Christmas Eve in Vietnam

The food vendors stood out. But they’re a salient part of Vietnamese streets and downtown districts every other day of the year too. The piles of bright strawberries or tart green mangos, heaps of olives, sticky trays of fried dough balls in assorted sweetness combinations were familiar on the shores of Hoan Kiem lake in Hanoi but on Christmas Eve they tempted in greater splendor.

Vietnam Hanoi Christmas Eve street vendors

Did the women sitting on low stools or standing by folding tables where sliced sausages, leaf-wrapped packets, and dumplings of alluring gastronomic mystery steamed in the cooling air have a different energy in their conversations and sales pitches? They had to. It wasn’t just the crowd of people smiling their ways through the soft darkness.

Vietnam Hanoi street food crabs lighter


It was a well behaved excitement. The men sitting in the corner bar, their stools diffusing out into the flow of motorcycle traffic, were not as loud on beer as usual, but sat back with slow smiles as they pulled apart the rainbow shells of fresh crabs or slid the sauteed meat off satay skewers. It was a family kind of night.


The motorized toy-car wranglers squatted by their plastic stock and collected the cash into wads while parents tapped photos into their phones, again in greater numbers than on a workaday night, and again with an underlying smile that showed that Christmas Eve was special for them too, even as business proceeded as usual.

Vietnam Hanoi Christmas Eve big wheels


But it wasn’t about gadgets and gizmos, products and consumption, and technology was of use but no priority, as the greatest draws were simple wicker balls kicked around the circle of strangers made instant friends by this Far East hacky sack, and families merged into two macro-units on either side of a heavy hawser for round after round of tug of war.


Vietnam Hanoi Christmas Eve tug of warIf it wasn’t about the materials, maybe it was the jolly man in red? Glittering foil Santa balloons rode with many of the pairs and trios perched on motorbikes, and those red hats with the white puffball kept heads warm throughout the press, but Santa was not the star of the show either.


So maybe it was religion. A crowd was cooing its social ease outside St Joseph’s Cathedral, but only about 8% of the country is Christian and the draw seemed to be the colored lights on the Gothic Revival facade, not the mythology within it.

Vietnam Hanoi St Joseph's Cathedral Christmas Eve

Not gifts, not Santa, not Jesus, so what was Christmas Eve in Vietnam?


It was fun. Relaxed. Friendship in the swirl, families in the laughter, a no pressure festivity of a nighttime gathering where the rationale was less than the reality. Christmas is the most dominant cultural event in human history, a source of joy and stress for millions around the world, and in Hanoi I found a beautiful iteration of it. Ease and a low-key appreciation of something not needed, not built up, just enjoyed for whatever it happened to be.


Hard to believe it’s already been a year but not surprising at all that it’s still in me.


Happy holidays, wherever and whatever the days find you. And may your joy be easy.