We had a wonderful Christmas in Hà Nội. Jill, a very close family friend, spent ̣9 days visiting and traveling with us in and around Hà Nội. We were so thankful that she was with us for the holiday. When we moved to Việt Nam almost 5 months ago, I don’t think David and I had a strong vision of what it would be like to spend Christmas in a country that has a small percentage of Christians ̣(about 9%). I can guarantee that we did not expect the reality. Christmas was everywhere! But, it was a very secular version of Christmas. A friend here described it to us as an equatable holiday to Halloween in the United States. For most people it does not have any religious significance, but it is a chance to dress up, have a school party, and be in the company of others.
The three of us spent Christmas Eve and Christmas day much like we would have in the US. We ate feasts with friends, played silly games, and worshiped in church. Around us most Vietnamese went about their regular day, but to us, it still felt like Christmas.
The day after Christmas we decided to take Jill to see Ninh Bình, one of our favorite areas in Việt Nam ̣(at least so far). I wrote about our first visit to the area back in September. A friend recommended that we visit somewhere quite unique during our trip there, and it ended up being one of the highlights of Jill’s visit with us.
Phát Diệm Cathedral
Phát Diệm Cathedral is located within Ninh Bình Province, but far outside the typical tourist areas. Although there are not many Christians in Việt Nam, we have seen several beautiful and impressive cathedrals during our time here. None have felt like they belonged as much as Phát Diệm. Built in the late 1800’s, the cathedral fuses traditional European cathedral architecture with architecture typically seen on Vietnamese religious sites like temples and pagodas. The result was fascinating.
As our car pulled up to the complex, we heard the unmistakable sound of church bells. Soon after, a older gentleman descended from the bell tower, confirming our suspicion that the bells were rung by hand. We started our visit in the traditional manner – by finding the bathroom. Vietnamese nuns called out “Giáng Sinh Vui Vẻ” or “Merry Christmas”. After we took care of nature’s call, we went to explore the multiple buildings in the complex.
Christmas decorations were everywhere. The exterior edges of the complex had several dioramas depicting scenes from scripture. One included this charming saxophone playing Santa – perhaps not scriptural, but very jolly. Christmas lanterns and Christmas stars had prominent positions on the eaves of several buildings.
The sides of the main cathedral are wooden doors typical of those found on a pagoda, but etched with simple crosses. This central building was the most impressive example of the architectural fusion. We had to step more than a foot up to enter the sanctuary, something we also have to do when entering local pagodas. The interior of the sanctuary also felt respectful of local images of beauty, but yet had the familiarity of a Christian sanctuary.
In addition to the bell tower building and the main cathedral building, there were several smaller areas for worship. We explored them at length, each wondering off from the group at some time to catch a closer look at something, and eventually wondering back to find each other.
Around ̀5 pm members of the community began arriving for evening mass. Children in school uniforms were rushing into church. A few of them were distracted by us, but eventually they went in as well. We didn’t want to disturb the service. Instead we sat on the outside steps listing to the singing and chanting in Vietnamese and Latin.
Although none of us are Catholic, the whole visit felt like a wonderful way to end our Christmas celebrations. We are thankful Jill was excited to visit Phát Diệm. It was one of those rare finds you don’t get to experience if you only visit things listed in the tour books. Hopefully, David and I will return to Phát Diệm soon and attend a service.
I pray you all had a wonderful Christmas and a safe and Happy New Year. I will tell you about our New Year’s adventures in Malaysia in a blog post soon.