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Merry Christmas from Hoi An

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We arrived in Hoi An on Dec. 20, one day ahead of Ciaran’s birthday. The first order of business was getting things set up for his big day: topping up the cell phone so he could call a few friends, reserving a table at a good restaurant, ordering a chocolate cream cake for dessert, and combing the town for gift wrap. (No luck there; we ended up wrapping his gifts in silk scarves.) We already had the gifts: a Ben 10 movie and a pair of Thai boxing shorts that he’d been begging for all through Thailand. Chloe had bought him a Ben 10 hat in Saigon. We also figured that an hour of cell phone time with his friends would be one of the gifts.

Ciaran spent most of the day doing what he likes best: sitting in the hotel room watching Star Wars movies and eating ice cream. He phoned several friends after breakfast and really got a kick out of talking to them, although he told us later on that it wasn’t really much of a birthday gift, since he “didn’t get to keep it forever.”

We told him he could have anything he wanted for dinner, so he went for the seafood pizza—a cheese pizza topped with shrimp, squid and white fish. The cake was delivered to our table after dinner with seven lit candles. Ciaran was impressed that the servers had dimmed the lights just for him, and most of the nearby tables sang happy birthday along with us. All in all, it was really the best we could have done for him here, but I think he was still a bit dejected by the lack of fanfare compared to what normally happens at home: he really would have liked to be surrounded by more family and all of his friends. Oh well, there’s always next year…


We woke up on Dec. 22 with Ciaran’s birthday behind us, and that gave us two days to get Christmas together. First things first: I set out with Chloe in search of a Christmas tree.

I’d been optimistic about our chances of finding a small (artificial) tree ever since we’d arrived in the Mekong Delta, because it seems a good number of Vietnamese celebrate Christmas—at least, compared to neighbouring countries—and there had been several shops in Can Tho stocking decorations. In Saigon, the possibilities would have been endless. Hoi An, on the other hand, is a very small place. Formerly a tiny fishing village, it has expanded slowly over the years into a major tourist destination. Now a UNESCO world heritage site whose quaint old city evokes Paris in its own uniquely Asian (decaying) sort of way, it does draw thousands of tourists and is a beautiful place to spend Christmas. But modern, it is not. Not a single convenience store or Western-looking shop in sight despite the seemingly hundreds of tailor shops and souvenir places selling paper lanterns and Buddha figures. I had already combed most of the entire old city in search of Christmas trimmings during my unsuccessful search for wrapping paper for Ciaran’s birthday, and had come up empty-handed.

So before I set out with Chloe, I decided to recruit our hotel manager in my search. There is a huge artificial Christmas tree in the lobby here, and a small one on the front desk, so I figured he must know where I could get a tree of my own. No luck, though; he wasn’t the one who’d shopped for them and he was pretty sure they’d come from Danang, a much bigger city (with an ex-pat community) about an hour away. Then a solution dawned on him: one of the hotel’s drivers was scheduled to bring some guests to the airport in Danang later that day, and could bring a tree back with him if I knew exactly what I wanted.

I did know exactly what I wanted, but had no idea what it should cost: five dollars? Twenty-five? Who knew? Having been ripped off numerous times here in Vietnam so far, I wasn’t prepared to be tricked into paying double the actual amount for my tree, regardless of how small that amount might be. So I asked the manager what one should cost. Again, he had no idea. While Chloe and I milled around the reception area, he made more phone calls, trying to find out. When he finally came back, he had a better solution for me: he’d managed to contact the person who had bought the trees for the hotel, and so now he could tell me where to buy them myself here in Hoi An. They were available at a Vietnamese bookstore just outside the old city.

So we called a taxi, and I asked the hotel manager to explain to the driver in Vietnamese that first I needed to stop at an ATM, and then I wanted to go to this Vietnamese bookstore.

When we pulled up, we found ourselves in front of not just one, but two little shops hawking Christmas trees and decorations. So Chloe and I got to work, rounding up tinsel, Christmas stickers, craft supplies and gift wrap at the bookstore. With that done, we went up the street to the next store for the tree.

