The Christmas season is a popular time to visit Vietnam since the weather is quite welcoming. Vietnam sees less rain over December, making it even more ideal. But those who want to experience the Christmas spirit wonder if Vietnam, with such a low percentage of Christians, will even celebrate Christmas.
Only a tiny percentage of the population celebrates Christmas, and the government doesn’t recognize it as a public holiday, so work and school proceed as usual over Christmas. However, the entire country embraces the Christmas spirit, and you can see decorations everywhere, especially in the cities.
Why Don’t The Vietnamese People Celebrate Christmas?
Understandably, people will wonder why people in Vietnam don’t celebrate Christmas the same way as most of the rest of the world. But there’s a simple reason: Christmas is closely associated with Christianity.
Christianity is not a significant part of Vietnamese religious practices. Statistics show that less than 8% of the Vietnamese people are Christians (protestant and Catholic combined). Such a small percentage of the population does not justify the Vietnamese authorities declaring Christmas a public holiday.
The most significant percentage of Vietnamese people practice Buddhism, Confucianism, or Daoism, and neither of these three religions attaches any value to Christmas.
Though Vietnamese Christians celebrate Christmas, they do so with no government support and continue working and going to school as they usually would.
What The Vietnamese People Do Over Christmas
The Western world has adopted Christmas as a public holiday regardless of people’s religious views. People from all walks of life and different religions celebrate Christmas, except if their religious views are directly opposed to the Christian view of Christmas.
The same is true of Vietnam. Despite Vietnam not making Christmas a public holiday, the country still celebrates it regardless, and it is one of the most festive times.
In Vietnam, Christmas is called “Noel” or “Lễ Giáng Sinh,” which literally translates to “Christ is come to be born.” This shows how tightly Vietnamese people still associate Christmas with Christianity.
Despite this association, the Vietnamese have no issues embracing the festive season and living it out in their own way.
Around December 24th, businesses in all the large cities decorate their buildings and offices with spectacular, colorful decorations. These decorations can become even more elaborate than those in Western countries, and it’s a breathtaking spectacle to behold.
Outside the cities, the decorations aren’t as elaborate or as commonly found, but there is a real festive spirit in the atmosphere. People in rural areas still celebrate in their own ways.
Santa Claus outfits are commonplace. Many businesses encourage their workers to dress up for the day. Schools are also known to have special dress-up days around Christmastime. This is actually strange, considering the Vietnamese heat makes these outfits extremely uncomfortable.
Still, Santa Claus is popular enough in Vietnam to have a local name: “Ông già Noel,” which translates to “Christmas old man.”
On Christmas eve, young Vietnamese people love to go to the city centers in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, where they hold massive celebrations amid the elaborate decorations and lights. All the streets are blocked so no cars can enter while the people throw confetti and enjoy the festive atmosphere.
Vietnamese Christians Celebrating Christmas
The approximately 7 million Christians in Vietnam regard the Phat Diem Cathedral as their spiritual home. For this reason, most flock to Ho Chi Minh City and Ninh Binh province to celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas eve.
The closest to typical Western Christmas celebrations in Vietnam is held in Ho Chi Minh City because of this Christmas Mass. They often hold nativity plays to celebrate the birth of Christ or “Kito” in Vietnamese.
What’s For Christmas Dinner In Vietnam?
After the festivities and midnight Mass, the Vietnamese people go back home to eat a hearty meal of Chicken Soup for the lower-income groups. The wealthier members of the population celebrate with turkey and a traditional Christmas pudding, or “bûche de Noël,” a kind of Chocolate cake that’s also a popular Christmas gift in Vietnam.
Because the celebrations are so popular, most restaurants and cafes in the major cities remain open most of the night to allow everyone to have a meal or a snack. Eating is just as popular as a way to celebrate Christmas in Vietnam as it is in the rest of the world.
How Do People In Vietnamese Rural Areas Celebrate Christmas?
As popular as the elaborate decorations and extravagant celebrations are in the cities, many prefer the quiet and more toned-down celebrations in the rural areas.
Vietnam was once a French colony, and many of the French Christmas traditions remain to this day and can be seen in the rural areas where the locals often decorate entire streets.
Christian families create scenery and displays in front of their houses with Christmas lights, trees, and displays of cribs and other items commonly associated with Christmas. These are popular, and people often walk from house to house to look at the decorations and sing famous Christmas carols.
One factor that stands out is the spirit of giving. Everyone knows that Christmas is supposed to be the season for giving, but we don’t see it lived out as passionately as in the rural areas of Vietnam. Though the people don’t give out luxurious gifts, everyone hands out what they have freely, holding nothing back.
People of all religions will call you into their homes and share their food and such gifts as they can afford to give.
Children are also used to receiving gifts over Christmas, like all over the world. The concept of leaving gifts under the Christmas tree or in stockings is strong among them, but especially in poorer households, they will put out their shoes on Christmas eve in the hopes of waking up with a present from Santa’s bag.
How Tourists Spend Christmas In Vietnam
One of the most popular activities for tourists who happen to be in Vietnam over Christmas is to go on a Christmas cruise.
Most of the cruise operators in Halong Bay have special cruises that start on December 24th and travel along the majestic landscape. They offer fine wine, special Christmas meals for both Christmas eve and Christmas day, and activities like kayaking, biking, and fishing.
Spending Christmas this way is quite a change of pace and a unique way to experience the festive season.
Those who prefer a more “traditional” Christmas can join in with the celebrations in the cities. The services at local Vietnamese churches are open to people of all religions. Almost everyone gathers at the churches or even attends the services.
Remember that the services at larger churches, like cathedrals, can get very crowded. It’s perfect for those who enjoy the energy, but others may prefer a quieter Christmas eve.
Luckily, churches are surprisingly common in Vietnam, considering there are so few Christians. You can easily find a smaller, quieter church when you walk through the backroads rather than heading for the city center.
Some tourists may come to Vietnam not for Christmas but for the hot tropical weather. Some would say that a day on a tropical beach is the best way to spend Christmas. In that case, remember that the beaches and weather get better as you move further south.
The central parts of Vietnam are known for their beaches, but these areas are prone to getting plenty of rain over Christmas. For a true sunny tropical Christmas, move further south to places like Nha Trang and Pearl Island.