Christmas in Da Nang

This year I was living in Da Nang at Christmas and working for a small English centre called Eureka. Being the new teacher and being as enthusiastic about cooking as I am, my boss asked me if I’d like to make the Christmas dinner for all the students and parents. Naturally I said I’d love to. I went out on the days prior to Christmas Eve purchasing meat and vegetables. My girlfriend Mi and I had already hung the Christmas decorations at the school the week prior so the place was looking lovely. But we decided to add a few last minute touches, buying balloons and some gifts for a Pass the Parcel game. Mi even learned how to make a few balloon animals which the kids loved.

Christmas in Australia is, like in most countries, a rowdy family affair. But being in the southern hemisphere, it’s in summer. And Australia is incredibly hot in December, so to make sure no family members die from the sweltering heat, we don’t eat hot roast turkeys (also because we don’t have many turkeys in Australia). We eat cold meats. Cold roast chicken, cold roast pork, and the most traditional of all Australian Christmas foods, the Christmas ham. We also eat lots of salads. Potato salad and coleslaw are Christmas favourites. We cook all the food early in the morning so that we don’t have to heat up our house with a hot oven when people come for Christmas lunch.

Arriving at school early in the morning, we set about preparing the food. It was quite a hot day for Da Nang considering it was winter, with the temperature getting up past 30 degrees, so it sure did feel like Christmas in Australia to me. I’d been asked to make the dinner in an Australian style, so I set my boss to roasting all the chickens and the pork while I started on the snacks, dips and salad. I wasn’t able to get all the ingredients I wanted but I was able to improvise most things. The lack of corn bread for the wraps was disappointing. I’ve made wheat tortillas before so I thought I’d have a go making them from scratch. I was terrible at rolling them, but Mi came to the rescue, cutting them into perfect circles. I chose to add a little baking powder this time though, making them puff up nice and thick when cooked. They came out looking gorgeous although being a bit of a perfectionist I wasn’t completely happy with all my meals. My boss also made the chicken bones into a delicious soup and there was tonnes of fruit and other things so as is normal for an Australian Christmas, we had way more food than we needed for the dinner.

We were cooking right up to the last minute when the kids started arriving and I was rushed upstairs for a “shower”, which was of course code for getting dressed in my Santa costume. I came downstairs and greeted all the kids. The little ones were a little bit scared of the strange man in the red suit as usual, but after I picked up my guitar and played Jingle Bells and We Wish You a Merry Christmas a few times they warmed up to me. One of the older ones knew what was going on and said “That’s Mr David” and I of course insisted that since Santa wasn’t coming until tomorrow that I was there to assist him.

My boss Ms My had plenty of activities organised. I didn’t know that she had trained many of the kids in dances and each class put on a different dance performance except for my class who sat down on the floor for my game of pass the parcel. I don’t think anyone here had seen that game before because none of the staff really understood it when I explained it, but of course the kids loved it and understood the rules immediately and followed them well which is often tough. The prizes were some legos, some play dough and a cute little Hello Kitty toy camera that played music and flashed rather than take pictures. The boys were especially happy with the two lego prizes.

Even though it was great fun, it had been a long day and I couldn’t stop staring at the table full of food wondering when we’d finally get to eat it. When the games and dancing finished and we’d given out some special gifts of appreciation, including one for Mi and I, the signal was given to start dinner. The kids swooped on the Honey Joys, which are sugary corn flake treats covered in melted honey and butter and left to cool until they harden. I was glad I made these because they were a favourite treat of mine when my mother made them for me when I was a kid and they’re such an Australian speciality. The spread of food was enormous and we barely finished a fraction of it even though many of the parents joined in for a snack too. When it was over and the kids went home Ms My asked me “Would you like a beer now ?” and it was like she’d read my mind. Her husband and one of his friends passed out some Tigers between the three of us and we toasted to a very successful Christmas party.

