Marco Polo’s 24 Holiday traditions from around the world – Day 2: Christmas in Vietnam

For the second post of our advent calendar we look into how Christmas is celebrated in… Vietnam! Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check it out here.

Photo credit: Bucket List Bums

CHRISTMAS IN VIETNAM

Though a predominantly Buddhist country, Christmas is celebrated with much flourish in Vietnam, particularly in Hoi Chi Minh. Owing to its history as a French colony, many of the Christmas traditions in Vietnam are Catholic, such as the midnight mass,  though nowadays even the non-Christian Vietnamese celebrate the season with good food and decorations. In Vietnam the Christmas Eve is almost more important than the Christmas day. In Hoi Chi Minh people will crowd the streets, throw confetti and enjoy the brightly decorated storefronts. The French Christmas log cake, bûche de Noël, is a popular gift though exchanging gifts during Christmas is not that common in Vietnam.

So if you are going to be spending Christmas in Vietnam, don’t worry, you won’t miss out on the Holiday cheer!

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Top 10 Things to Do in Vietnam

There is a lot to see and experience in Vietnam from lush nature to beautiful colonial gems. Here are Marco Polo’s top 10 for Vietnam:

Marco Polo Vietnam Guide

1. HA LONG BAY

Limestone karst formations, some as high as skyscrapers, smothered in dense vegetation, rise right out of the emerald green sea. The best way to explore this bay of sagas and legends is on board a junk.

2. OLD FRENCH QUARTER (SAIGON)

A stroll around the Old French Quarter in the shade of tamarind trees takes you past magnificent buildings from colonial days.

3. HOI AN

A waft of China hangs over this old port between pagodas, traditional merchants’ houses, dressmakers’ and souvenir shops.

4. HUE

Tracing how the emperors and kings once lived takes you to moss- covered palaces and burial sites with gardens and ponds. The imperial era is brought back to life in plays and dances.

5. SA PA

Bright green rice terraces, rounded mountain tops and colourfully clad ethnic mountain people – hiking here from one village to the next is like being in one huge landscape painting.

6. DRY HA LONG BAY

From a canoe you can marvel at the fairy-tale scenery of paddy fields gleaming in every conceivable shade of green framed by karst giants covered in tropical vegetation.

7. PHU QUOC

Vietnam’s largest island is a paradise for beach-lovers with endlessly long stretches of sand and tropical jungle as a backdrop. Diving grounds bursting with brightly-coloured sea creatures wait to be explored.

8. CU CHI TUNNELS

Here, one remnant of the Vietnam War and the Viet Cong resistance movement can be experienced first hand – even if only a few minutes and just for a couple of metres underground.

9. PHAN THIET & MUI NE

This peninsula with its 1.6km (1 mile) long beach attracts holidaymakers from all points of the globe to swim, surf or kite surf.

10. OLD QUARTER AND HO HOAN KIEM (HANOI)

Wander around the labyrinthine alleyways in the Old Quarter with their traditional craft shops, corner bars and cafés, boutiques and galleries.

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Vietnam – Delicious Dishes from the Wok

Don’t worry – Vietnam’s cuisine may be exotic but no tourist need fear that they will unwittingly be served roast dog, raw monkey brain or geckos on a skewer. The Vietnamese wouldn’t waste such delicacies on a tay, a clueless ‘long- nose’! And, compared to the explosively hot dishes found in Thai and Indian curries, the food here is very mild with fresh herbs dominating the Vietnamese menu.

Marco Polo Vietnam Guide

Enjoy the rice

The Vietnamese equivalent of ‘bon appétit’, moi ong xoi com, actually means ‘enjoy the rice’. Any number of interesting facts and countless legends tell of the importance of rice. Rice comes in all sorts of variations, e.g. as pure white rice (com), as rice soup (com pho), rice noodles (thick banh or thin bun), transparent rice paper to wrap spring rolls in (cha gio or nem in the north), rice pancakes (banh xeo), as biscuits, cakes and puddings. It was probably more than 1,000 years ago that this type of grain was used for brewing beer and making wine. And steamed sticky rice is processed into a distilled liquor called ruou de, ruou gao or can (50 percent alcohol by volume).

Hot Dishes in the Cooler North

Due to Vietnam’s geographical extremities, regional dishes evolved differently. In the cooler north, stews, deep-fried specialities, pan dishes and rice pudding are common. The best-known export from the north is the spicy noodle soup pho that is also eaten for breakfast. It has since become a national dish and has even made its way onto T-shirts with the world-famous Apple trademark and the proud announcement ‘iPho – made in Vietnam’! A hot bouillon is poured over the rice or wheat flour noodles which is served with wafer-thin slices of beef or chicken and a few soya bean shoots. Pho’s delicious aroma comes from the spices used: pepper, coriander, ground chili and lime juice as well as herbs that are always available everywhere.

The hotpot lau is not to be missed either. Rather like a Vietnamese-style fondue, ingredients such as fish, seafood, beef and glass noodles are added to a boiling stock in a clay pot and cooked at the table in front of guests. It is served with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cucumber, mushrooms, beans, soya bean and bamboo shoots, aubergines and carrots. Bun cha is a well-known grilled meat dish: balls of minced meat or slices of filet are cooked on a charcoal barbecue and served with long, thin rice noodles, raw vegetables and any amount of herbs. The sauce however is all important and the best in the country are to be found in Hanoi.

