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From Our Correspondent: Merry Christmas, Uncle Ho
The Festive Season is almost upon us — even in communist Vietnam

November 24, 2000
Web posted at 12:30 p.m. Hong Kong time, 12:30 a.m. EDT

Christmas sucks. I've always hated it. The religious cant and mumbo jumbo, the hypocrisy, the schlocky songs and tawdry, tinselly decorations, the over-consumption of fatty, yucky food, the sheer crass disgusting commercialism of it all. What a load of humbug it is!

I once thought I might escape Yuletide's worst horrors by coming to Asia. But then I spent my first Christmas in the region in Bangalore's New Victoria Hotel, and I shall never forget the ghastliness of lying in bed in listening to the same Johnny Mathis record of Christmas carols coming from the outdoor tannoy system over and over and over again; it was like a perverse Indian torture. At least it wasn't Englebert Humperdinck. But things are no better now that I've moved to Southeast Asia. I still scowl every October when I first hear White Christmas in some shopping mall in Singapore or soaring out of some oven-hot outdoor market in Bangkok. Bing! Gimme a break.

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In an attempt to escape it all, I now head off on my own every December to somewhere as Godless as I can find. Lately, it's been Vietnam, a laudably reliable bastion of anti-religious sentiment — or so I thought. Recently, however, something disastrous has happened. Christmas has come to this Communist land with a vengeance. I feel like going along to Uncle Ho's mausoleum and having a word in his ear. But he's less responsive than he used to be. An existential death does that to you. I was mulling this in the rooftop bar of Saigon¹s Rex Hotel last December, sipping red wine and nibbling nem (those deliciously plump spring rolls the Vietnamese do so well).

I had to get away from this distasteful display of unrestrained Yuletide festivity, and as soon as I'd finished my last roll, I headed down to the Café Latin, a neat little tapas bar on nearby Dong Du Street. Another glass of the house red and some grilled eggplant later, and I started to feel better. The atmosphere was aptly bar-roomy in a decadent, Barcelona sort of way, and the pretty young serving girls were not dressed up as if they were Santa's concubines — instead they wore pert tee shirts and sensible miniskirts. All quite normal.

But next day, the full tragedy of the situation hit me. No sooner had I left the Rex to meet an old friend at the Paris Deli, than I almost tripped over a couple of midget Santas. I stood rooted to the spot, watching these toddlers in downtown Saigon (as everyone still calls Ho Chi Minh City) wearing the full Claus. It was like a Terry Gilliam film. I expected fiendish laughter any minute and to be swatted with a dead parrot. But no, this was reality. Later on, I saw many more kids attired this way. When I was their age, I would have done my French homework before I'd have put on something like that.

The more I looked around, the more depressed I became. There were so many stores decorated with tinsel and streamers and balloons, selling little artificial fir trees, displaying gross Christmas cards — hawkers had even set up on the sidewalks peddling these nauseous things (usually with pictures of a snowy scene in Vermont and some saccharin verse inside about ol' Jack Frost). Yuck.

My gruntlement mounted. Worse was to follow when, perusing the Vietnam News while waiting for my chum, I read a message on the front page from President Tran Duc Luong — a man educated in Moscow under the Soviet regime, for Pete's sake — sending Christmas congratulations to the Catholic community and to other Christians and like-minded folk who wanted to join in the celebrations. What happened to the comradely spirit of atheistic humbug? What about worker solidarity against exploitation by Church-affiliated big bosses? When I asked my colleague, who has lived in Saigon for some time, about this sudden weakening of the spine, he laughed. He said Vo Viet Thanh, Saigon's mayor and a member of the party's central executive committee, had been asked by some visiting American Congressman about religious freedom. Thanh had said he supported it. My friend recalled him saying: "If belief in God keeps people behaving properly and in a well-ordered way, then why not?"

