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[Photos] Giant Caves and Animatronic Santa: Saigon Goes All out on Festivities

By this time of year, many expats living in Saigon have made the annual decision: return home to catch up with loved ones, or stay put in Vietnam. Those who stay in Saigon for Christmas may try to celebrate it any little way they can. Others simply ignore it.

If you want to feel Christmas-y, then there are plenty of Vietnamese in Saigon who also celebrate the holiday. It’s hard to get exact figures on it, but it is estimated that just under 10% of Vietnam’s 96 million people are Christian.

Even though it can get pretty busy around Christmas, there's always a chance to get the church to yourself.

The vast majority of Christians in Vietnam are Catholic, and Saigon’s population, for a variety of historical reasons, would have to be one of Vietnam’s highest. While there are a few communities and active churches in the city center, Saigon’s largest Catholic communities lie in outer districts.

Hanh Thong Tay Church on Quang Trung Street is completely covered at Christmas time and puts on Saigon's greatest stage shows.

Go Vap and District 8 are famous for housing the city’s biggest churches, and leading up to Christmas they are hastily converted to makeshift caves and decoration spaces for the coming holiday. Some of the displays can be pretty elaborate, generating a strong Christmas vibe and, of course, providing a great backdrop for selfies.

The Bac Dung Church is one of Go Vap's most lavish. This new hall beside the main church hosts performances every night leading up to Christmas Day.

Some churches have their own waterfalls and machines spraying snow (bubbles) across crowds of happy churchgoers. There are plenty of pondering mannequins and animatronic Santas to help enliven the spirit too.

Decorations aren't reserved for churches. Keen locals lavishly decorate neighborhoods and alleyways.

In the evenings leading up to the big day, the crowds grow. There’s singing and stage performances, poppy carols blasting out of speakers, and surrounding neighborhoods are transformed with lavish decorations. All visitors seem to take on a joyful and celebratory mood.

Christmas Eve is the main night of celebrations in Vietnam, and by the next morning the party is all over and decorations begin to be taken down. The few days leading up to Christmas day are the best time to visit.

Christmas caves, or grottoes, usually represent Santa's workshop in the west. In Vietnam, it signifies a place of transcendence and the mystical.

If contemplative mannequins are your thing, you'll love Christmas in Go Vap.

Biblical mannequins are dressed in traditional outfits to represent the thousands of Christians from Vietnam's ethnic minorities.

Vibrant colors and dramatic lighting make for some glorious nativity scenes.

Huge Christmas trees adorned with baubles, tinsel and ornate lighting take pride of place in each church's courtyard.

Christmas caves adorn the corners of yards and are always draws for children and family photos.

Everyone around the world loves Christmas photos! Right?

Plastic emergency pews overflow into courtyards with the larger-than-normal crowds at Christmas.

It's important for Vietnamese families to visit church together at Christmas. This man may have one of the best views in the house.

Nothing warms your Christmas cockles like theater and performance. Churches are overflowing at these times, and the shows are incredibly fun to watch.

Top photo: Two little Santas battle it out while waiting for their cue to jump on stage.