Much like Thailand with its wats and Myanmar with its golden pagodas, you can’t go half an hour without seeing at least one Catholic church in southern Vietnam. The most we counted together were seven churches in under one kilometre on a stretch of highway 1 – and these weren’t small churches, they were large, impressive, and stylistically varied structures.
It was the French who successfully began converting Vietnamese people to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1600s, and none more so than Alexandre de Rhodes. As well as successfully converting thousands of new followers to Catholicism (something the Portuguese had failed to do a century earlier), he was also the key figure in writing what would become modern-day Vietnam’s alphabet. Before that, the Vietnamese were using a Chinese-style system.
Here’s Alexandre as a stamp:
Another French Catholic priest, Pierre Pigneau de Behaine, oddly enough became a trusted military adviser to Nguyễn Ánh the young, only-surviving relative of an overthrown Vietnamese dynasty in 1777. de Benhaine helped Ánh reconquer Vietnam, which ultimately ensured the unimpeded expansion of the church throughout the country.
Here’s Pierre as a stamp:
Things were going well for a while, but a controversial choice for the new emperor in 1816 saw Minh Mạng – a staunch Confucianist – take the throne. He condemned Christianity and ordered all Catholic missionaries to the imperial city in the hope of stopping the spread of the religion. Instead, the Catholics decided to wage a three-year rebellion against the dynasty – and failed. The punishment of this failure was not as lenient as ‘being ordered to the imperial city’. Instead, orders were given to round up and execute all missionaries.
Of course, it’s hard to completely stomp out a religion, and the Catholics hung around until France came along, all fired up and ready to colonise Vietnam. As we all know, they did, and now the proud Catholics were given preferential treatment in governmental and educational departments and gifted seized royal lands.
But who else feels a bit funny about organised religion? Oh yes, Communists.
As the whole ugly Vietnamese War (AKA American War) business was going down, the Catholics fled to southern Vietnam after the country was divided in two. President Ngô Đình Diệm was Catholic, and with several one-sided policies he managed to piss off even the Buddhists. To fend off the approaching Viet Cong, in certain villages weapons were exclusively given to Catholics. This lead to entire communities converting to Catholicism in order to receive aid and firepower.
The culmination of the Buddhist’s anger was the now famous self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức. In a protest of Buddhist persecution by the Catholics, this monk walked to the middle of Saigon, sat down, had another monk douse him in petrol, and then lit his own match. A journalist named Malcolm Browne sealed his own place in history when he snapped the following photo:
In modern, peaceful Vietnam, the churches are flourishing in the south. We’ve seen about five large new chapels being built, and the numbers are growing.
In the tiny town of Đại Ninh there is a big Catholic church that towers over everything else. We detoured to it and met Father Pham Minh Son, who was delighted that we’d come to visit. His English was minimal, but it was better than our Vietnamese and it was enough for him to open the church and let us go inside, telling us about his life and mission.
“This is 8-years-old,” he said of the huge church. I move here 40 years ago. When I do, nobody is Catholic. Now, 80% of people is Catholic!”
He was lovely, and beamed the whole time we were there. He also kept on holding my arm and expressing frustration that he couldn’t say everything he wanted to because of the language barrier. He asked us to come into his office, a cute little wooden shed, and there he gave us bottles of water.
“The people here are from ethnic minority – Koho people. I take Latin scripture, and change to Koho language.”
He showed us his nicely bound book of converted scriptures, and also a hymn book which had the lyrics in Vietnamese and Koho. He sang a melancholy tune in both languages with a happy smile on his face.
“Every Sunday church is all full,” he informed us. “Even plastic chairs outside in front!”