|Nativity scene Hoang Sa Street, District 1, HCMC
Since the world didn’t end last week, the neighbours have turned their attention from stockpiling tinned fish and rice (and forbidding family members to leave the house) and are instead focussed on bright lights and all things tinsel-y. While some might argue we have short attention spans here, I say it’s Vietnamese pragmatism at its best. No sense dwelling on what did or didn’t happen, just move on.
A few doors down the neighbour who was hoarding salt for the Apocalypse now has twinkling lights strung across a doorway and pious offerings to the ancestors in the form of fresh fruit and dainty cups of tea. Elsewhere flashing Jesus stars pulsate from houses and shop fronts. Red, blue, yellow, green, there is a giant paper star for every personality with matching Bible scenes and varying amounts of tinsel glued to the points. Plug it in and you’re good to go, signalling your alignment with the season and all that is ho ho ho. I’d like one but I’m afraid it will burn the house down.
Decorations include strings of gold beads, plastic wrapped roses and my favourite, honest to god disco balls. Small children dressed in Sana suits are forced to pose in front of baying reindeer pulling sleighs of snow-dusted refrigerators and TVs. It is 36°C and everyone is in Santa hats. Music thumps out of the cafes and clothing stores and there’s a run on tin foil as this is a particularly near-to-the-heart decorating accessory in these parts.
Around town the church grottoes have become more spectacularly competitive over the years. Nativity scenes have life-size Baby Jesus lying about in his manger looking smug as flocks of genuflecting visitors bring prezzies and apparently, cash. Paper money is strewn all over the place in a seamless blurring of Christmas and the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet). These decorations will be up until the middle of February.
“Come over here, you sit here, no pushing,” says a flustered, but extremely polite Young Pioneer with red scarf tied around her neck. She and other Communist Youth League kids are doing their best to control the church crowds that have turned up to watch the nuns corral dancing angels, mini-Santas in their boob-tube dresses with faux white fur trim and a precariously balanced camel that threatens to go ass over tea kettle into the wee shepherds.
All this from a nation that is officially atheist with the next nearest “religious belief” (Buddhism) clocking in at less than 10 per cent of the population.