Christmas in Hanoi - an innocent, if ironic, pleasurable occasion that was never going to last. In recent years it had been a time of genuine goodwill and quiet festivity, free of commercialism. Few gifts changed hands, but the smell of candle wax and incense filled the air around Hoan Kiem lake as the capital's long-suppressed Catholics explored new freedoms and thousands of others joined in the festivities outside Hanoi Cathedral, where prayers were broadcast on to the streets. The city's feared police, usually nervous of any large spontaneous gathering, stood quietly in the background. This year things are different. The Christmas jingle has arrived as the market realises it can no longer ignore the event. Frosty the Snowman is belted out from shops as the city's fledgling middle classes try to outdo each other with flashy gifts. 'It saddens my heart a little,' says Pham Minh, a Catholic shopkeeper selling trays of chocolates and brandy from a gift shop in Ha Ba Trung Street. 'All these people are just fulfilling a trend with all these gifts and wild decorations. Few know about the religious aspects and few seem to care. I guess I cannot really complain. I do need the money.' In Ho Chi Minh City it is now possible to hire a courier in a Santa costume to deliver your gifts. Even the state press, which tends to reflect the views of a staunchly atheist Communist Party ever suspicious of the power of 'superstition', has acknowledged the trend and reports note that Christmas has now become a 'popular celebration'. Still, no one is expecting it to be a national holiday any time soon. Most people in Vietnam do not focus on the holiday's 'religious meaning', one report said. 'Instead, it is a time to exchange gifts and visit friends. Due to the influence of the French, Father Christmas is called Grandpa Noel.'