Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Vietnamese Christmas





There were a few Santas planted around Hanoi, Vietnam just before Christmas. I found one in a busy mall that was willing to listen to what I wanted for Christmas. Ha!
 Being an US expat who lives in the Middle East, there are slices of the world that are more available to explore than before when we lived on the other half. Also, with a son who speaks Vietnamese and who was pleading to let him tour us around, we decided to visit Southeast Asia for Christmas. Being a huge Christmas aficionado, who anticipates every tradition, song, and festivity that Christmas brings, was initially a little difficult for me. I was craving some cold, Christmas carols around every corner, and glistening Christmas lights--all things familiar. I honestly anticipate every Christmas moment all year round. However, instead of every light, song, decoration, food in all of its abundance and glory before us, we instead found the Christmas that was in hidden corners, on the streets, and in one orphanage in Hoi An. The Christmas discoveries as we trekked around Vietnam were unexpectedly joyous. The Vietnamese people loved our spontaneous caroling, and we in turn, enjoyed seeing their Buddhist customs. 

I have celebrated Christmas before in unfamiliar places like a refugee camp in the Philippines, in Taiwan, Nicaragua, Qatar, and now Vietnam. Unfailingly, I was jolted to remember that all of the celebrations and festivities are beautiful to behold. But I only need my loved ones, and if I am lucky, a few people to share it with. Although we were with some of the Vietnamese people momentarily, we exchanged pure friendship and love. Bonds were formed and hearts enlarged; peace reigned. I was reminded, even greatly humbled, that those simple things are all that really matter.  

This is the mall close to Hoan Kiem Lake in downtown Hanoi where we spotted a Santa. The lake is a historic and cultural hub, with beautiful pagodas, sculptures, and buildings enwrapped around it. There was a mixture of Christmas music and women dancing on the street to traditional music, with Christmas trees and weeping fig trees around the water. As wondrous as it was to see Christmas trees since we were coming from the Middle East, I was immediately entranced with the trees in Hanoi. In 1854 when the French came to Vietnam, they planted 10,000 trees, and by 1980, there were over 200,000. Ho Chi Minh launched a tree planting campaign, and it continues until today. The trees, banyan, mango, and different species of fig trees, are gnarly, and seem to grow with sprawling roots. into the lake. There are numbers on each tree, making them each individually important. Occasionally, you will see small alters amidst the roots, as some Buddhists think their homeless ancestors live in the trees. Trees are sacred in the Buddhists and Taoist tradition--just like my Christmas tree is to me.
We found a few Christmas trees that perked us up too, made me feel at home. My son, with his dear Vietnamese friend, at his elbow, as we walked around Hoan Kiem Lake a few days before Christmas.

Another son, who like me, is filled with the Christmas spirit, was found by a few Vietnamese girls who were dressed up like Santa elves for the holidays. They had bulging arms of wrapped presents to sell on the street, Hyrum bought a few gifts, for one dollar a piece, and then enjoyed giving them out to some surprised children a few minutes later.

Here are a few lucky kids who got an unexpected Christmas gift from a US tourist. Ha!
At the Catholic Church in Hoi An (which is next to an orphanage we wanted to go to) was an older woman who cleans the church.  She wanted to get her picture with us. We found out she had  been cleaning every day for 40 years.
Can you see the person ringing the bells on the balcony? It reminded me, on Christmas Day, of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem/song, I heard the bells on Christmas Day: "Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, With peace on earth, good will to men. Till ringing, singing, on its way, the world revolved from night to day. A voice, a chime, a chant sublime, of peace on earth, good will toward men."

Inside the church, was a hallowed creche exhibit, reminding us of the day we were celebrating.



Some young orphans at the orphanage. They go to school there, and were practicing their English with us.

Here is the school where some of the young children at the orphanage were trying to read and write. There was a classroom, a playroom, playground, and a room where some sick children were staying. The teachers and caretakers were kind and loving, and were trying to do everything they could to help the children. We wish we could have stayed weeks--playing soccer, speaking English, and holding children.
The favorite activity we did with them was to play a game of soccer. Trash cans on both sides were the goalie posts. They didn't want us to leave, after a sweaty game of soccer on Christmas Day.

A child with her father on Christmas Day--so happy to sport her Santa hat.

An enchanting night, like inside a fairy castle, with all the lanterns dangling from trees, posts, stands. Hoi On is truly the City of Lights, a place where dreams and reality intertwine. What would the night be like if we always filled it with light?

A huge lantern lit up on the edge of the river where children were romping under.


On Christmas night, there was a luminous moon, a full moon,  Since there was a full moon, Buddhists were celebrating "full moon days"--refraining from meat to honor life. Here is a link to that teaches why Buddhists revere full moons: http://www.budsas.org/ebud/whatbudbeliev/217.htm  Candles are also lit, and lowered into the sparkling river in Hoi On, Vietnam.  The city was brilliantly lit up, with candles floating down the river, dangling lanterns on trees and posts. As most Vietnamese were celebrating the full moon's significance in their lives, we were celebrating Christmas. As a family, on New Year's Day, we choose a word that we wanted to characterize the year for us, and I had already decided on my word: light. So it was a perfect Christmas night for me--fun, yet meaningful, to drop the burning, radiant candles into the river. You can see the candles floating behind, and then there are boats meandering around the candles. The whole city was awash with light, as the full moon and starts glittered above us. As I sat on a balcony on that Christmas night, I gulped, swallowed, stared, and then just cried because it was so unexpectedly beautiful. It was a moment to preface the new year for me--to look and find the light.

An older woman trying to sell the candles to float on the river....

A younger girl, about age ten, selling the candles. We ended up buying our eight candles from her.
Here are most of us as we are about to drop our candles into the Hoi On River on Christmas night, into the melting darkness. There was a gusty wind that night, not cold, but it was blowing, and a few times we had to relight the candles. It reminded me of a quote by Albert Schweitzer, " At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us." As we repeatedly relit one another's candles, I was struck, as I always am, of our interdependence on one another, especially our loved ones. I am so grateful for my family who revitalize and relight my energy and light all year long. I was grateful to the Vietnamese people on that full moon night that we could simultaneously celebrate our faiths together. We felt peace, light, love, as I told my kids one of my favorite quotes by Lillian Galbraith in Cheaper by the Dozen when she, the mom, says, "This is the happiest moment in the world right now." I have said that quote to them on many happy occasions, but perhaps this was one of the most lit up Christmases I can remember--in of all places, Vietnam.
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