- Cathedral Construction in Vietnam
- Christianity in Feudal Vietnam
- Christianity in Post-Colonial Vietnam
- Nam Dinh Province – Cathedral Heartland of Vietnam
- Top 10 Inspiring Cathedral and Christian Sites in Vietnam
- 1. Notre Dame of Saigon — Oldest Cathedral in Vietnam
- 2. Phat Diem – A ‘Buddhist’ Cathedral in Vietnam
- 3. St Joseph’s Cathedral Hanoi, Capital of Vietnam
- 4. Hung Nghia Church, Nam Dinh
- 5. Kien Lao Church, Nam Dinh
- 7. Church of Christ the King, Nha Trang — Noble and Serene
- 8. Tan Dinh Church, Saigon – Vivacious Spirit of Vietnam
- 9. Kon Tum Cathedral, Central Highlands – Indigenous Design
- 10. Domaine de Marie Convent in Da Lat – Holy Simplicity
With a colorful tapestry of 54 ethnic groups, Vietnam’s spiritual landscape is equally rich. Traditional faiths arouse animist village spirits and folklore goddesses. Temples honor emperors, kings, queens, princesses, and generals. Chinese syncretic religions and ancient Cham temples add their own mystique. Universal Buddhism gives rise to towering pagodas and vast spiritual complexes. Across such a landscape, the Christian Cathedral in Vietnam takes on a uniquely eclectic and vivacious spirit.
Cathedral Construction in Vietnam
After the French colonial conquest of Vietnam, Christian Catholicism started to flourish across the land. Towards the end of the 19th century, many great cathedrals, including those in Hanoi, Saigon, and Phat Diem were built.
European architects designed many of the early cathedrals after iconic places such as the Paris Notre Dame. Vietnamese-inspired designs appeared quite early on. A prime example is Phat Diem Cathedral in Ninh Binh Province.
Into the 20th century, more churches tried to complement rather than dominate their environment. Ethnic designs started to flourish especially in the Central Highlands and more rural areas.
Presently, some cathedrals and old churches have received historic status in Vietnam. New constructions vary from the simple and sublime, to a continued fancy for huge European styled edifices and fusion designs.
Christianity in Feudal Vietnam
Christianity’s first official inroads into Vietnam came during the time of the Trinh Lords. Alexandre de Rhodes, a French Jesuit, ingratiated himself to the royal court between 1627-1630. He and his mission were expelled from Vietnam. Later, he returned and was arrested. He was sentenced to death, but then spared life and expelled again.
Even so, missionary works continued. The first Vietnamese priests were ordained around 1668. In the 1700s, Christian missions continued through political and social upheavals. Sometimes they flourished, other times forced to shut down.
Gia Long, the first Nguyen Emperor (1803), had a cautious approach to Christians. He became indebted to Western help in establishing his reign. Therefore, he permitted missionary activities whereas previous Nguyen Lords were not so favorable.
The second Nguyen Emperor Minh Mang was adverse to Christianity. He had several missionaries executed due to their meddling in political rebellions. Although the emperor ordered Christians to revoke their faith, not many complied.
The last independent monarch, Emperor Tu Duc, was quite open to greater plurality. However, French and Catholic missionaries continued to flaunt the law. Often, they illegally entered Vietnam to stir up rebellion.
Finally, the execution of a Spanish missionary, involved in a rebellion, led to the French and Spanish invasion of Saigon in 1858. The conquest of feudal Vietnam then ensued in haste. Soon after, the country was partitioned into three parts.
Christianity in Post-Colonial Vietnam
When North Vietnam declared independence under President Ho Chi Minh, many Christians (Catholics) fled south. Christianty has since remained more dominant in the south, but with key enclaves in the north such as Nam Dinh Province.
Under the southern regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic, Buddhist were persecuted and gangs of Christian mobs even burned down pagodas. This led to a Buddhist uprising crisis of 1963. At its height, was the self immolation of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk, in a Saigon interaction.
President Diem was later overthrown and assassinated while his younger brother was executed. Meanwhile, his older brother, the Cardinal of Hue Cathedral, took exile in Rome.
Under the reunification of Vietnam, many Catholic leaders were imprisoned. Presently, relationships with the Vatican are cordial. Christian and other religious groups require strict authorization to function in Vietnam.
In more recent years, protestant groups have been on the rise, especially so-called ‘militant evangelists’. These groups often operate in rural areas and amongst ethnic and impoverished groups.
