Vietnam finally celebrates Christmas with crazy Santas

Like most Vietnamese, Nguyen Ngoc Binh is a Buddhist. But when Christmas comes, he wraps a pillow around his belly, dons a red suit and covers his face with a bushy white beard.

Binh is so enamored of St. Nick that he has set up a Santa Claus training academy, with a curriculum that covers everything from toys to reindeer to Jingle Bells. He has trained 25 Santas this year, and they're struggling to keep up with their booming gift delivery business.

Vietnam is going crazy about Christmas, and no where is this more apparent than in Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, Vietnam's capital of commerce, Catholicism and fun.

"I hope Santa will bring me some toys!" says 4-year-old Le Hoang Son, running around a downtown shopping mall in a Santa suit. "I want so many different kinds of toys!"

Vietnam's Catholic minority has been celebrating Christmas for years. But after the communist victory in 1975, the holiday fell out of favor with the authorities, and believers celebrated quietly.

Over the last decade, as Vietnam has opened up to the outside world, the holiday has made a furious comeback. With the government gradually increasing personal, religious and economic freedom, people of all faiths and backgrounds have embraced this latest Western export as enthusiastically as they drink Coke or watch MTV.

The holiday is a nice fit in a culture that loves giving gifts, doting on children and singing karaoke. Vietnamese enjoy belting out Christmas songs, especially Feliz Navidad.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's business hub, Christmas is as commercial a venture as in the West.

Santa poses for pictures with children in front of a downtown Christmas display brought to you by Diana, a purveyor of feminine hygiene products, whose logo adorns Frosty the Snowman's belly.

For those making money from Christmas, it is truly the season to be jolly.

"We see this as a great opportunity for our business," said Tran Thi Thu of the Tax Shopping Center, where no expense is spared to lure holiday shoppers. "We've spent $20,000 (Ђ15,180) on Christmas decorations."

Santa is strategically located by the entrance. "Children ask their parents to bring them, and when they arrive, they are very likely to come inside," Thu said.

Another lure: a holiday draw with a $25,000 (Ђ18,970) Ford Ranger for the winner.

Thu's Christmas strategy appears to be working. Holiday sales are up 30 percent.

"Vietnam's economy is developing quickly," Thu said. "Before, people always had to think about saving money. But with incomes rising, people are looking for new ways to have fun."

Vietnamese Christmas is not only about entertainment, however. On Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, a huge crowd gathers around the cathedral in downtown Ho Chi Minh City to celebrate the birth of Christ and pray.

For the Catholics in the crowd, it is a solemn occasion. For the many Buddhists, it is an interesting spectacle.

Binh's Santas are paid to deliver gifts on motorcycles, including to orphanages as an act of holiday charity.

Vietnamese Santas are called Ong Gia No En, meaning Old Man Noel, and even with their beards and red suits, they still look Vietnamese. Binh searches for big, tall Santas, but mostly has to settle for short, skinny ones.

Binh requires them to keep their beards clean. When he dons his outfit to play Santa, he coats his face with white powder to give himself a more Western look.

"For young people, it's an opportunity to hang out and be part of the crowd," said Bui Thi Bich Lien, 35, an attorney. "And it's a chance to go out and buy glittery things."

Like most Vietnamese, Lien comes from a Buddhist background, but the focus of her spiritual life is the family altar, where gifts and prayers are offered to ancestors.

She has nothing against those who celebrate Christmas, but she won't take part.

"Why should I celebrate Christmas?" Lien said. "My family is very traditional."

Ho Chi Minh City's Christmas spectacle brought out the Scrooge in Anne Borboen, 72, a Swiss tourist on her ninth visit to Vietnam, reports AP.

"It's too American, too commercial!" she said. "All the fake snow and plastic Christmas trees look ridiculous. Why not do something Vietnamese?"

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