|Mixing the themes: HCM City people celebrate Christmas by lighting their streets, decorating their homes and setting up nativity scenes. — VNS Photos Xuan Hiep
|Bringing gifts: Santa and his reindeer pull up in front of Sai Gon Tax Centre in downtown HCM City.
As HCM City lights up and melodies of Jingle Bells are heard everywhere, residents and tourists alike take to the streets to celebrate the new year. Xuan Hiep
It was nearly 10 pm.
"One. Two. Three. Say cheese!" the young man shouted as he snapped photos of his friends posing in front of a brightly lit Christmas tree in downtown HCM City.
Though the hour was late, Vo Cong Thanh, 24, and his friends had waited nearly 30 minutes before they were able to snag a coveted photo-taking spot in front of the Sai Gon Tax Centre shopping complex.
Since early December, HCM City's Nguyen Hue Street, a main boulevard downtown, and Le Loi Street have been packed with holiday revellers.
Dressed in fashionable red clothes, Nguyen Hai Yen, a student at the HCM City University of Foreign Languages and Information Technology, had also headed downtown for a dose of Yuletide spirit.
"The best time to celebrate the Christmas season for me is when all the shops and streets are first lit with decorations," said Yen, who usually stays out until 2 am on Christmas Eve with her friends.
Although she is a Buddhist, Yen believes Christmas in Viet Nam has become a festive season for everyone.
"It doesn't matter to me if it's more customary for Christians to celebrate Christmas," she said.
Like Yen, thousands of Vietnamese have embraced Christmas as a holiday, but without the religious connotation. Many of them see it as a sort of festival, an occasion to have fun with their friends and family.
The city, as it did last year, has spent significantly on Christmas decorations for downtown areas.
Most shopping centres are bedecked with twinkling lights and fake pine trees, and the streets are lined with colourfully lit trees.
As Christmas approaches, many friends and families buy gifts and make dinner preparations, either at home or at a restaurant.
Nguyen Thi Yen Nga of Binh Thanh District, who was visiting downtown one evening, says she always decorates her house with fake pine trees, Santa Claus figures and stone caves to have a "real feeling of Christmas".
"More importantly, I do it because I believe it brings happiness and peace to my family during the season," she adds. "Everybody prays for good health and a quick recovery from the global financial crisis. Today, as a Christian in Viet Nam, I feel comfortable celebrating Christmas."
|Feaux snow: A group enjoy a Christmas display on Nguyen Hue Street in HCM City.
In Viet Nam, Christmas has become one of the most important festivals, in addition to celebrations for the birthday of Buddha, the Mid-Autumn Festival, New Year's Eve and the Vietnamese Lunar New Year (Tet).
While many Vietnamese are Buddhist, more than 8 per cent of the population is Christian. The adoption of Christianity occurred during the French colonial period.
Especially in big cities like HCM City and Ha Noi, Christmas has become a significant event and suits the Vietnamese people's fun-loving and sociable character.
Like many other cities around the world, Christians attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and return home for a special holiday dinner, which often includes chicken soup. Wealthier people eat turkey and Christmas pudding.
On Christmas Eve, Vietnamese people in HCM City and Ha Noi enjoy travelling downtown to soak up the festive atmosphere, throw confetti and take photos.
Many Catholic churches in HCM City have nativity scenes with Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds and animals, and in some area, usually in Catholic parishes, people have erected large crib scenes in front of their houses and decorated their streets.
Nguyen Thi Ha, a sales executive at Phuc Yen Property Joint-Stock Company, said her boss allowed her to go home early on Sundays so she could attend church services.
"It's even more special on Christmas Eve. All of us are given a half-day off by our boss, so we can have more time to prepare and celebrate Christmas Eve with our family," Ha said.
Alissa Merz, of Germany, an exchange student at the International University of the National University of Viet Nam, said that she did not have the true feeling of Christmas here because there was no snow and the weather was hot.
"But I like the Christmas lighting and decorations in the city centre. It's really similar to what we have in Western countries." — VNS