One of Vietnam's most historic churches faces demolition - Rusty Compass travel blog

One of Vietnam's most historic churches faces demolition

| 01 May 2019
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01 May 2019

Vietnam’s three decades of rapid economic growth have not been so good for the country’s built heritage. The distinctive Bui Chu Cathedral in Nam Dinh province south of Hanoi looks set to be the latest casualty on a long list of heritage losses.

There are so many remarkable things to see in and around Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, that the historic Catholic communities in Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh provinces rarely rate a mention and most are unaware of the history here.

Phat Diem Cathedral in Ninh Binh province sees small numbers of visitors on account of its unique architectural style and Graham Greene’s visit in the 1950s to witness the French waging battle with Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces.

 

Phat Diem Cathedral is Vietnam's most impressive Catholic place of worship. Unlike its counterparts in Saigon and Hanoi, this one is distinctly Vietnamese in character.
Phat Diem Cathedral is Vietnam's most impressive Catholic place of worship. Unlike its counterparts in Saigon and Hanoi, this one is distinctly Vietnamese in character.

 

 
Phat Diem Cathedral, Ninh Binh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Phat Diem Cathedral, Ninh Binh

 

Dating back to the early 17th century, more than two centuries before the French captured Hanoi, the parishes of Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh are where Catholicism first took root in Vietnam. And the church’s hold on the communities of this area has proven remarkably durable.

It’s a fascinating region to visit - not least on account of the curious image of dramatic churches and cathedrals dotting the otherwise distinctly Vietnamese landscape.

I spent a wet, cold, January day travelling between these church buildings in 2017. I’d been to Phat Diem many times but this was the first proper look at the scale of the Catholic presence across the area.

There were many striking structures, some old and some new, but along with the Phat Diem Cathedral, the 1885 cathedral at Bui Chu stood out.

So it’s come as a shock to read recently that the local church hierarchy has taken a decision to demolish this important piece of its history. It’s a decision that seems especially odd in light of the recent fire at Notre Dame in Paris, and another decision by the Ho Chi Minh City government to save the long threatened, historic parish at Thu Thiem.

Bui Chu Cathedral, Nam Dinh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bui Chu Cathedral, Nam Dinh
 
Bui Chu Cathedral, Nam Dinh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bui Chu Cathedral, Nam Dinh
 
Bui Chu Cathedral, Nam Dinh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bui Chu Cathedral, Nam Dinh
 
Bui Chu Church, Nam Dinh
Photo: Mark Bowyer Bui Chu Church, Nam Dinh

 

Apparently it’s been decided that the maintenance of the old church at Bui Chu is too costly. A new church is planned for the site.

I have made the observation many times to friends in recent years that the church has seemed to be the only major institution in Vietnam with a serious interest in heritage. Many of the most atmospheric heritage spaces in Saigon, Hanoi, Hue and Dalat, belong to church - and most have retained their character. But this decision, along with a number other recent demolitions across Vietnam, seem to indicate a change.

It’s probably too late to save the church at Bui Chu - but like all heritage losses, this decision reaches well beyond the parishioners or church leaders who have made it.

 

I enjoyed my day exploring the churches of Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh during my 2017 visit and added them to Rusty Compass as a recommended day trip from Hanoi, or as an add-on to a visit to Ninh Binh province. You can read more about visiting the churches of Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh here.

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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