Christmas in Hanoi

Yes, there is a Santa in Hanoi. I was surprised to see early decorations as far back as last October although most didn’t go up until the last couple of weeks. Occasionally we’d hear seasonal tunes emanating from a store, but our local wake-up call – the sports club – continued with the throbbing disco.

My school gave me Christmas Eve and Day off, plus Boxing Day was my regular day off. Sue had to work Christmas morning but we still had plenty of time to celebrate the season.

A few days before Christmas we visited  Big C, the large Wal Mart type store just south of us. It was a bit surreal (a word we use a lot around here) with a variety of Christmas decorations and loud, loud music. Before we dove into the fray we stopped for a surprisingly good pizza at Pizza Hut . We did a brief tour of the mall and then into the shopping chaos of Big C.

Christmas at Big C, Hanoi, Vietnam
Santa and Decorations at Big C

I shot this photo with my mobile phone, so the quality’s a bit low, but you can see they’ve got Santa corralled for photo ops. Crowds were taking photos of the decorations and the store was quite busy with Christmas shoppers. We meandered about looking for things like egg nog (no luck) and ended up with maybe a half dozen items. I wasn’t feeling particularly well that day so we didn’t linger for long and soon cycled on home.

At both my Wednesday and Thursday evening classes the students were curious about how we celebrate Christmas at home. After discussing it I realized that our Christmas is very comparable to their Tet (New Years) holiday with lots of gift giving, special plants and time with family. I got a small present and a couple of cards from my students and gave them a selection of chocolate coins (which were copies of Canadian quarters) and souvenirs of Canada we’d brought along.

Christmas Eve day Sue and I biked into the city center. First stop was at The Bookworm, an English language bookstore, where we bought each other books. The Bookworm was a nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the streets and not only had a good selection of new/used books but also some art on display (reminding me of another excellent bookstore at home ;o). We then made our way to a large shopping centre which we’d heard had lots of Christmas decorations, including a large tree made of Heineken beer bottles. Check out the little guys on the left being photographed. There were many people there taking photos of friends and family in front of the numerous decorations around the two towers.

Heinekon tree at Vincom Center, Hanoi, Vietnam
Sue and the Heineken Tree
Christmas photos at Vincom Tower, Hanoi, Vietnam
Photos with Santa

We had lunch at one of the Pho 24 restaurants in the mall, perused some of the stores including a CitiMart supermarket. I hung out with our bags, photographing dancing cows on one of the numerous video monitors while Sue shopped.

CitiMart, Vincom Towers, Hanoi, Vietnam
Cows on Video

We checked out a couple of cinemas to see if we could catch a movie but the times were not convenient for us. We went to the Old Quarter, had some refreshments and watched the flow of tourists for a while. Then, as the day dimmed, we went to one of my old favourite restaurants, the Blue Butterfly, where we had a terrific Vietnamese dinner. That’s Chicken Five Flavors on the left, morning glory greens with garlic on the right and a grilled eggplant dish in the background by the rice. This may be the restaurant where we take a cooking course.

Christmas Eve at the Blue Butterfly restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
Dinner at the Blue Butterfly

Before we left the Old Quarter we stopped by St. Joseph’s Cathedral to look at the decorations and the crowds. We’d heard that by about 10pm the square would be packed with church goers and onlookers.

Christmas Eve, St. Joseph's Cathedral, Hanoi, Vietnam
Crowds at St. Joseph's Cathedral

What we didn’t realize was that Christmas Eve is the big day for celebrating here. The traffic was completely nuts. Sue mentioned how drivers didn’t seem to realize that part of the Christmas Spirit is being nice to others. We got cut-off, bumped into and crowded worse that usual which left us exhausted by the time we got home. Also my bike helmet was stolen from my carrier while we had dinner; I don’t know what I was thinking leaving it there on such a busy night in the Old Quarter. Been away from that part of town for too long I guess. That day was also the first time I saw someone on the back of a motorcycle do a bit of thievery: the rider reached out and unhooked the lid of a box on the back of a vendor’s bicycle and lifted a pastry out. By the time she realized what had happened they were passing her and soon gone. A young woman on a scooter stopped and helped her re-hook her box though.

Home again we spent Christmas Eve evening with one of our little traditions: watching What a Wonderful Life.

Christmas Day morning we were up early, not to unwrap presents but so that Sue could get off to her work at Morning Star School.

Morning Star school students, Hanoi, Vietnam
Christmas Day Morning at Morning Star School

We ate, relaxed and watched another classic movie (A Christmas Story) in the afternoon. That evening we caught a taxi downtown to meet our friend Peter for dinner. We’d decided that some Western food was in order for Christmas day so we chose a restaurant that served a variety of Vietnamese and Western dishes. The best part may have been the mashed potoatoes, something I’ve not had for months. The Gecko Restaurant’s a cheery little place, situated on the top floor (what actually appeared to be a closed in former roof terrace) of a typically narrow Hanoi building. Lots of winding stairs to get there with odd views of adjoining buildings and businesses.

Boxing Day was quite lazy: more movies and relaxing. However, we did pedal off back to the Old Quarter in the late afternoon to visit our friends at my old hotel the Camellia. We sat and chatted over tea and some sweet sticky rice. Then we visited the local DVD store for some cheap entertainment purchases. From there we biked north to two adjoining large lakes where we were to meet friends for dinner. We arrived early so pedaled around the smaller lake and located our restaurant first.

Sue by Truc Bach Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Truc Bach Lake

Then we went to the larger lake, West Lake, where we rented a pedal boat in the shape of a swan, something Sue’s being wanting to do ever since she first saw them. Although it was starting to get dark and there was a bit of a wind we pedaled out (well, Sue pedaled – my legs are too long to comfortably pedal).

pedal boat on West Lake, Hanoi, Vietnam
Sue Pedals the Swan

A couple of small skiffs came out and shepherded the drifting swans back towards shore at one point. We had a blast being on the water, even if the water did emit a rather suspicious odor. The Christmas lights on nearby restaurants lit up the area and we could see some of the highrises and big hotels that fringe the lake.

We arrived early at the Indian restaurant so chose a table at the wide open window across the road from the lake.

Foodshop 45 Restaurant, Hanoi, Vietnam
View from Our Table
Christmas dinner at FoodShop 45
Christmas Dinner

Peter and Ian soon arrived and we dug into a wonderful feast of Indian food. Some of the best chicken I’ve ever eaten! (have I said that before? Really?) Then Sue and I found our way home – a few misdirections but all in all an interesting ride through the Hanoi night. Then we watched one of our DVDs: District 9, complete with very odd subtitles that provided lots of laughs.

Not a traditional Christmas. And we missed family and friends. And the fresh air of Canada. But we had a pretty good time. Relaxed lots. Got some reading and movies in, both Christmas pastimes, and ate lots of good food although there was no turkey anywhere to be seen. And we did ride a swan, which seems a pretty special thing to do at Christmas. Best of all: we had each other!

We hope you all had a wonderful Christmas and look forward to seeing you in the New Year!

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