Why not? What is wrong with belief in the Party keeping people behaving properly? Have we given up on that great dream? What about Imagine? Imagine all the people, living for today. Nothing to kill or die for — and no religion too? It's easy, if you try. But in Vietnam, the apparachiks seem to have given up trying. Why, the Party has even donated some land to the Saigon archbishopric for an orphanage. That's a first. Let's hope it's a last. Is that what the Party is supposed to do, for Ho's sake?

Next day, near the Notre Dame Cathedral (I was beginning to blame the Frenchies for all this), there were dozens of Christmas-card sellers vying for space with bridal couples in absurd white satin dresses and morning suits, who had just been married during the auspicious festive season and were posing interminably for photographs. To avoid nausea, I took myself off to the nearby Sagano restaurant on Le Thanh Ton Street in the little Japan area and ordered a Maguro Shoga. While it was being prepared, I scampered around to a wine shop next door, bought a nice bottle of Australian red, got them to open it for me and took it back into the Sagano to have with my meal. I ate and drank slowly, savoring each mouthful, while reading my vacation book — the wonderful Junky by William Burroughs. All this restored my spirits and took my mind off the vapid Christmassy nonsense outside and.

Afterwards I repaired to the Rex for a siesta. Now I was in something of a festive mood of my own. But it was temporary. When I resurfaced in the early evening, it was to the sound of an appalling din outside. I staggered to the window and looked down upon a sea of people and a band playing — their music piped out at a zillion decibels as the throng swayed. They were getting deeper into the Christmas spirit, dancing, wearing bizarre outfits, throwing tinselly gold dust over each other. It was too gruesome to behold. I got a motorbike taxi and told him to take me to a bar in the distant suburbs where I could read my Burroughs in peace, while gazing at some young eye candy.

Distracted by what I'd seen, my mind wandered, and I only realized after some time that we'd gone rather farther into the suburbs than I had anticipated. There were not many bars and restaurants around. In fact, the streets were distressfully quiet and dimly lit. I tapped the motorbike man on the shoulder and told him to head back toward the Rex. He ignored me. Then, as a taxi cruised up, he stopped and told me to get off and take the taxi. Sensing some misdeed afoot, I strode away looking for another taxi. There were none.

I had no choice but to get in the first taxi and ask him to take me to the Rex. Suddenly, the motorbike man reappeared and leaned in asking for money. Then another guy appeared at the opposite window and both began haranguing me and pushing me about. One grabbed my glasses, the other went for my wallet. After a struggle, I managed to get the door open and jump out. And by a miracle (don't say it), a nearby shop door opened and out stepped an American who had heard the commotion. He gave me refuge until the trio scarpered (probably to join in the festivities) and I was able to order another taxi to take me back to my hotel.

Next day was Christmas Day itself and I took myself off to Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown, to chill out away from all the commercialism. It was a bright, crisp morning and I felt much better as I strolled around the temples —how wonderful they are, full of giant spirals of fuming incense, great huge drums, big calligraphy and no Christmas decorations. After a while, I retreated to a quiet, leafy corner for a snack. I'd got some pâté from the Cochon d'Or, and a fresh baguette from the Paris Deli, and I still had some of the Australian red wine left. What a meal! Keep your turkey and pud, mate, this was a real Christmas feast.

But I was still puzzled why all the Noel nonsense had been allowed to resurrect itself in Vietnam. Presumably, it is filling a vacuum that the Communist Party cannot fill. There must be an emptiness. The masses feel they have no outlets for any free thought, for any kind of behavior except that sanctioned by the Party. The only thing spiritually binding them together is the collective patriotic pride from their triumph in the American War. But that ended 25 years ago and the sentiment is fading fast among Vietnam's new generation. Religion is taking its place.

Well, they say you reap what you sow. And I say it serves them right. A pox on both their houses. This year, I'm going to stay at home at Christmas. In Thailand, it really is a non-event. Why, even the postman comes on Christmas Day and everyone works as if it's a normal day. Which is just what it is — and should be everywhere. Imagine that.

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