The Scents in Our Celebration

Savor these reflections from one of our cross-cultural workers in Vietnam.

Sifting memories, the ones I remember most vividly are the times I’ve experienced the most change, the times full of “firsts” and “particularities.” And usually I unite those moments with a significant smell, sight, sound that I was experiencing at that time. Like how peppermint ice cream reminds me of when I learned to ride a bike. 

Celebrating Christmas in Vietnam, I often focus on the lack: there aren't enough candy canes or pine trees. But this year, thinking of our pending return to America, I am aware of the sensors that have made these Christmases unique. Perhaps, a burst of warm air on a Christmas Day to come will make my children remember life in Hanoi or the sweet taste of coconut will bring them back to Quy Nhon. Here are some sensors we've experienced during these Vietnamese Christmases.

Smoked Grilled Sweet Potatoes

Every evening, after Will gets home from work and right before dinner, our family takes a turn through the neighborhood. Everyone in Hanoi is out then, returning from work, running the final errands of the day or exercising. It’s Vietnam but chilly enough to wear scarves and layers and jackets. Our two boys, bundled like bunnies in the double stroller, always attract attention.

Sidewalks in Hanoi are used as parking lots, even equipped with a security guard to watch the motorbikes. On our block, one security guard always stops our stroller, spreading his arms as wide as his smile, and talks to our youngest son, Oren. His routine is the same. He checks Oren’s legs for added girth, pinches his cheeks and says, “Yeu qua,” “lovable!” And then he stands up to wave us on. We saw him once waiting at the food cart on our street corner. He bought a smoked, grilled sweet potato; then talked to Oren. We bought sweet potatoes, too, since they’re only offered on cold nights.The smell of it, steaming and smoking in the chilly air, will always make me think of those walks before dinner and Christmas in Hanoi.


Quyts are Vietnamese clementines, which I know we also eat around the holidays in America. We ate them so much for Christmas in Quy Nhon, that when I bit into one last week I was instantly transported back there. I remembered the market lady Lai who sold me the sweetest quyts and told me when batches were sour. Quyts are so delicious this time of year. There is an old Vietnamese saying to describe the pain of waiting that goes, “Cho den mua quyt,” or “like waiting until you can buy quyt.” This year my first batch of quyt was with my Korean friend, Ming Ju. She let our kids peel the juicy fruits by themselves and eat them all over her house, dripping sticky stains as they went. She was not stressed by this one bit. When I got home I let Ezra peel a quyt by himself and didn’t protest when he got juice on the floor.

“Happy New Year,” Abba

Prior to coming to Vietnam I had never heard of the band, Abba. I guess I hummed along to “Dancing Queen” once or twice in high school. But after attending one or two university ceremonies in Vietnam, I knew Abba and learned that their music is in all of the karaoke song catalogs throughout. Their song, “Happy New Year” is played all over Vietnam in the days surrounding Christmas and leading up to New Year’s. I always laugh when I hear it because in it they mention that it’s the year 1989. With those lyrics I bet members of Abba would be surprised to find their song survived 1990, let alone 2014.

Tea and Mochi

About two months ago, Thang, Will’s intern and our new family friend, asked if Will would teach him about the Word. Thang is seriously seeking the truths of our faith and wondering if he believes them. Will chose video lectures as the study’s medium, focusing mainly on recent talks given by Timothy Keller. Along with Thang, two of our believing friends Todd and Matthew have attended faithfully every week. They arrive at night after the boys are in bed, and I’ve gone off to a women’s study. 

When I return home at ten o’clock I’m ready for bed. But walking in on the guys huddled around the coffee table, eating mochi, sipping green tea and asking the big questions, I can’t resist.

I brew a fresh pot of herbal tea, pull out another sleeve of sweet mochi, and our conversation stretches far into the night.