There were at least six sizes available—they were all on display, fully decorated with lights on—and the little one I had my eye on, about two and a half feet tall, had a price tag on it: just $8. The shop itself was tiny (maybe 8 x 8), crowded, busy and noisy, so it wasn’t easy getting anyone’s attention. Finally, after waiting near the cash for a while, I was able to communicate by pointing and gesturing that I’d like to buy that little tree.

The shop owner made his way out from behind the cash and walked over to the tree, touched the strand of lights woven into its branches, and looked at me expectantly. Glad to have been understood, I nodded and smiled. He rifled through a shelf beneath the tree and came out with a package of lights, and handed them to me, then started making his way back to the cash. I realized that he thought I wanted to buy the lights, not the tree.

So I tried again, getting his attention and then shaking my head and pointing once more to the tree, this time actually touching its branches. “Ah,” he said, and led me outside, to where dozens of strands of tinsel hung on display. He pointed to a strand and said, “Hah? Color?” He thought I wanted to buy the tinsel.

Obviously, I was going to have to get a bit more dramatic. I shook my head to say no, then went back into the store to the little tree, checking that he was still following, and moved my arms around over the entire length of it, up and down, to show that I wanted the WHOLE TREE. After a few moments, he understood exactly what I wanted. I was just about to ask whether or not he still had the box for it when he unplugged the tree and picked it up whole, decorations and all, and plunked it down on the middle of the sidewalk outside for me.

I was a bit amazed: for $8, I was buying not just the tree, but all of the lights and decorations as well. It was pouring rain outside, so we flagged down a cab and got in with our tree, then headed back to the hotel room. Chloe wanted to “undecorate” it first and then re-decorate it herself, which I thought was a great plan. The kids spent most of the rest of that day making home-made Christmas decorations with the supplies we’d bought, and by the end of the day, the tree was fully decorated again with all of the original trinkets and a host of new, home-made ones as well.


Now we had another problem to solve: Christmas stockings. Mark’s mom had brought two for us when she came to Thailand. I had asked for just two, thinking mainly of the kids. But now we realized that the kids would expect us to have stockings as well. That was when Mark got a brilliant idea: since Hoi An is legendary as a destination where people go to have things custom-made out of silk, why not have a set of stockings made—for all four of us? And the piece de resistance: we would make a fifth, for the dog we’ve been thinking of getting, and give it to the kids on Christmas morning as a promise that this hypothetical dog will actually become real once we get home.

As it happened, later that day I stumbled upon a fair-trade shop in the old city near the water, where after some discussion, they said it would be no problem to make five stockings for us in just a day or two. I picked out five different colours of silk. They turned out beautifully.

We just needed a few more pieces to make the traditional Christmas picture complete. Back at the hotel, I was able to find free downloads of all our favourite Christmas cartoons—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. For gifts, we had picked up some Lego back in Bangkok, so Santa was able to surprise the kids with something they really, really wanted (and desperately needed, in my opinion). We supplemented that with books, movies, edibles and promises, including one “get out of homeschool free” pass each.

We’ve been carrying a small flip-album with 25 photos of friends and family, so we took all the photos up and hung them on a wall over the beds along a strand of green tinsel. The kids made paper snowflakes and other crafts, which we either hung up or put on the tree. With the fast, mostly reliable wifi connection at our current hotel, we were able to visit the NORAD website to track Santa’s progress on Christmas Eve (we hustled the kids into bed when we noticed that he was already over Indonesia).

The weather here has been beautiful and sunny, so we spent Christmas Eve at the beach during the afternoon: sand castles instead of snow forts, body surfing instead of sledding. Late in the afternoon we returned to watch Rudolph, then set out for dinner—we had reservations back at Cargo, the same restaurant where we’d gone for Ciaran’s birthday. The set Christmas menu there had attracted us, with its French onion soup, turkey with cranberry sauce, and complimentary wine—but when we finally got around to ordering, Mark was more in the mood for stir-fried prawns, and I ordered the seafood set menu (which included smoked salmon, oyster with spinach gratin, and a salmon steak). Ciaran went for the lasagne, and Chloe ate two quesadillas. It was exactly the opposite of traditional, but fabulous nonetheless.


