Traveling Abroad for Christmas

Are you considering spending Christmas abroad but wondered what it would be like?  What are the challenges? How do you bring the presents? Can you get a tree? Doesn’t this just make the holidays more stressful?  We have been abroad twice for Christmas now.  Once in Mexico in December 2008 when our kids were 16 and 13, and then this past December (2011) when our kids were 19 and 16 we spent Christmas in Vietnam.


First off, let’s face it, you are already on a big, amazing trip so there is one big amazing present for everyone.  But let’s also be real, if you are traveling with kids (yes, even teenagers), they are going to expect some gifts.  When traveling to Mexico we did just pack an additional suitcase that included  presents, stockings, etc.  We checked that bag.  It was easy enough since we were headed to only one location.  However, we generally only do carry on, and with all our internal flights in Vietnam we did not want any extra baggage, so that meant only carry on for this trip.  It did require some thought for gift giving as everything needed to fit into the bags we were already bringing.  But my secret weapon is always the “Riddle Gifts”.  Several years ago, I ordered something for Michael for Christmas that I realized was not going to arrive on time.  Feeling bad, and rather than just giving him a picture of it on Christmas morning, I made a pictogram riddle so he had to guess what it was.  This whole “Riddle Gift” was such a hit, that now, many years later, he likes to have ALL his gifts come in riddles.  I have had to be creative over the years, but this was how I brought gifts to Vietnam.  I did have them all wrapped, but they took up very little space.  Here are some ideas:

1. Simple pictogram

“Two tickets for the University of Oregon Ducks vs University of Colorado, Boulder game”

2. Puzzle riddle – Print a picture of it, then cut it up into smaller pieces.  They must put the puzzle together to see what it is

3. Make a word search, with the only word being the gift

The gift was “headphones”


I was not expecting it to be so hard to find a Christmas Tree in Mexico, but it was.  I had spoken with someone before we left who said there were several at their version of WalMart.  However, when we arrived they were all gone.  They had tons of poinsettias for sale, so plan B was to use poinsettias instead of a tree.  I brought construction paper and a scissor (in the checked luggage) to make paper chains to decorate with.  I also packed our stockings and a nativity that folds flat in the luggage.

In Vietnam we were actually able to find a small fake tree decorated with garish tinsel and lights!!  We were quite a scene carrying it through the streets of Hoi An.

My plan for stockings was to have a tailor in Hoi An make them for us.  I thought it would be fun to pick out beautiful silks and each have our own stocking made (I had read somewhere that someone else had done that).  We did go to a tailor in Hoi An to have some clothes made, but when I asked them about making a stocking, they said they could not do it.  They can make a whole dress in less than 24 hours, but no stockings?  It did not make sense to me, so we had to punt on this one.  We decided to go with the Northern European tradition of putting gifts in shoes, and we used our shoes as stockings!!

Do you have to give up all Christmas traditions?

There are a lot of family traditions that you may have to pass on if you travel abroad, depending on what your traditions are.   But you definitely do not have to give up all of them.  Of course we were still able to leave milk for Santa and carrots for the reindeer.

Also, we still gave pajamas or t shirts to sleep in on Christmas Eve.

A big one for us is going to a Christmas Eve church service.  A service was easy to find in Mexico.  We were staying in Manzanillo, and there is a very large Catholic church near the center of town.  Though we do not speak Spanish, the story is so familiar that we were actually able to follow what the priest was saying, and we were able to enjoy the music.  The church did fill up with standing room only, so get there early.

Finding a Protestant/Catholic church in Hoi An, Vietnam was a bit more tricky.  I had googled it to see if any were listed, but could not find anything.  Then I booked a street food tour with Neville of Taste of Hoi An.  He is from Australia, so I thought I would ask him about a Christmas Eve church service.  He had all the information, as his wife attends the church regularly.

Keep in mind that not every country will celebrate Christmas as we do.  In Vietnam, they only celebrate on Christmas Eve.  Being mainly buddhists, their celebration has nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, but is more of a giant celebration, kind of like our New Year’s Eve.  Businesses closed a bit earlier and everyone was out in the streets celebrating.  Santa costumes and balloons were all the rage.

Many businesses left food and incense in front of their stores for their ancestors.

