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Since the beginning of December, Christmas decorations have popped up everywhere in District 1 of Ho Chi Minh City. The most ostentatious displays are at shopping malls and upscale hotels, where gigantic versions of Santa Claus, snowmen, reindeers, faux pine trees, wreaths and gift boxes are adorned with endless strings of fairy lights. The common theme for these decorations seems to be the bigger, the better. One department store has even set up a Christmas-themed ferris wheel and indoor merry-go-round.
On a smaller scale, most shops and restaurants also joined in the decorating game by putting a Christmas tree at their doorstep. Seasonal songs, ranging from classics such as Jingle Bells to pop hits like Last Christmas, are also on repeat.
A similar festive spirit can be found in the capital city of Hanoi. Fashion shops, restaurants, supermarkets, stores, and hotels are decorated with magnificent Christmas patterns. On major thoroughfares like Cau Giay and Kim Ma, and on streets selling gifts such as Luong Van Can and Hang Ma, accessories for the festive season also glitter with beautiful and sparkly designs.
Shop owners in Hanoi said they started selling Christmas goods from the final days of November to attract customers and visitors. Shops, supermarkets and commercial centres also waste no time in turning Christmas into a massive sale season with discounts, promotions and gifts, in tune with the recent phenomenon of Black Friday.
It is evident that most of the festive decorations in Vietnam’s largest city are mostly secular, with an emphasis on cultural figures such as Santa Claus rather than religious ones. Christian-themed decorations are mostly found at churches around the city or at Catholic neighbourhoods in Tan Binh district and District 8. In small alleyways, nativity decorations depicting the birth scene of Jesus Christ become an annual attraction for both Christians and atheists alike.
Culturally speaking, Christmas season is a relatively new idea to the majority of Vietnamese, who are mostly Buddhists or atheists. The day is also not recognised as an official holiday in Vietnam, unlike a number of nearby countries such as Singapore or the Philippines. This leads to a number of interesting differences in the way Vietnamese and foreigners celebrate this mainly-Western holiday.
For many local Vietnamese, Christmas means a good opportunity for photos with the flashy decorations. Young children often dress up as a mini Santa Claus and receive presents from the jolly white-beard men, who accommodate to Vietnamese culture by travelling around by motorbikes instead of reindeers. Families and teenagers flock into shopping malls during the evenings to take photos and breathe in the festive spirit.
“I plan to go out with my friends on the night of December 24 to take photos and have fun. Christmas is also a great sale season, so I’m really looking forward to it,” said Nguyen Minh Xuan, a 22-year-old university student.
For foreign travellers and expatriates who grew up in Western countries, Christmas is a time to reunite with family, return to their hometowns or travel elsewhere. Rachelle Komarnisky, a communications specialist working at an American law firm, told VIR she was “surprised by the extravagance of Christmas decorations” in Ho Chi Minh City. The craftsmanship for these decorations is very impressive, the Canadian said.
“The Christmas spirit is more open and cheerful here. People set up decorations or dress up because they want to or they like being festive, which makes it more fun. At home, many people feel overwhelmed preparing for the holidays, travelling, and buying gifts so there is a lot more stress and tension,” said Komarnisky, planning to travel back to her hometown for the holiday season.
Vietnamese-American Van Ly, who works for an auditing firm, said she would travel to Malaysia this Christmas to explore a new culture in Southeast Asia.
Ly also loves the festive decorations in the city centre, “especially depictions of Santa Claus in all different sizes”. She then contrasted Ho Chi Minh City’s tropical climate to her hometown of Chicago, where it always freezes around Christmas time.
“I’d brave the cold to do some shopping and meet up with family and friends, who converge in my hometown for the holidays,” Ly recalled.
She is happy to see the Christmas spirit of giving gaining ground in the city, and her office holds a gift exchange activity for staff members.
During the holiday season, besides travelling, expatriates in Vietnam also organise a range of exciting and meaningful activities. In particular the German Christmas Market, held for the second time at Cua Bac Church between December 13-15, is one of the largest Christmas markets in Hanoi.
Tobias Kuester-Campioni, head of the organisers, said, “We offer German sausages and wine, indispensable elements of the German Christmas Market. Through this event, we want to bring a part of the German Christmas atmosphere and culture to Vietnam”.
