A very Vietnamese Christmas

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Vietnam's hotels and stores are rolling out gingerbread pagodas, Santas-for-hire and holiday buffets for the big day


A Santa Claus on his way to fulfill his duties on Christmas Eve in HCMC last year

Vietnam may be a predominantly Buddhist country, but it's also crazy about Christmas.

Starting early this month, office workers began decking out their cubicles in tinsel and fake icicles. Techno-remixed carols thump out of every nook and cranny.

Some sales staffs appear to have been ordered to wear Santa caps as part of their daily work wear.

Naturally, the nation's hotels are gearing up to offer a special tropical Christmas to visiting guests and well-heeled diners.

The Mövenpick Hotel Hanoi and the Mövenpick Hotel Saigon, are both putting together custom-made gift baskets. Pre-packed baskets stocked with wine, coffee, gingerbread, chocolate and other temptations are also on offer.

WHERE TO GO

In HCMC:

- HCMC Youth House: 4 Pham Ngoc Thach Street, District 1

- Phu My Hung resident area: Nguyen Van Linh Boulevard, District 7

- HCMC Young Business Association Office: 4 Alexandre de Rhodes Street, District 1

- HCMC Children House: 169 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street, District 1

- Dam Sen Theme Park: 3 Hoa Binh Street, Ward 5, District 11

- Suoi Tien Theme Park: Tan Nhon Hamlet, Hanoi Highway, Tan Phu Ward, District 9

In Hanoi

- Melia Hotel: 44B Ly Thuong Kiet Street

- West Lake Park: 614 Lac Long Quan Street

Both Mövenpicks are offering festive seasonal brunches every Sunday, until Christmas Day.

On New Year's Eve, the hotels will offer a special set dinner in Hanoi, and a buffet in Ho Chi Minh City.

In Da Nang City, five pastry chefs at the Life Resort labored in ginger, flour and sugar on a two-week culinary construction project that culminated in a stunning, six-level gingerbread pagoda.

The one-meter high confection will go on display in the resort hotel's lobby ten days before Christmas.

The Life Resort Da Nang team used 30 kg of flour, 180 eggs, 10 kg of brown sugar, 7 kg of icing sugar, one kg of ground ginger and a half kilo each of allspice, cinnamon and nutmeg.

Executive chef Shane Brierly, claimed that the idea struck him in early November: "Why not 'go local' and do something with a bit of character?"

On Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve, Sheraton Nha Trang in the central province of Khanh Hoa rolls out its grand buffet "” a medley of holiday favorites from all over the world "” at Feast, Steam n' Spice and The Wine Bar.

"We want our first Christmas to be as memorable as a holiday gets," said Scott Hodgetts, general manager of Sheraton Hotel in the coastal town of Nha Trang. "That's why we're bringing all we possibly can to the table."

Can't-miss Christmas guide

Here's a guide to all the major Christmas events in Hanoi and HCMC. Many of the events are suitable for both kids and adults!

In HCMC:

- The HCMC Youth House's Christmas Gala is only part of a package designed to ring in the New Year. The event begins at 8 p.m. in the 4A yard of the city recreation center. The event's organizers expect more than a hundred up-and-coming models and singers to turn up for the event. Admission is free.

SANTA-FOR-HIRE

The price for the Santa Claus service is usually determined by the distance he has to travel. Expect to pay between VND50,000 to VND70,000 (US$2.5-3.5) for every five kilometers. Having a Santa Claus appear at your school or company may run you between VND500,000 to VND1,500,000 ($25-75).

Design and decoration services are also in vogue this year. For between VND1 million and VND3 million (US$50-150) decorators will deck the halls of your private home. For between VND10 million ($500) and VND20 million ($1,000) they'll Christmas-up your supermarket, shopping center, hotel and restaurant.

- From December 18-26 residents of the Phu My Hung residential area (Canal zone) plan to deck out their homes and businesses in holiday paraphernalia. Expect a surreal tropical winter wonderland.

- The Sweet Noel and Welcome New Year celebration will take place from December 24, 2010 to January 2, 2011 at Dam Sen Theme Park in District 11 with many exciting concerts and theatrical performances. Ticket prices range from VND30,000 to VND50,000 (US$1.5-2.5) and are free for those dressed in costume.

- Teach your kids the true meaning of Christmas by bringing them and their old toys down to the HCMC Children House. An evening of games and activities will kick off at 5 p.m. on December 19. Children can donate their old toys as special gifts to unprivileged kids at the city's Young Businessman Association Office.

- The Suoi Tien Theme Park in District 9 is hosting a night of action-packed games, colorful lights and good fun. This year's holiday celebration coincides with a Pets Festival so expect a lot of adorable animals. Tickets are priced at VND45,000 ($2.25)

In Hanoi:

- Latino Night at the Melia Hotel starts at 7 p.m. on December 24. The delightful dance and songs will coincide with a fashion show and a special performance from Andrea, the Romanian magician. Tickets cost between VND1,300,000 ($65) and VND1,700,000 ($85).

- 100 Santa Clauses will converge on West Lake Park for the Magic Noel show. The show will combine circus performances, juggling, hip-hop and Flamenco dances.

SERVICE WITH A SANTA HAT

The Christmas season has sent Vietnam's retail market into a frenzy. Santa Clauses hitting the streets to deliver purchases and special offers.

Many souvenir shops in big cities like HCMC, Hanoi, Da Nang and Can Tho have offered the "Home-gift-giving Santa Claus" in recent years.

Mau Huy, an architecture student, has worked the last two holiday seasons as Santa Claus. Stores hire Huy to deliver presents to shoppers who want to inspire their children to straighten up.

"Unlike previous years, when I just went to houses, delivered presents to kids and took pictures with them, this year I plan to send the kids a letter which encourages them to study and behave well," said Huy. "It is really a great way to teach kids through the holidays."

Many shop owners say that, this year, customers prefer gifts made in Vietnam.

"Domestic gifts are in no way inferior to foreign ones but cheaper," said Nguyen Thi Cuc, owner of a souvenir store on Le Quang Dinh Street in HCMC's Binh Thanh District. "The favorite items this year are hand-made keepsakes like greeting cards. In general, prices are about 20 percent higher."

Despite the spike in costs, the season remains a relatively good time to shop in Vietnam.

Malls like Vincom Plaza, Parkson, Diamond Plaza, Now Zone Plaza and Saigon Center, all in HCMC's District 1, are offering special promotions.

Many stores are offering discounts of between 10 and 70 percent on year-end products.

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