Nam Dinh, the province 120km south of Hanoi, is famed for its churches — every village seems to have one. Some resemble the ‘wedding cake’, detail-heavy buildings of colonial-era Vietnam. Others mix together different styles — Gothic, Renaissance, Romanesque and even Modernist. The most famous, Phat Diem, which is 10km into Ninh Binh, the next province along, resembles a ‘chagoda’ — half church, half pagoda. Here traditional, wooden carved Vietnamese motifs sit next to imagery of Jesus and Mary.
With high-rises yet to appear in Nam Dinh, these churches are the tallest buildings in the region. On a recent trip, at one spot by the sea in Hai Ly, four of us stood on the dyke road and looked inland. In one 270-degree span of the countryside we could see the spires and steeples of eight churches soaring above the skyline. It feels like each community tries to build its temple bigger and better than the one next door. When I asked about this, I didn’t get a clear answer. Is there a competition going on here? It certainly feels like it. But what the prize is, and where the money comes from, is unclear. The significance, though, is obvious. Nam Dinh is the bastion of Catholicism in Vietnam, and its people are determined to keep it that way.
Alexandre de Rhodes, the French missionary who in the 17th century created quoc ngu, the Vietnamese alphabet, converted thousands of people in Nam Dinh and Ninh Binh to his religion. During his time propagating the gospel in Vietnam, this is where he had most success. This area is also where the religion most likely gained its unique shape and form, its modifications that make it distinct from Catholicism elsewhere.
Any trip to Nam Dinh should take in what is becoming the most visited church of them all. Not the cathedral in Nam Dinh City, but the semi-collapsed structure in Hai Ly. In this little coastal stretch, the sea has encroached on the land, and is now 200m or 300m further in than it was a century ago. The church at Hai Ly — known in Vietnamese as Trai Tim Chua Je Su — was originally built in the 1930s to replace its predecessor, which had already been swallowed up by the sea. By the mid-1990s, the second church was also under threat, and started to collapse. It is now being protected from further erosion by the sea due to a recently constructed stone bank.
However, this church is not the only one in the area to feel the hand of nature. Two others a few hundred meters down the beach have already succumbed — Ba Thanh Ma Ra Ne Na and Ong Thanh Phe Ro. One church is now rubble, its bricks strewn across the beach with one piece of the former foundations sticking out of the sea. More remains of the third church, which, although completely collapsed, has left pieces of masonry, brick, arches and stone carvings scattered in a huge pile on the beach, with some pieces sticking up from beneath the encroaching sea.
As we approach the third church, a group of Vietnamese led by a guide arrive and scramble across the rubble. Two of them, still wearing their motorbike helmets, jump from the sand to the remaining pieces of stone detailing sticking out of the sea. Looking out to the ocean depths beyond, they take in the beauty yet destruction of the scenery.
The 10 Most Interesting Churches…
To search out an inland church in this area is easy. Fix on some spires poking above the skyline, get on or into your transport, and then head in the general direction of the church. Many of the road systems here are built in a grid, so you’ll eventually come across what you’re looking for.
You’ll also notice how neat the place is. There is little rubbish on the side of the roads and the churches are spotless. The place has a general sense of organisation to it. And the people — for poor people in Vietnam — are surprisingly well dressed. They seem to work, too. You don’t see only the women out in the fields or working on the beach. Men are here, too, eking out a living. Nowhere did we see men hanging out on street corners with nothing to do, shooting the breeze.
There is a list online of Nam Dinh’s 10 most interesting churches — Phu Nhai, Kien Lao, Trung Linh and even the cathedral in Nam Dinh City to name but four. We decided to avoid that list — although we did spend an hour or so hanging around outside the cathedral in Nam Dinh City. The people there took an interest in us. One heavily tattooed man in a baseball cap and jeans spoke incessantly to us in Vietnamese, regardless of how much we understood. Others got into arguments. One man asked me to “find him a Western wife”.
“Do you speak English?” I asked in Vietnamese.
“No, but you can still find me a wife.”
“How?” I said. “If you don’t speak English, it’s impossible.”
He asked me a second and a third time about finding him a wife, but my answers were the same. Eventually he gave up.
But this was just one experience of many on our day trip to Nam Dinh. There are so many churches in this little patch of Vietnam, each more spectacular than the last, that exploring and seeing what you find is enough. They’re hard to miss. This is Vietnam, but not as you know it.
Take Highway 1 south out Hanoi by following Le Duan and then Giai Phong. At Cau Gie, continue south. To go via Nam Dinh, take the turning just before Phu Ly. Otherwise, continue onto Ninh Binh and then turn left towards Phat Diem. 5km before you reach Phat Diem, there is a crossroads. Turn right to go to Phat Diem. Turn left to go to the first of two ferries that will take you to Nam Dinh — Ben Do Muoi and then Ben Do Cau. From there follow the road towards Hai Ly.
To do the return trip in a day you will need to drive about 350km. So leave early.
Nam Dinh / Photos by Nick Ross