Despite Christians being in the minority in Vietnam, Hanoi’s cathedrals attract large numbers of both Christians and non-Christians at Christmas time.
Different from English-speaking Western countries, Vietnamese people celebrate Christmas on 24 December - in Hanoi mostly at one of the three largest churches in town.
Its biggest and oldest Roman Catholic cathedral, St Joseph’s Cathedral, was built in 1886 and is always the busiest. Its domed architecture follows the Gothic style and design of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. It is 64.5 metres in length and 20.5 metres in width with two bell towers 31.5 metres in height. Though the appearance of the cathedral, from its doors and colourful stained glass windows to its religious artwork, follow the Western style, the interior bears a Vietnamese décor, with the two typical colours of yellow and red. The first Christmas service was held in the cathedral in 1887. Since then it has always been packed with people on weekends and particularly during religious holidays like Christmas.
For those who prefer fewer crowds, Cua Bac Church and Ham Long Church are better options.
Hoan Kiem Lake
Hoan Kiem Lake, which is decorated with twinkling lights and snowflakes at Christmas, is the second most common place for local people to head on Christmas Eve. It has become a ‘tradition’ that residents of Hanoi stroll around the lake on public holidays or during important events, due to the lack of other entertainment. So, different from the traditional spirit of Christmas, where people gather at home and spend time with family, many come to Hoan Kiem and create street parties and a lot of noise for everyone to enjoy.
Many people just walk around while others sit on the stone chairs with friends eating food and sipping on drinks. Kids in red and white Christmas-themed clothes are also brought here to get a sense of the Christmas atmosphere. Many young people come in groups and take photos of the sparkling Christmas decorations and boisterous atmosphere.
A Christmas fair, called the Bus Station Christmas Market 2016, will be organised from 5 to 25 December at 3A Ton Duc Thang Street in District 1.
This will be the first time such an international-style fair will be held in Vietnam’s economic hub. Visitors will find lots of different items, including fashions, cosmetics, household appliances, books, ornamental plants and, of course, a lot of Christmas food.
The Bus Station Christmas Market resembles the Myeongdong Night Market in South Korea, the Shilin Night Market in Taiwan, and the Chatuchak Night Market in Thailand.
What’s special about the Bus Station is that the organisers change the theme every month to give visitors different experiences. At the Bus Station Christmas Market 2016, famous brands will be available for office workers, family members and fashionable young people, of high quality and at affordable prices.
In addition to stalls full of bright Christmas colours, the fair will also include a host of other exciting activities, with chefs showing how to make Christmas dishes, bartenders making eye-catching mixing performances, Santa Claus giving children free cotton candy and balloons, Pikachu dances to exciting music, and singers entertaining visitors with fantastic street music.
Stalls at the fair will change every week to keep it looking nice and bright, and it’s open from 10am to midnight.
Nguyen Hue Walking Boulevard and City Centre
This is one of the most popular spots in HCMC on Christmas Eve. Every Christmas, colourful lights and decorations can be seen at the magnificent five- and six-star hotels along the streets around the Notre-Dame Cathedral, such as Le Duan, Dong Khoi, and Nguyen Hue Walking Boulevard. From about two weeks before Christmas, streets in the area are all lit by flickering lights of different shapes, sizes and colours. Some create big stars measuring two or three metres in diameter.
Inside and near each building or shopping centre, like Vincom or Diamond Plaza, decorations include big Christmas trees about 10 metres tall covered with fake snow, or a model of Santa Claus in a red suit with a long beard sitting on a reindeer-driven cart full of gifts for children. A lot of people drop by not only to buy something but also to enjoy the excitement of the Christmas season, looking at and admiring the scene or having their photo taken with Santa.
Many people in HCMC celebrate Christmas Eve at big churches like Notre-Dame Cathedral in Dong Khoi Street, District 1, Huyen Si Church at 1 Ton That Tung in District 1, the Catholic Church in District 3, and the Ba Chuong Church in Phu Nhuan district.
All are brightly decorated with lighting and grottoes depicting the birth of Christ. While the grandest celebrations are on Christmas Eve, about a week or two prior it is easy to find Christmas items along streets surrounding the big churches, with Huyen Si Church having the most. Thousands of products are on sale, including lanterns, bells and other decorative items.
Church Area in District 8
The Christian-dominated area in District 8 has long been known for its Christmas grottoes. The area stretches more than 3 kilometres along Pham The Hien Street, from Nhi Thien Duong Bridge to Ward 7 in District 8, past the parishes of Binh An Thuong, Binh An Ha, Binh Thuan, Binh Thai, and Binh Son.
Hundreds of grottoes and Christmas trees covered in snow line the streets. Beautifully-decorated statues of Santa Claus, Jesus, and the Virgin Mary in different sizes and colours can be found in front of houses along the street or on street corners.
Grottoes have not been so popular in the area over the last few years. Instead, local people have strung LED lights from the beginning to the end of the street, adding excitement to the Christmas season, when it welcomes thousands of visitors. Other exciting celebrations in Christian-dominated areas include Tam Ha in Thu Duc district or parishes in Go Vap district and Tan Binh district.