Keith Hancock delves into the cultural diversity and sheer abundance of international holidays. Photo by Vinh Dao.
A welcome surprise of life as an expat for me was the fact that we get to experience holidays and festivals that we probably wouldn’t in our own country. I’m not only talking about the Vietnamese, Thai or Cambodian festivals here; but the international ones. For example, I had never heard of Cinco de Mayo until I came to Vietnam. I now know that it’s pretty big in the USA, but in the UK, there has never been any mention of it. This got me thinking and I realise that my year is now one long list of events, festivals, parties and holidays, and I love it!
I love the fact that I have people from about 20 different countries among my friends here. It is for me the best part of expat life. Each country and culture has its own special days. Many, of course, overlap, but some don’t. Well at least they didn’t, till I came to Southeast Asia. It is difficult to list some of the Southeast Asian festivals and holidays chronologically as, following the lunar calendar, they change each year.
The Vietnamese Hung Kings’ Festival, for example, takes place on the 10th day of the third lunar month. So it normally falls in March or April. The main ceremony is held at the Hung Temple in Phu Tho Province, which is about 85km northwest of Hanoi. It is though a national holiday.
1st January – New Year’s Day
Of course New Year’s Day is celebrated all over the world and Saigon is no different. Normally heralded by fireworks at Midnight on the 31st December, the New Year sparks all night parties across the city. Of course here is Southeast Asia we are lucky to have more than one New Year’s Day. In Vietnam, Tet is a moveable feast that follows the lunar calendar. The lights go up all over the city and Vietnamese leave in large numbers to visit their families. Songkram in Thailand and Choul Chnam Thmey in Cambodia both fall in April and are celebrated widely. The Thai water fights are legendary.
26th January – Australia Day
Australia day celebrates the anniversary of the first fleet of British ships to arrive, in 1788. The British Union Flag was raised at Sydney Cove by the then Governor Arthur Phillip. Australians all over the world celebrate with food and of course copious amounts of drink. It’s a good day to spend time with Aussie mates.
14th February – St Valentine’s Day
If anything St. Valentines Day is bigger here than it is back home. Everywhere you turn you’ll see young men walking home with a bouquet of flowers for their partners. When I lived in Thailand it was one of the biggest days of the year.
8th March – International Women’s Day
Now a fully recognised international event, this has grown rapidly in recent years. Of course here in Vietnam, they do things different and celebrations for this is a bit low key, whilst the Vietnamese Women’s Day in October is bigger
25th April – ANZAC Day
This commemoration strikes a chord with many Australians. This is to commemorate the day when Australian and New Zealand forces landed on Gallipoli. They met fierce resistance from the Ottoman Turkish fighters. Some 28,000 Australians and 8,000 Kiwis lost their lives. Here in Vietnam, there is normally a dawn ceremony at the Long Tan memorial. Though it has not been held since 2015. It remains a sensitive issue.
1st May – International Workers’ Day
The Internationally respected Workers Day on May 1st falls firmly inline with the government thinking here and is a big deal.
2nd May – Reunification Day
The day after is a holiday in celebration of the reunification of the country. The start of May has become a big holiday now and days off work are often joined to a weekend as well to give a welcome break for many.
5th May – Cinco de Mayo
Literally the “5th of May” This Mexican holiday is now bigger in the States than in the country of its origin. It is seen as a celebration of American – Mexican culture and is catching on here. It is in commemoration of the unlikely victory of General Zaragoza’s Army over the French at the battle of Puebla in 1862. Many bars put on Mexican food, play Mexican music and of course open many bottles of Tequila.
4th July – American Independence Day
Of course, this is the most important holiday in America. However it is also a time of celebration parties here too as my American friends celebrate their Independence from my country’s colonialism in 1776. The Thirteen Colonies declared independence from British Empire rule. This is a day for our American friends to come out and party.
July 14th Bastille Day
A huge festival and public holiday in France that signals all night parties and revelling throughout the French community here.Celebrating the day that the people of Paris rose up and stormed the infamous prison. This was the true beginning of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
2nd September – Vietnamese National Day
This is held to mark the occasion of the ‘August Revolution’ in 1945. Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the establishment of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It’s a big holiday in the country, flags fly from all the buildings and taxis.
20th October – Vietnam Women’s Day
This is a big one. Vietnamese women have always been at the heart of everything here. Fighting in wars, working on building sites and still finding time to raise children. This is the country’s way of saying thank you.
31st October – Halloween
Whilst this certainly has grown in the UK over the last couple of decades, it still lags behind what the Americans make of it. In fact in Britain it is often a somewhat tawdy affair. The Vietnamese, always ready to party, love it.
All the bars get decorated and the girls dress up in some very imaginative way. Saigon, of course, also has its now infamous Zombie Walk through the centre of District 1. This is normally held on the closest Saturday to Halloween.
20th November – Vietnamese Teachers Day
This is an important event in Vietnam. Students and parents express their gratitude to teachers across the country. The children bring gifts into school and there is normal some kind of event planned. Games and songs celebrate the educators. Through my involvement with schools here, I know it is both appreciated by the teachers and enjoyed by the students.
4th Thursday of November – Thanksgiving
A huge event for our American friends and I have to say a really great holiday. I first experienced it in Texas about 20 years ago and realised then what a big deal it is. Here in Saigon, the American community hold events, dinners and hit the bars to enjoy themselves. Primarily a family holiday, I was lucky enough to be invited to a friends house a few years back, where 20 or more people had a traditional dinner on the roof.
25th December – Christmas
Not actually a holiday in Vietnam, this is a normal working day for many who work for Vietnamese companies. Never less the playful nature of the Vietnamese rises to the surface and people, dressed as Santa, pour into town on their motorbikes to enjoy the Christmas lights.
Add to all these the big sporting events like the FA Cup from England, The European Champions League Final, The Super Bowl from America, The Melbourne Cup and The State of Origin games from Australia and there is seemingly always something going on.
I have attended football match parties here where the entire crowd has been happy to adopt Germany, Belgium or Holland for the night. The atmosphere at these events is astonishing. Life as an expat in Vietnam is amazing. It seems that every week, there is something to celebrate, enjoy and a reason to have fun.