At twilight, throngs gathered on the square outside the upscale Diamond Plaza shopping center to enjoy a holiday scene out of a Currier & Ives Christmas card. Young women posed in front of replica wintry white trees as their boyfriends snapped photos. Vendors sold Santa balloons to parents for their small children. Gia Linh adjusted a Santa cap on her head as she sang along with "We Wish You a Merry Christmas," which was playing so loudly it filled the entire block.

Never mind that the 20-year-old college student is Buddhist and didn't celebrate the season as a child. "Christmas wasn't that popular. My family didn't care. It was just a normal day," she said. "Now, everybody likes Christmas."

In fact, it's nearly impossible to avoid over-the-top holiday merriment in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, the largest city of this predominantly Buddhist country. Trendy cafes that usually pulsate with techno music blare classic carols, particularly the Vietnamese favorite, "Feliz Navidad." Couples zoom by on motorbikes carrying plastic Christmas trees home. Manger scenes featuring blue-eyed figurines of Jesus, Joseph and Mary appear in family-run hotels and street-side stores.

"Everywhere you go in Saigon, every cafe, is playing a Christmas song -- it's all about Jesus and God. It becomes annoying," said Henry Liem, a philosophy teacher at San Jose City College who is often in Vietnam during the holiday season.

Unofficial truce

This round-the-clock Christmas sentimentality is perhaps the most visible sign of the nation's embrace of the West.

The communist government, once leery of the religious holiday of its Catholic minority, now hangs Christmas lights along upscale Dong Khoi Street in District One. Officials futilely tried to shut down a nearly milelong neighborhood-manger lane in the city's District Eight -- not for ideological reasons, but because of the traffic gridlock it causes when thousands upon thousands of Vietnamese on motorbikes arrive to see the spectacle.

"Vietnamese will use any excuse to go out and cruise. You go downtown and see the lights. It's really festive," said Don Phan, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who spends a lot of time in his homeland. "And businesses love it because it's another way to get people to consume."

Besides, he added, "Buddhists like to hedge their bets. You can be Buddhist and still believe in Jesus and Christmas."

The seasonal celebration underscores the unofficial truce between the government and the Catholic Church, which has about 6 million followers in the nation of 90 million people. The Vatican and the communist regime are moving closer to establishing diplomatic relations, said Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Vietnam's government and professor at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

"The regime has loosened up on allowing Catholic material to be published and has loosened up on interference in the selection of candidates for the priesthood," Thayer said.

A holiday for everyone

Christmas in Ho Chi Minh City has taken on a distinctive Vietnamese flavor -- Christmas stores that spring up across the city play loud music and are filled with discolike flashing lights. Throngs appear at just about any place with signs reading "Mung Chua Giang Sinh," or "Merry Christmas."

"Babies are dressed up in Santa outfits," said Esther Nguyen, a former Morgan Hill resident who is CEO of Ho Chi Minh City-based social mobile gaming startup Pops.vn. "In the United States, everyone is home on Christmas Day. In Vietnam, everyone is on the street. The exaggerated decorations are full of lights. There are Santa Clauses on motorbikes and plastic Christmas trees."

Every night at the Ky Dong Church in District Three, hundreds of shoppers pack the church store, buying everything from giant Christmas baubles to inflatable reindeer and Frosty the Snowmen. They crowd around a Mekong Delta version of the manger scene: Joseph, Mary and Jesus in a traditional Vietnamese fishing boat loaded with packages of instant noodles.

"Christmas is not just for Catholics," said Hoang Cong Minh, a 27-year-old mechanical engineer who snapped photos at the church store with his girlfriend. "It's also for Hindus, Buddhists. Christmas is for everyone."

Streets, spirit overflow

The holiday is particularly popular in Ho Chi Minh City, the most international region of the nation and heavily influenced by French and American cultures. The densely packed city also has a higher ratio of Christians than other parts of the country, said Cao Song, a Catholic who was shopping at the church store.

"Christmas is recognized as a peaceful holiday and everyone goes along with it," said Nguyen Thanh Nhan, another Catholic shopping with his wife and 4-year-old son for a Christmas star to decorate their door. In addition to the religious aspects of the holiday, the couple is teaching their child about Santa Claus.

The festivities climax on Christmas Eve, when it seems that half the city's 9 million residents take to the streets for something akin to a holiday rave. Churches overflow for midnight Mass while Vietnamese outside drink beer and spray each other with fake snow. It can take two hours to travel a few miles in District One as everything comes to a virtual standstill.

"Vietnamese want to integrate the country with the international society," said Che Huyen Bao Vy, wearing reindeer antlers and angel wings at a holiday display outside another shopping center in District One. The 21-year-old college student, along with two other reindeer angels, stood next to a blue Santa.

"I don't practice the religion, but I enjoy the Western culture a lot," she said. "Christmas Day, the Christmas spirit, is happy. It's a Christmas-spirit thing."

By John Boudreau - The Mercury News - December 12, 2010