I told a funny story over dinner. That morning when we were packing the groceries into bags I’d put the box of Corn Flakes we’d bought into the bag and Mi had looked at me disappointed and I told her “Oh. Did you think they were for you ? No, sorry. These are for school” and she had scowled at me annoyed because she loves Corn Flakes and eats them for breakfast most mornings. Shortly afterwards, Ms My suggested we open our gift and I gave it to Mi to unwrap. Inside was a box of Corn Flakes and she hugged it to her chest happily. Everyone laughed loudly and she was told to open the box. Inside the box was not Corn Flakes but two pairs of slippers.. flip flops or “thongs” as we call them in Australia. It was quite a thoughtful gift because I’d had a lot of trouble finding any in my size in Da Nang and I know that Ms My knew what it was like to find shoes large than size 42 now. They also came with a lovely printed card with the words to a Christian poem about slippers written in English and Vietnamese.

We finally said goodbye and left so that I could go out for another beer with my friend Hoa who runs EMC, Education Mission Charity. We met at our local fresh beer place near our house and just opposite the church where he runs his classes. Surprisingly it wasn’t too busy and we got a table and sat down to finish off a jug of bia tuoi before I finally retired to bed after more than 13 hours at school that day. Hoa had invited me to come down to Hoi An the following evening to meet up with his students after work and I said I would come down if I had time.

Christmas Day isn’t a holiday in Vietnam so all the employees at the IT company where I taught still had to come to work. I turned it into a discussion about Christmas traditions in the west and I played some famous Australian Christmas songs such as “6 White Boomers” about Santa Claus using big white kangaroos to pull his sleigh in Australia and the tragic but beautiful song “Santa Never Made it into Darwin” about when Cyclone Tracy devastated Darwin on Christmas morning in 1974, the day my parents were married. I asked my students about Hoi An which was less than 25 km away from Da Nang and what they recommended doing there. One said “Today would be an excellent night to go because it’s a full moon so the city will turn off most of the street lights and use lanterns instead so that you can see the moon better.” This sounded delightful so I decided we would definitely go.

After my last class finished at lunch time we took my motorbike to be serviced and then went to the markets to pickup a new pair of sunglasses for me and then we headed off to Hoi An. Even though the road we took was under heavy construction it still only took us 40 minutes to get to the centre of Hoi An. We rode around marvelling that there seemed to be more tourists in Hoi An than locals, certainly more than I’d seen in any other city in Vietnam. I guess everyone wants to see the ancient city and visit the hundreds of tailor shops in the city. Hoi An is famous for its tailors and makes clothing for shops all over the country so for many visitors to Vietnam it’s on their “must see” list, having such a great selection of sempsters and tailors, pagodas and of course the famous “ancient city” part of town.

We didn’t have too much time there since I had to get back to Da Nang for school in the morning, but after a look around town we had a delicious dinner of Indian food which was a real treat for me and then we went to the riverside to take night time photos under the Christmas full moon. Shortly after we finished taking photos and driving around the back streets in the cool night air, Hoa called and told us to meet him at a big Catholic church in town for the Christmas party.

I was amazed when we got there how many people were there, with hundreds of people crowded into the front courtyard of a huge church to watch the show. I hadn’t known what sort of event I would be attending so I was glad I brought all my camera gear so that I could take great photos. The church was beautiful and the show was stunning and afterwards I met one of the nuns who chatted to me about Vietnam and asked me how long I’d been here and I told her that Hoa had asked me to teach some of the students who were appearing in the show later.

After the concert finished and everyone dispersed we said goodbye to Hoa who was on his way back to Saigon again and Mi and I jumped on our bike and rode home, taking a different route along the highway this time and avoiding the roadworks. We got home late and I fell into bed after a busy two days of Christmas parties but happy that I’d been able to spend it with such great students and friends and we both thoroughly enjoyed it and were very grateful for being invited out to such great events. Had I not been involved with education in Vietnam I would have probably spent my Christmas at home watching TV, but instead I spent it among friends and students and everyone made us feel so welcome.

In the end, Christmas in Da Nang was much like Christmas in Australia. We ate lots, we toasted, we gave gifts, we went to church and the kids all played games and sang and danced in beautiful costumes. I guess it doesn’t matter where you come from or what religion you are. Christmas is Christmas wherever you are you.

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