As December 25 draws near, Vietnamese Christians are waiting expectantly for Christmas and the joyful spirit of the holidays. Trung Hieu reports.
"Do you want Santa to bring gifts to you and your loved ones this Christmas Eve? No problem!"
Tran Thai, 38, is a toy dealer on Luong Van Can Street in Ha Noi, but every Christmas season he has a crucially important job: playing Father Christmas.
"I had an unforgettable experience as Santa two years ago. While standing in front of a house, I was rushed and almost bitten by a dog. Luckily, the owners jumped out and saved me just in time," he recalls with a smile.
Thai is one of hundreds of men employed by local companies and shops to play Santa Claus and deliver seasonal gifts. Qualified applicants boast a height of more than 1.62 metres, are gentle, jolly, and in particular, have a great love for children.
"I love bringing joy to families, especially children, during Noel. Normally, their parents phone me in advance to tell me about their children’s behaviour that year. For children who are good students, I wish them luck in continuing their studies in the next year. For children who are struggling in school, I encourage them to study harder so that Santa will visit them with even more gifts next season."
Thai says he pays a lot of attention to his Santa costume, and as a result most of the children who see him believe they have met the real Father Christmas.
"On several occasions, I helped young men deliver Christmas gifts to their girlfriends in a romantic way," he continues.
In past years, Christmas has become not only a day for Christians, but one that has been embraced as joyful and festive for everyone.
"The day gives us a chance to relax and meet with friends," says Nguyen Quang Thi, who lives on Hao Nam Street.
"I’m not a Christian so I don’t have to prepare anything, but we love going out for fun. We often gather in cafes, and then wander the streets and visit churches until early the next morning," he says.
"Travelling with girls on a cold Christmas night, the festivities provide a romantic atmosphere," he adds.
Eric Nichols, an English teacher in Ha Noi, says he has spent the past two Yule celebrations in Viet Nam.
"I will spend my third Christmas here this year. I can see that the holiday has become more exciting and exuberant in the country. The streets, hotels and restaurants are decorated beautifully with pine trees and colourful lights. I’ve even met Santas in the streets!"
Chieko Ueno, a Japanese woman living in Ha Noi, says each time she passes by Luong Van Can Street, toy store central, she feels excited.
"So many decorations are sold there and every time I pass it, I feel the familiar Christmas atmosphere like in my hometown in Japan," she says.
Chieko recalls that last Christmas, she and her friends stayed awake all night and watched crowds of Hanoians partying in the streets.
For Christians, the day is not only festive, but sacred as well.
Pham Anh Phong, 31, from Truong Dinh Street, says his family began to prepare for Christmas last month.
"Christmas is one of the most sacred holidays for us. We Christians are eager for it. My wife and I have decorated our house so smartly with a big pine tree and we’ll take our two children to church at 6pm on Christmas Eve to enjoy the hymns."
"Noel helps bring us closer to each other, and we exchange our best wishes for peace and contentment," he says.
Phong’s wife, Lan Huong, says they have told the kids of the day’s significance.
"We are eager to hear the story of the birth of Jesus at the Christmas sermon, and then the beautiful hymns will fill the church... " she says dreamily.
The couple often attends either Ham Long or Cua Bac Church, two of Ha Noi’s ten principal churches.
With its beautiful architecture and easy-to-reach location in the Ba Dinh District, the venerable Cua Bac Church is usually the place for foreigners to celebrate. Its acoustics have been designed so the hymns will reverberate perfectly.
During the Christmas Eve sermon, along with popular local carols sung by a Vietnamese choir, church-goers can also enjoy timeless hymns famous all over the world such as When A Child Is Born, Merry Christmas, Joy To The World, Silent Night and Feliz Navidad. These carols are performed in English by a troupe of both Vietnamese and foreign residents.
"Christmas’ global spirit is evident here. I think the holiday has become very dear to the Vietnamese, whether they are Christian or not, " Phong says.
For entrepreneurs, many see the holidays as a chance for increased business.
Nguyen Hoang Hiep, a shop owner on Hang Buom Street, says each Christmas his ten Santas deliver gifts to some 200 addresses.
"Our clients can buy gifts at our shop or bring their gifts to us. Our Santa Claus will bring their presents to the specified addresses."
Normally, the service fee for present deliveries is anywhere from VND35,000-50,000 (US$2-3) for addresses inside the city, and VND3,500 per kilometre for suburban districts. But some shop owners offer this service free-of-charge, if clients buy the gifts in their store.
As the clock approaches midnight, the holy moment signifying the birth of Jesus Christ, son of God, Ha Noi streets are covered in a cold fog. In the lively, crowded streets, white-bearded Santas in red clothes are zipping around on their motorbikes with heavy bags on their backs.
‘Santa’ Tran Thai says that his Father Christmas role always makes him happy.
"Though the night is very cold and the streets are crowded, we must drive quickly to bring presents to the children in time," he says.
"I love this job, and I will do it as long as I am healthy enough," he adds with a bright Christmas smile.
VNS - (21/12/2004)