The tinny notes of “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” faintly waft down Phố Hàng Mã, joining the cacophony of motorbike horns, rattle of engines and shouts of haggling shoppers. It drifts past your ears with all the force of a musical card—the sort that plays when you open it, with unfinished phrases of music that lodge themselves in your subconscious, so you hum them without thinking and slowly go mad.
just like the ones I used to know
The old quarter with its streets of traders: one product per stretch of cramped road. Silk, leather, birds in delicate cages, scarves, shoes, carpets, on-trend puffer jackets, plastic buckets, seafood barbecue, car parts, Christmas decorations heaped over the paper props of ancestral sacrifice.
It’s December, so Hàng Mã is lined with bushels of tinsel—the cheapest sort—in varying garish metallic colours and levels of bushiness. The metal display grids resemble the furry coat of a children’s cartoon monster.
Within weeks, the bags of fake snow and head-bobbing Santas will be replaced with paper lanterns, crimson banners embossed with gold script, wishing passers by a Happy Tet.
where the treetops glisten
Fleets of angels swaddled in glittering nets of polyester. Bare fluorescent bulbs hanging from grimy striped awnings. Garlands of plastic gold bells. A troop of eerily smiling Styrofoam snowmen staring blankly into exhaust pipes. Polyester poinsettias. Ice blue glitter covered snowflakes. Rows of Santa hats with twisted white braids. Candy coloured rows of baubles in plastic tupperware.
and children listen
Even the traffic slows here in Hàng Mã.
Hau, in pale lemon skinny jeans and cocked eyebrows, surveys the hysteria astride his Suzuki.
“No. I don’t have a Christmas tree. And we mostly don’t believe in Jesus. But, well, you know, us Vietnamese, any excuse to party.”
An impish grin.
to hear, sleighbells in the snow
On the corner with Hàng Lược, oblivious to the consumerist festivity of the street, several residents are steadily perched on child-size plastic stools on the pavement. Sipping glasses of viscous, strong Northern Vietnamese coffee, stirring in the creamy layer of condensed milk on the bottom, running their fingers over the ice condensation down the side of the glass.
Behind them, a night sky vista of Santa and his reindeer gallops across a store front display window.
The pre-made cakes in the glass-fronted case at the patisserie are adorned with faux holly, next to the pastel sponge cake interpretation of an Angry Bird.
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
A young mother with a toddler on her hip holds a tiny elf suit up to check if it’s the right size.
The disinterested child is fixated on a life-size stuffed alligator, hanging by its tail, furry and grinning into the tarmac.
with every Christmas card I write
The dusty smell of mass-produced plastic mingles with the faint scent of sewage, exhaust, deep fried fish nem.
At the Thuốc Bắc intersection a gaggle of shoppers are slurping bún chả, dipping rice noodles into the sweet tea-broth, crushing fresh bundles of coriander and mint into the soup, twisting the leaves around the slices of chargrilled pork with their chopsticks. Under their stools, overflowing bags of faux pine branches tucked between their legs.
The bún chả matriarch sits silent, tearing long locks of steaming noodles, draping them onto the chipped bowls perched on floral plastic trays.
May your days be merry and bright.
A Hàng Mã store owner picks her way between the rows of motorbikes and plastic Christmas bounty, drifting bundles of cerise paper inscribed with black characters into a metal bucket, painted scarlet. She lights a match.
The smoke rises into the late-morning mist, as the fake paper money burns for luck on the street of faux plastic festivity.
And may all your Christmases be white.