Nam Dinh Province – Cathedral Heartland of Vietnam
Nam Dinh (Nam Định) Province is about 80 km south of Hanoi bordering the East Sea. It’s particularly noteworthy for its churches. Many are quite old, colossal, or captivating in their design. The area is often referred to as the Catholic heartland of Vietnam.
Nam Dinh City, and other parts of the province, have become popular with young people looking for exciting photo opportunities. It is also trip-worthy for Catholic pilgrims or those interested in sacred architecture.
Nam Dinh Cathedral of Nam Dinh City dates to 1895. It’s a modest and dignified building which has earned its place in the town square. About 30 m away towards the coast was Bui Chu Cathedral (nhà thờ Bùi Chu). There was much controversy about its historicity and demolition in 2020.
The many other churches and cathedrals are too numerous to mention. However, a trip to this lesser known part of Vietnam is a worthwhile off-the-beaten-path option. The best way to go is motorbike touring.
Top 10 Inspiring Cathedral and Christian Sites in Vietnam
Any big urban city in Vietnam is likely to have a cathedral or prominent church. Some are colonial relics, while others are more modern constructions. However, the more fascinating and picturesque cathedrals are often outside the main centers.
1. Notre Dame of Saigon — Oldest Cathedral in Vietnam
In the fast-paced modern city of Ho Chi Minh, stands the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral (Nhà thờ Đức Bà). It’s one of the city’s few noticeable vestiges of a bygone colonial Vietnam. Right next to the cathedral is the Central Post Office — another colonial building of historic note.
As its name suggests, the cathedral was modeled after the Notre Dame of Paris in neo-Romanesque and Gothic styles. It was built in 1877. In true spirit, most construction materials came from France. This included the bricks, tiles, stain glass, and the six bells in the towers.
As the city evolved, the cathedral oddly enough ended up as a church on a roundabout. It is currently (since 2017) undergoing its fourth renovation. Their congregation is quite active with mass twice a day and numerous masses on Sunday, including in English. However, schedules may change due to restoration and periodic pandemic restrictions.
Location: Công xã Paris, Bến Nghé, Quận 1, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
2. Phat Diem – A ‘Buddhist’ Cathedral in Vietnam
Phat Diem Cathedral (Nhà thờ Phát Diệm) in Ninh Binh Province, 120 km south of Hanoi, took 24 years to build. It opened in the years around 1898-1899. The cathedral resembles a pagoda on top of a fortress built in stone and wood.
The architectural splendor of this ‘Gothic’ cathedral largely pays tribute to the traditional style of the northern citadel in Vietnam. The Vietnamese priest Father Trần Lục (Père Six in French) oversaw its design and construction. You can visit his tomb in the front yard.
Inside is a mixture of traditional Catholic iconography and saints. This blends in with eastern dragons, tortoises, and even stylized Vietnamese angels. The wooden statues and all art in the cathedral are the talent of Vietnamese craftsmen.
Locals just call the cathedral ‘Stone Church’. It’s also famous for its reference in the novel ‘The Quiet American’ by Graham Greene. Not surprisingly, he described the cathedral as “more Buddhist than Christian”.
Location: TT. Phát Diệm, Kim Sơn, Ninh Bình
3. St Joseph’s Cathedral Hanoi, Capital of Vietnam
Like many of the older cathedrals in Vietnam, St. Joseph’s Cathedral (Nhà thờ Thánh Joseph) was built in the late 19th century. It’s the oldest church in Hanoi dating to 1886 — about a decade after the Saigon Notre Dame. The favored style is typically a kind of Gothic revival. It hugs an interception in the Hanoi Old Quarter. Rather worn and greyed by the pollution and humidity, it can strike quite a foreboding and looming presence.
Location: 40 Nhà Chung, Hàng Trống, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội
4. Hung Nghia Church, Nam Dinh
Hung Nghia Church (Nhà thờ Đền Thánh Hưng Nghĩa) is one of the largest and most impressive cathedral type buildings in Vietnam. It’s about 30 km or so from Nam Dinh City. The original wood church dated to 1894, but the later reconstruction was in stone and brick.
Hung Nghia Church was remodeled in 1998 and now spans 76 m in length. It also reaches around 60 m in height. The other name of the church is ‘Harry Potter Church’. Huge by comparison, it dominates the country landscape as if it appeared out of another dimension.
Location: Hải Hưng, Hải Hậu District, Nam Dinh
5. Kien Lao Church, Nam Dinh
Kien Lao (Nhà thờ Đền Thánh Kiền Lao) is the largest church of the Bui Chu Diocese. Bui Chu district is a good starting point for exploring other churches not too far away. It’s about 6 km due southwest of Phu Nhai Church and 10 km further south to Hung Nghia Church.
