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Phat Diem

Phat Diem

Phat Diem (sometimes called its former name, Kim Son) is the site of a cathedral remarkable for its vast dimensions and unique Sino-Vietnamese architecture with a European flavor. During the French era, the cathedral was an important center of Catholicism in the north, and there was a seminary here. The 1954 division of Vietnam caused Catholics to flee to the south en masse, and the cathedral was closed. It is mow functional again, and there are also several dozen other churches in Phat Diem district. Current estimates are that about 120,000 Catholics live in the area.

The vaulted ceiling is supported by massive wooden columns that are almost 1m in diameter and 10m tall. In the lateral naves, there are a number of curious wood and stone sculptures. The main altar is made of a single block of granite. The outside of the church reaches a height of 16m.

 The cathedral complex comprises a number of buildings; the main one was completed in 1891. The whole project was founded by a Vietnamese priest named Six, whose tomb is in the square fronting the cathedral. Behind the main building is a large pile of limestone boulders – Father Six piled them up to test whether the boggy ground would support his planned empire. Apparently the test was a success.

 Opposite the main entrance at the back of the cathedral is the bell tower. At its base lie two enormous stone slabs, one atop the other. Their sole purpose was to provide a perch for the mandarins to sit and observe (no doubt with great amusement) the rituals of the Catholics at mass. All the big carved stones here were transported from some 200km away with only very rudimentary equipment.

 Atop the cathedral’s highest tower is such an enormous bell that Quasimodo’s famous chimer at Notre Dame pales in comparison. This bell, and all the other heavy metal, was pushed and pulled to the cathedral’s top via an enormous earth ramp. After construction was completed, the earth was used to raise the whole site about 1m higher than the surrounding terrain. This has, no doubt, offered important protection against floods.

 Near the main cathedral is a small chapel built of large carved stone blocks, and inside it’s as cool as a cave. Also not far from this cathedral in a covered bridge dating from the late 19th century.

 Hordes of Vietnamese tourist come to this place. Few of them are Catholic, but many are extremely curious about churches ad Christianity in general. Admission to the complex is free, but you may have to negotiate hordes of sellers and beggars at busy times. The church is usually locked – if you want to go inside, ask at the guide kiosk just outside the main entrance. Daily mass is celebrated at 5am and 5pm.


Getting There & Away

Phat Diem is 121km south of Hanoi and 29km southeast of Ninh Binh. There are direct buses from Ninh Binh to Phat Diem. Or you can go by motorbike.

 There are no regular tours to Phat Diem, though any of the budget agents in Hanoi should be able to offer a customized day trip by private car, with or without a guide.

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