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Phat Diem/Vietnam

Introducing Phat Diem

Home of a celebrated cathedral, remarkable for its vast dimensions and unique Sino-Vietnamese cum European architecture, Phat Diem is an impressive sight.

During the colonial era Phat Diem’s bishop ruled the area with his private army, Middle Ages–style, until French troops took over in 1951. The cathedral (1891) featured prominently in Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American, and it was from the bell tower that the author watched battles between the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) and the French.

At busy times you have to steer a path through aggressive sellers and beggars to earn your entrance, but inside it’s peaceful in a sepulchre-like way. The cathedral’s largely wooden interior boasts a vaulted ceiling supported by massive columns (almost 1m in diameter and 10m tall). Above the granite altar Vietnamese-looking cherubs with golden wings swarm, while Chinese-style clouds drift across the blue ceiling. Beneath them are icons of the martyrs slaughtered by Emperor Tu Duc during the anti-Catholic purges of the 1850s.

Opposite the cathedral’s main doors is the free-standing bell tower, with stone columns carved to look like bamboo. At its base lie two enormous stone slabs. Their purpose was to provide a perch for mandarins to sit and observe the rituals of the Catholic mass.

Between the tower and the cathedral is the tomb of the Vietnamese founder, Father Six and a Lourdes-style grotto, with a somewhat spooky bust of Father Six beside it.

Hordes of Vietnamese tourists come to this place, few of them Catholic but many curious about churches and Christianity. Daily mass is celebrated at 5am and 5pm, when the massive bell is rung and the faithful stream into the cathedral, dressed in their finest.

Not far from this cathedral is a covered bridge dating from the late 19th century. Dong Huong Pagoda is the largest pagoda in the area, catering to the Buddhist community. Many of its congregation are from the minority Muong people. To find it, turn right at the canal as you’re approaching town from the north and follow the small road alongside the water for 3km.

A Gothic counterpoint to Phat Diem is the cathedral at Ton Dao, along Route 10 about 5km from Phat Diem. It looks beatifically out over rice fields and, at the rear of the churchyard, a statue of the Virgin Mary keeps unexpected company with porcelain images of Quan Am.