|‘Tis the season: Vietnamese crowds gather on the plaza outside HCM City's tallest building, the Bitexco Tower, to snap photos in front of Christmas decorations.
Christmas doesn't come with snow or sleigh bells in Viet Nam, but twinkling lights, inviting aromas and good cheer are in abundant supply. Bo Xuan Hiep reports.
It was only two weeks before Christmas and Nguyen Thi Yen Nga had little standing room to snap photos in front of a large pine tree and Santa outside HCM City's tallest building, the Bitexco Financial Tower.
Nothing quite says Christmas in Viet Nam like the hordes of people converging on the city's major shopping centres.
"The decorations are beautiful, so my son and I came to take pictures," Nga, 55, said. "They're even more attractive than last year, especially at night."
Besides the usual holiday paraphernalia around town, Christmas songs in either English or Vietnamese can be heard everywhere, from major malls to mom-and-pop shops.
Most shopping centres are bedecked with twinkling lights and fake pine trees, and the streets are lined with colourfully lit decorations.
The festive air is especially evident in downtown HCM City: the pine trees, the flashy lights, the pretty gifts wrapped in red and white, and the familiar colours of Santa Claus.
|Jingle bells: Kindergarten students watch Father Christmas on his sleigh outside the Vincom Center in downtown HCM City.
Over the last 10 years, the city has spent significant sums to buy large Christmas decorations for downtown areas.
Since early this month, Nguyen Hue, a main boulevard downtown which has been transformed into a large pedestrian street bordered by vehicle lanes, has been packed with holiday revellers.
Dressed in fashionable clothes, Pham Thi Ngoc Han, 27, a programme manager for the non-profit organisation Hinrich Foundation, was downtown to gawk at all the sparkling lights.
"The best time to celebrate Christmas is when the streets are first lit with decorations," she said.
Although she is a Buddhist, Han believes Christmas in Viet Nam is a festive season for everyone.
"It doesn't matter to me if it's more customary for Christians to celebrate Christmas," she said.
Like Han, a number of Vietnamese have embraced Christmas as a holiday, but do so without any religious connotations. Many of them see it as a special festival, an occasion to have fun with their friends and family.
Pham Hai Chung, 32, a lecturer at the Ha Noi-based Academy of Journalism and Communication, said she enjoyed the Christmas season during her years of study in the UK.
"The tradition of having a Christmas market and concerts at churches reminds me of the UK," she said.
|Festive decor: A young couple buy Christmas decorations at a shop inside the Most Holy Redeemer Saigon (HCM City) Church in District 3.
Nguyen Thi Thuy Van, 40, of Go Vap District, who also had travelled downtown, said her house was decorated with pine trees, Santa Claus figures and stone caves.
"I do it because I believe it brings happiness and peace to my family during the season," she adds. "Everybody prays for good health. Today, as a Christian in Viet Nam, I feel comfortable celebrating Christmas."
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, around 10 per cent of the population is Christian. The adoption of Christianity occurred during the French colonial period.
Especially in large cities like HCM City and Ha Noi, Christmas has become an important event that suits the Vietnamese people's fun-loving and sociable character.
Chung, a lecturer at the Ha Noi-based Academy of Journalism and Communication, said Ha Noi and HCM City had become more internationalised, and holidays of other countries were celebrated.
She said the city had better decorations than it did decades ago, and that more non-Christians were attending church during the season as well.
|Santa's helpers: Kids pose for a group photo in front of a Christmas scene in downtown HCM City. — VNS Photos Bo Xuan Hiep
Many churches in the cities have nativity scenes, and in some areas, usually in Catholic parishes, large crib scenes have been placed in front of people's houses. Decorations, especially lights, are hung from houses in some neighbourhoods.
Like many other Christians around the world, Vietnamese attend Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Before Mass, people mill around downtown and in other areas to take photos and throw confetti.
In HCM City, holiday-goers visit Pham The Hien Street in District 8, where many Christians live.
The street is a glittering, mysterious area with many lights and big Christmas scenes featuring Santa Claus, waterfalls and reindeer.
All the decorations are paid for and made by local residents, who have turned their houses into photo opportunities for visitors.
Another popular area is Tan Phu District and District 5's Hai Thuong Lan Ong Street, where affordable decorations are sold amid a lively atmosphere.
Though Vietnamese people today are more exposed to Western culture through the internet and television, local Christmas celebrations might seem unrecognisable to some Westerners.
For most Vietnamese, Christmas is not a time to have dinner at home with family. Instead, it's a time to go out on the town, shop, and take pictures with friends in front of colourful displays, especially on Christmas Eve.
David Benton, a teacher at a HCM City-based international school, who has lived and worked in the city for 10 years, said he often spent Christmas holidays in Viet Nam, not just in England or Australia, his wife's home. This year, his family would visit Bali.
"This is our home, so we like to spend the holiday here at times," he said.
"At first it was a bit strange because of the temperature," he added. "However, now it's fun to see what is happening in the lead-up to Christmas if we stay in Viet Nam. We have a great time here, but we don't celebrate in the same way as the Vietnamese."
Christmas Day, not Christmas Eve, is the special day for Benton and his family.
"Sometimes we'll go out on Christmas Eve, but often we stay home because we know the crowds and traffic will be crazy! We'll watch a movie with the children and have a nice dinner," he said. "We give each other gifts, open presents from Santa, and eat delicious food. It's mostly about spending time with the family and enjoying each other's company, and having a fun day off."
For Benton, the holiday is more closely tied to the "celebration of life and birth during the Winter Solstice and looking forward to the year ahead, not the Christian interpretation of this being the day Jesus was born".
Benton and other expatriates who have lived here for years have seen dramatic changes in Viet Nam during the holiday season, including more sophisticated decorations on streets and in shopping malls.
"You can also see that the commercial side of Christmas has been emphasised more. Businesses are catching on that this is an opportunity to convince the public to try and part with some of their money," he said. — VNS