CELEBRATIONS involving thousands of people degenerated into violence early yesterday when Hanoi's new traffic police chased racing motorcyclists through the capital and kicked and clubbed spectators. As Hanoi's Catholic Cardinal Pham Dinh Tung wrapped up a midnight mass for thousands of believers at St Joseph's Cathedral, police trucks charged into crowds on nearby Dien Bien Phu Street. The air crackled with the sound of electric cattle-prods and the clash of riot shields as about 40 police in commando uniforms leapt from trucks and four-wheel drive vehicles to club and kick hundreds of young spectators straining for a glimpse of the illegal motorcycle races, which are now commonly staged during festivals. At one point, an officer was seen to throw his baton side-ways across a street, hitting a pedestrian in the side of the head. When a group of six racing teenagers sped past, a team of officers in body armour appeared out of side streets to give chase on their new Honda Rebel motorbikes. Other police repeatedly charged wherever people gathering to watch. The fate of the racers, described by Premier Vo Van Kiet as a 'social evil', was not known. Many youngsters in the crowd were dressed in suits and silk scarves, and were on their way home from Christmas celebrations - still a novelty in Hanoi - when they stayed to taunt the new crack motorcycle squad. Several parked motorcycles were seized by the youths and hurled on to the back of police trucks. The squad eventually left the crowds after about two hours, finishing a night's work by closing down a late-night restaurant, tearing down its neon sign and seizing tables and chairs from under diners. The Christmas Eve races represented one of the first chances for the squad to put new equipment and uniforms into action against what the authorities see as disturbing rebellion by Hanoi's burgeoning generation of bored, wealthy youths. Earlier, the streets were filled with families carrying balloons and lighting fire-crackers. Many were many ordinary Hanoi citizens, joining the city's Catholic minority outside the packed cathedral. Christmas is fast working its way on to the festival calendar in northern Vietnam as a time for general goodwill and family celebrations, irrespective of religion. The Catholic church is still screened by staunchly atheist social rulers wary of any potential political force. However, church-state relations reached new heights this week with a meeting between the newly appointed Cardinal Tung and Mr Kiet. Mr Kiet extended the party's festive wishes to the church, vowing to strengthen relations and take care of the lives of catholics. A smiling Mr Kiet appeared in local papers urging the church to remain 'close to the nation', saying 'God-fearing patriotic people' could make a major contribution to pull the country out of poverty.