Once a symbol of French intentions towards Vietnam, during the war Hanoi’s principal temple of Catholic worship became a safe haven for those escaping American bombing. Words by Bennett Murray. Photos by Theo Lowenstein
West of Hoan Kiem Lake lies a curious spiritual legacy from Hanoi’s colonial history. Resembling a smaller, more austere version of Paris’ legendary Notre Dame, the St Joseph Cathedral is the heart of Vietnam’s 5.5 million-strong Catholic community.
The old cathedral, with its faded neo-Gothic facade, stands out noticeably in the Old Quarter for its imposing stature and Western design. Surrounded by bustling shophouses and hotels, it’s a relic of a bygone era when the predominately Catholic French colonialists conquered the city.
The consensus among the cathedral’s neighbours today, who are mostly Buddhist, is that their slice of the Old Quarter has always provided a peaceful respite in the midst of Hanoi’s hectic evolution.
Le Thi My, an 82-year-old woman who serves chicken soup from the first floor of a house directly opposite the cathedral’s front entrance, says she wants to spend the rest of her life in St Joseph’s shadow.
“I’ve been here for three generations, for 65 years,” she says, adding that despite accumulating real estate investments around the city thanks to her profitable soup trade, she has no desire to leave her shop in the Old Quarter.
“Here is the best.”
The Arrival of Jesuits
Catholicism in Vietnam stretches back to when the first Portuguese missionaries arrived in the 16th century. The faith began to take off in earnest during the stay of the French Jesuit Alexander de Rhodes, who converted thousands in the 1620s.
During his time with the Trinh and Nguyen lords, De Rhodes transliterated Vietnamese into the Latin alphabet. While the Portuguese missionaries had previously attempted to Romanise Vietnamese, De Rhodes’ system forms the basis of the quoc ngu script used today.
After centuries of confusion among the royal courts as to whether Catholicism was benign or threatening (an uncertainty that cost thousands of lives), the predominately Catholic French put the matter to rest when they conquered Vietnam in the 19th Century.
A year after France formally took over northern Vietnam from China with the 1885 Treaty of Tientsin, a place of worship was built in Hanoi to accommodate the religion of the conquerors.
In an act that would prove symbolic of France’s intentions for Vietnam, St Joseph’s Cathedral was built on the site of an 11th-century Buddhist pagoda from the Ly Dynasty.
Catholicism would grow throughout the colonial period, with the first Vietnamese bishop consecrated in Rome in 1933.
But when the French exited in 1954 and The Socialist Republic of Vietnam found itself under Ho Chi Minh’s leadership, the church entered a period of uncertainty.
Christians and Communists were not on friendly terms in those early years of independence, leading to tension. Although the church was never outlawed outright, one million Catholics fled south.
Complicating matters was South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem’s outspoken Catholic identity and tendency to appoint Vietnamese Catholics to high positions.
With most of the Catholics gone from the St Joseph neighbourhood, the area around the church was soon reoccupied by a new wave of residents as the government nationalised all houses larger than one room throughout Hanoi.
Bui Van Thuong, an 81-year-old retired textile factory worker, moved into a small apartment next to the cathedral in 1954.
“The rich people left, and I came here and took the house,” he says, referring to the widespread flight of the colonial-era elite from northern Vietnam after the Viet Minh victory.
Thuong went on to raise four daughters and one son in his 15 square-metre apartment.
While the new neighbours weren’t interested in the Catholic faith, they found that the prominent cathedral, which was clearly visible to US pilots dropping bombs on the city, provided protection during the war.
At a time when other parts of the city were ravaged, long-term residents say that American hangups over attacking churches kept the neighbourhood free from bombings.
“I was safe here because of the church,” says Thuong.
Tran Van Phong, a 62-year old retired watch factory worker who has lived on the block north of St Joseph’s for 50 years, says the area functioned as an ad hoc safe zone throughout almost a decade of bombings.
“This place was very safe compared to other places, because it’s near the church,” says Phong, who lives in a 16 square-metre flat with his wife.
Once the war ended in 1975, a new calm came over the cathedral in the years prior to the intensive urban migration sparked by doi moi.
Reforms also sparked a resurgence in Catholicism, with the church and government having found accord in recent decades. Former Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung even visited the Vatican in 2007 for a meeting with Pope Benedict.
Vietnam is now around seven per cent Catholic, making the religion the second largest in the country.
Yet the church neighbourhood remains largely Buddhist, with the same families occupying the same shophouses today that they did in the 1950s.
Hanoi, says Phong, is far too busy for his tastes these days.
“I preferred it back in the past. I know that society has changed, but there are too many people and it’s very busy,” says Phong, adding that he doesn’t want to leave the relative tranquillity of the church neighbourhood.
Phong has the option of leaving his small apartment on top of a bun cha eatery — his children, who have all moved away, have stable jobs and can buy him a new home.
He has decided, however, to make peace with the changing times in the house where he has spent his entire adult life.
“My children have a lot of money, but I don’t want to change,” he says.
Thuong agrees, stating that he has owned his flat too long for him to leave it.
“I view this place as for my family, I don’t want to leave for another place.”