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Christmas in Saigon, 1960

Submitted by Bruce Thomas (ACS)

Whenever I travel the couple of hundred miles over to a neighboring state, to the city where my mother was born and raised, I visit the graves of my parents. And then I’ll stroll the hundred yards or so across the city’s largest cemetery to visit the grave of my mother’s mother.

It never fails to jar me that the date of my grandmother’s death seems to be off by one day from when I remember it having been — the gravestone has it as 12/5/1960, but my head thinks it should instead be dated 12/6/1960, for that was the date of my birthday that I spent in Saigon.

Before we left for Vietnam, my parents had agreed that in the event of the death of one of their parents, the distance involved would make it senseless to travel back home for a funeral. So I remember the sadness that occurred on my 15th birthday when a telegram arrived in Saigon from my uncle telling of the death of my grandmother twelve time zones behind us. In those days, a telegram was our form of “IM”, and so it always seems like Grandmother died on my birthday.

My mother mourned from afar, and only 3 weeks before Christmas. In the days ahead, the freshly-cut fir trees arrived from the upland region around Dalat and were on display in profusion on Flower Street in Saigon. Preparing for Christmas would be a salve for my mother.

I don’t recall the source for the strings of lights or the other decorations we used — surely we hadn’t brought them from the States in our household goods, had we? — but the cheerily festooned tree graced our living room and intrigued our servants and their children, especially the youngest boy, Tam. I suppose he was closer to my age, but he looked more like he was seven or eight.

I think it was the joy that my mother derived from surprising Tam on Christmas Day with a shiny new bicycle that stood by the Christmas tree, and the size of his smile when he first saw it and understood that it was his, that helped her absorb the ache of her loss half a world away.

13 comments to Christmas in Saigon, 1960

  • H. Clark

    No matter where we are, Christmas reminds us of the people who mean the most. For so many reasons, Christmas this year brings out a sense of more sadness than joy for me. I suppose I am expecting to see brighter, bluer skies, or miracles, or something. One thing for certain, I believe, once you have a loss, it leaves a hole in your heart that cannot and will not be filled.

    Today I want to thank all the SKs for sharing the memories and send my best wishes.

    Wishing everyone a safe holiday and a happy new year 2018!

    Huong

    • Huong – Seasons Greetings to you and yours! Remember in the darkest night a candle glows. Love and grace always fill the holes. Never stop believing … miracles do happen! 🙂

      Peace be with you …

      Bob

      • H. Clark

        Bob,

        The song is truly beautiful as well as meaningful, a Christmas present, for Elvis is my favorite idol. (Behind Elvis are Francoise Hardy, then Johnny Hallyday who just left the world). Maybe I can blame on Johnny for a terrible heavy heart 🙂

        Thank you very much for your thoughtfulness and kind words of wisdom. They mean a lot.

        And may Peace also with you…

        Huong

  • Cathie McIntyre

    Dear Bruce, This is such a poignant memoir that it brought tears to my eyes as I read it. Memories seem especially significant at Christmas time. Best wishes to you for the new year.

  • Bruce – Since launching this site 10 years ago every Christmas I’ve been racking my brain trying to remember how our family celebrated Christmas in Saigon … but, I keep coming up with a blank. For some strange reason I remember nothing at all about celebrating Christmas in Saigon, even though I spent 2 Christmas’ in Saigon. I have vivid memories of everything else during the time we spent in Saigon, yet, no memories at all about Christmas … strange!

    Missed family events and funerals … Myself and my parents, just as your family, had made similar choices about how to handle the cost and distance of attending major family events back in the States. To this day I still have regrets about not having been able to be by my grand parents’ side and say my final good byes during their last days before passing.

    On the *About* page for this site I wrote … “Here we share our experiences of a lifestyle that was magical, privileged and painful …all at the same time.”

    Missed family events was the painful part of our nomadic life during the days of our youth … but I’m sure we learned from these experience, as much as, we did from the magical and privileged one’s … I know I did!

    Thank you for sharing your 1960 Saigon Christmas with us … I,m sure everyone reading it found something in it they can relate too.

    Rock Onn… around the Christmas tree this holiday season.

    Bob

  • Sandy Hanna

    I too have vague memories of Christmas. I’m sure there was a tree but little else comes to mind. I’m sure whatever presents we had in 1960 came to our PO Box direct from Sears. What I do remember is Tet and all the preparations that were made for this holiday. I had begged to have a Tet tree created from the mai branches and securing as many red envelops as possible to hang on the tree. My mind worked overtime calculating the great wealth I’d have when they were opened. It was with great sadness I’d watch as the servants left for their holiday with family weighed down with food they had spent days preparing..s

    • Sandy – The *Money Tree* became a fad among State Department folks. They created their own Thanksgiving through New Year holiday season version of it. Many making it a holiday tradition for years into the future.

      Bob

  • Maile Doyle

    Our second Christmas in Saigon (1962), my parents decided to take us to New Delhi, India for the two week break. It was “cold” in India in December and I had to borrow a warm coat from Sherry Penney to take with me, as we had left all our cold weather gear in the states.
    On Christmas Eve, we gathered in our parents hotel room where Dad read us the Christmas story from Luke, we sang carols and went off to bed. On Christmas morning, we were awakened well before dawn, fed a quick breakfast and were driven to Agra. Along the route I saw elephants walking down the road; small boys on the backs of water buffalo turning a wheel to irrigate the fields; women in saris balancing jugs of water on their heads walking down the road. In my imaginative teenage mind, I transported to the Holy Land and that first Christmas. It was quite peaceful.
    We arrived in Agra just as the sun was rising over the beauty of the white marble that is the Taj Mahal. This is my memory of Christmas while stationed in Saigon.
    I love that we all have special memories of being in that amazing world, so far away from anything we considered “normal”. We experienced a new normal for the years we were there.

  • Steve Pryplesh

    Note: email change from pryplesh@earthlink.net

    Christmas 1960? I need to think and find some pictures to clear the webs.
    But Christmas 1959, that is a different story. It was about six months into my first year in Saigon. Thanksgiving arrived without the all the shopping fanfare of today – oh, what a relief! Sadly, we received (on Dec 5th, my birthday) the equivalent of the txt of the day that my Dad’s father had passed away a couple of days earlier. What made it really bad was that it was a surprise and that my Dad could not get back to Philadelphia for the funeral.
    Then my parents pulled out of some storage area in our small duplex a box containing a silver metal fake (of course) Christmas tree. The clear vision in my memory is the expression on the servants’ faces as my Mom alternated pointing to the Reynolds Wrap Monument in the living room and the green banana trees in the front yard, trying in vain to describe the green fir trees from previous years in Virginia. They were just too polite to crank up their fingers in a circular motion by their ears and say “dinky dow”.

    • Steve – Great story!

      Having spent 30+ years conducting business in Asia and the Pacific Rim, I’m certain that I was considered a *dinky dow* American many, many times while attempting to converse with people of various cultures … LOL

      Merry Christmas to you and yours.

      Bob

  • sarah j rogers

    special stories everyone!
    Mele Kalikimaka and Hou’oli Makahiki Hou

    • Sarah – Happy holidays filled with many blessings and ALOHA!

      Wishing I was still in Hawaii right now … with the wind chill factor is it MINUS 25 degrees where I’m at with more snow storms on the way … LOL … 🙂

      Rock Onnn..

      Bob

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