We arrived in Hoi An, a small town about midway up the coast of Vietnam, just a few days before Christmas. If you read my last entry, then you’ll know we had a few ideas up our sleeves about how to pull off a Christmas that wouldn’t disappoint the kids—but we had been unable to do much to prepare. More than four months into our half-year trip and carrying all of our belongings on our backs, it had simply been impossible to buy very much.
And Hoi An did not prove an ideal place to make up for lost shopping time. Now a UNESCO world heritage site whose quaint old city district evokes Paris in its own uniquely Asian (decaying) sort of way, it does draw thousands of tourists and it did make for a beautiful place to spend the holidays. But modern, it is not. There was not a single convenience store or Western-looking shop in sight despite the seemingly hundreds of tailor shops and souvenir stands selling paper lanterns and wooden Buddha figures.
Undeterred, I began with the first order of business: finding a Christmas tree for our hotel room.
I hadn’t seen any shops in Hoi An selling Christmas decorations, but there was a large, artificial Christmas tree in our hotel lobby, and a small one perched on the front desk, so I figured the manager might know where I could get a tree. No luck, though; when I asked, he said he wasn’t the one who’d shopped for them and he was pretty sure they’d come from Danang, a much bigger city about an hour away. If I liked, one of the hotel drivers could bring one back for me later that afternoon, since he was headed that way to bring guests to the airport.
But I was skeptical about being overcharged, and preferred to choose my own. So the manager went off to make some calls, and returned 10 minutes later with a solution: apparently, artificial Christmas trees were available at a Vietnamese bookstore just outside Hoi An’s old city.
Chloe and I set off in a taxi in hot pursuit of a tree. Pulling up at our destination, we found ourselves in front of not just one, but two little shops hawking Christmas paraphernalia. We rounded up tinsel, stickers, craft supplies and gift wrap at the bookstore, then went to the next shop for the tree.
There were at least six sizes available—all on display, all fully decorated with lights—and the little one we liked, about two-and-a-half feet tall, was 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, walked over to the tree, lightly touched the strand of lights woven into its branches, and looked at me expectantly. I nodded and smiled. He rifled through a shelf beneath the tree, came out with a package of lights, and handed them to me.
I tried again, getting his attention again and this time actually touching the tree’s 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.
I was going to have to get a bit more dramatic. I shook my head, then went back to the little tree and moved my arms up and down vigorously over the entire length of it to show that I wanted the WHOLE TREE. After a few moments, he understood what I wanted. He unplugged the tree, picked it up whole—decorations included—carried it outside, and plunked it down on the middle of the sidewalk in the rain. Chloe and I looked at each other for a moment, incredulous and briefly puzzled, before both of us ultimately burst into laughter. Who could have guessed that the $8 price tag would include lights and decorations, but no box to take it all home in?
Flagging down another cab, Chloe and I rode back to our hotel with the tree in the backseat between us. She named it Milliter.
Procuring Milliter was certainly one of the more memorable events of my holiday this year, but it was just the beginning of an unusual Christmas. Since the former fishing village of Hoi An is now best known for its profusion of silk and tailoring shops, we solved the Christmas stocking problem by getting some made-to-order in a range of red and green silks. We handed those out, gift-wrapped, on Christmas Eve, and the kids were delighted.
We had brought about 30 photos of friends and family from home, and these we taped to a long string of thin, green tinsel that we draped across the wall over the beds. The kids made the rest of the holiday decorations from the motley assortment of craft supplies we’d managed to find—pipe-cleaner snowmen, sticker scenes, and even a second, small Christmas tree created by stacking cut-out paper snowflakes vertically along a toilet-paper roll taped to the floor.
We just needed a few more pieces to complete the traditional Christmas picture. Back at the hotel, I was able to download our favourite Christmas cartoons—Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and How the Grinch Stole Christmas. After a beautiful Christmas Eve dinner at an old-city restaurant overlooking the river (during which we ate not a single traditional food), we made our way home to watch some of them on the laptop.
With the fast, mostly reliable WiFi connection at our hotel, we were able to visit the NORAD website on Christmas Eve to track Santa’s progress, hustling the kids into bed when we noticed that he was already over Indonesia.
Despite the dismal shopping scene in Hoi An, we managed a respectably large pile of wrapped gifts under that small tree after all: we got four silk sleeping bags made at a fair-trade shop in the old city, and we’d stored away Lego and new books that we’d picked up in Bangkok some weeks back. Other small gifts included bookmarks, a deck of cards, a Buddha figure, a box of M&Ms, and lots of other edible treats, including mangoes, rambutans and chocolate. There were also some lightweight but big-ticket “promise” gifts: certificates for new bunk beds at home, the promise of a puppy (delivered in the form of a fifth, matching silk Christmas stocking), and one “get out of homeschool free” pass for each child.
The kids were a bit discouraged, at first, by the lack of snow on Christmas Day, but perked up when we told them there was none in Toronto this year either. They happily settled for sand castles instead of snow forts, and body surfing instead of sledding.
We had been eagerly awaiting a Christmas package that my sister-in-law in Ottawa had put together and shipped to Hoi An’s main post office for us. We’d hoped it would arrive in time for Christmas, but it got held up until the day we left Hoi An, December 30. This didn’t cause any disappointment for the kids, however, since we hadn’t told them it was coming. Instead, its contents were a magnificent bonus. “This Christmas just keeps on getting better and better!” was Chloe’s response to the additional books and generous stash of candy canes.
I’m not sure what the kids will remember best, years from now, about this unusual Christmas. But it will be a while before I forget what it was like to wrap all those gifts in the same small 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), cutting the wrapping paper with tiny cuticle scissors, making our own gift tags out of plain white paper and stickers, and eventually running out of both wrapping paper and tape altogether. Whew.