I don’t follow the Christian faith, and yet churches have always fascinated me.
From the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul and the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, through to the local church in the area I grew up in in London and the adobe church in Kontum, Vietnam, there’s an aura in these monuments to organised religion which goes beyond the bricks and mortar, or in some cases, the adobe and clay.
The photos in this collection are from two recent trips I made to Ninh Binh and Nam Dinh in Northern Vietnam. The first was solo on a Yamaha Nouvo, when I got drenched in a late afternoon storm. The second was in a group — three large bikes, four people and a lot of speed.
On the second trip we mislaid one of our travelling companions. So we waited for him and his riding partner for almost an hour in the square outside Nam Dinh Cathedral. The light was perfect and the photos I took there are among my favourites.
The Sea and the Sand
My interest in the Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh area of Northern Vietnam started with church photos I saw online. They were part of a series called 10 Beautiful Churches in Nam Dinh. The image that struck me was one of a ruined church surrounded by sea. I was determined to find it.
The problem was getting information. Where was the church? What was its story? How did it end up on the beach in ruins, half washed away by the sea? Google Maps placed the church in the middle of the sea — not very helpful.
After asking around I found the church. It was in a village called Hai Ly. But the people I spoke to were vague. They weren’t concerned about the past, only the present.
During my second trip I cornered a woman in her 70s. She remembered the church well, had worshipped there. She told me there were two more churches on the same stretch of beach. They were now bricks washed up on the shore.
The land had been eroded and encroached on by the sea, she explained. When the three churches were built 100 years ago, the sea was in the distance. Over time as it came closer, the churches were rebuilt further inland.
What strikes me is the grandeur of these buildings. Every village has a church and they are enormous, as big as cathedrals. It feels there’s a competition going on to see who can build and maintain the biggest and best church in the area.
There may be a historical reason for this. In the 17th century, Alexandre de Rhodes, a French missionary who invented quoc ngu, the Romanised script used to write Vietnamese, spent much of his time preaching in the area. To this day, Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh remain the heart of Catholicism in Vietnam. The people I spoke to were proud of their roots.
Another reason might be Phat Diem, or ‘the stone church’, in nearby Ninh Binh. Famed for its design — it mixes Vietnamese architecture with Western — it’s become a place of pilgrimage ever since it was constructed by Father Six in 1891.
So revered is this church that it’s been designated one of the key sights to see in Vietnam.
Photos by Nick Ross