This market aspires to recreate the festive atmosphere at famous European holiday markets, helping foreigners in Hanoi enjoy Christmas as if they were at home. A music festival, the Hanoi Christmas Carol, is one of the more exciting programmes for foreigners to gather together in a warm space, sing traditional hymns together, and enjoy relaxing moments with festive carols. True to the charitable spirit of Christmas, all proceeds of the programme will be donated to the Help Hanoi’s Homeless group.
Expatriates who choose to stay in Vietnam during the holiday can also join large banquets held at large hotels including Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, Pullman Hanoi, Intercontinental Hanoi Landmark72, Park Hyatt Saigon, Lotte Legend, Le Meridien, and Intercontinental Saigon.
Other events also take place at major tourist and entertainment sites in surrounding areas such as Sunworld Halong in the northeastern province of Quang Ninh or Fansipan Legend in the northern provinces of Sapa, Lao Cai.
Following these feasts, expatriates may also want to join Vietnamese visitors, and pose for a raft of photographs with the many lush and extravagant hotel decorations.
JuliaN Wong, General manager, Sheraton Hanoi
This festive season the peak days fall into weekdays - Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve will be on Mondays.
All of our hotel activities will be expanded to cover the weekends and weekdays. Guests will enjoy more celebratory activities for this festive season at Sheraton Hanoi Hotel. As we commit to an international service culture of personalised and memorable experiences through Hanoi’s gracefulness, ethnic cuisine, innovation and green practices that promises satisfaction, Sheraton Hanoi is proud to be the favourite destination of travellers.
This year, we forecast an increase in leisure business for rooms besides expecting a stronger year end and festive season business for outlets and banquets – most notably yearend parties and weddings. Our hotel also forecast a slowdown in terms of business travellers as expected over those periods but overall, we have still seen a positive trend.
Julien Pechey, General manager, Mercure Danang French Village Bana Hills
We are sold out for the last seven days of the year with an average of 800 persons daily. Unfortunately, we keep receiving phone calls and emails requesting rooms, but we recommend they come in January or February, although a fast decision is still required as demand is still very high then.
It is completely different in term of mix of nationalities and more international this year. The average length of stay has increased with more and more customers intending to stay two or even three nights.
We have developed many activities and services which we did not have last year, such as a spa, evening live band, pool, and cinema. Last week we opened a new area dedicated to traditional French games from last century and mini indoor golf alongside a badminton field and table tennis room.
Our guests enjoy the peaceful atmosphere in the evening after 6pm and early sunrise over the sea, usually at around 5.30am, to listen to the wake-up of nature. It’s a magical place where you feel you can touch the stars.
My favourite recommendation is to come and enjoy the unique full moon rise. It’s very romantic to walk in the empty streets and you feel like the hills belong to you.
Pham Thu Huong, Senior product consultant, Eviva Tour Vietnam
The tourism industry in Vietnam has achieved impressive results, attracting a record 15 million foreign visitors in 2018. Compared to this time last year, the number of foreign visitors booking tours at Eviva Tour has increased by 10-12 per cent.
Visitor spending is also expected to increase by 8-10 per cent. This year Christmas, New Year and Lunar New Year holidays are quite close together, so visitors may have more time for their trip. They also want to have more special and interesting experiences to learn about traditional cultures or join festivals at each destination.
We plan to offer more activities such as flower villages or traditional craft villages such as those making joss sticks and incense papers, for example.
Linh Le, Marketing manager, Everland Travel
The number of international visitors to Everland Travel during Christmas and New Year holidays has increased by 12 per cent over the same period last year, but this is an average annual increase rather than a surge.
At any time, visitors also want to experience new and attractive products. However, we do not yet have any truly new types of tourism, or really outstanding activities like other countries in the region.
But what we can do is focus on improving the quality and sophistication of existing products to meet the higher requirements of visitors, such as providing a more diverse dining experience, and using limousines instead of ordinary cars to make visitors more comfortable while on the move.
Travellers to Vietnam tend to experience more, so their spending on shopping and dining also increases as compared to spending on accommodation.
Nguyen Manh Linh, Inbound manager, Asiana Travel
At this time, the number of European tourists booking tours at Asiana Travel between December 2018 and February 2019 increased by 30 per cent over the same period last year.
