7 tips to survive Christmas while in Southeast Asia

We’re sure you have a great reason for traveling during the most wonderful time of the year. Perhaps you’re on a gap year through Southeast Asia, maybe flights are cheaper, maybe it’s your only opportunity in your busy schedule to get away, or quite possibly it’s to celebrate the season in a different climate, whether that’s surrounded by sand or snow. 

No matter your reason, being away from your loved ones and in a different environment during the festive season can be difficult to cope with. But no worries! After spending almost 4 years living and working in Southeast Asia, we know all too well that spending Christmas so far away from home can be difficult. Here is a trusty guide of tips and tricks for celebrating one of the most important holidays abroad. 

Christmas in Hanoi
Christmas in Hanoi

1. Embrace a new environment and their way of Christmas

Christmas is a growing tradition in Southeast Asia that was mostly unheard of in recent decades. Undoubtedly due to skyrocketing rates of tourism, Christmas awareness has increased and more people from different walks of life embrace different holidays; Christmas being one of them. Whilst most countries in Southeast Asia don’t celebrate Christmas with a 2 week break, or even a day off on Christmas day, you will still feel a Christmas vibe.

Inside Notre Dame Cathedral in Ho Chi Minh City
Inside Notre Dame Cathedral of Saigon in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam, for example, embraces the festivities with plenty of lights and decorations. It may not be a public holiday, but there are plenty of churches with their doors wide open on Christmas morning. Wherever you spend the holiday, make sure to embrace the environment and connect with locals to get their take on Christmas. You never know what you may learn! 

When we were living in Ho Chi Minh City, the amount of locals flooding out of the churches after Sunday mass, never failed to amaze us, so we don’t doubt that churches will be super busy on Christmas day. Particularly, St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi, where each year there is a nativity scene on display outside.

2. Choose your Christmas destination wisely

Choose where you would like to spend Christmas in Southeast Asia wisely. If you want to swap normality for a tropical environment this Christmas, the south islands of Thailand will welcome you with open arms, complete with an ironic Christmas hat to go with your new swimwear. We have plenty of friends over here who can’t wait to get away to nearby beaches for some fun in the sun.

Koh Lipe, Thailand
Koh Lipe, Thailand

However, If like us, you want to sip mulled wine by an open fire and feel the chill of Christmas that’s reminiscent of winter in December, we suggest somewhere in the northern part of Southeast Asia. Hanoi is perfect during the December months, with temperatures between 10-15°C at its coldest on average.

If you want an even colder climate, travel from Hanoi to Sapa, where you may even see a blanket of snow covering the rolling hills and rice terraces. Getting our thick coats on, paired with a cosy scarf, is something we certainly don’t want to trade for beaches and bikinis.

3. Get yourself in the spirit of Christmas 

If you’re traveling through Southeast Asia long term, Christmas is the perfect time to slow down and look into booking a nice AirBnB or hotel room, where you can kick back, relax and enjoy the Christmas spirit for a few weeks, without the need to worry about booking buses, hotels or activities. 

To prevent yourself from feeling lonely, we recommend booking a nice place to stay in the expat districts, where there are plenty of expats to connect with, or in the tourist dominated areas, where you will find plenty of tourists who are also gearing up to spend the holiday abroad. For example, if you spend Christmas in Hanoi, Tay Ho District is a great place to connect with expats, or Hoan Kiem District to connect with travellers. 

Katie and Jake's Christmas tree at their home in Hanoi
Katie and Jake’s Christmas tree at their home in Hanoi

Having a place to call home for a few weeks may even allow you the opportunity to put up Christmas decorations. So, if your living arrangements suffice, stick up a Christmas tree as soon as you feel necessary, despite the fierce debate amongst extended families across the world as to when the right time to put up the Christmas tree is. Big or small, it doesn’t matter. The tree symbolizes that Christmas has arrived, and is a constant reminder of the fun festivities ahead. If you happen to be in Hanoi during Christmas, purchasing a Christmas tree and decorations won’t be too difficult. 

Our favorite place to buy anything Christmas related is on Hang Ma Street, where you will find shop after shop selling Christmas decorations for the entire month of December. Whilst you may not find all the newest trends of black or white Christmas trees complete with blue, pink, or purple baubles, you will certainly find the traditional ornaments and tinsel in green, red, and gold.  

Christmas decorations in Hanoi
Christmas decorations in Hanoi

Once the tree is up, the Christmas vibe should be maintained. That means it’s time to break out the Xmas playlists on repeat, even if that means listening to the same 20 songs for all of December. If that isn’t enough, start a Christmas movie marathon from December 1st up until the 25th. Those are our tactics for keeping the Christmas spirit alive!

