Phat Diem Cathedral, Ninh Binh - review by Rusty Compass
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Phat Diem Cathedral, Ninh Binh

| 11 Apr 2012
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Phat Diem Cathedral, Ninh Binh
Kim Son District, Ninh Binh

Our rating
11 Apr 2012

Phat Diem Cathedral is Vietnam’s most distinctive Catholic church with strong traditional Vietnamese design elements and a rich history. This region has been a stronghold of Catholicism in Vietnam for centuries and continues to host dozens of active churches.

Note: The information provided in this review was correct at time of publishing but may change. For final clarification please check with the relevant service

Phat Diem Cathedral is located in Kim Son village, 30kms from Ninh Binh town, in an area that has been a stronghold of Christianity in Vietnam since Portuguese missionaries began proselytising here in the sixteenth century. Alexandre de Rhodes, the Jesuit responsible for transposing the Vietnamese language into the European characters that are the basis for the modern script, was based here in the early 17th century.

In 1954, when hundreds of thousands of Catholics fled south from the newly formed communist North Vietnamese government, a good many came from this region. The Catholic character here remains strong however and the countryside around Kim Son is dotted with active churches.

Phat Diem Cathedral, dedicated in 1891, is the centre of a large Archdiocese.

Unlike cathedrals in Saigon and Hanoi, Phat Diem Cathedral’s design draws less on European and more on traditional Vietnamese and Buddhist architectural styles. 

Father Six, the man responsible for its construction, while devout in his Catholicism, was also deeply imbued with a sense of Vietnamese tradition and culture. It was he that ensured Phat Diem Cathedral was distinctly Vietnamese in character. He was central both to the architecture and engineering of the project.

In 1951, Graham Greene stood from the cathedral bell-tower and witnessed raging battles between Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh forces and French colonial forces. He included the experience in his prescient novel, The Quiet American. 

In 1953, French shells hit the structure damaging the roof. In 1972, American bombs fell across the complex flattening one of the surrounding chapels and severely damaging the main cathedral structure. Despite the ongoing war, the local community rallied to repair the cathedral in subsequent years.

It’s worth taking a wander through some other nearby churches and Kim Son town while in the area. Kim Son is a particularly hospitable, classic northern town. Check out the main market, the street stalls and the French era bridge across the canal.

Travel tips
Many travellers visit Phat Diem by motorcycle from Ninh Binh. It’s also within reach by bicycle for the energetic. The main road to Kim Son tends to be busy. If you travel with a guide or a xe om motorcycle taxi, ask to travel the quiet route. It’s slightly longer but the countryside is more pretty and it’s much safer too.

The small guidebook for sale at the cathedral entrance is a great companion to a walk through the grounds.
Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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