Houses of worship

Vietnam boasts a host of cathedrals from the north to the south.

By Don Wills on December 18,2017 11:08 AM

Houses of worship

Photos: Huynh Van Nam, Kim Cuong & Hong Nga

Christianity has around 7.5 million adherents in Vietnam, mostly Roman Catholics. The religion was introduced to the country in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries from France, Spain and Portugal. The most notable of these was Alexandre de Rhodes, who in addition to spreading the doctrine of Christianity also created the Romanised form of written Vietnamese. Up to now, Christianity remains the second-largest religion in the country, after Buddhism. It comes as no surprise, then, that every major city in Vietnam has its own cathedral. 

St Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi

Houses of worship

West of Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi stands St Joseph’s Cathedral, built in a Neo-Gothic style in 1886. The façade consists of two granite bell towers, each 31.5 metres high.

Inside St Joseph’s are 70 tall stained-glass windows with pointed arches, imported from France. The sanctuary is made of gilt-trimmed wood, and the ceiling has medieval rib vaulting. A two-metre tall statue of St Joseph is located inside.

The cathedral is open every day of the week. Worshippers and visitors can enter through the main gates during mass while at other times entry is via a side door in the compound wall of the diocese.

Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception in HCMC

Houses of worship

One of the highest profile cathedrals is Notre Dame Cathedral in downtown HCMC, officially named the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of The Immaculate Conception. Established by French colonists, who initially called it Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Saïgon, the original wooden church on the site was built between 1877 and 1880.

It has two bell towers reaching a height of 57.6 metres and housing six large bronze bells weighing 28.85 tons, one of which can be heard 10 km away. All building materials were imported from France. The outside wall of the cathedral was built with bricks from Marseille and these retain their bright red colour to this day.

In the grounds at the front of the cathedral stands the Statue of Our Lady of Peace, made of white marble, carved at Pietrasanta, 500 km from Rome. In October 2005, the statue was reported to have shed tears, attracting thousands of people and causing traffic jams. The tears were said to be flowing down the right cheek of the statue’s face. Senior clergy of the Catholic Church in Vietnam couldn’t confirm that the tears were anything but a rumour, but this failed to disperse the crowds flocking to the statue for days after the incident.

The interior of the cathedral is less striking than its exterior. The nave contains 12 columns that represent the 12 apostles, flanked by two stained glass windows, and the chapel’s white marble is carved with six angels.

The Cathedral of Nha Trang

Houses of worship

The Cathedral of Nha Trang stands on plaza Ave Maria on a small hill, one kilometre from the beach. It was built by the French from 1928 to 1933 in a provincial French neo-Gothic style. The exterior view is interesting enough - it has a series of archways and statues of saints and one bell tower. Embedded in the side are 4,000 tombstones. But it is the interior that is of particular interest. The crucifix is back-lit by red neon lighting, a white neon halo sits above the statue of the Virgin Mary, the tabernacle is brightly lit in pink, and the arches swathed in blue. The floor itself is rock-paved.

It is open from 5am to 7pm from Monday to Saturday and 4.30pm to 8pm on Sunday.

Cathedrals in Hue

Devotees of historic churches have two to choose from in Hue, just a few kilometres apart. On Doan Huu Trung Street is Phu Cam Cathedral, opened in 1967. It was designed by the French-trained Vietnamese architect Ngo Viet Thu, who also designed the former Presidential Palace in HCMC (since renamed Reunification Palace). On Nguyen Hue Street is the older Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cathedral, built in 1942 in a blend of Eastern and Western styles. Its façade was heavily damaged during the Tet Offensive in 1968 but it too has been faithfully restored. Behind the cathedral is a French-era monastery.

St. Nicolas Cathedral in Dalat

Houses of worship

Dalat also has its own cathedral, St. Nicolas Cathedral, which is one of the oldest landmarks in the city. It has been dubbed the ‘Rooster Cathedral’ (Nha tho Con Ga), because at the top of its 47-metre high tower is a large stone cross, and on top of this there is an alloy statue of a rooster. The rooster is of a wind-cock design, with a ball bearing base that allows it to rotate. It also doubles as a lightning rod.

Like many cathedrals in Vietnam, Dalat’s was also built by the French. It was a long time in the making. The foundation stone was laid in 1931 and the structure wasn’t completed until eleven years later, in 1942.

Seventy panes of stained glass grace the three arch-shaped interior spaces, but these can only be viewed at mass. The rest of the time the cathedral is closed to the public.

The Stone Church in Phat Diem, Ninh Binh

In Phat Diem in Kim Son district of northern Ninh Binh province stands the ‘Stone Church’, an architectural gem combining what looks like a traditional temple (complete with pagoda-style roof) and Christian symbolism and statuary. It also has a one-hectare pond to the front, in accordance with the principles of Feng Shui. Its bell tower is featured in Graham Greene’s novel ‘The Quiet American’. The cathedral has a stunning interior - a 75-metre high ceiling supported by huge ironwood pillars and a magnificent altarpiece.

Houses of worship

It took more than 30 years to build, starting in 1875. In 1972, the west side of the cathedral was destroyed by bombs but has been expertly restored to its original form.

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Past in present

11AM, 14 December

The uniqueness and charm of Dalat is largely down to its old french architecture.

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