Central Region: Eat like an Emperor

200 years ago the Emperor of Hue was not going to miss out on whatever was en vogue in Europe – such as potatoes, asparagus and cauliflower. Everything was garnished in the most elaborate way for his Highness, well spiced and presented in a mouth-watering way. The pork sausages typical of Hue were not lacking either. Hue’s gastronomic hit, however, is banh khoai: crisp pancakes filled with crab, pork and soya bean shoots with a peanut and sesame dip. When eating da nang on the other hand, you could well believe you are in Japan. The Vietnamese sushi goi ca comprises a raw filet of fish marinaded in a delicious sauce and covered with breadcrumbs. In the little fishing port of Hoi An, cao lau is the hot favourite – a noodle soup with strips of pork, a whiff of mint, roast onions and crisp rice paper.

The Spicy South

More exoticism and spice can be found in the pots and pans of the south: stir quickly, sauté deftly but not for too long, add a generous number of spices and place on the grill – preferably with coriander, sweet basil, Vietnamese parsley, lemon grass, chili, pepper, star anise, ginger, saffron and tamarind paste. Curries are very much part of every housewife’s standard repertoire just as shrimp paste man tom and fish sauce nuoc mam are a must in every kitchen. Small, spicy spring rolls, served as a starter, are a speciality of the south – the deep-fried cha gio nam and the transparent ‘lucky rolls’ goi cuon and banh cuon, that are served fresh and not deep-fried – and require a certain amount of skill in the making. Fine slithers of pork, shrimps, cucumber, slices of star fruit and the usual herbs are rolled in a sheet of wafer-thin rice paper; the tight roll is then dunked in an accompanying dip.

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That Vietnam feeling

Vietnam may first bring to mind the eponymous war and then the delicious cuisine but there is much more to this Southeast Asian country. A culture spanning back thousands of years and of course the beautiful nature. Experience the country’s unique flair and find out what makes it tick – just like the Vietnamese themselves.

Marco Polo Vietnam Guide

Temples as oases

Whenever your senses are the worse for wear from the sheer noise of Saigon, visiting a pagoda will soon soothe the soul – relax, here at last is a place without the rattling of mopeds and incessant hooting, a place of contemplation with Buddha where you can rest for a moment. The timeless atmosphere of this world apart, enshrouded in incense, is often just a few yards from the chaos of the main roads – in Le Van Duyet temple, for example, which lies a little further off the beaten track.

Coffee breaks

Just grab a plastic stool, take a seat on a street corner and order a ca phe sua nong. Then watch as the delicious smelling, thick, bitter coffee drips from a dented tin filter into a glass before sweetened condensed milk is added. The whole process takes place in slow motion – and helps enormously to relax in the midst of Vietnam’s frenzied everyday hectic, even if only for a few minutes.

Communism live

People move slowly and reverently past the revolutionary leader’s sarcophagus; soldiers in pristine white uniforms scare hawkers away; nobody is allowed to talk or even whisper. Hands must be taken out of pockets, sunglasses and hats removed. ‘Uncle Ho’, who can be seen behind the polished glass window, looks almost as if he is wistfully turning his head to see each visitor.

The early bird…

Everyone in Vietnam is up and about early in the morning. In the cool of the day between 5:30am and 7am people doing their morning gymnastics can be watched at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. Balance out your own yin and yang with a bout of shadow boxing, exercise to the rhythm of the cha-cha or play a round of badminton.

Homestays

‘Homestays’ in Vietnam are always good for a surprise. Sometimes you spend the night in a type of dormitory under the roof, other times – in stilt houses – you sleep in the living room and meet the family personally. You can stay with the Vietnamese in their homes in cities, in the mountains, in the Mekong Delta, in national parks and on the less touristy islands.

At the fortune-teller

A glimpse into the future costs just a few dong. In the mountains, in particular, you can even watch the shaman telling a person’s fortune. The tools of his trade include a dog-eared book in Chinese characters, two split bamboo sticks, a stone that is heated in the embers of a fire and a thread that he winds around the stone – and, there you are, his ‘telephone to the spirits’ is ready for use.

Night markets

Try a tasty treat of a special kind. Start off with a steaming bowl of soup made with noodles, beef and onions, soya bean shoots and tiny strips of banana leaf – and slurp it quietly! For the next course, just follow the columns of smoke to a barbecue stand where skewered octopus is sizzling away, as an accompaniment dunk mint and basil leaves in a dip made of salt, pepper, chilli and lemon. Save the best ’til last: diep nuong mo hanh, scallops decorated with shallots and finely chopped peanuts – soft and slippery and incredibly cheap on top!

Timeless Vietnam

In the Graham Greene Suite in the Metropole in Hanoi it is not difficult to imagine how, in the 1950s, the eponymous author kept to his daily writing schedule like clockwork. Or how, one war later, Joan Baez strummed We Shall Overcome in a bunker under the pool. And in the Mekong Delta you can retrace the steps of Marguerite Duras in Sa Dec or of W. Somerset Maugham under the tamarinds along Saigon’s tree-lined avenues, just like in the days of old.

 

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