Christmas in Saigon

Nothing helps you realize you’re eight thousand miles away from home better than spending the holidays in a foreign country.

Last year, traveling through Southeast Asia with my parents we found ourselves at the Oscar Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City (still called Saigon by the locals), Vietnam over Christmas Eve. An interesting way that tourism has seized the country is the Vietnamese interpretation of Christmas. While about 85% of the population is Buddhist, pretty much everyone identifies with the holiday — or rather Santa Claus. It’s their understanding of what the Westerners know and will appreciate while they’re visiting Southeast Asia.

But instead of decorating their houses, exchanging gifts or getting a Christmas tree, I found that the Vietnamese seem to be most fond of riding around the city square, wearing santa hats, dressing up their children and socializing. Thousands of young Vietnamese youth come out to participate on Christmas Eve. Thousands.

As you go outside to witness the madness of what’s happening before you, the air fills with the sounds of ten thousand motorcycle engines humming, a two-cycle chorus revolving around you on the streets of Saigon. The heavy tropical air fills with motorcycle exhaust and you get the feeling that you’re in some sort of Cajun voodoo spell, children dressed as Santa flying past you disappearing into a fog, a foreigner in a strange land.

It’s an experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen — something that I think everyone should see once in their lives and something I will never forget. Back at home in Kalamazoo this winter, I breathe the fresh air and watch deer wander in our back yard through six-inch snow. Such a contrast to Christmas past.