The building is not much more than 20 years old. This magnificent church sits between two small lakes. The interior is one of the most spacious of a church or cathedral in Vietnam. The bright white on yellow of the interior gives a distinctive Vietnamese feel.
Right nearby is the Notre Dame Parish Church which looks like a Greco-Roman temple. The Holy Name Parish Church is another similar impressive structure about 1 km away.
Location: Xuân Trường, Nam Định
Phu Cam Cathedral (Nhà thờ Phủ Cam) is not the most beautiful nor inspiring cathedral in Vietnam. It is, nonetheless, of historic importance. Essentially, it’s a purely modernist design with a traditional interior and iconography. Locals often say it looks like a dragon with its mouth open.
The design is one of the works of Ngô Viết Thụ. He also designed the Independence Palace in Ho Chi Minh City. His works included hotels, government offices, institutes, and much of the Hue University campus.
Construction started in 1963 in the midst of the Buddhist crisis. This crisis was a religious uprising against the oppressive Christian government of Ngo Dinh Diem. Construction was abandoned until 1975 and only finally completed in 2000.
Location: 1 Đoàn Hữu Trưng, Phước Vĩnh, Thành phố Huế
7. Church of Christ the King, Nha Trang — Noble and Serene
Almost every major city in Vietnam is sure to have a cathedral or church of some worthy note. The ‘riviera’ city of Nha Trang is no exception. The Church of Christ the King (Nhà thờ Núi) is a beautiful and noble construction. The high vaulted ceiling, and long stained glass windows, create a warm and welcoming ambiance. It dates back to 1928.
The church is on a hill with some nice views of the city. Further up the sloping road is Long Son Pagoda. It’s Nha Trang’s largest religious site with a great panoramic vista.
Location: Nhà Thờ Núi, Phước Tân, Thành phố Nha Trang
8. Tan Dinh Church, Saigon – Vivacious Spirit of Vietnam
Some of the most iconoclast churches in Vietnam are those made of pink stone or brick. Surprisingly, this charming and colorful church was completed in 1876. This was around the same time as the Saigon Notre Dame Cathedral. Tan Dinh remains the second largest church in Saigon.
The interior is also brazenly pink with white trimmings. It’s also decorated with white Italian Marble. During Christmas festivities, this church is particularly delightful. There are many lights, flag streamers, and a stunning nativity scene. Its photogenic appeal is always well worth a visit.
Location: 289 Hai Bà Trưng, Quận 3, Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh
Around Vietnam, you can find other similar ‘churches of color’. One such other pink church is the Danang Cathedral (Giáo xứ Chính toà Đà Nẵng), built in 1923. Even more astounding is the purple Xuan Yen Church (Nhà thờ Xuân Yến) of Nghia Dan District, Nghe An Province. Nearby, you will also find a small pink church and a brown church. These complete Nghe An’s ‘color trinity’.
9. Kon Tum Cathedral, Central Highlands – Indigenous Design
This uniquely beautiful church is over 100 years old. Kon Tum Cathedral was built at the turn of the last century in 1913. It has stood tall with its magnificent spire and bell tower ever since.
Kon Tum is a city of the Central Highlands of Vietnam. It’s about 400 km north of Dalat city, and the easiest way there is from Pleiku airport 50 km south.
Its style and function is similar to a Ba Na stilted house and the architecture of Tay Nguyen culture. Even the walls eschew bulky stone and brick using a mixture of clay and straw. The wood beams are held together with mortises.
Traditional values and craftsmanship shine through the religious objects inside. Additionally, it incorporates a Rong House. Here you can see traditional and religious artefacts, as well as historic documents and photographs. The cathedral complex also has an orphanage, and workshops for sewing, weaving, and carpentry.
Location: Nguyễn Huệ, Thống Nhất, Kon Tum
10. Domaine de Marie Convent in Da Lat – Holy Simplicity
The Domaine de Marie Church and convent of Dalat is nothing ostentatious. Its quaintness also lies in its ethnic-inspired design. The other names for this church is Mai Anh (for its Diocese) or Cherry Church. This location is about half a kilometer southwest of Dalat central, and a short walk to the lake. It sits on a hill, with some nice views too.
The design of the roof mimics a Rong House, or traditional house of the central highlands. Stained glass windows open up the interior to a beautiful play of light. Additionally, the interior is airy with strong wood beams and wooden lattice work. The 3-meter Virgin Mary statue also has the likeness of a Vietnamese woman.
Location: Ngô Quyền, Phường 7, Thành phố Đà Lạt