Luckily, Ho Chi Minh City has an antidote for holiday melancholy. There are celebrations if you know where to find them — traditional in origin, but wholly Vietnamese in their incarnation.
Making is in the soul of old Vietnam, and examples of ingenious enhancements to homes and work places are still relatively easy to find in the denser parts of the city. As Christmas approaches, however, ingenuity and improvisation combine with imagination to produce fantastic temporary landscapes in certain neighbourhoods. Mountain caves of tinfoil or painted paper topped with snowdrifts of cotton and glitter rise improbably from the pavements of our tropical river delta city. Populated with snowmen and angels (and the occasional Disney figure), lit with megawatts of drama and verve, fringed with foil and glass icicles, exuberant scenes spring up in a matter of days forming a temporary landscape of glowing grottos.
My favourite stretch (there are several in the city) is along Hoang Sa Street by the canal in District 3. The winding street, the nearby waterway with its trees and grassy spaces give the neighbourhood an easy, airy feel. It’s not a dense agglomeration of grottos, some strolling or rolling is required, but it does hang together as a local scene with a sincerity to it that feels as if it were produced by the neighbourhood for the neighbourhood, though visitors are welcome.
Start dropping by in the evenings around mid-December to watch the temporary mountains and stages under construction. Rehearsals for the Christmas Eve performances can be as entertaining in their own way as the pageantry of The Big Night. Groups of neighbourhood kids, both on and off the stage give a home-grown vibe to the scene.
The relaxed atmosphere of District 3 contrasts sharply with the motorbike mob scene in District 8 on Pham The Hien, west of Cau Nhi Thien Duong Bridge. This area is a heavily visited stretch of Nativity scenes that is definitely shooting for a city-wide reputation (though I’ve heard of a cluster in District 6 that is also said to be formidable). The District 8 stretch is essentially a single street, which produces the smoking and choking traffic jam that adds the extra element of ordeal to the event. This scene is crowded, full on and in your face, but that in itself is also an authentic Ho Chi Minh City experience, but I suggest you park your motorbike before you get to the main stretch and walk in to have a better time.
Don’t go alone, this kind of event is best experienced with one or several friends — and of course, try the street food (if you’ve been here long enough to get acclimatised). Typical Vietnamese streetfood carts and stands are everywhere, augmented with tasty regional treats from Thailand and Malaysia and western festival sweets like cotton candy. Eating before you go means you will miss half the experience.
The endless thrumming of motorbikes is punctuated with heartfelt karaoke as pavement and in-home celebrations heat up. Selfie mania is unleashed as everyone jockeys for a photo op in front of a snowman or a reindeer. Some of the grottos seem tailor made for seasonal photos with frames and captions integrated into the construction. For an occasional respite, follow the strings of lights down some of the narrow alleys that come off the main street to find the surprising snow scenes hidden in the hems.
As the evening winds down and the lights start to go out, resist the urge to miss Christmas at home, wherever that may be. It’s true, you weren’t there to experience it, but it would be difficult for those back home to imagine what you will have seen here in the city.