About a week before Christmas, Tran Thu is outside of a popular mall in Ho Chi Minh City, snapping photos of the ornamented garlands and giant Santa that hug the building.
Nothing quite says “Christmas in Vietnam” like the hordes of people who come to see and be seen around the decked out shopping centers.
“The decorations are so nice, so we came to take pictures,” Thu said. “This year they’re even prettier, especially at night, when they turn on the lights.”
Christmas is becoming increasingly popular in Vietnam, a communist country where one might not expect a religious holiday to gain so much traction. Yet the ever-wealthier Vietnamese are embracing Christmas precisely because of its non-religious glamor and commercial appeal.
Locals also are more exposed to Western culture than ever, though their style of celebrating Christmas might seem unrecognizable to some Westerners.
Next to a roundabout in a working-class neighborhood, Tran Thi Kim Oanh hawks Santa outfits dangling over the sidewalk. She says traffic is slow.
“In the past, I could sell a lot more than I do now,” Oanh says. “There’s so much competition. Before, the businesses and supermarkets didn’t really sell these, but they saw we could do it, so they did, too.”
Oanh’s experience raises the question of whether supply or demand is driving the Christmas trend. In North America, some worry the longer shopping seasons signal a more materialistic holiday. But in Vietnam, there’s not as much soul-searching about the role that businesses play in bringing Christmas to locals.
Rylan Higgins, an anthropologist at Saint Mary's University in Canada, says companies ramp up the marketing this time of year, from the fake snow on building facades to the sounds of “Last Christmas” spilling out of shops onto the street.
“Consumerism is a big part of it because you have these big companies seeing a new way to sell things to Vietnamese people,” said Higgins, who worked in Vietnam from 2002-2011. He added, “You have a growing middle class, and you see large corporations trying to capitalize on that.”
A time for friends
Vietnamese may be more accepting of corporate influence because for many, Christmas was never based on personal values to begin with. It’s not a time to have dinner at home with family and show thanks for one another. Instead, it’s a time to go out on the town, shop, and take pictures with friends in front of colorful displays, especially on Dec. 24.
“When I’m in Vietnam for Christmas, it feels nothing like Christmas in North America,” Higgins said.
Catholic priest Dinh Huu Thoai agreed, saying, “What’s special about Vietnam is, the youth don’t stay home the night before Christmas. There’s so much traffic, they go into the street. It’s not like in the West, where you stay home and it’s more for family.”
Of course, Christianity isn’t absent from the holiday. Thoai said so many people have been coming to Christmas mass in recent years that his church added a garage below ground. The change comes at a time when authorities have relaxed some limits on religion, although many attend mass for fun and to hear the music, rather than to worship.
Thoai is OK with that, saying he’s glad to see more awareness for the Christian holiday.
“Christmas is not just for the religious,” Thoai said in an interview at his church, surrounded by a fake Christmas tree and pictures of Pope Francis. “So when I preach, I also do it so people who don’t follow religion can understand. I preach about love.”