 or 20 minutes; last night it took around 40, and we almost got creamed by a city bus. Although the public decorations have been a dissapointment thus far, the private decorations have been lit up for a couple of weeks now.

These displays range from extravagant scenes at high-end malls to simple lights on private homes. The sheer amount of decorations has really surprised me. Vietnam's majority religion - by a long way - is Buddhism. I think the Catholic population only accounts for about 8% of the population, yet by looking at the Christmas-related displays here one could be forgiven for thinking you were in the U.S. Also, if you think Christmas is over-commercialized in America, you should see it here. The fact that there is only a small Catholic population means few people celebrate the religious aspect of Christmas, so the holiday is basically just a massive advertisement for sales, discounts, and clothes. Santa Claus outfits can be bought on nearly every corner, and random Christmas-related paraphernalia spill out of stores everywhere. An example of this materialism: a fashion-show in front of Christmas lights at the Vincom Center, a very expensive mall.
Nothing says Christmas like a fashion show!
This mindset has also led to the creation some truly bizzare Christmas displays. Some people seem to think that you can put anything, no matter how unrelated to the holiday it is, into a display, throw in some fake snow and Santa hats, and call it a day. For example, we have the hilarious "Christmas giraffes" outside of a hotel in District 3 (picture stolen from http://saigonstranger.wordpress.com/):
Giraffes...and snow. That clearly makes sense.
There's another classic at the park in Binh Tanh District where I go to swim and get some sun. I don't have a picture of the display yet, but just to make you folks that actually have winter jealous, here's the pool:
Man, 20 degree weather would suck right now.
Anyway, back to Christmas. Not far from the pool sits a strange scene: an igloo with a giant snowman head on top of it resting next to an enormous aluminum-foil cannon. Nothing says Christmas cheer like a huge piece of artillery! There are other examples, but these are the two most grevious offenders of normal Christmas sensibilities.

All joking aside, this is actually the first time since I've been here that I've felt a strong sense of homesickness. Sure, I've missed my friends and family all along, but I've been so immersed in a new experience that I didn't think about it that often. However, Christmas is the only major holiday that I've been home for every year of my life and I love this time of year, so I'm definitely missing some things right now. It didn't really hit me until this weekend, when I watched Elf and did Christmas activities with my classes. It just doesn't feel the same here. As nice as the warm weather is most of the time, I do honestly miss winter. Well, not the "trudge to class at Pitt in 6 inches of snow and a 10-degree wind chill" kind, but the pleasant, refreshing winters of New Orleans. I would kill to have a day in the 40's or 50's right now. This won't happen, of course, since I'm going even further south for Christmas, but I can still dream. Needless to say, I will be thinking of home when I'm in Kuala Lumpur on Christmas Day.

Anyway, I do have some pictures of the big decorations that have been lit up, so here they are:
The previously mentioned Vincom Center.

Cool lighting inside Vincom.
This building has some impressive displays.

The famous Rex Hotel.

One building had country-themed displays along its first floor.
As you can see, religion is no barrier when it comes to celebrating Christmas. I'm still surprised at the scale of the decorations here. I'll post pictures of the street lighting whenever the government finally turns them on. Although I'm not really sure how there will be enough power to run all those lights and the rest of the city, considering there are frequent power cuts in certain parts of the city already. Anyways, I'll have one more post before I leave for Malaysia, so I'll wish all of you a happy holiday then.

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