Spending Christmas in Saigon may initially seem like an odd choice. After all, the country is Buddhist and, therefore, would probably not have the same Christmas spirit that predominantly Christian countries do. Right?
Wrong. In fact, Christmas feels almost purer in Vietnam because it is still a newer, fresher tradition than in countries where the holiday has been around for a long time. In other words, Christmas has not had as much time to drift away from its roots. Commercialism has not yet managed to take over the Christmas season, and that means friends, family, and giving back to the community are still the defining themes of the holiday.
Below, we’ve gathered some of the best ways to spend Christmas day in Saigon. Or maybe we should say the best ways to spend Christmas Eve; the Vietnamese prefer to celebrate Christmas on the 24th. remember that Christmas is not a work holiday in Vietnam. Almost all workers here, even expats, have to go to work on Christmas like any other day, so don’t be surprised when the festivities don’t really ramp up until the evening, when everyone is off of work and has free time to go out.
Take a hike
Saigon is always a beautiful and exciting city to walk around in — SES has often compared the experience to strolling around a carnival midway. It is even better, though, during the Christmas season, because Saigonese love to decorate their city. And unlike other parts of the year, where the weather is either too wet or too hot to make long hikes around the city comfortable, Saigon’s December climate is just right for a little cardio.
If you want to stay in District 1 to walk, we’d recommend the areas around Bui Vien Street or Nguyen Hue Street. Just a warning, both of them will be very, very crowded from the time the sun begins to set onwards. Christmas sightseeing is a great opportunity to get out of the city center too, though, as some of the much lesser-known districts have some of the city’s best Christmas ornamentation. Thanh Cong Street, for example, is located in the outlying district of Tan Phu, and it showcases a larger congregation of expertly hung Christmas lights than you are likely to see anywhere else during your lifetime. There is also Pham The Hien Street in District 8, Which is described in more detail below but which also has some positively breathtaking Christmas decorations.
As far as many large Vietnamese shops are concerned, The Christmas season begins as soon as Halloween is over. So, beginning at that time, stores deck themselves out with Christmas decoration. Walking around one of the many shopping malls in Saigon during the lead-up to Christmas is an experience in itself, and that is not even considering that many of the stores will have huge sales going on in preparation for the gloriously capitalist holiday.
Notre Dame cathedral, which is located at the heart of District 1, is one of the most popular landmarks in Saigon. And it makes complete sense that, as a Catholic church, the cathedral would be at the peak of activity during what was originally a Christian holiday. Roughly 10% of Vietnam’s population is made up of Christians, and anyone interested in learning about that community, or just doing some serious people watching, will want to check out Notre Dame at Christmas. Or, for a slightly less crowded church-surfing experience, you may want to check out the next option on the list.
Stroll down Pham The Hien Street
The area surrounding Pham The Hien Street in District 8 is home to the city’s largest Christian community, and there are three churches on that one street alone. Christians are far from the only ones who will find the street interesting at Christmas, though, as the street is decorated with elaborate nativity displays, light shows, and row upon row of lanterns during the Christmas season. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the astoundingly intricate decoration is that the locals who live in the area pay for all of it. The decorations are an embodiment of their Christian faith, and they enjoy making their neighborhood a popular destination during the holiday. It’s also a great excuse for tourists to get out to District 8, Which is very rarely frequented by anyone but locals.
Go on a street food adventure
Although Christmas makes its presence heavily known in Saigon, it is not a work holiday like in Western countries. That means all the street vendors will still be out in full force, selling their Christmas-themed culinary delights. Colorful skewers of candies and dried fruits, roasted chestnuts, whole roasted quails, and edible children’s toys made out of rice flour are but a few of the Christmas-y street food delicacies that will get you in the spirit of the season. Some of the best streets to find these foods are Nguyen Hue, Bui Vien, Pham The Hien, and Thanh Cong, all mentioned above.
Eat at restaurants
Great food has always been a huge part of the holiday season, and Saigon’s fine dining scene will not disappoint. Whether you’re looking for the traditional prime rib and fruit cake, a traditional Vietnamese banquet in a cozy environment, or some other fare to warm your stomach and your spirit, you’ll find what you’re looking for at one of the city’s hotel restaurants or (generally expat-run) dining establishments. For an overview of several fantastic Christmas dinners in Saigon, read over our list of The 5 Best Places for Christmas Dinner in HCMC.
It’s widely known that Christmas is just as much about giving as receiving. And, if you are going to be in Saigon for Christmas, why not donate some money to a local charity? If you really want to warm your heart, visit the charity yourself and see the difference your donation is making. For some ideas of where to donate, head to our listing of trusted local charities.
Spread Christmas cheer at 23/9 Park
23/9 Park, near Bui Vien Street and Ben Thanh Market, is the place to go for students looking to practice their English skills by talking to native speakers. Whether or not you want to engage in this fraternization activity during most of the year, Christmas is a nice time to get to know the young, eager-to-learn locals. You can even spread some Christmas cheer while you are engaging with the communities.
Extra points if you rent a Santa suit from a local shop (the usual rental cost is 150.000 VND per day) and/or hand out small presents.