4. Keep in touch with family and friends back home

It can be a difficult time of year to spend without those closest to us. They’re probably missing you, just as much as you’re missing them, but this is all part of the journey. Be sure to call your folks back home, and check-in with your loved ones wherever they may be in the world. It can make it seem that they’re not too far away.

Nowadays, technology such as Facebook and Skype make it super easy to connect with each other with just a click of a button. So, you could easily be sat perched on the dining table nattering away with your family members, whilst they tuck into a delicious turkey dinner. It will feel like you had never even left. 

5. Keep with the giving of gifts tradition

If you want to send gifts to family and friends back home use Amazon and Ebay for some great deals. Likewise, find something exotic from your holiday destination to bring home upon your return. Even a postcard from a cool country in Southeast Asia will be enough to bring them joy. Our personal go-to though, is to simply send a MoonPig card, as they are pretty much guaranteed to arrive on time.

6. Don’t feel lonely. Seek other travelers to enjoy Christmas with!

If you do happen to be traveling without your loved ones during the Christmas period, then take our advice and seek out fellow travelers in similar circumstances. Southeast Asia is a backpacker paradise all year round, no matter the season so, you will be sure to find fellow travelers in the same boat as you.

Buy Vien, Ho Chi Minh City on Christmas Day
Buy Vien, Ho Chi Minh City on Christmas Day

The main tourist hubs and nightlife spots are always a great place to start. For example, Hoan Kiem in Hanoi, Vietnam or Koh San Road in Bangkok, Thailand. Our favourite spot to drink at in Hanoi, is the Bia Hoi corner, where travelers, locals and expat all come together to hangout and drink cheap beer whilst sitting on tiny stools around tiny tables.

Connecting with people here is easy. We always find a simple nod, hello, and “where are you from?” is enough to get the conversation flowing for the rest of the night. We have met so many people here from all walks of life, so Christmas night is for sure only going to be merrier. 

Other than that, Christmas markets are a great start to find like-minded people who enjoy the holiday as much as you do. Mingle at the markets over a plate of mince pies and a glass of mulled wine. Due to the increase in expats living in Southeast Asia, the demand for Christmas celebrations has grown. You can now find numerous Christmas markets and events in the expat dominated areas.

For example, in Hanoi, there is a Christmas Market held on each Sunday in December in Tay Ho District. No matter where you choose to spend Christmas, there is no doubt that you will find Christmas events taking place. Make sure to do your research beforehand. Expat groups on Facebook are a fab way to find out what is going on in the area.

7. Don’t miss out on the feast

It’s that time of year where we all start looking like Santa Claus. Food is such an important part of Christmas, that without it, would it really be Christmas at all? That’s why this year we have been frantically searching all of the supermarkets in Hanoi for familiar Christmas chocolates. Just when we were about to give up hope of nightly sittings of Roses, Celebrations and After Eight’s, we managed to find a few import shops selling just about everything our hearts and stomachs desire.

Care package
A Christmas care package Katie and Jake received from their parents

Thanks to L’s Place and Annam Gourmet, between the both of them, we managed to find a great selection of Christmas chocolates. Of course, costing 3 times the amount as they are in the UK. But… desperate times call for desperate measures. After blowing a daily travel budget on chocolates, crack open a box of celebrations and discuss amongst friends if Maltesers is better than Galaxy Caramel, and if Bounty needs to be relegated from the selection entirely. 

If you’re struggling for a turkey, wherever in the world you may be, then other options can be considered. If you’re staying in any large metropolitan city in Southeast Asia, there’s sure to be plenty of restaurants offering their Christmas dinner services (Christmas crackers included!).

In Hanoi, there are many restaurants and hotels, offering 3 course Christmas dinners, with free flow beer for 3 hours costing anywhere between 1,000,000 vnd ($43.09) to 2,000,0000 vnd ($86.18). If the free flow of beer is getting you excited, check out The Republic. If you want a cheaper option, The Fat Pig is offering a 3 course meal and a wine or special craft beer for just 500,000 vnd ($21.55).

These are just two of our recommendations, of course, there are plenty more places to tuck into your turkey dinner, so, make sure to do your own research to find the perfect spot to dine. Just ensure to make a reservation at least two weeks beforehand, to avoid disappointment. 

In conclusion, it’s not all doom and gloom to be spending Christmas in a foreign country, away from family and friends. There are plenty of people in the same boat and finding others to connect with and share the joy of Christmas festivities is easy to do thanks to social media and the amazing travel community as a whole. Enjoy the holiday to its fullest and don’t let anyone tell you that Die Hard isn’t a Christmas movie.

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