We did go to the church which was putting on a very grand Christmas pageant, they even had life-size papier mache camels.  It seemed everyone in town was there to watch.  The next day, Christmas day, it was business as usual for the Vietnamese.


Well, in Mexico this was easy.  Hang out at the beach, pool anywhere and just relax!!

We enjoyed some other activities the rest of the week that one does not normally do at Christmas time.  Zipling, jetskis and ATV riding.

In Vietnam, I thought this might be a bit more tricky, since it was not going to be beach weather while we were there.  So, for Christmas day, I decided to book us a cooking class.  I figured, when you are at home, you spend Christmas cooking and eating, we might as well do the same thing here!  It was a great class with Van of Green Bamboo.  We started out by going shopping with her at the local market for all our ingredients, then back to her house to do some cooking.  This was very hands on.  We did all the chopping, slicing, dicing, sauteing, wrapping and then eating!!


The cooking class was from 8am  to about 2pm.  When we got back we finally opened our gifts!


I have actually found this to be the exact opposite.   I usually do limited decorating at home.  I put up a small tree in the family room with some light decorations in the house.  Of course it’s up to you, but I really limit baking if traveling and you do not have to worry about all the cooking, preparing, decorating for the big day.  Preparing for any trip can be a bit stressful, but once you leave and arrive at the airport – you can just relax.  I really like that we can just enjoy each other’s company that week leading up to Christmas and not have to worry about all the cooking, decorating, parties, etc.  This is even more important when you have teenagers as they are gone so much when you are at home.  Always nice to hold them captive for a few weeks!!  This past year I even waited until we returned home to send out Christmas cards – well by then they were Happy New Years cards.  But I knew I wanted a picture of us in Halong Bay, Vietnam to send out, so it was a great idea to wait until we came home.

By the way, we have often gone away the day after Christmas, I can tell you that is definitely MUCH more stressful than actually leaving before Christmas!

Oddly enough, probably the most difficult part of traveling abroad at Christmas was the strange looks I got from people, when they asked what we were doing for Christmas.  When my response was “Going to Vietnam!” I often got a short stutter – “Ummm…do you have family there?”  I always went on to explain, that no we did not have family there, but with one in college and one high school this was the best time of year for us to travel together, so we were spending Christmas together in Vietnam.  Always a good conversation starter!

Good luck on your holiday travels.  I hope this encourages you to do your own new holiday travels!

If you are interested in reading more about our trip to Vietnam, you can find it all here!

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8 responses to “Traveling Abroad for Christmas”

  1. Some great tips 😉
    We now always go away for Christmas and New Year. We started to feel that we were expected to do the same things every year with friends and family – and so started to travel. Always escaping a cold, grey and wintery London for some sun, beach or pool. As you say, the key is to go with the flow and agree some small bits that you do to make the day Christmas – but see the trip as the present! Nothing can beat that 😉

  2. One year we went to Hawaii. Shane was 2 so we just had Christmas two days early. He didn’t know. Conor was 9 and old enough to play along. Once we got there we did NOTHING related to Christmas, even on Christmas day! Usually we stay home though!

  3. Fairlie says:

    We’re travelling to Vietnam this December and will be in Hoi An for Christmas. I’ve found your posts very helpful for ideas of what to do etc! (I found them by googling ‘Christmas in Hoi An’. The Church that you mentioned that had a Christmas pageant (I think that was in one of your other posts)…do you remember what it was called or where it was?

    Your post is excellent about the logistics of travelling at Christmas. We’re Australian and spent Christmas four years ago in New York. It was a fantastic experience!

    (I thought I’d left this comment a few days ago…but it doesn’t seem to have appeared)

    • Judy Gambee says:

      Sorry for the delay, we were out of town for a few days. The church is called the Hoi An Cathedral. It is located on the corner of Nguyen Truong To and Le Hong Phong north of the town center, but not too far to walk from the main part of downtown. Glad you enjoyed the post. Have a fabulous time in Vietnam this Christmas!! Christmas in New York must have been amazing as well!!

  4. Fairlie says:

    Hi! Me again…albeit on a different website. Just letting you know that I’m currently writing a blog post about spending Christmas abroad and I’ll be including a link to this post as it was so helpful in our planning for Christmas in Hoi An! Have a lovely Christmas 2014!

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