Cathedral Christmas in Vietnam

Published by The Australian, Travel – 15/16 December, 2007

I AM blinded by the lights and trapped in a congregational crush waiting for midnight mass to begin on Christmas Eve in Phat Diem Cathedral.

It is Vietnam, 1993. Vietnamese work colleagues suggest we travel to the Catholic heart of north Vietnam in Ninh Binh province, a few hours south of Hanoi. It is a flat Red River delta landscape of rice paddies scattered with European-design churches.

Intriguingly, an invitation to celebrate Christmas Eve has been issued to the foreign community by state authorities, a way of showing the country’s new open-door policy is extended to the temple and cathedral as well as the economy.

I don’t see many foreigners in the cathedral. Is this a foreign boycott or botched Vietnamese communication? Both are possible.

The local worshippers are dressed in their best: old men in white shirts, lumpy coats and trousers with fraying hems; women in scarfs, now and then a mantilla, over long, dark dresses. Only young girls sport a splash of colour.

My colleague, Tuan, tells me this is the first time he has been inside a church. And this is no ordinary church but an 80m-long Sino-Vietnamese architectural fantasy of granite, marble and wood set amid ponds, a lake, grottoes and chapels, and dominated by a bell tower with pagoda-like roof.

In The Quiet American Graham Greene’s journalistic alter ego, Thomas Fowler, watches a night battle between unseen Viet Minh and the French military from this bell tower.

Nearby in the administrative office the line of bishops’ portraits stops in 1954, when a half-million northern Christians moved south after what was supposed to be the temporary partition of Vietnam following the end of French rule.

A French student tells me he will sing with Vietnamese friends in the choir, at the back of the nave and up a set of rickety stairs.

I wonder if the organ will survive the service, as there are huge bits missing. The organ pumps up to announce the entrance of the clergy draped in old finery, and chattering dies as the mass begins.

My Vietnamese is basic and Tuan gives me brief updates while I look around at the rows of women (far more females than males), some teary eyed.

A teenage girl reads from the Bible, a wall of gold lacquer shimmering behind her. Then the choir at the back of the cathedral breaks into Silent Night. In Vietnamese it is both strange and deeply familiar: a song of birth and peace in a country that has lost millions in war.

The French boy sings without a song sheet and voices fill this huge cavern held up by 48 ironwood pillars. The cathedral was hit by US bombs in 1972, though its wounds are now barely visible.

Tuan is transfixed as the priest delivers the sermon. After the mass I find out why. He holds his hand on his heart as he tells me: “It was about a poor, young married couple. At Christmas the woman sells her long hair, her great possession, to buy a watch-chain for her husband. She does not know he has sold his watch to buy her lovely hair combs.”

The priest has told the most famous story by American writer O. Henry, The Gift of the Magi. “It is about what we are prepared to give up when we love,” Tuan says as we stream out of the warm cathedral into a chilled, ink-black Christmas morning, breathing in the moment and wishing chuc mung giang sinh to all around us.

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