Christmas is a religious celebration, essentially Christian. It has become more than a religious occasion however and is celebrated worldwide, as much for commercial reasons as anything else. It comes at a time of the year that provides a natural break, whether it splits educational terms or simply spells the year end. It is certainly an important time in the Vietnamese calendar even though there is only a small percentage of Christians in a country that is primarily Buddhist, with elements of Taoism, Confucianism and of course ancestor worship. If you are enjoying Vietnam travel with kids, you will see the impact that religion and religious sites has on daily life. Many Vietnam tour packages include a religious content but if you happen to be in the country at Christmas, you will see that the locals need little excuse to have a party, and Christmastime is certainly an excuse.
Europeans first came to the region as explorers and traders around the 16th Century and some missionaries came as well. Some conversion to Christianity did occur though the religion did not always sit comfortably with rulers who occasionally saw it as a threat to their power. The French presence in the 19th and 20th Centuries ensured that Christianity was tolerated with the Nguyen Dynasty fairly helpless to oppose Christianity even if it wanted to do so. There is still a small Christian, mostly Roman Catholic, population and there are cathedrals and churches.
The Communist government in charge of the unified country after the end of the Vietnam War initially disapproved of many liberal aspects of life, including Christmas. Over the years, and as its confidence grew, that stance has been relaxed and tourism is positively encouraged, with all that goes with it.
The Phat Diem Cathedral in the Northern Province of Ninh Binh attracts hundreds of Catholics for Mass on Christmas Eve and children perform a nativity play in front of the Cathedral. However, the biggest celebrations are definitely in the South, Ho Chi Minh City where there are several thousand Roman Catholics. Midnight Mass is followed by a traditional Christmas Dinner the following day with turkey and Christmas pudding on the menu of those who can afford them and more simple fayre for those who can’t.
There are Christmas lights and decorations in the City and plenty of people, mostly young, make for the centre on Christmas Eve. Plenty of confetti is thrown and everyone has a good time with shops and cafes open for trade. The Catholic Churches usually have a nativity scene and Catholic people may have something similar at home or in the street of a Catholic neighbourhood. There is some exchange of presents, and certainly Christmas cards are exchanged especially by the young.
“Chúc Mừng Giáng Sinh” means Merry Christmas in Vietnamese. If you are on holiday in Vietnam around Christmasit is a short phrase worth remembering if you find yourself amongst the celebrations. Talk to your local Vietnam travel agency if you want further advice.