The group of unmarried guests from 30 to 35 years old account for 70 per cent of the total guests booking tours, while the remaining 30 per cent are married people between the ages of 30 and 45 and are often accompanied by their children.
Like every year, visitors still want to enjoy the atmosphere of Christmas and New Year in big cities and tourist sites in Vietnam. These destinations often bring a variety of special events to promote the brands and stimulate shopping and entertainment for locals and international visitors. However, about 3 to 5 per cent of our guests choose longer stays at the southern beaches to catch the sun rather than moving a lot across cities.
European tourists will also often spend more on food than shopping.
Nathanael Rolland , from France
During this period, I really like going out more than usual. The weather gets cooler but not too cold and wet, and there are no snow storms.
It’s the best time for having fun with friends and sharing the Christmas spirit together.
A special thing during this season is undeniably driving a motorbike at night through all the lights of Hanoi. It’s like the city is ready to welcome 2019 with joy and happiness.
Alexandra Schneider, from Germany
I enjoy Christmas in Hoi An, as it means I can avoid the colder weather in Germany. In Vietnam, we have not seen the atmosphere of Christmas and New Year holiday, which is a lot different from our country.
In Germany, the Christian holiday is really a big thing because on this occasion, people will go shopping and visit markets.
Then, families will come together and celebrate the end of the year. I’m pretty sure that I will come back to Vietnam over the next Christmas holiday, but I will try out the country’s southern regions to enjoy the atmosphere there.
Chris Steigerwald, from Germany
The decorations are pretty much the same as those in any places around the world, there are Christmas trees but many of them are not similar in style to Germany. We found a German Christmas market here which was pretty funny for me. They also sell sausages and other German foodstuffs, which was really interesting. I really like the atmosphere. It’s dense and bustling here.
During Christmas time, I have always been in Germany. Over there it’s normally snowy and really cold, only a few degrees. It has never been this warm during this time of the year. Also in Germany, there are more choirs with a lot of people singing Christmas carols.
I think the atmosphere is different because there are more people, which makes things really nice and cosy. I really love being in Vietnam for Christmas.
Christa Mühlemann, from Switzerland
In Vietnam you can really see plenty of Christmas decorations, I think it’s very nice, I don’t get the Christmas feeling completely though because it’s warm here, and where I come from, it’s mostly snowy in December.
However I think here you decorate more than in Switzerland - we don’t have a lot of decorations saying Merry Christmas but I think it’s very interesting here.
I was once in London over Christmas and the city was covered in decorations.
Lisa Bennett, from Canada
I moved from India to Vietnam and there was no Christmas atmosphere in India. Here you have quite a lot of Christmas trees and I get more of a festive feeling than I was expecting. Compared to our country, it’s warm and sunny.
In Canada there is a lot of snow, and that is the biggest difference.
It doesn’t feel right for me to celebrate Christmas here because for me, the holiday time is supposed to feature really cold weather and snow, but maybe I will prefer to go further up to north to see the town of Sapa.
John Anderson, from Australia
I have never been in Vietnam before, so it’s interesting to see what the Christmas time is like.
I plan to go St. Joseph’s Cathedral on Christmas Day and we will move to Halong Bay the following day.
Hanoi’s weather is quite good, much cooler than in Australia now, and that’s why my wife and I have been here for 10 days.
In Australia, Christmas is the time for families to enjoy food, wines, and barbeques but in Vietnam, it is so far not the same at all. I will wait for Christmas Eve to see what it’s like then. I already plan to go to Thailand on the next Christmas holiday.
Craig Wilson, from the United States
It’s different for me here because Christmas commonly involves snow but it is warm here. It’s interesting that arrivals can still celebrate Christmas in a warm climate.
I had two days in Ho Chi Minh City, two days in Hanoi, and one day in Halong Bay, and I will also visit Hong Kong.
In our country, families usually get together on Christmas Eve. The next morning, we present gifts to the children and later that day we enjoy a big family dinner.
Albert Wolf , from Germany
Christmas time here is nice, I have seen some really nice shops where they sell Christmas presents and decorations. I really like it.
The difference would be the weather for sure because I’m used to the cold weather.
I visited some other countries a week before I came to Hanoi and the weather at that time was not great, it was a bit colder, but for me it was like Christmas because it is more like home.