As we walked away from the restaurant, we noticed a crowd gathering in an open square by the river. There were children dressed in little Santa suits and we could hear drumming and singing. As we got closer, it seemed to be a type of Vietnamese family-friendly bingo. For 5,000 dong (about 25 cents), you could buy a paddle that had three Vietnamese words (and corresponding images) on it. Most of the words were for animals. Each paddle had different word combinations. The two MCs running the game would sing a song—they had microphones—and then a third person would come out with a paddle. The song would change to include whatever word was on the paddle, and then the paddle would be hung from a wire running across the square. If the word chosen was on your paddle, you were given a flag. The first person to get three flags would be the winner.

The kids wanted in, so we bought them each a paddle and sat down to watch the game. There were probably about 30-40 people playing, and many more watching. The singing was surprisingly catchy, considering that it was all in Vietnamese and without music. After about 15 minutes and as many words, we had a winner: Chloe! The prize was a red paper lantern with a dark wood frame. (Great: More heavy things to carry! But we couldn’t have asked her to give it up.)



Back at the hotel, we watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas, then let the kids unwrap their new stockings, which they hung from knobs on the writing-desk drawers. They were asleep by 10 p.m., and had us up by 6:30 to tear open the gifts. Both of them were pleased with their haul, although Ciaran was marginally disappointed that Santa had not brought him the only thing he had asked for: a real Ben 10 omnitrix that would let him change into one of 10 possible alients at the touch of a button. (We did manage to get him the toy replica, which seemed to soften the blow.)


Although the weather was sunny and beautiful again on Christmas Day, we’d had enough of the beach and were in the mood for more traditional activities, so we mainly whiled away the day watching more movies, reading our new books and eating our way through all the chocolate—pretty much what we would have done in Ottawa. Nobody seemed to mind that we weren’t going to be attending a traditional Christmas Day turkey feast in the evening, so we ended the day with Indian food.

All in all, I think we pulled off a pretty enjoyable Christmas despite the challenges. It will be a while, though, before I forget what it was like to have to wrap all those gifts in the same room as the sleeping children (freaking out the entire time about the possibility of them waking up while all the loot was still scattered across the floor), while cutting the wrapping paper with tiny cuticle scissors, making our own gift tags out of plain white paper, and eventually running out of both wrapping paper and tape altogether. Whew.

We’re here in Hoi An for another four days, and plan to spend them seeing more of the town now that we don’t have so many holiday-driven errands to run. One of Chloe’s gifts was the promise of a silk dress that she could choose or design herself and have sewn by a local tailor, so a visit to a silk shop is on the agenda.

We head all the way up to Hanoi on Dec. 30, and will spend New Year’s Eve overnight in Halong Bay, cruising on a Chinese junk. Then off to India on Jan. 5.

Posted by The Rymans 21:01 Archived in Vietnam Tagged family_travel

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HAPPY CHRISTMAS!!! Glad you've had a lovely day!
Sorry this is such a late reply to your other post - Hanoi scams include a trip to the perfume pagoda - beautiful and worth it, but prices vary by 100%! We trugged around half a dozen different travel agents to find the best deal. We didn't go to Halong Bay as we had come through from Guillin in China, and also were definately going to Phang Nha in Thailand. Also Sadie at 4 was still just a little bit small to cope with the bus to the boat and then overnight on the boat too. That said Hanoi is I think our favourite city in Vietnam, we were there for a week I think just wandering around - it's much more chinese than the other parts, the Temple of Literature is worth a visit too. Have fun!
Rachel xxxx


Merry Christmas Patti and family! I can't believe that you didn't make your kids listen to the Chipmunk's Christmas song over and over again....
Mary :)

by Mary Ladouceur

Hey Mary...Oh, I did, I did. I have that song (and many others) in iTunes on our laptop. But I don't have to make them listen to it...they ask for it (and they want to hear it over, and over, and over, and over -- it must be a genetic thing :)) !

by The Rymans

Hi Patti - what a great recap of your Christmas Adventure. Incredible! I just discovered this site when I went to your FB. Thanks for sharing Happy New Year to your whole family

by Sherri Harrison

Happy new year, Patti! Your Christmas story was great, and glad to see everyone is still in one piece.

Cheers to the rest of your adventure, and to a great start to 2010 for the whole family!

by Christele

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