It never crossed my mind before coming to Vietnam that we’d attend Catholic mass. A Buddhist ritual for sure, but I assumed that Catholicism would be scarce in the north and it wouldn’t be something we’d come upon since reading that Vietnamese aren’t known to be religious. Well less than 2 weeks into our adventure we embarked on a boat tour through Kenh Ga, a floating village in Nim Binh province and as we meandered past limestone karsts, water buffalo, and rice fields, the steeple of an enormous Catholic Church broke the horizon. Memories of Ennio Morricone’s theme from “The Mission” swelled inside of me. We did not go in or get close enough for a decent picture, but several weeks later, we found ourselves sitting in the midst of a overflowing Catholic Church in Village #7 in Nim Binh province. Cue the theme music once more.
Guests of Quyen Tran and his family, very devout Catholics, we’d just had lunch with their new priest and were attending Father Peter’s first big mass in his new community. I wish I’d snuck a few more photographs and recorded the sounds, because this was a scene from another movie. (One that isn’t fully realized yet). An ‘Elvis’ version of the Virgin Mary beneath a neon blue halo occupied one side of the stage and the music, more like chants than hymns were lovely and hypnotic. It was good there were kids running around the back plus these women who kept disappearing up a back stairwell, also looking somewhat retro, to keep us awake. The service was after all entirely in Vietnamese. Evenly spaced across the wooden ceiling, eggshell blue fans worked unsuccessfully to break open the mid afternoon heat.
Driving through the countryside that week-end we spotted many Catholic Churches in a wide variety of styles. The most spectacular of which is Phat Diem, the oldest Catholic Church in Vietnam. Just 10 km from Village #7 we arrived early on a Sunday as the parishioners were gathering for mass. It seemed like something special was about to happen. Like the Church near Kenh Ga, this structure was majestic, however on first glance I would have identified it as a Pagoda. Made out of stone, there were tiered towers with multiple eaves. Officially described as a cross between European and Vietnamese architecture, there are numerous other structures built in a similar style to the main Cathedral. However it wasn’t the Cathedral itself that captivated our attention; it was the hundreds of women dressed in their best Ao – Dai’s parading around the grounds and then into the Cathedral.
They were simply stunning. Accompanied by altar boys, nuns, and the occasional group of men carrying what must have been religious paraphernalia, they marched solemnly, and eventually dissolved inside the church. We didn’t follow.