Romuald Brosson, a French tourist, knows that Christmas is not a public holiday in Vietnam, so the festival spirit in the country amazes him.
"In France, Christmas is an occasion for family reunion and home parties, but in Vietnam, huge crowds flock to shopping centers and churches to take selfies, with many children wearing Santa Claus clothes."
Drinking beer with friends in Saigon's popular hangout, Bui Vien pedestrian street, Brosson, 37, said: "Vietnamese people are celebrating Christmas with a bustle that is no less than in European countries."
A German visitor who only wanted to be mentioned as Richard, walking on the Nguyen Hue pedestrian boulevard, said he was taken aback that Christmas decorations in big churches in Vietnam are even "more beautiful and sparkling" than in his home country.
Richard, 26, said he has no plans on what to do on Christmas Day this year, but he has to experience what happens at the Tan Dinh Cathedral in District 3.
Tan Dinh, dubbed the ‘Pink Church’, is the second biggest church in Ho Chi Minh City after the Notre Dame Cathedral in District 1 which is being renovated and closed to the public.
"Vietnam is not a Christian country but it is celebrating Christmas as though it is," Richard said.
It's something new
Vietnam is a predominantly Buddhist nation where over 70 percent of the population are either Buddhists or follow Buddhist practices.
Until a decade ago, Christmas was only celebrated by those who followed the Christian faith in the country. It was not a public event. That has changed, big time. Today, it has become one of the biggest festivals in the country’s major cities like Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hai Phong.
As disposable income rose and the country became increasingly open to the outside world, people have taken to splurging on festivals like Christmas, and even some foreign celebrations like Halloween.
The country’s GDP growth is among world’s highest over the past decade. Global real estate consultant Knight Frank earlier this year said the number of extremely rich individuals in Vietnam is set to grow at the fastest rate in the world, by 31 percent in the next five years.
Christmas in Vietnam is not just about fancy decorations and shopping sprees, the Vietnamese have also imbibed its spirit. Young Vietnamese people and lovers give gifts to each other. Children have begun looking forward to getting gifts from Santa Claus.
Andrew Hardwick, a UK expat who has been staying in the country for several years, teaching English, said Christmas in Vietnam is "really great".
The Christmas atmosphere pervades every corner, covered with the red color of decorations, gifts and Santa Claus clothes.
"I am impressed by children wearing Santa Claus clothes and taking to the streets to play with fake snow spray, and taking selfies with their parents beside Christmas decorations," he added.
Nguyen Dong, a 40 year-old primary teacher in Saigon, recalled that many years ago Christmas was only for parishioners who went to churches to attend mass and celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ, but "the world has changed too a lot."
Dong’s family are not Christians but they plan to bring their two children to big churches and shopping malls to soak in the bustling atmosphere on Christmas’s Eve (December 24) and then have a party at a small restaurant.
Meanwhile, Le Thu said she will close her flower shop in Saigon’s District 10 for several days to travel to Da Lat, a town in the Central Highlands famous for its chilly climate all year round, so as to escape the traffic jams and noisy crowds of the Christmas season.
"Big crowds and traffic jams always happen during Christmas. Last year, my whole family of six were jammed for several hours in a downtown area as parishioners and others started leaving the churches after mass," Thu said.
Imparting key teachings
Many Vietnamese families, especially in the cities, now see Xmas is not only time for get-togethers, but also to add to their children's joy of receiving gifts from Santa Claus.
They use the occasion to impart key messages. Santa Claus writes to the children, and exhorts them to engage in good deeds, study better and become good people.
"Study more, love your parents more, my child. So I will come again. From Santa Claus with love!" or "Be more diligent! Get higher marks. Love you! Santa Claus" are messages that the children get.
Many shops hire Santa Clauses to deliver gifts ordered by parents. This has become a popular practice in the big cities and parents have to book the service quite early if they are not to disappoint their children.
This is a special cultural feature that Richard finds fascinating.
A welcome seasonal income boost
Many people in Vietnam's bigger cities look forward to the Xmas season to bolster their incomes.
Nguyen Truong Giang, a Saigon resident, puts up ornaments on Christmas trees and helps install other decorations in front of shopping centers and other buildings in District 1. He said he gets very busy between late November and late December every year, decorating many buildings, and earns an income several times higher than his usual intake.
"I usually work at night, from 10 p.m. to early morning, as there are much fewer people around at that time and we can work more conveniently." Giang has been doing this job for more than 10 years.
Trang Hung Sinh, a fourth-year student in Saigon, dresses up as Santa Claus and welcomes customers outside shopping malls in District 1 to earn extra money to cover his tuition fees and other expenses.
"I have been doing this job for four years," the 22-year-old said. "When the Christmas season is over I will find a new job. I can make VND300,000 ($13) a night now, double what I can get on a normal day, and it’s a fun job, though it’s a little bit hot and tiring."
Some of Sinh’s friends will become Santa Clauses riding motorbikes to Saigon corners and cheering up kids and their parents.
A hot Xmas
Xmas is around the corner.
But one thing that makes Richard as surprised as the festival buzz in HCMC is the Xmas weather of 28 to 30 degree Celsius. In Germany, it is very cold at this time of the year, and snow is a frequent occurrence.
Jin Jeong, a 27-year-old South Korean tourist, was taking pictures with her boyfriend in front of the Saigon Center, a famous shopping mall in downtown area with elaborate Xmas-themed installations and X-mas trees. These attract huge crowds for taking selfies.
Jeong said she had not imagined Xmas in tropical weather. "In Seoul, temperatures always drop to below 1 degree Celsius during the Christmas season and there will be white snow all around. In Vietnam, the weather is quite hot, making it unnatural."
Andrew Hardwick of the U.K, who lives in the Thao Dien area of District 2, home to the largest expat community, is certainly looking for cooler climes.
His three-member family will leave Saigon for Sa Pa, a popular highlands town in northern Vietnam with cool weather all year round. There, they hope to find a Xmas weather closer to what they enjoy at home.
Story by Nguyen Quy, Quynh Tran