In Vietnam, a predominantly Buddhist nation, Christmas is not an official public holiday. For most people, it is just another normal day, no one gets a day off. But mass marketing has ensured that most offices celebrate the event with Xmas trees and gifts, many families have adopted the habit of giving gifts to their children through Santa Clauses that deliver them.
People wear Santa hats and go out to enjoy the Xmas atmosphere, with downtown streets glittering with lights as shopping malls and other establishments put up fancy decorations and offer festival discounts.
In the capital city Hanoi, nowhere is the Xmas spirit more pronounced than at the famous St. Joseph’s Cathedral, where decorations are already up, with neon lights, big Christmas trees and stars. The Cathedral is especially beautiful at this time of the year, attracting thousands of people, particularly in the night.
To the right of the cathedral, Adrian and Sven are soaking atmosphere in, drinking Hanoi beer. They’ve came all the way from Germany for a new Christmas experience.
"Christmas in Vietnam feels a little bit artificial to me. Sure, I can feel the atmosphere here but there’s something unnatural about it," Adrian said.
"We’ll probably end up in Da Nang by Christmas. It would be cool to spend Christmas in a tropical country," Sven said.
Stuart, an Australian, is also here for the sun and a different Xmas experience.
"I don’t know where I’ll be on Christmas Day, but I’m sure that it will be here in Vietnam. My plan is to go across the country, starting from Hanoi to cities like Hue and Hoi An and my final stop will be Ho Chi Minh City. I’ll spend about two and a half weeks here," Stuart said, enjoying his beer on Ta Hien Street.
Kate, an American, is not all that excited. She thinks it is just another ordinary day.
"I’ve worked here for two years and like every year, I have no plan for Christmas this year. I might just go and grab dinner with my friends on that day. I don’t think that it’s necessary to celebrate Christmas here."
Unlike Kate, Edward from Australia is enjoying his holidays in Vietnam with his daughters Miranda and Elisa. His plan for Christmas is a bit different.
"Sapa. That’s where we will be on Christmas Day. My family will still have a Christmas dinner but this time in a restaurant there," Edward said as he waiting for a barbeque stick he ordered.
"When I come here I can see the spirit of Christmas in the air, like in that corner of the street, where there are so many stores selling decorations and gifts that make the street turn red," he added.
The street that Edward was talking about is Hang Ma Street, where many businesses sell elaborate decorations. On this street, at this time of the year, Hanh’s store is filled with Christmas goods that she imports from other countries. She said that they sell very well.
"I started selling these Christmas goods two weeks ago, and have no trouble selling them. Many people buy gifts, decorations or just simply a
Santa hat, just to feel the Christmas spirit, from students to married couples, from Vietnamese to foreigners," she said.
Not just on Hang Ma Street, the spirit of Christmas is also tapped by big hotels, shopping malls, restaurants and department stores.
Back at the St. Joseph’s Cathedral, it’s not as crowded as it was in the early afternoon, but in the evening, people will fill up the place to take pictures and get into the spirit of Christmas.
Nhan, a 30-year-old Hanoi resident, is busy taking pictures here before it gets crowded. He wants to capture the church without too many people around.
"I think Christmas Eve is more important than Christmas Day here. Although Christmas is not an official holiday in Vietnam, you can see that every year on December 24 night, people here will celebrate Christmas although many of them are not Christians."
Because for the most part, Christmas in Vietnam is a curiosity rather than religious holiday," Nhan said.
"But as they keep saying on TV, it’s the most wonderful time of the year, so we should enjoy it, right?"
Story by Tuan Hoang
Photos by Anh Trung