|Bird's eye view: Xuan Kien Commune Party Secretary Bui Ngoc Anh (right) at the top of Thanh Danh Church in neighbouring Xuan Tien Commune, where residents celebrate both Christmas and Tet. — VNS Photo Truong Vi
Despite an often tumultuous history, Vietnamese Catholics have held onto their sacred traditions, particularly in this heartland of the Catholic faith, where many residents have followed Christianity for years. Nguyen My Ha reports.
It was a foggy morning when we set out for the Kien Lao parish in Nam Dinh Province.
Along the road, lines of longan trees with their almost-perfectly round canopies looked like giant mistletoes hanging above the white fog.
After nearly two hours, the imposing new dome of an unmistakably brand new Catholic Church held our attention. We had arrived Kien Lao, one of the most populated parishes in the Bui Chu Catholic Diocese.
Ushering us in via a private entrance to the church, the Party Secretary of the Xuan Kien Commune, Bui Ngoc Anh said, "Our commune has a small number of Catholics - just 200 households of nearly 10,000 members. But in our neighbouring commune, Xuan Tien, 12,000 of 15,000 residents are Catholics."
He took us to a reception room that stood separate from the newly built Thanh Danh (St Jean) Church, work on which was still unfinished. It was undergoing the final decorating touches.
"You can't go in there now, because you're a woman," Dinh The Phiet, 67, the church's priest, told me firmly.
"Wow," I thought to myself, "I did not expect to be discriminated against straight to my face."
I don't know if he saw my surprise, but he explained right away, "We are having the woodwork inside the church painted with raw lacquer. The thing with lacquer is, if you go in there now, your face will swell up as big as a basket. It's not as bad for men."
Made from the resin of a lacquer tree, lacquer protects wood better than any industrially-manufactured chemical product.
The original St Jean Church was a brick and wood structure that stood for more than 100 years. It was the pride of the local Catholic community for more than 100 years and home to nearly five thousand people every mass, though it could only seat 500 people at a time. Most of the devout found themselves sitting outside the church for Sunday mass.
"The old church was dissembled in 2003, sold for VND50 million," Phiet said. That was worth about US$20,000 then. That was the price for a priceless historic and architectural gem!
But while we bemoaned the loss and told them that their old church was a treasure, everyone we spoke to were enthusiastic about the new structure, work on which began in 2004 and lasted five years.
"It was becoming too small for us. We had to bend ourselves going in and out," Phiet said, a bit pensive now.
All that is left of the old church is a 20x30cm faded colour photograph hung on the wall. Memories of a turbulent past that the old church witnessed had not faded, though.
Reflecting on the changes, Anh said: "The party secretaries in previous times did not visit the ministry, but we do now. We bring some flowers and gifts to the ministry, and talk with the priest every important Catholic events."
Roman Catholicism first came to Viet Nam through missionaries in the 16th century. It was first rejected by the Royal Court as it was unfamiliar to a mostly Buddhist country that also adhered to the teachings of Confucius.
It was also alien to the majority of Vietnamese until one of the missionaries, Pigneau de Behaine, a French Catholic priest called Ba Da Loc in Vietnamese, became famous for his instrumental role in Nguyen Anh becoming Emperor Gia Long, founder of the last monarchy of Viet Nam that reigned for two centuries.
The Nguyen Dynasty was in power when the country became a French colony. As France promoted Catholicism, the Roman Catholic Church was able to establish its presence in the country.
When the August Revolution broke out in 1945, the Communist Party of Viet Nam was leading the struggle to throw off the yoke of colonialism. After nine years, Viet Nam's historic victory in the battle of Dien Bien Phu put an end to French rule.
Later, as part of the Geneva Agreement, a large number of Catholics from the North went South, and resistance fighters moved from the South to North.
These events were followed by the American War that raged for 21 more years till the Vietnamese fight for independence was won, the country was reunited and peace restored.
Once the war ended, "the number of christened people has been increasing steadily," said Dinh Tan Viet, a Catholic entrepreneur, who donated more than 1,250 taels of gold for building the new St. Jean church.
Born to a family that has been Catholic for seven generations, Viet's weath comes from manufacturing farming machinery like rice husking machines.
"We export to China and some African countries and employ 100 workers, mostly high school graduates," he said.
Viet's generosity has not been confined to the church.
Trinh Quy Nghi, 69, a non-Catholic, said Viet had donated VND500 million ($25,000) to build a neighbouring pagoda and built a medical clinic in Xuan Tien Commune that cost him VND2.7 billion ($128,000).
Such actions have endeared Viet and the Catholics to the local community.
"In our two communes here," said Dinh Van Thinh, a demobilised soldier who fought in Laos and the battle of Ban Me Thuot in 1975, "Catholic affairs have only prospered since I returned to civil life in 1985."
Attesting to Thinh's statement are as many as 13 churches that have sprung up in the two communes with 25,000 residents.
Thinh, who also hails from family that has been Catholic for seven generations, also spoke of the increased recognition that the community has been enjoying of late.
"When Chairman of the Viet Nam Fartherland Front Nguyen Thien Nhan and Chairman of the Viet Nam Fatherland Front came here to visit us last month, everyone went out to greet him.
"It was a big festive day for our community."
And the biggest festive day for the Catholic community nears, residents of the Kien Lao parish are putting aside their daily life struggles and getting ready to have the time of their lives.
It has been a few tough years for carpenter and wood shop owner Giuse Trinh Ngoc Tien. "Our business earnings have been only half of last year's," he said. "But Christmas is coming, and it's going to be happy."
His wife Maria Nguyen thi Khuyen, who converted to Catholicism after she got married, echoed her husband, "It's going to be very merry and happy."
Khuyen has been going to sing in the church choir three times a week and she sings at mass every Sunday.
"On the Eve of Christmas, people in our lane, 50 families or more, set up tables on the street with colourful lighting and the young people build caves with mangers in almost every household.
"It's going to be very joyful and so much fun."
Asked if they had a special treat for the occasion, like a yule log, a gingerbread house or a stuffed goose, Khuyen shook her head.
"No, the feast is going to be all Vietnamese food, like a wedding.
"Come and see for yourself," she said. — VNS